Is Sweden's 'green miracle' a model for the rest of the world?
- 7 January 2016
- From the section Science & Environment
In the wake of the Paris Climate Agreement, many countries will be looking to curb their emissions while continuing to grow their economies. Sweden is often held up as a role model in this regard having increased GDP by almost 60% over the past 25 years while cutting carbon by a fifth. But the country's "green miracle" is now under threat.
Alarm bells ring out in the beige control room of Forsmark 3, Sweden's youngest nuclear reactor.
Managers rush from their chairs towards the banks of monitors, their eyes scanning the instruments for the source of the problem. There is an air of studied calm.
After a few minutes the source of the problem is located and dealt with.
This time it's just a simulation - but training is taken very seriously at this plant.
When the alarms rang for real at this site in 1986, they indicated a massive leak of radiation - but no one could find the source.
It was actually coming from Chernobyl, in the Ukraine - Forsmark was the first place in the West to detect it.
On this site, security and safety are critical - You can't enter or leave without passing through advanced radiation sniffers that tell you, in a very calm voice, that no radiation has been detected.
But despite the enviable safety track record, and the fact that it provides 40% of the country's electricity, nuclear power is now on the defensive in Sweden.
The government wants to replace it, in the long term, with what they say are greener sources.
However some experts say that nuclear has been the critical factor in the country's ability to grow the economy while cutting carbon.
"In the start of the 1970s we started putting nuclear power plants online, and what we saw was that the economy kept growing but the emissions started falling very rapidly," said Dr Staffan Qvist from Uppsala University, who researches nuclear issues.
He says that Sweden's coalition government, which includes the Green Party, is sacrificing nuclear energy for political expediency.
"It's sort of a bargain the current government has done, that we should raise taxes on nuclear and force the least economical reactors out of operation," he told me.
"Right now four of the reactors in Sweden have announced that they cannot operate anymore because they cannot make any money."
The government says that it's not just nuclear power that has helped Sweden break the link between economic growth and carbon consumption.
Finance minister Magdalena Andersson believes politicians should get some of the credit.
"Our carbon tax has been important in order for us to show an absolute decoupling. We've had the tax since 1991 and it's a very important tool," she told me.
"We do know there is a threat to our climate and we need to reduce our emissions of carbon and putting a price on carbon and putting a tax on it is an obvious way of dealing with the problem.
"It also renders some nice tax incomes to the minister," she said with a smile.
Shades of energy
While the carbon tax has been an important factor, Sweden's complex energy has also helped the fall in emissions.
This can be seen very clearly at the Hallsta Paper mill just an hour from the Forsmark nuclear installation.
This huge paper plant once produced newsprint but changing times mean changing markets - one of its biggest orders in recent years was paper for the erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey.
The plant is so big that by itself it consumes more than 1% of all the electricity produced in Sweden.
"We have 17 wind turbines on site, each providing 3MW of electricity, that is a big installation," plant manager Daniel Peltonen tells me as we take a tour of this huge site.
"But since it's not windy every day we need other sources to run the mill. Nuclear also provides a lot of our base energy demand but we also about gets about 30% of our energy from our own hydropower stations on the rivers."
Sweden's commitment to growing the economy while curbing emissions extends to its role as one of the world's biggest climate finance donors. Sweden is spending almost $60m annually on building green infrastructure in developing countries.
But pride in this achievement is muted as the government struggles to deal with an unprecedented refugee crisis.
In 2015 around 200,000 people arrived into the country - putting significant pressure on government budgets.
As a result, finance minister Magdalena Andersson has had to cut the overseas climate support to cope with the huge inflows.
Despite this, she believes that fighting climate change overseas is absolutely necessary to stem future migration.
"If we don't stop climate change we will have even more refugees in the world because people will have to flee from deserts that are growing or from Bangladesh because of flooding," she told me.
"If we don't fight climate change we will have a much bigger refugee crisis than we're having right now."
Very few nations have the natural resource to grow their economies while cutting emissions like Sweden, but the country is also blessed with another quality that others certainly could emulate - Long term thinking.
I watch a commercial tree harvest take place in a forest near Saetuna run by the Holmen company. For every tree the company chops down, they plant three new saplings in return.
"I think in Sweden we have a long history of taking responsibility for silviculture and regeneration which has resulted in the last century we have doubled the standing timber volume in Sweden," Holmen's head of forestry Jan Ahlund quietly explained.
So don't think about the short term buck? Think of the long term impact on the planet instead?
"Yes," he says.
"It's all about taking responsibility."
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