Can Minnesota learn from Sweden on climate change?


As we reflect on the recent United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, we can look to another Scandinavian country, just north of Denmark, whose environmental policies deserve applause and a closer look. 

Sweden is widely known for bringing to the world such things as beautiful women, H&M, Volvo and IKEA. However, as it turns out, the ancestral homeland to many a Minnesotan has more going for it than excelling in car safety and cheap clothing and furniture. The Norwegian Institute for Transport Economics, the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research Oslo, University of Oslo, and Lund University has found that Sweden has reduced CO2 emissions 9% since 1990, thus making it one of very few countries that have lived up to the Kyoto Agreement. In almost the same time period, 1990- 2007, Minnesota’s CO2 emissions went up 27%.

During that time period Minnesota was experiencing rapid economic growth, which led to increased use of transportation and fuel. This is not uncommon, and we are seeing similar events take place internationally with countries such as China and India. What makes Sweden different is that they too experienced substantial economic growth in that period, but they still decreased carbon emissions rather than increased them. So how did Sweden manage to continue their economic growth while reducing emissions?

Former Prime Minister Göran Persson introduced the idea of Gröna Folkhemmet, a reinvention of the classic Swedish political idea of Folkhemmet, or the idea that Sweden should be like a home to all the country’s people and that the society should be built on the ideas of equality and consensus. The new Gröna Folkhemmet focused on organic and sustainable growth. Mona Sahlin of the Social Democratic party explained the idea as showing solidarity and taking responsibility for future generations as well as the rest of the world. This green policy would not only ensure responsible environmental policy, but also serve as a guideline to reduce Sweden’s unemployment and ensure economic development.

The country of Sweden consists of 21 counties, which are further divided into municipalities. These 290 or so municipalities have their own government similar to a city commission government. Sweden’s success in reducing CO2 emissions is in large part contributed to the focus on and responsibility given to each municipality. In 1998 the Swedish government established a “Local Investment Program” or LIP aimed at the municipalities. This program was replaced by the “Climate Investment Program”, KLIMP in 2002. Since the programs started the Swedish government has contributed about $850 million, while the programs themselves have contributed to about $3.5 billion to environmental investment or almost 2700 environmental projects.  The total effects of these investments are estimated to be a reduction of 2.1 million metric ton CO2 per year.

The municipalities were given the responsibility of identifying what problems and solutions were of most importance to each municipality, as well as identifying how such programs would create economic growth and produce jobs. KLIMP later changed the program to focus on reducing CO2 emission and energy use. The programs are administered by the Swedish EPA who receive the applications and decide which projects will receive funding. Much of the money went to projects in renewable energy, transportation, district heating and waste disposal. In conjunction with the LIP and KLIMP programs the Swedish government issues high fees for CO2 emissions through high taxes on items such as oil for heating, as well as offering incentives to invest in renewable energy.

A requirement to receive a grant has been for each municipality to have a climate strategy in place. As a result of this requirement more than half of Sweden’s municipalities have such a strategy in place with civil servants whose job is specifically directed within environmental policy. Another underlying idea of the LIP and KLIMP was to promote extensive cooperation between public and private players, to hone the expertise from each sector to achieve the greatest results at the lowest cost.

The Swedish municipality model is not directly applicable to Minnesota, mostly due to the very different forms of government in the US and Sweden. However, there are still lessons to be learned from Sweden that can be applied in our state. One of the ideas behind a federal system of government is the reasoning that a smaller and more localized government knows and understands the specific needs of the people better than a distanced national government. In line with this idea it would be appropriate to adopt a version of the Swedish model that emphasizes the role and responsibility of the counties to lead any efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in Minnesota.

Part of Sweden’s ability to have fairly low CO2 emissions is due to their reliance on nuclear power for electricity, which constitutes about 45% of electrical power. However, it is not because of this reliance that emissions were reduced in the last 20 years. In a referendum in 1980, Sweden voted to rid themselves of all nuclear power by 2010. It is not until this year that this decision was changed and thus the last 20 years have not seen an increase in use of nuclear power in Sweden. In Minnesota there exists a moratorium on the building and developing of new nuclear plants, but the nuclear power plants currently in the state are not producing at capacity which allows for a slight increase in reliance on nuclear power if that becomes necessary.

Rather than further develop nuclear power, which the then Prime Minister Persson was strongly against, heavy focus was placed on conversion to district heating and cooling as well as more reliance on solar heating. Although, district heating and cooling is not widespread in Minnesota, it has great potential for further development with high return on investment. District heating with combined heat and power has been suggested to be one of the cheapest ways to cut carbon emissions and has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all fossil generation plants. District Energy in St Paul provides heating to 80% of St Paul’s business district and adjacent areas and cooling to 95% of St Paul’s downtown area. The plant is green because it is primarily fueled by biomass, specifically urban wood waste. Any kind of adaption of the Swedish model should focus on the improvement of existing district heating plants and development of new plants.

In Minnesota transportation is the biggest culprit as far as emissions go, being responsible for 35.6% of emissions in ’07. Much of LIP and KLIMP efforts have gone towards transportation, specifically reducing car usage and increasing investment in public transportation and green transportation such as bicycle paths. Similar investment would be desirable in Minnesota to both improve communication and transportation as well as reduce statewide emissions.

Minnesota is facing record numbers in unemployment, much as Sweden was struggling with during the introduction of LIP. One of the requirements for LIP eligibility was that the program proposed would also reduce local unemployment. Sweden showed the world that it is possible to reduce greenhouse emissions while also creating jobs and developing green technology. Minnesota should look to its ancestral homeland and see how we can best adopt a similar program that can make us a national and international leader in green technology, create jobs, and stimulate economic growth, all while doing good for the environment. Insulation may be sexy, but a holistic and long-term approach to environmental policy and green economy growth is sexier still.