My debut contribution to The Business Post was published in early July on the paper’s Comment page. In the last year or two the Business Post has significantly upped its coverage and focus on environmental topics (reporter, Daniel Murray did an excellent podcast series, Five Degrees, with yours truly among the interviewees last year). Right now, many would rate the Post as the best of all our national papers on this crunch topic.
GIVEN A CHOICE, would you prefer to live in a wealthy, high-emissions country or in one with low-emissions because it is poor? This is the false binary activists are often confronted with when serious climate action is being contemplated.
You will hear much about the ‘carnage and human misery’ that would inevitably ensue were green policies to ever be implemented in Ireland. This reflects a narrative that runs something like this: yes, while of course we’d love to take action on climate, we would really prefer to remain well off, so no thanks’.
And while in Ireland, emissions have indeed spiralled in lock-step with our growing prosperity and consumption, this is not as inevitable as it might sound.
Consider Sweden, a prosperous modern democracy that regularly features in the top 10 of the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings. Sweden provides universal access to a single-payer healthcare system, free university tuition, 38 days’ holidays for all workers, high quality day-care and pre-schools for children and an ultra-generous 18 months’ paid parental leave.
Like most other countries, Sweden’s carbon emissions rose sharply as its economy expanded and living standards increased, but here’s where the story changes dramatically. As a result of the oil shocks in the early to mid-1970s, Sweden began the politically-led process of decoupling emissions from growth. Today, some 80% of its total electricity production comes from hydropower and nuclear energy, with another 12% from its fast-expanding wind sector.
Key to accelerating the decoupling was the introduction in 1991 of the world’s first carbon tax, levied initially at the rate of €23 a tonne. Since then, it has been steadily ratcheted up to its current level of around €110 a tonne, the highest level in the world. In contrast, Ireland’s carbon tax only reached €26 this year, though this is slated in the new Programme for Government to rise to €100 by 2030.
High carbon taxes led to residential and commercial energy use in Sweden becoming almost completely carbon-neutral, with district heating, biofuels and combustion rather than landfilling of non-recyclable rubbish, plus heat pumps. In stark contrast, the residential sector in Ireland accounts for around a quarter of total energy usage in Ireland, most of which is imported fossil fuels.
In 1970, Sweden’s per capita carbon emissions were 11.5 tons. Today, while gross national income has doubled in the intervening decades, emissions per capita have fallen to under 4.5 tonnes, or less than half of the average Irish person, despite Sweden having a colder climate. The country has also set itself the target of net zero emissions by 2045 ‘at the latest’.
“Sweden can develop a vision for transition to sustainable welfare, where we put down goals of being the world’s first fossil-free nation. We can show the world that you can build a modern welfare state within nature’s limits”, according to Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
One of the most dramatic effects of a consistently high carbon tax in Sweden over three decades has been the behavioural changes it has fostered. For instance, in 1975, the average Swede sent nearly 200kg to landfill. Today, a negligible 3kg per person ends up in landfill.
Another league table that Sweden heads is the Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index (GSCI), which tallies natural capital, governance, resource efficiency, as well as social and intellectual capital (Ireland ranks 14th and the US 34th on this Index).
Their respective capital cities tell sharply different stories. While Dublin is ranked as Europe’s sixth most congested city, with drivers spending almost 250 hours a year travelling at less than 10km/hr, in contrast, in Stockholm, whose population is just under a million, some 850,000 people use public transport every day. Its entire underground system runs on green electricity and since 2017, all buses run on renewable fuels and tram routes have been extended.
Another major difference between Sweden and Ireland is in domestic energy efficiency. Many Swedish homes, including high-rise apartments, are built to ‘passive house’ standard, which effectively eliminates the need for any heating system whatever.
The small Swedish city of Växjö may be a model for how Ireland could begin to achieve the average 7% emissions reductions mandated under the Programme for Government. The city, population 61,000, has installed 150km of dedicated bicycle paths, while its bus fleet runs on biogas recovered from sewage and many of the city’s houses and apartments are built to passive house standard. These combined measures have seen Växjö’s emissions fall by over 40% in the last two decades.
While Sweden may light the way to a low emissions future for chronic climate laggards like Ireland, the country itself is no Utopia, especially in its dubious use of biomass as ‘clean’ energy. And Research published by Prof Kevin Anderson found that even ‘climate progressives’ like Sweden still are not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change.
Perhaps the most crucial element in a county cutting emissions is public awareness. Since 1969, basic environmental literacy, from ecology to conservation, has been integrated into Swedish education, giving rise to generations of environmentally conscious citizens.
It is no accident that the world’s most famous young climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is a Swede.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism (2020)