Trying to do something about climate inequality in Sweden

April 25, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Robert Höglund, Head of communications for Oxfam Sweden and coordinator for the network The Climate Goal Initiative.

One of the aspects of inequality that always struck me as especially bizarre is the double inequality around climate change. The richest 10 percent of the world who is most to blame for climate change emit around half of all carbon emissions, while the poorest half of the world who stand to lose the most from climate change only emit around 10 percent.

What makes it especially repulsive is that most rich countries are not even trying to do much about this.  Sure, countries have set (inadequate) targets to reduce emissions within their borders but in rich countries like Sweden, where I live, that is partly missing the point – we import a load of the goods we use, so our real carbon footprint is determined by our overall consumption, not just by what goes on inside our borders.

In Sweden emissions within the country are around 5 tons greenhouse gases per capita and year, but emissions from consumption (that include imports) are twice as high. No country has yet set targets to reduce emissions from consumption, but we are on the way to making Sweden the first.

I, with many others believe Sweden has a shared responsibility for the emissions that we import. It’s our consumption that causes the emissions and we have unique capabilities to do something about them. And not to forget, our consumption and the emissions they generate are already affecting vulnerable people. For example, the Oxfam report Uprooted by climate change showed that people in low-income countries are five times as likely to be forced to flee their homes because of extreme weather as people in rich countries. Cyclone Idai, which struck south-east Africa in March, is a current and tragic example of the deadly effects of a changed climate (read a piece here by Anabela Lemos, director of Justiça Ambiental in Mozambique).

For these reasons, I, with the help of others, set up the Climate Goal Initiative in 2015, a network where 22 Swedish civil society organization jointly push for Sweden to set a national target to reduce consumption-based emissions. Oxfam Sweden joined the network in 2016. The issue of consumption-based emissions has really taken a place in public debate in Sweden. Nowadays politicians rarely get away with claiming that Sweden has combined high economic growth with large emission reductions, since these reductions don’t include consumption-based emissions. The organisations in the Climate Goal Initiative have lobbied the government, given concrete suggestions to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, written op-eds and have been keeping the issue on the agenda. Now things have finally started to move.

The tactic of forming a broad coalition behind the issue has been successful. The Climate Goal Initiative includes all the major environmental organisations, like WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the earth but also Swedish development organisations, The Swedish Farmers Association and The Swedish church. WWF, Oxfam Sweden and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation have been especially active on the issue during the last few years, publishing reports and running campaigns, but the fact that the network includes several types of organisations pushing the issue gives it extra weight.

The lobby work started in 2015 when a parliamentary group began working on Sweden’s new climate framework. But even though consumption-based emissions were included in their final report they did not agree on including a target for them. Some parties opposed the idea, arguing that the statistics weren’t good enough. Fortunately, the statistics has recently been improved and updated.

The Green Party, sitting in the previous and current government and holding ministerial posts responsible for both consumption and environmental goals, have been especially welcoming to the issue and included targets for consumption-based emissions in their manifesto for the last election.

We in the Climate Goal Initiative suggested and pushed for the government to assign the Swedish EPA to look at targets and indicators for consumption-based emission, which they did in late 2017. The EPA recently published its conclusions, suggesting indicators for reduced emissions from flights, food, housing, textiles and personal car transportation – they were an important step forward. Now there are both solid statistics and concrete suggestions for indicators for politicians to use when working on a target for consumption-based emissions.

In a recent 73 point agreement between the Swedish government, the Centre Party and the Liberals promised to set up a parliamentary group to work on the issue of targets for consumption-based emissions. The details and directives for the assignment are still to be set out but it’s a very important step and a big win for us.

Since Sweden and other rich western European countries have so much higher consumption-emissions compared to emissions within the countries, the issue of a consumption target is particularly important for us. However, efforts to reduce consumption-based emissions should be an important issue for all countries. I hope that Sweden introduces an ambitious target and measures to reduce emissions from consumption. This will then hopefully inspire other countries to take similar measures and open a new front in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions.