Lessons from Sweden’s Anti-Putin, Pro-Climate Energy Model

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Learning from Sweden & their Pro-Climate, Energy Model

By David Lapp-Jost

As Russian tanks continue to roll into Ukraine, western European gas consumers pay the bill to the tune of many hundreds of millions of Euros daily and watch helplessly, unable to cut off the gas without shaving 6.5% off GDP. This war highlights the toxic role of fossil fuel industries in global politics. Russia’s economy has been built for the last decades squarely on fossil fuel exports, largely to eager western European partners. 

As western Europeans are painfully aware, a vigorous economic response and an end to gas and oil purchases is infeasible for their economies. Buyers of Russian gas both created the conditions for the war and cannot take economic steps to deter Putin. But there is another

Russian exports, 2017. Economic Complexity Observatory, MIT Media Lab
and the Center for International Development at Harvard University.

model available, not dependent on gas or so much oil. A model that delivers prosperity now, an end to fossil fuel politics, and climate justice to future generations. We see glimpses of that model in Sweden.

In many ways, Sweden looks like an unlikely pick for a green champion. Sweden is cold and needs a lot of heating. Energy-intensive industry comprises a higher share of the economy than almost any other rich country. Swedes also travel more than almost anyone else in the world — an oil-heavy habit. And Swedes enjoy a fabulous quality of life, perhaps among the happiest, richest and most socially secure people to have ever lived.

Despite high energy needs and being next to Russia, Sweden is not one of the countries powering Putin’s rampage. Unlike Germany, the US, and many European countries Sweden has not adopted the natural gas model in the last 20 years. Renewables and nuclear energy provide power. Electricity/heat pumps, district heating, and burning waste make heat; less than 5% of heating is fossil fuels. And Sweden’s extensive network of public transit, bikeable and walkable spaces, and electric vehicles have also allowed it to consume about half as much oil as the U.S., per capita. 

Facing the shock of a major offensive war in Europe, Sweden occupies a stronger position than other countries, morally and practically. Sweden’s dense, efficient, sustainable cities never needed a vast infrastructure linking to Russia. Sweden can more easily adjust energy imports, requiring almost no gas compared to other rich countries. And in a hypothetical oil crisis, Swedes could far more easily shift to cycling, walking, and public transit. This is a huge insulation against price shocks. 

Needless to say the Swedish model is also an excellent example of climate change resilience. Look from the United States to Germany and you see that greenhouse gas emissions per capita roughly halve while quality of life goes up, measuring in terms of access to healthcare, poverty, free education, and access to democracy. Go from Germany to Sweden, and carbon emissions roughly halve *again* while wealth, income, quality of life, and social stability all grow. U.S. Americans should reflect on this. We must disconnect quality of life from carbon emissions, and Sweden has done amazingly well.

So what can we learn from Sweden? Most Swedes live *densely,* with vast, beautiful apartment buildings and complexes — easy to heat and power — often surrounded by parks and bike trails and with excellent tram, train, and bus access. U.S.-style single-family homes — two-thirds of our housing — are energy-draining, hard on the local and global environment, and infrastructure-intensive. Sweden’s electrified public transit networks are powered by wind, nuclear, and hydropower. And Swedish cars and other vehicles are increasingly electric, too (and only about half the cars per capita as in the U.S.). As a chemist working on photovoltaics in Sweden said in a Zoom call I was on last year, “it turns out, you can live really well without much oil!” She was right.

How have Swedes developed this energy economy? It is not by avoiding meat, driving less, eliminating plastic or flying less, though those are good things to do. The secret of Sweden’s sustainability lies not in the individual actions we’re told to take, but in collective action. One hundred twenty years ago, Sweden was not like today. Many Swedes even lived in something like serfdom. There are so many Swedish Americans because many fled difficult conditions in the 19th century. 

But that can change, and in Sweden, it did. Sweden became what it is today through the labor movement. From 1919–1938, Swedes were on strike at about four hundred times the level of strikes we see in the US today. Organized workers fought for a just economy. They formed parties to represent workers and forced business to come to the table with labor action. They engaged in labor organizing and mass mobilization. Sweden’s Social Democrats (many of whom were explicitly democratic socialists) won and held power for 44 years straight. 

To provide for low-cost living, democratic socialist governments transformed society. Sweden was a country of 8 million people in the

Stockholm apartments, photo by Hammarby Sjöstad (CC BY 2.0 license)

 1960’s. A leftist government launched a “One Million Homes” campaign to build new housing, networked in to extensive public transit, schools, daycare, parks, and to social services. These homes fostered affordable living for Swedes and for millions of migrants, most of whom have found safety, care, freedom, and a new life in Sweden. Low-income people, refugees, and ethnic minority groups are the first beneficiaries of Sweden’s strong social systems, and these policies are racially equitable as well as climate-friendly. 

Progressive movements also fought for broad environmental protections. Sweden is covered in nature reserves. It has developed renewable energy on a broad scale, notably hydro and wind power. It is true that much of Sweden’s energy is nuclear and that having substantial forests for biomass burning and water reserves give Sweden natural advantages other countries lack. But dense and thoughtful development has preserved those forests and generally allowed energy consumption far below U.S. levels (despite a far more industrial economy) and other countries like Canada with similar natural advantages are far dirtier. Sweden’s energy matrix is largely product of a society’s choice. Not only invisible market factors, and not only natural resources.

Some dismiss Sweden’s success as due to ethnic homogeneity or some mythical Nordic virtue. These arguments fail on many levels, but the clearest rebuttal look at the U.S. and see what places most closely resemble Swedish energy use and lifestyle patterns. Places like New York City and Washington D.C. are the most sustainable in the U.S., with density and high public transit use. And they have emissions much closer to Swedish levels than to the rest of the U.S. They are also — like Sweden’s cities — very diverse. In contrast, homogenous (white) states Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia emit the most carbon per capita in the U.S., several times the national average. Sweden did not do the impossible. Others across East Asia, much of Europe, and Latin America have also done well. Sweden is not perfect, and Greta Thunberg is constantly protesting many environmental failures there. Nonetheless it shows a way forward.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is a warning to history. Partly a warning against imperialism, and partly a sign of Russian intentions in eastern Europe. But it’s also a warning against fossil fuel dependency. The same fossil fuel industries powering this war helped fund Trump’s 2016 election victory on our side of the Atlantic. Dependence on fossil fuel industries gives them power over us, and inevitably empowers their political allies. In the social democratic success stories of northern Europe, we see a different way forward. Democratic socialists have won power and built arguably the stablest, freest, most prosperous, most just societies in written memory. We can do it elsewhere, too.

Featured image: Hammarby Sjöstad. Photo by Hans Kylberg (CC BY 2.0 license).

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