Getting Governments to Join the Fight

Getting Governments to Join the Fight
Published: Jul 10, 2013
What is it about Nordic politicians and bureaucrats that makes them so sane — and sensibly pro-active? Kaj Embren discusses one of his favourite subjects.

As regular readers of my articles will know, the reasons to embrace sustainability range from the moral (think: averting climate chaos) through to the hardheaded (think: job creation).

Regrettably, one vital incentive is missing: government backing. Despite what the free marketeers like to tell you, government support has been critical to many of the great technological revolutions of the last century, from the jet engine to the Internet.

Today’s governments have the responsibility to nurture one of the most important technological revolutions of all (as much as I like the Internet, it will not save countless species from extinction, or stop global crop failure, or hold back rising oceans). No doubt, it will take political courage and prescience. The sprawling consequences of climate change are not neatly packaged into the four- or five-year slots of an election cycle.

But only through State commitment to a renewable future will sufficient capital be raised for sustainable investment and industry be encouraged to develop business models built on energy efficiency, recycling, and renewable sources. While there are some promising indicators that business is moving in the right direction — 95% of the world's 250 largest companies produce sustainability reports and 80% follow Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines — much more needs to be done.

The projects pay dividends to investors but also boost employment and balance trade.

This leads me to another of my running themes: Sweden or the Nordic countries as a global model of sustainability. Not only is Sweden a hotbed for pioneering Clean Tech companies (see the latest issue of Green Solution Magazine for a list of the top 50), but also the majority of its energy use (51%) already comes from renewable sources.

The sector that is driving this renewable energy boom is biomass, which when processed generates biogas, a carbon neutral fuel that can then be converted into electricity and district heating.

Biomass energy is at the heart of both the nation’s planned fossil-free transport fleet and the capital’s bid to become a carbon neutral city. Stockholm will soon be home to one of the world's largest biomass heating plants, which will result in 650,000 tons of carbon reduction per year. Fifty more plants could be in the pipeline, with the joint capacity to keep all of Sweden supplied with clean energy. As Björn Gillberg, an influential environmental advocate, points out, such projects not only pay dividends to investors, but also boost employment and balance trade.

These technologies, raw materials and expertise are not unique to Sweden. But what does seem to be distinctive (to Sweden and a handful of other, mostly Nordic, nations) is the political willpower to significantly reduce fossil fuel dependency.

You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go.

As I discussed in a previous post, none of this would have been possible without Swedish government support. Following the findings of its official Oil Commission in 2005, the Swedish parliament adopted targets to wean the country off fossil fuels, and pursued these targets with such commitment that they were reached almost a decade early.

Perhaps, Sweden’s example can show the rest of the world that, given enough political willpower, a sustainable society is attainable. As author Ken Kesey said, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

Kaj Embrén has been involved with sustainable development for more than 30 years. He led the International Co-operative Green Campaign at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992, and was also involved in the start up of the Swedish Foundation – The Natural Step. In 2000, he co-established Respect with Gordon and Anita Roddick, and in 2003 was involved in the start of the Climate Group. Kaj lived in London for 10 years, but is now based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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