It’s not easy going green

Saint Augustine wrote, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” Similarly, in recent years, Nordic politicians have set themselves tests of moral courage.

Nordic Green

The Nordic Council’s vision is simply stated. “The Nordic region will become the most sustainable and integrated region in the world in 2030.” These are reflected in individual goals for each country. For the main four countries, these are; 

  • By 2045, Sweden is to have zero net emissions of GHG and should thereafter achieve negative emissions.
  • Finland’s Marin Government has set an objective to be carbon-neutral in 2035 and carbon-negative soon after. However, this target has not yet become a law. Instead, the present Climate Change Act remains to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% to 2050 from the levels in 1990
  • Denmark wants to be a green frontrunner that inspires and encourages the rest of the world. Its goal is 70% emissions reductions by 2030, and climate neutrality by 2050.
  • Norway’s 2050 goal is to become a “low-carbon society”, described as an 80-95% reduction below 1990 levels. In 2019 the government signalled that it wanted to increase the target to a 90-95% reduction, but has not yet done so.

These are truly admirable levels of ambition, and given the political leaders are apparently realists (judged by their broader records), they are to be lauded for setting the bar so high. In recent months there has been a flurry of announcements that provide a sense of actions. As we have reported in Mundus Nordic Green News. Denmark announced a startling plan to spend many billions building an artificial island to produce wind energy in the Baltic Sea. The electricity can have many uses, including the production of hydrogen and electrofuels. Sweden saw similarly impressive announcements, with twin initiatives to produce green steel (steel made without using coal). Likewise, Norway has its Longship Project to capture, transport and store CO2, offering a chance to make climate neutral cement, and neutralise the climate impacts of other industries. Norway has also seen a number of announcements to develop hydrogen industries. And there have been a great many other Nordic initiatives, including plans for green ammonia and e-methanol. Collectively these announcements represent a major step forward for the transformation of Nordic industries.

This comes on top of an impressive starting point. The Nordic economies have already done much to decarbonise their electricity production, helped historically by excellent hydro resources, and more recently by developing wind power. And like much of Europe, the Nordics are relatively energy efficient compared with other rich countries such as the USA or Australia. Therefore the group tends to do very well in a variety of ranking surveys that benchmark climate performance. One frequently cited survey is the Climate Change Performance Index, produced by German NGOs. In this assessment, Sweden was ranked 4, Denmark 6, Norway 8 and Finland 11. Of the other leading countries, there was the UK, Morocco, Chile and India. Given the geographic spread between those, can there be little doubt that the Nordics have already achieved their ambition of being the most sustainable region?

But from this point, things will become increasingly difficult. This is not to discount the impressive string of achievements, but the politically easier parts tend to get done first. What follows next will get tougher, probably much tougher. This is due to the fact that it will increasingly impact a greater number of voters, and interest groups, to an increasingly painful extent. And the changes need to be made relatively quickly if targets are to be met. Politicians would prefer that this happens at some point in the (distant) future, which normally means after the next election. Therefore, policies are not being developed, and targets are likely to be missed – evidently hoping that stakeholders wont notice. Voters, their primary stakeholders, are indeed turning a blind eye, rather focused on the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, amongst other interests. It is an easy rationalisation to excuse a lack of policy action causing an impending failure to meet targets by claiming, “we only failed because our ambitions were so high”, as one Swedish minister did this week. Or to point out the relativities and observe that it might be a failure to meet a numerical target, “but we are still the best region in the world”. Politically, this tactic appears effective, and so far, no Nordic government has been punished for climate inaction.

However, other stakeholders have noticed. Returning to the Climate Change Performance Index: in this year’s list, where Sweden ranked fourth, the first three spots were left vacant by the NGOs – the equivalent of an Olympic race being declared to have no medalists. Nordic leaders are urged not to rest on their laurels, but to renew their vigour in the race. But small NGOs can be shrugged off. There is more political impact in criticism from powerful domestic institutions. As we reported in Mundus Nordic Green News in March 2021, the Danish Council on Climate Change (DCCC) was strongly critical of Denmark’s government for its climate policy, which relied on “hopeful expectations for untested technology”, a scolding that came even after the political celebrations after the agreement of the energy island. The DCCC said that it did not find it likely that the Government will achieve the target of a 70% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030. A year earlier it was Sweden’s government that got told off by its’ Climate Policy Council. The Swedish Council castigated the government for failing to meet its own Climate Act, as we reported in our Monthly Policy Review under the title “Sweden’s Climate Policy: Own Goal”. The policies for the transport sector, which were the main target of the Climate Act, were seen as completely ineffective. One particularly stinging critique came from Mette Kahlin McVeigh, now SVP at Stora Enso, a large forestry company, who remarked “Worse grades than this can hardly be obtained.”

At the time (which coincided with the start of the pandemic), the Swedish Government’s main defense was that it had not had the time to develop policies. But, a year later, little has changed in terms of the government’s policies. And in Denmark, politicians have put off adopting the DCCC’s recommendations to implement a carbon tax on the grounds that it would affect farmers.

Finland has gone down a different path. One of the high-profile policies of the Sanna Marin Government was that Finland would become carbon neutral in 2035. It is almost impossible to contemplate how this level of ambition can be implemented, especially alongside neighbouring economies with far less ambition. Since the announcement it has been relatively silent about what policies would be used to drive towards neutrality, but recently it became evident that Finland is considering a world-first “circular economy strategy”. In recent weeks there is evidence that a debate has begun about how this can be implemented, but we remain uncertain that the level of change necessary is understood by Finnish citizens.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian government has generally kept its powder dry. Norway has the world’s most generous support for electric vehicles, and consequently their biggest uptake (see Will Ferrell superbowl ad for a humorous look at this). And Norway has provided quite a lot of government support for greening as part of its pandemic response. But, there have been no economic transformation announcements from the centre-right government, which prefers to support businesses initiatives rather than change consumer habits.

Where to next?

An overarching theme that Mundus observes is a failure of politicians to level with their voters about the level of change being contemplated. Although some of the more cerebral Green Party leaders are clear that a very fundamental shake up of society is necessary if society is to adapt for radical decarbonisation, their colleagues holding power in the Prime Ministerial and Finance Ministers’ offices continue to present the challenge as an incremental transition, rather than a radical vision. Like Saint Augustine, contemplating the loss of his concubine and marriage to a child heiress, they hope to postpone the moment at which the future takes a radically different path from the pleasures of today. That changes a little when it comes to geopolitics. Here, Nordic leaders speak a different language, with Denmark, Finland and Sweden trying to pressure the EU towards deeper, quicker targets, and cheering on the change in US Presidents, in large part because this will make it easier to get global agreement on climate action. 

It is not easy being a green leader, especially when you are a small, open economy, with plenty of choices for voters to choose, and whose industry could walk out the door if economic policies don’t support a transition. But if they want to live up to their leadership aspirations, at some point they will need to explain to voters the policies necessary to get there.