The Rönnskärsverken journey of sustainability from the 1960s to 2000 is almost like a fairytale. The environment benefited — but so did the company. What can a world facing a climate crisis learn from Sweden, and what do we actually need if we are to bring about change?
Text: Johanna Fredriksson
Ann-Kristin Bergquist studies the development of climate transitions in trade and industry, nationally and internationally. “We don’t stand a chance to meet the climate targets without a global agreement.”
Ann-Kristin Bergquist is a docent in economic history at Umeå University. Her research focuses primarily on working from a historical perspective to understand criteria and obstacles to environmental and energy transitions in trade and industry, particularly heavy industry.
One of her research fields has involved the development of the Boliden Rönnskär smelters in northern Västerbotten, which was Sweden’s ‘filthiest industry’ in the early 1970s as its ore contained singularly high levels of sulphur and heavy metals.
Since then, Rönnskär has reduced its emissions of heavy metals by 99 per cent. While also more than doubling production.
“This cost Boliden a lot of money in the short term, but in the long term it turned out to be a profitable transition,” says Ann-Kristin Bergquist, explaining that the same thing also happened in the pulp and paper industry, which she’s also studied.
Rönnskärsverken i Skelleftehamn. Rönnskärsverken in Skelleftehamn is Sweden's only copper smelting plant for the production of base metals and electronics recycling. The smelter was built by Boliden AB in 1928 and was completed two years later in 1930.
The risk of becoming less competitive and encountering reduced economic growth are usually strong arguments against investing in far-reaching measures that will improve our climate and the environment. So why exactly has Sweden succeeded?
Let’s go back a few decades. As pollution problems generally became more perceptible in the mid-20th century, environmental issues came to the fore. In Sweden, trade and industry had premonitions of stricter legislation that couldn’t be circumvented — the new Environmental Protection Act came into force in 1969. That was why industry initiated a research institute, IVL (now IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute), in 1966 to work with the environment and sustainability. Its objective was to coordinate development of technology between the government and trade and industry in order to create an understanding of the environmental impact of emissions, and to devise technical solutions to a number of acute problems.
This cooperation, along with the fact that industry took the problems seriously at an early stage, is one of the major reasons as to why transitions in Swedish industry driven by the environment have been successful from an international perspective, according to Ann-Kristin Bergquist. The fact that the government, for its part, took into account the economic frameworks of trade and industry, but also its engineering skills, is another factor in this success.
“Companies were given a great deal of freedom to develop new technology. This stimulated technical development and rein-forced competitiveness in the long term.
THINK 13In the 1960s, the Rönnskärsverken smelters in Skellefteå municipality was the dirtiest industry in Sweden. But as they transitioned, emissions reduced and, remarkably, production thrived.
Swedish environmental policy has had a global status since the 1970s, although there are still challenges to be faced here.
What could a country like China learn from Sweden?
“To set long-term targets for environmental policy, strict but flexible targets, and maintain stability over time despite new political flows,” says Ann-Kristin Bergquist, who admits that applying Swedish environmental legislation and instruments to other countries isn’t entirely straightforward.
“This is because policies are always based on the institutions that you have in society, and they’ve developed over a very long time. Sweden has a fairly high level of institutional efficiency based on cooperation, compromise and low corruption, in a small country with fairly homogeneous values. The Swedish economy is also very small compared with countries like China and the US.
”Despite this, it’s important for Sweden to lead the way — for a number of reasons.
“Sweden is important when it comes to driving innovation and technical development. We have good institutional conditions here.”
Ann-Kristin Bergquist is now looking at climate transition from an interna-tional perspective in order to identify the current obstacles.
“To be honest, unfortunately, this has made me less hopeful.”
Ann-Kristin Bergquist, docent in economic history.
In the late 1980s, leading western countries — with the US in the lead — came close to an agreement on regulating carbon dioxide emissions. But then things changed, and suddenly people believed that the market would resolve the problems — and this mindset is still in evidence now.
“What people have missed in these visions and hopes is that the problems are at system level. Individual companies have very little opportunity to do anything radical, because they’ll find it difficult to compete unless other companies follow their lead.”
Nowadays, fossil fuels still account for more than 80 per cent of global energy consumption. In the short term, countries are extremely dependent on fossil energy to maintain their standard of living, and to increase it in low-income countries. But the climate is paying a high price for this.
We need something similar to what happened in the 1960s, which was truly formative.
Ann-Kristin Bergquist is of the opinion that the climate transition requires global agreements that include higher prices for fossil fuels, combined with funding for renewable energy.
“It’s extremely important to have a collective global policy that brings pressure to bear in order to increase the pace of progress. That’s probably the biggest conclusion we can draw, if we look back over the years. But that also presents us with our greatest challenge.”
That said, she believes in consumer power and movement from below as influencing methods.
“What this new generation, like Greta Thunberg, represents is really import-ant. We need something similar to what happened in the 1960s, which was truly formative. This is a new awakening, and I believe it’s truly important if we’re going to bring interests to the negotiating table.”
This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2020.