Best in class – but the class is not sufficient

I grew up in Sweden, as did my parents before me. They told me of their time in the school, where they were graded according to a ranking system. The student who performed best in class would get a five and the one who performed the worst would get a one. It didn’t matter how well you managed to solve a certain task, only how much better or worse you performed in comparison to your classmates. Since I grew up we´ve had a system based on individual capabilities, which of course is a more reasonable way to measure performance. Still, although this development has occurred within Sweden it has not changed the way we think of foreign and international issues. In these arenas we are still locked in the past perspective of being the best in class.

Sweden – Vanguard of the climate?
Sweden has long viewed its climate policies with pride, as a source of inspiration for the rest of the world to follow. While a sprinkle of humility could have been beneficial, there is good reasons to hold this view. When the Kyoto-protocol was underway, Sweden was a clear leader achieving its goals. Not only was the domestic target of a decrease in green-house gases by 4 percent reached, it was overreached by 5 more percent for a total of a 9 percent decrease! On top of that, Sweden´s commitment to the Kyoto-protocol simply was not to increase the emissions by more than 4 percent and its easy to see how Sweden could establish its climate policy as a source of national pride. Today however, the reason to be proud does not reflect this recent history. The Paris agreement is far from on track to be achieved. While Sweden is doing well compared to the world at large – indeed Sweden is ranking best according to the CCPI, an index on climate achievements developed by Germanwatch, NewClimate Institute and Climate Action Network – it´s still not nearly good enough. Partly because the majority of Sweden´s emissions are based on imported consumption, which is not accounted for in the index. Partly because even with Sweden ranking best, it´s still not good enough for a “very good”-grade which means it´s likely that Sweden will not reach its commitment goals necessary to fulfil the Paris Agreement and keep the global warming under two degrees. So if the best performer is not doing nearly good enough, what should you do then? With this question in mind I decided to look into Sweden´s history with climate policies chronologically – and indeed while we may walk faster now, we are still on the same path we were 30 years ago.

Re-evaluating the approach
In line with the increased threat of the climate crisis, Sweden has increased its ambitions progressively. Taxes on flight- and car traffic have been implemented, along with a climate political framework in order to integrate climate concerns into every aspect of society. These methods are core features of the environmental-political perspective ecological modernisation, aiming to integrate climate ambitions into the very essence of society as well as regulate consumer behaviour through economic-regulatory measures. As we´ve seen earlier, this line of thinking has worked wonders for Sweden´s climate politics but knowing it will not do the trick this time, perhaps it´s time to take a step back and look at other approaches. In his book The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism, Steven Bernstein describes how the market liberal climate policies that have dominated the global arena since the 90´s, did not become the institutionalised ideology to follow because of its ability to solve the climate crisis, but because of its easy fit into the social structure at the time. Put in simpler terms, what Bernstein calls liberal environmentalism – market-based solutions in conjunction with the polluter pays principle – was institutionalised because it best served the economical and political interests that asserted the agenda in the UN. It required only a little restructuring of the economy and society and was therefore asserted as the ideology to follow, no matter if there was no reason to assume this would solve the climate crisis that brought the world leaders there in the first place!

Since then more regulation has been implemented and more actors became involved in protecting the climate. Despite this the situation has only become worse and only the most naïve of analyses would claim we´re on a good track to solving this catastrophe we´ve created. The basic premise of an ever-growing economy has to this day not seriously been challenged. The ambition to save the planet has never been prioritised over the ambition to become richer and more comfortable. In other words; the right to live is subservient to the right to not have to bother, to not have to try something new.

The facts that lie within our hands tell us two stories. In one story we´re told that no matter how well we might try we will not reach our goals, which makes it even more meaningless to keep on trying. In the other story we´re told that the solution has been in front of our eyes the whole time and the only thing needed from our part is to take the leap to a new perspective on life. I prefer the latter story, the one that´s simple and brimming with hope. Which story do you prefer?