Nordic countries cherish ambition to top green tables

Guided by a benign nationalism aimed at righteousness rather than dominion, Nordic countries often fall short of their green ambitions, argues Tony Samstag. But that does not stop them from trying
Many a small country suffers from the Isabel Archer syndrome. As described by Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady, it is “an unquenchable desire to think well of herself”. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Nordic countries.
Throughout much of the last century, this aspiration has found expression in the pursuit of world peace and enlightenment – the Nobel prizes, the international leaders toiling on behalf of the UN – and somewhat less obviously in the development of the Nordic social democratic ‘model’, whereby the governments purported to harness the dynamism of capitalism in the service of the cradle-to-grave welfare state. In doing so, they aimed to serve as an example to each other and to the less progressive nations of the globe.
More recently, the Nordics have moved on to perhaps the most competitive arena of all: the environment. For some years the superlatives have been flying thick and fast. The five Nordic countries – Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland – are widely perceived to be the most advanced in all things environmental, at the cutting edge in Europe (see figure 1).

Leading the pack
The question is: are they really? A prime example of Nordic ‘green nationalism’ was on show in November, as Sweden geared up for the UN climate conference in Bali and looked to its six-month presidency of the EU from autumn 2009.
Environment minister Andreas Carlgren told the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2007 Climate Forum that the country aimed to be “a model for the rest of the world on the climate issue, as a country with a high rate of growth that is fully compatible with the needs of the environment and based on sustainable resources”.
Mr Carlgren welcomed a recent finding by a national advisory body on climate that, to meet long-term EU targets, greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere would need to be stabilised at about 400 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent. This, he noted, was lower than the lowest (445-490ppm) of the six stabilisation levels looked at by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (see figure 2).
To his satisfaction, it would make Sweden “the first country in the world to aim at stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases at an even lower level than has been discussed to date in the world community and the IPCC”.
Similar Swedish expressions of ambition are not hard to find in previous governments. As early as 1997, then prime minister Göran Persson pledged to fast forward his country’s progress towards sustainability. “Our goal is to be able to hand over to the next generation a world in which the major environmental problems have been solved,” he said.
A national strategy based on 16 “environmental quality objectives” was billed at its launch in 2001 as “a unique and modern environmental policy tool”. ENDS Europe Daily, sister publication to this monthly Report, described the legislation as “one of Europe’s most ambitious national environmental strategies ever”.
That, of course, was well before the appointment in 2005 of a national commission “to present a concrete strategy to break Sweden’s dependence on oil by 2020” – an aspiration rendered even more problematic than at face value by Sweden’s decades-long on-off efforts to phase out nuclear power.
Over in Norway, even as the December award ceremonies for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize were in full swing – joint winners of which were global warming proselytiser Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the media were broadcasting the nation’s chagrin that arch-competitor Sweden had won yet another green star, coming top of the list of 56 countries in the latest annual “Climate Change Performance Index” compiled by a European NGO.
Norway was in 16th place, just ahead of Denmark, where lamentations were equally heartfelt. Elsewhere in the Nordic countries Iceland, with its exploitation of geothermal energy, took third. Finland was the Nordic laggard at 36 (see figure 3).
Ranked second, as it happened, was Germany. Filling out the top ten after Iceland were, respectively: Mexico, India, Hungary, the UK, Brazil, Switzerland and Argentina. All, presumably, more climate-friendly than four of the five Nordics.
Despite the disappointing ranking, Norway has over the years been as prolific as Sweden in producing ambitious policies that reflected its environmental aspirations. Here are a few high points:
June 1997: The government white paper “Environmental Policy for Sustainable Development” set a target of “zero discharges” of eco-toxic substances to sea from petroleum activities.
October 2005: The government declared plans to install state-funded carbon capture and storage (CSS) systems in a series of proposed natural gas-fired power stations. Five years before, another administration had been the world’s first to fall in a dispute related to global warming due to parliament insisting on building gas power stations without carbon capture.
April 2007: Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg pledged to make Norway “carbon neutral” by 2050. It was the first time any country had set out to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Mr Stoltenberg also pledged to unilaterally cut emissions by 30 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2020.
December 2007: Stoltenberg told the Bali conference Norway proposes to spend NKr 3bn (€378m) developing an international rainforest protection programme.

Joint green efforts
Sweden and Norway are probably the most energetic of the Nordics in proclaiming their intentions to lead the world in pollution control, climate measures and sustainable development. But Denmark – the country that gave us Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist – is catching up fast. It recently launched an ambitious “public sustainability debate” and created a new climate and energy ministry to demonstrate the seriousness with which it takes such issues.
And Denmark, together with Sweden, has been among the most aggressive and effective of the EU member states in pushing for tighter chemical controls. Both have been ranked as the world’s most sustainable developed (OECD) countries in surveys by Swiss bank ZKB carried out in 2004 and 2007.
Finland and Iceland tend to be less strident in proclaiming their environmental ideals and ambitions, but they have inevitably been greened, so to speak, by the same Nordic brush. The Nordic council of ministers, which describes itself as a regional “forum for governmental cooperation”, has defined the region’s environmental aspirations in no uncertain terms: “High ambitions put the Nordic countries in a unique position to act as a driving force on environmental issues, not just within the region itself, but in the adjacent areas and at European and international levels as well.”
Having stated that environmental cooperation is based on the principle of the “highest appropriate level of ambition”, the council sings the praises of the region’s environment action plan. This is “designed to produce results which will maintain the position of the Nordic region as a pioneer on environmental issues”.
The Nordics have one great natural advantage in the greener-than-thou stakes: with the exception of Denmark, they are by far the most sparsely populated countries in Europe. However well and truly industrialised they are, however polluted this fjord or climate-unfriendly that industrial site, however frenzied their consumer habits, there are always vast expanses of unspoilt wilderness just around the corner.

Unpalatable results?
Disappointment is an inevitable corollary of great expectations. Realists everywhere will readily accept that some of the Nordic countries’ ambitious targets, tight action plans and grandiose policies will turn out to be unachievable. Both the visionary politicians framing them and the well-meaning bureaucrats charged with implementing them have often had to accept the ample public evidence to that effect.
A report for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published in November warned that meeting the latest proposed targets for greenhouse gas reductions would require “significant trend-breaks” and enormous changes “not only at a policy level but also when it comes to the everyday life of people and professionals”. In other words, changes so unlikely as to verge on the impossible.
Scores of such reports, most of them equally gloomy, are issued every year. Ironically, almost all are commissioned, compiled and published by the ministries, agencies and specialist departments of the very governments that have set the targets in the first place.
In the spirit of deeply rooted democratic accountability, the Nordics don’t shy away from failure when it stares them in the face. But in line with their equally stereotypical bravery, they don’t let it sidetrack them from their ultimate goal. Proud of their role as Europe’s northernmost representatives, they obstinately stick to their guns. After all, surely it is honourable for a nation’s reach to exceed its grasp.

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