Ecological Modernization at Work? Environmental Policy Reform in Sweden at the Turn of the Century

By Vail, Benjamin | Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Ecological Modernization at Work? Environmental Policy Reform in Sweden at the Turn of the Century


Vail, Benjamin, Scandinavian Studies


SWEDEN IS WIDELY VIEWED as a global leader in positive environmental practices, both in terms of public policy and business-sector activities. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Swedish society--in the realms of politics, the economy, and civil society--debated the value of sustainable development. The government decided on an ambitious long-term program to achieve a "sustainable society" by 2020. This article seeks to understand the process by which this policy decision was made--as well as its practical implications, which include potentially sweeping impacts on social and economic life in the push for environmental improvements. In pursuit of an explanation, this article asks whether the environmental sociological theory of ecological modernization describes the process of decision-making in Sweden during this rime period.

The hypothesis considered here is that Swedish environmental policy reform during this period was largely consistent with the model of social change predicted (and prescribed) by ecological modernization theory (EMT). To test this hypothesis, the Swedish decision-making process is described, ecological modernization theory is introduced, and empirical evidence is presented to compare the Swedish situation with the theory's predictions.

This study gathered data through the use of key informant interviews with decision-makers in government, political parties, and environmental groups. Further information was obtained from government documents, news media accounts, and political party publications. Many sources were available in English; where sources existed only in Swedish all translations were done by the author.

SWEDISH ENVIRONMENTAL REFORMS IN THE 1990s AND EARLY 2000s

After several years of study and deliberation, in the late 1990s the Swedish Parliament voted to approve a new structure for national environmental policy. The purpose of the reforms was to solve environmental problems with the aim of creating a "sustainable society" within one generation. In 1998 existing environmental protection laws were consolidated into a single Environmental Code, the implementation of which was to be guided by fifteen environmental quality objectives--essentially a national "mission statement" for ecological sustainability--to be fulfilled by 2020.

The government officially said its actions were driven by the concept of sustainable development as presented in the 1987 Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987), which states that development efforts should meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Persson and Lindh 4).

Based on this definition of sustainable development, the government said in a "Statement of Government Policy" in 1996, "Sweden should be a driving force and a model for ecological sustainability" (Swedish Commission 2). The Government elaborated on its understanding of sustainable development in its 1997 Spring Economic Bill and 1998 Budget Bill, stating that ecologically sustainable development involves three objectives: environmental protection, sustainable use of resources, and more efficient use of energy and resources (Persson and Lindh 5 and Sustainable Sweden, "Environmental Quality" 3). Ultimately, "the Government's primary environmental objective is to hand over a society to the next generation in which the major environmental problems have been solved" (Swedish Ministry, 20000c 6).

Under a Social Democrat-led coalition, Parliament approved two different "framework" bills designed to put this vision of a sustainable society into effect, the Environmental Code and fifteen environmental quality objectives.

According to Lars-Ingmar Karlsson, an environmental reporter at Sweden's largest morning daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, the emphasis by the Social Democratic party on environmental policy reform was probably intended in part to pre-empt support for the Green Party, but also as a response to high levels of environmental concern at the rime (Interview 8 October 2001).

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