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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

INTERVIEW: ‘We can’t be focused on the environment as a niche issue’

In the first of The Local's party leader interviews ahead of the election, Märta Stenevi tells us why she is trying to give the Swedish Green Party a broader focus than just climate and environment.

INTERVIEW: 'We can't be focused on the environment as a niche issue'
Green Party co-leader Märta Stenevi meets The Local at the Scandic Hotel in Malmö. Photo: Richard Orange

Märta Stenevi looks out over Malmö’s main central square and regrets the number of cars. In her two and a half years as the city’s Urban Planning chief, she says, she pushed to pedestrianise it, but never overcame resistance from the local shops. 

For the joint leader of Sweden’s Green Party, Malmö is still very much home. 

When we meet at the city’s Scandic Hotel, she has just dropped her children off at their school, and afterwards, she’ll go straight to another school, in the troubled Rosengård district, to see the damage done during the Easter riots. 

Cars on fire in Rosengård, Malmö on Sunday night after riots..

Cars on fire in Rosengård, Malmö on Sunday night. The police went to the scene with a large number of vehicles and fired tear gas to disperse crowds. Photo: Johan Nilsson / TT / Ritzau Scanpix

 
“It’s not ethnic differences”

For her, the extreme violence of the previous weekend isn’t about religion or ethnicity, but about class. 

“If you have big chasms between the rich people and poor people in a country, you will also have a social upheaval and social disturbance. This is well-documented all across the world,” she says. 
 
“What we have done for the past three decades in Sweden is to create a wider and wider gap between those who have a lot and those who have nothing.” 
 
So the solution lies not in new hate laws or tougher policing, but in doing what Sweden did to end its extreme inequality at the start of the 20th century, when it created the socialist folkhem, or “people’s home”. 

 
“It’s easy to forget that 100 to 150 years ago, Sweden was a developing country, with a huge class of poor people with no education whatsoever. And we did this huge lift of a whole nation. And we can do this again,” she says. “But it needs resources, it needs political will.” 
 
The worst way of reacting to the riots, she argues, is that of Sweden’s right-wing parties, which she says is “ridiculous”. 
 
“You cannot do it by punishment, by adding to the sense of outsider status, you have to start working on actually including people, and that happens through old-fashioned things such as education, and a proper minimum income, to lift people out of their poverty, not to keep them there.”
 
Greens should not be a single-issue party 
 
If these are arguments you might expect to come from an old-school Social Democrat or Left Party politician, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
 
If Stenevi has a mission as co-leader of Sweden’s Green Party, it’s to broaden the span of its policies beyond climate and environment. Not that she is critical of her climate-focused predecessor Isabella Lövin, who she argues has “done more for climate politics in Europe than any other politician”, with a legacy that is “quite astonishing”. 
 
But she is convinced that if the Green Party is to stay above the four percent support it needs to stay in parliament, it needs to have policies across the board.
 
“If we’re satisfied by just driving one political issue, and only talking about climate and environmental issues, then we put the voters in a position where they need to choose between wanting to vote for fixing climate change, or for better schools, or for better healthcare or for a more just society,” she argues. “And that is not a very fair choice to ask the voters to make.” 
 
She points to the example of Norway’s Green Party, which focused its campaign in last year’s election narrowly on ending oil exploration. The party, she says, “crashed pretty hard… because they were too focused on one single issue.”
 
“I think we need to move away from talking about environmental issues as sort of a niche interest, and rather talk about what kind of society we are looking for.”

 
The Greens made it above the four percent threshold needed to retain their seats in parliament after September’s election in a poll released on Tuesday night.
 
But its supporters still risk seeing their votes go to waste if the party slips below four percent on election day, losing the leftwing bloc a chunk of the votes necessary to prevent a right-wing government from taking power dependent on the far-Right Sweden Democrats. 
 
She dismisses this scenario, saying she is “absolutely confident” that the party will make it back into parliament. 
 
“It’s actually quite the other way around. If you want to make sure that we don’t have a right-wing government then you absolutely need to vote Green because we have been keeping them at arm’s length at every point during our 30 to 40 years in politics,” she says. 
 
Bonava, a construction company, building a new development at Kristinebergs slottspark in central Stockholm, back in 2019.

Bonava, a construction company, building a new development at Kristinebergs slottspark in central Stockholm, back in 2019. Photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT
 
It seems the party still has some way to go in developing a full policy portfolio, though. When the Local asked her about two issues that affect foreigners, problems with work permits, and difficulty getting housing, she had few concrete policies to offer. 
 
She said the work permit issue was a symptom of a broader issue with parties rushing to tighten immigration laws without thinking through all of the consequences.  On problems finding a place to live, she said the solution was threefold, “building more housing, and doing that in a good, sustainable way, phasing out rent deductions slowly, and increasing the bostadsbidrag” (housing benefit).

 
Nato 
 
Arguably, the party’s recent rise above the parliamentary threshold has come because of its dogged opposition to joining Nato. 
 
“When we look at the horrendous war that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, it’s become very obvious that we have a whole new situation in Europe and that, that also needs to be considered very deeply,” Stenevi says. 
 
But the answer, she says, is not becoming a member of the alliance. 
 
“We would like to see other solutions for Sweden than an actual membership, a closer cooperation with Nato, but not a full membership,” she says. “Our party does not want Sweden to be a member of  Nato, and we stand quite firmly in that.”
 

File photo of Swedish and Nato flags outside the Swedish foreign ministry in 1996. Photo: Ingvar Karmhed/SCANPIX/TT
 
Energy
 
At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the world’s nations pledged to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels.
 
But when electricity and pump prices started to soar only months later, the Social Democrats joined a pre-election bidding war with the right-wing parties over who would do the most to subsidise petrol and diesel prices. 
 
READ ALSO: 
 
For Stenevi, this is evidence of just how addicted Western societies are to fossil fuels. 
 
“The past few months have really shown how toxic these dependencies are,” she says. “When we look at the possibility to sanction Russia for invading Ukraine, there is a hesitation to deal the actual hardest blow that we could to the Russian regime because we are so dependent on fossil energy from Russia.”
 
The subsidies, she says, are “absolutely ridiculous”, as they will deepen this dependency, rather than speeding the shift to renewables. 
 
“It’s been really sad to see, because increasing the climate crisis and increasing emissions will definitely not be the path towards a secure Europe or to independence from these villain states that provide us with oil.” 
 
She also accuses Sweden’s right-wing parties of making “ridiculous” claims about nuclear power, when Sweden should be investing in offshore wind-based power. 
 
“If we were to just put that on hold, as the Moderate Party wants, and wait for nuclear power, then it will be both way too expensive and way too slow, not to get into the discussion of the risks that exist.” 
 
The victims, she says, will be the companies and businesses the Moderates claim to represent. 
 
Where the right-wing parties have been successful, she concedes, is in turning the debate about energy and the climate into a binary question of “nuclear or not nuclear”. 
 
“We have a big job to actually politicise the debate regarding the climate crisis, and not let it just relapse into nuclear power,” she says.
 

Northvolt’s battery factory in Skellefteå, northern Sweden. One of many large infrastructural projects built with the help of posted workers.
Photo: Axel Hilleskog/SvD/TT
 
The Green Party’s record in government 
 
As the party goes into the election, some argue that it is suffering because it has never done enough to communicate the green policies it drove through while in government. 
 
Stenevi cites the mandate to mix biofuels into petrol and diesel, the green industrialisation of the North, the expansion of renewable energy, and the shift in the transport sector to electric cars as some of the party’s achievements. 
 
“All of these things were a hard fight every step of the way, we have had to push them [the Social Democrats] very, very hard to get things in place quickly enough and massively enough, and we still need to do so much more,” she says.
 
The government’s spring budget, the first without the green party in government, saw environmental spending fall. 
 
“What we see now is that as soon as we leave the government.. as soon as we’re not there to push that agenda, it falls back.” 
 

Lillgrund, the Swedish offshore windpark in the Öresund strait, south of Malmö. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/Scanpix/TT
 
The election
 
The recent elections in Denmark in 2019, and Germany and Norway in 2021, have all been seen as “climate elections”, with the  climate crisis a top issue. 
 
But as the campaign for Sweden’s election on September 11th begins to pick up pace, there’s been little to no debate on how to speed up national emissions reductions.
 
“That is of course a huge task for me and for Per Bolund [the Greens’ other leader] to do ahead of the election. But that goes without saying. That’s sort of the job that we have to do.” 
Listen to Märta Stenevi discussing energy in the April 30th 2022 edition of Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast.  

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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