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ANALYSIS: Is the climate law toothless and therefore useless?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: Is the climate law toothless and therefore useless?
Ola Alterå, the chief executive of the Swedish Climate Policy Council introduces its 2023 report. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Sweden's government came in for a hammering last month from the country's climate watchdog for presenting a climate plan that was 'misleading' and failed to meet the demands of Sweden's climate law. Ola Alterå, the watchdog's chief executive, explains the consequences.

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Sweden's 2017 Climate Law, like similar laws in the UK and Denmark, is designed to commit all governments to setting policies to meet Sweden's 2030 and 2045 emissions goals by requiring them to issue a climate report in each annual budget, and a climate policy action plan every fourth year. 

The government's progress is then assessed each year by the Climate Policy Council, or Klimatpolitiskarådet. 

This year's verdict was brutal: the government's policies are increasing rather than decreasing emissions, and its claims that its policies are putting the country on track to at least meet its long-term 2045 targets are "misleading" and "not based in fact" .

But the government has not apologised or promised to do better, with Sweden's climate minister, Romina Pourmokhtari, simply restating her own position that her government's policy pointed in the right direction and arguing that the council was entitled to its own, different opinion.  

Martin Kinnunen, the environmental spokesman of the Sweden Democrat party, attacked the council, saying it risked being seen as "politicised", and suggested that the government should consider reforming the Climate Policy Council itself. 

READ ALSO: Sweden's climate watchdog slams government for 'misleading' net zero claims

Are there any legal consequences of not living up to Sweden's Climate Law? 

According to Alterå, the answer is "no". 

"There are no sanctions for the government if they do not live up to our recommendations," he said. "There are no formal consequences, so it's very much a soft power." 

Before taking the role, Alterå was a Centre Party politician and also a State Secretary in the government led by Moderate Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, so he is hardly a left-wing activist, as suggested by Kinnunen.  

The toothlessness of Sweden's climate law is something it shares with similar laws from other countries, such as the UK's pioneering law from 2009, or the Danish Climate Act of 2020, but Alterå argued that, if anything, Sweden's law is weaker. 

"The British one is much more detailed with more obligations on what the government should do or not, and the Danish one is also tougher. The Swedish one is a one-pager basically," he said. 

"In Denmark, their climate law has some some paragraph they're saying that the government needs to come back to the parliament with something new If the Climate Council says that their policy is insufficient, but there is nothing like that in our climate law," he added.

Even so, Alterå added, the law was still unusual in constraining all governments. 

"Professors tell me that there are only two laws that decide how Swedish governments should work on any particular area, other than the Constitution, so even if the Climate Law is soft, is has a very special place compared to any other policy area," he said. 

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How will the report affect the government politically? 

Alterå says he hopes the rebukes the government received, particularly over the misleading aspects of its Climate Plan, will change the way it communicates climate policy. 

"I hope that they will be more careful in the claims they make in official documents and the basis for what they claim and that I do expect that to have an effect, actually," he said.

"We were a bit surprised when we saw the unfounded claims in the report. It's not what we expect from official documents from the government." 

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Will the report change the government's policies in any way? 

Although the government has not in any way accepted the criticism levelled at it in the council's report, Alterå has not written off the chance of it bringing in new measures which will actually reduce emissions. 

"What we hope to see is that the government realises that they can't wait until 2027, that they need to bring in some reforms over and above the action plan they presented, that there needs to be some activity in these coming years," Alterå explained. 

He said the council had tried, both in its 2023 report and its 2024 report, not to suggest that Sweden was doomed to miss its targets, stating only that the current policy was insufficient. 

"We're saying that the present policy, what's decided so far, is not enough," he said. "We do not want to contribute to a feeling in society that it's hopeless, or that it's not possible."

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How big is the risk that the government will reform the Climate Policy Council itself in response? 

Alterå said he did not fear repercussions from the government, although he acknowledged it was possible. 

"Even if we are a government agency, we have a high degree of independence," he said. "It is the members of the council that nominate or in practice decide on their successors." 

"But in the end, of course, our budget is decided by government and the parliament, and yes, they could reduce budgets or just close down the council if they if decided to. But we haven't seen any sign of that. It's not something that we are walking around thinking about very much." 

He said a bigger risk was that this government and future governments simply started to ignore the council's reports entirely. 

"If this happens many times, then in the long-run there is still a risk of losing significance or relevance," he said.  

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