Published 2019-05-21

This post is also available in Swedish

EU ‘the world’s best environmental organisation’

Sweden and the EU should use public procurement as a tool to speed up the transition to a fossil-free society and push for sustainable business models. This was one of the proposals in the seminar on ‘Environment and Climate in the 2019 European Elections’, where researchers met politicians. Mistra was one of the organisers.

The seminar was held on 2 May on the occasion of the forthcoming European Parliament elections. The idea was that participants would hear the messages of the various parties’ candidates on the environment and climate. According to the 2018 Novus European Barometer, voters rank these issues among the most important.

‘The purpose of the seminar is to initiate a research-based debate in Sweden ahead of the 2019 European elections, with a focus on sustainable consumption, plastic and the circular economy,’ said Thomas Nilsson, Programmes Director at Mistra.

Three researchers each presented their views on the themes Plastic, Consumption and Circular Economy respectively, and researchers and politicians then expressed their reactions.

Plastic

Åsa Stenmarck of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute began by displaying two quotations about plastic. One pointed out what a wonderful material it is because it is durable, while the second referred to the terrible effects of plastic on nature — because it is indestructible and does not decompose.

Thus, the same properties that give plastic its positive properties also confer its negative ones. Plastic is often energy-efficient, but in the wrong place — in the marine environment, for example — it causes great damage, said Stenmarck, who headed the government inquiry on plastic that was recently concluded.

Stenmarck called for an impact assessment to find the best policy instruments and determine whether they would be based on penalties or incentives. She also discussed the necessity of transition solutions to introduce bioplastics. When it comes to recycling, she stressed that it should happen where it is most useful, not infrequently in small-scale flows.

Consumption

Only a third of Swedish consumers’ emissions arise in Sweden. The rest are released elsewhere as a result of Swedish imports. Too often, this fact is overlooked, Timothy Suljada of the Stockholm Environment Institute emphasised. A Clean Planet for All, the European Commission’s climate strategy for 2050, for example, does not explicitly count emissions caused by imports.

Suljada presented results from the Institute’s Policy Relevant Indicators for Consumption (PRINCE) research project, in which new methods were developed to capture Swedes’ total carbon footprint. The project was funded by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, which issued the report on the findings. The emissions caused by Sweden’s imports take place in large countries such as Russia, China, the US and other countries Sweden trades with.

‘It’s not just a matter of carbon, but also of other environmentally harmful substances being emitted,’ Suljada said.

Circular economy

Mattias Lindahl of Linköping University, Programme Director of Mistra REES (Resource-Efficient and Effective Solutions based on circular economy thinking), wanted to offer ‘a bit of hope in this gloomy world’. Much is about our way of thinking and viewing the world, he said, and showed an image of two bath towels. Would we buy them if we knew they were used? Hmm… maybe not. But have any of us stayed in a hotel, and not then accepted used towels?

In the past, he related, we developed products to last a long time. Then came the idea of planned obsolescence. Lindahl quoted the influential American economist Victor Lebow who, in the 1950s, formulated the ideas that paved the way for the consumer society: ‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life…’

Although Lindahl expressed some admiration for the impact Lebow had, his view was that we must steer our thinking in the opposite direction. The whole of society, legislation and more, is focused on buying products, not buying functions, and we must change that. Here, Lindahl argued that Sweden and the EU should use public procurement as a powerful tool.

‘Every year, the state, municipalities and county councils procure for about SEK 900 billion, and that’s a large enough amount to make an impression.’

The three presentations prompted several seminar participants to respond. One was Nina Ekelund of the Haga Initiative, an organisation of 300 companies that want to work for sustainability. She told me her members are asking for more active purchasers.

‘Fossil-free procurement — companies are crying out for that,’ she said.

Ekelund mentioned a forthcoming survey among her members showing that Swedish companies are on board for a fossil-free society and that BusinessEurope supports the 1.5-degree goal.

‘The Paris Agreement influenced our members,’ she said.

Karin Bradley, Programme Director of Mistra Sustainable Consumption, emphasised that a consumption-based emission target would be a perfect issue for the EU.

‘A child understands the fact that we can’t just measure what’s produced in one country.’

Bradley wanted to address volumes. More material must go into the recycling loops and they, in turn, need to be slower. She also reminded the audience about the EU waste hierarchy and especially its first step: do we need the product?

She also stressed the need for the adaptation to be perceived as socially just.

Ola Hansén of WWF Sweden argued that we must not forget about biodiversity, and called for an action plan against global deforestation. He also wanted to see a ‘Paris Agreement for plastic’ and considered the EU particularly suited to lead such work.

How, then, do the Swedish candidates think about the European Parliament?

The discussions therefore concern, for example, the idea of using public procurement in adaptation efforts. Several members of the politicians’ panel found this interesting. The consumption-based emission target was also discussed.

Moreover, Jytte Guteland, the Social Democratic EU parliamentarian, found the connection between microplastics and chemicals worrying.

‘Microplastics in the sea act as a magnet for chemicals, making them linger in the water, so they end up inside fish and other living organisms.’

Guteland says she is keeping a watchful eye on the chemical problem. She also stressed that the Paris Agreement must be incorporated into all the EU’s trade agreements, and pointed out that the EU is the world region that has advanced furthest in implementing the Paris Agreement.

Said Abdu, the second Liberal MEP candidate for the European Elections, cited the EU as the world’s best environmental organisation, although it is incomplete. He wants to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels and see a qualified majority procedure in decisions on more issues to avoid deadlocks.

The Centre Party’s Emma Wiesner explained her involvement by the fact that 73 per cent of total energy in the EU is still of fossil origin, which she and her party seek to combat. But she saw a problem with an EU carbon tax, since it would mean giving the EU the right of taxation — a principle she does not want to see.

The seminar was arranged by Mistra, the Stockholm Environment Institute, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and the Institute for European Environmental Policy. It was held at Europe House (Regeringsgatan 65) in Stockholm.