Sweden’s CO2 emissions

2 min read


Ewa Kiełsznia

Writer, transcreator and eco-enthusiast

Only very few countries in the world can boast as advanced climate efforts as Sweden. Sweden’s CO2 emissions are decreasing year by year, bringing the country closer to climate neutrality. Like the other Scandinavian countries, Sweden is implementing cutting-edge programs. Thanks to them, the country not only meets, but even exceeds its goals to achieve a zero carbon footprint by 2045. What can we learn from the Swedes? What are Sweden’s CO2 emissions?

CO2 emissions in Sweden per capita

Sweden is a European Union country with a population of 10.4 million. Most of the population lives in cities, mainly in the south where the main urban centers are concentrated. The difference in population density between the southernmost county of Stockholm (360 persons per km2) and the northernmost county of Norrbotten (only 3 persons per km2) is enormous. The average population density across Sweden is 25 people per km2 – in comparison with other European countries it is very low, especially considering that Sweden is the fifth largest country in the European Union.

How much GHG does an average person emit in Sweden?

Looking at standard indicators, it average carbon footprint per capita in Sweden could be quite substantial. Not only is it a country with a relatively high GDP per capita and highly developed industry, but also the distances within the country are quite long, which makes transport routes rather long. Moreover, winters are long and cold, so a lot of energy is used for heating, for example. Despite this, average CO2 emissions per capita are not only lower than the European average (8.4 tonnes of CO2 per year), but even lower than the world average. In 2020, a statistical Swede emitted about 4.18 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

This figure was not always as impressive: just 50 years ago it was more than 11 tonnes of CO2 per capita annually. This progress shows that Swedes are really climate-oriented. Despite the fact that their economy is growing – their CO2 footprint is shrinking.

Sweden’s total CO2e emissions in 2018 were 51.8 million tonnes.

CO2 emissions in Sweden’s transport sector

Emissions from the domestic transport sector in Sweden are dominated by land transport, as the vast majority of engines are still diesel and gasoline engines. Land traffic emitted 15 million tonnes of CO2e in 2018, which at the time accounted for 91% of emissions resulting from transport in Sweden. Among the most polluting vehicles in Sweden are cars (67% of the total transport sector). Heavy goods transport fills 21% of the CO2e total for transport. The remainder consists of light goods transport (10%), bus traffic (1%) and scooters (0.5%). Flights within Sweden account for 3% of the national CO2 emissions, while rail transport: 0.3%.

Sustainable transport in Sweden

Stockholm has a population of just over 1.5 million people. More than half of the capital’s population travels by public transport on a daily basis. What’s more, all subway lines are powered by sustainable energy. And the buses are not lagging behind either: since 2017, each of them only fills up with biofuel. In this respect, Sweden has surpassed its targets for clean urban transport. The points set for 2025 have been met by the Swedes as much as 8 years earlier.

Is cycling popular in Sweden?

Sweden is popular with cyclists. In large cities such as Malmö, Gothenburg Lund and Stockholm city bikes can be rented all year round.

The government sees the potential in switching from cars to bicycles, so they are investing heavily in encouraging Swedes to cycle all year round. The investment goes, for example, into research programs to better understand the needs of winter cyclists. Through these programs, later information campaigns can be better adapted and urban development can be planned. In 2017, as much as €24 million was allocated to the expansion and promotion of cycling infrastructure.

In Sweden, you can also get a subsidy to buy an electric bike, up to 25% of the price. The government realizes that riding a regular bicycle is not easy for everyone, and is often associated with exercise and exertion rather than simple transportation trips. That’s why funding is available to purchase an electric bike. Tens of thousands of people benefit from the subsidies, which shows how popular electric bikes can become in Sweden.

Energy sources in Sweden – what runs the country?

The Swedish energy mix is predominantly based on hydro and nuclear power plants. Moreover, energy production is increasing year after year not only from these sources, but also from biomass used in power and CHP plants.

In 2019, 39% of the energy supplying Sweden was obtained from hydroelectric power, 39% from nuclear sources, 12% from wind power, and the remaining 10% was produced from biofuels and fossil fuels. Solar power plants are growing rapidly in Sweden, but their share in the overall energy mix is only 0.4%.

Industry in Sweden

The share of emissions from industry is significant, accounting for about 1/3 of Sweden’s total CO2 emissions. In 2018, GHG emissions from industry accounted for 32% of Sweden’s total emissions, amounting to nearly 17 million tonnes CO2e.

The vast majority of Sweden’s industrial GHG emissions come from iron and steel production (34%). The mineral industry accounts for 19% of this total, and refineries: 18%.

Since 1990, emissions from the industrial sector have fallen by as much as 19%. Among the industries that are leading the way in reducing emissions, the pulp and paper industry in particular has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 59%. Unfortunately, the refining industry has seen an increase of as much as 33%. This is mainly due to increased demand for fuel and increased production compared to 1990.

Agriculture contributes 13% of Sweden’s total CO2e emissions – in 2018 it caused 6.8 million tonnes of CO2e to be emitted into the atmosphere. However, the trend compared to 1990 is downward: it has managed to reduce emissions from agriculture by as much as 11%. This is mainly due to a move away from mineral fertilizers and a reduction in the number of livestock.

Electricity generation and district heating account for 9% of Sweden’s total emissions – in 2018 they contributed 4.9 tonnes of CO2e. Between 1990 and 2018, emissions from this sector fell by 24%, due primarily to the transition to biofuels and energy extraction from waste incineration. Previously, this sector of the economy relied primarily on the burning of fossil fuels.

What can be done to lower CO2 emissions in Sweden?

Average temperatures in Sweden are already reaching 2 degrees Celsius more compared to pre-industrial times. This increase is mainly attributed to increased temperatures in the Arctic region.

Of course all parts of the world are responsible for global warming – Sweden is not the only country that has increased its temperature. But if Sweden were responsible for its own climate, it would probably be able to live in a climate-neutral world within a few decades. This is because the country is developing in a way that is both dynamic and sustainable. Between 1970 and 2016, the Swedish economy expanded by 164%. At the same time, total energy consumption fell by half.

Sweden’s CO2 reduction strategy is primarily based on the Paris Agreement and all agreements within the UNFCCC. The main goal of these documents is to achieve climate neutrality by 2045 – after this date Sweden has assumed not only zero but even negative CO2 emissions. This goal can be achieved if CO2 emissions are reduced by 85% compared to 1990 emissions. The remaining 15% will be offset by investments in sequestering CO2 in other countries, in planting forests and cultivating green spaces in Sweden, and in investing in technologies to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.

Carbon tax

Sweden is pursuing climate neutrality through, among other things, a carbon tax. This has been in place for three decades. In 1991, when it was introduced, the tax was SEK 0.25 per kg of CO2. The tax has increased year by year and by 2020 the tax is SEK 1.20 per kg CO2.

The carbon tax in Sweden is structured in such a way that it not only motivates to reduce CO2 but also promotes pro-environmental behaviour. Therefore, the tax is not calculated, for example, on the use of biofuels in cases where they replace the burning of traditional fossil fuels to reduce emissions. In addition, some companies can benefit from allowances. These are granted especially when there is a risk of e.g. relocating operations outside Sweden and thus avoiding tax by hiding CO2 emissions.

Fossil Free Sweden and Klimatklivet are among the most important programs to reduce CO¬2 emissions in Sweden.

Sweden at the top of international rankings

In 2015, Sweden was ranked first in The Sustainable Competitiveness Index, which shows whether countries are developing sustainably . The index in this ranking is calculated solely on the basis of quantifiable, trustworthy data – it is not a plebiscite or competition, but a real indicator of progress and advancement in environmental issues. The Scandinavian countries have been in the lead for many years, with one small exception, Switzerland. For comparison: Poland ranks 35th in the same ranking.

Similarly, in the Sustainable Development Report Sweden is on the podium together with Finland and Denmark.

Grassroots climate initiatives in Sweden, or a school climate strike

Writing about Sweden, it is hard not to mention Greta Thunberg. The young activist, who recently came of age, has already been working on climate issues for many years. In 2018, at the age of 15, she launched a “school strike” outside the Swedish Parliament, quickly gaining worldwide media attention. By the end of the same year, 20,000 young activists from around the world had already joined her in protesting for the climate.

Greta Thunberg calls for more efforts and constantly criticizes governments of all countries for their sluggishness. In her view, we should be climate-neutral not in 2045, but today – and from tomorrow onwards be exclusively carbon-neutral.

Circular economy – the Swedish approach to waste

The garbage problem in Sweden is taken so seriously that it may soon cease to be a problem at all. According to 2019 data, Sweden has exceeded the recycling targets set by the government. 93% of glass waste (target: 70%), 49% of PET materials (target: 30%) and 75% of paper waste (target: 65%) were recycled.

In 2018, Sweden established a special advisory group for a closed-loop economy. The Swedes’ goal is to manage waste in such a way that it can be 100% recycled and turned into new items. The overriding assumption is such a design that allows people to do the right thing in an affordable way, that is, such a design of objects that promotes their reuse, repair, and after use: complete processing into new objects.

Sweden has long had a deposit system for aluminum cans (since 1984) and for plastic bottles (since 1994). As a result, nearly 2 million cans and bottles are recycled each year that would otherwise take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills.

Natural absorption of CO2 – forests in Sweden

Sweden is famous for its endless forests. How much CO2e do the forests in Sweden absorb? Whole tonnes, or more precisely: nearly 41 million tonnes of CO2 (2018 data). This figure is given as an estimate because every year the forests grow, increasing their sequestration capacity, and on the other hand there are fires or windstorms that destroy the trees. Nevertheless the forest area in Sweden is increasing year by year – the authorities take care that the amount of cuttings never exceeds the amount of new plantings.

In conclusion: it is worth reading the news from Sweden because it gives hope for a better future. In this unique country there is a term for the pride of riding the train (Tagskryt) and the shame of flying a plane (Flygskam) – this only further shows how ordinary people care about reducing their CO2 footprint. It’s not insignificant: our single, individual actions make a lot of sense because they create trends and, in combination with the actions of others, put positive pressure on businesses and government. The Swedes understand this very well, so climate action ranges from small actions (meticulous waste sorting, a deposit system for cans and bottles) to city-level actions (subsidizing bicycle infrastructure) to a nationwide drive to move away from fossil fuels, reduce deforestation, or invest in new technologies. In this way, acting on many levels, Sweden manages to develop its economy while reducing its CO2 footprint.