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Published: 15:14, October 18, 2021 | Updated: 15:37, October 18, 2021
How Sweden could end up exporting its carbon sins
By Reuters
Published:15:14, October 18, 2021 Updated:15:37, October 18, 2021 By Reuters

In this file photo taken on Sept 27, 2019, activists throw a Globe ball during a "Fridays for future" demonstration, a worldwide climate strike against governmental inaction towards climate breakdown and environmental pollution in Stockholmon, Sweden. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

STOCKHOLM - When a Swedish court ordered the country's biggest cement maker to stop mining limestone by its huge factory on the windswept island of Gotland to prevent pollution, ecologists cheered.

Besides protecting wildlife and water supplies, the ruling could force the plant that makes 75 percent of Sweden's cement and is the country's second biggest carbon emitter to slash output while it finds raw materials elsewhere, or even shut altogether.

That might be good for Sweden's emissions targets, but not such good news for the rest of the planet.

A government-commissioned report seen by Reuters said it could force Sweden to import cement from countries that pump out more emissions in the overall manufacturing process - or risk massive job losses in the construction industry at home.

"Imports from countries outside the EU would probably lead to larger environmental impacts as a result of lower standards related to CO2 emissions and lower standards in land use," the report, obtained via a freedom of information request, said.

Sweden's dilemma encapsulates one the challenges facing nations meeting in Glasgow for the UN COP26 climate talks: how to show they are not cutting emissions by simply exporting the problem elsewhere - a phenomenon known as "carbon leakage"

ALSO READ: Expert praises efforts to protect environment

Sweden's dilemma encapsulates one the challenges facing nations meeting in Glasgow for the UN COP26 climate talks: how to show they are not cutting emissions by simply exporting the problem elsewhere - a phenomenon known as "carbon leakage".

A rich, stable Nordic democracy, Sweden has long topped international environmental rankings and has managed to cut back on greenhouse gases for years while preserving economic growth on a path towards its target of net zero emissions by 2045.

It has the world's highest carbon tax at $137 per ton and is a leader in the use of renewable energy. In 2018, its carbon emissions per head stood at 3.5 tons, well below the European Union average of 6.4 ton, according to World Bank data.

But the stand-off over the Slite cement plant epitomizes the growing tension between local environment goals and the 2015 Paris Agreement signed by nearly 200 countries to try to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius.

"We have to weigh up the global focus - doing the most for the climate - but also maintain our high ambitions when it comes to our local environmental problems," Sweden's Minster for Environment and Climate Per Bolund told Reuters. "These two things can be balanced."

Alternative fuels

Much of Europe's imported cement comes from Turkey, Russia, Belarus and countries in North Africa.

They don't have anything like the EU's Emissions Trading System, the world's largest carbon market and one that sets the price of carbon permits for energy-intensive sectors, including cement, within the 27-nation bloc.

The World Bank says only 22 percent of global emissions were covered by pricing mechanisms last year and the International Monetary Fund put the average global price of carbon at $3 a ton - a tiny fraction of Sweden's carbon tax.

ALSO READ: Kunming to Glasgow, building a carbon-neutral world

While the Swedish court's decision was not linked to Slite's carbon footprint, but rather the risks its quarry poses to local groundwater, the impact from an emissions point of view depends on the efficiency and energy mix of the producers likely to supply Sweden with cement to plug any shortfalls.

Slite's owner, Germany's HeidelbergCement , also plans to make it the world's first carbon neutral cement factory by 2030, but the uncertainty over its future following the court ruling may delay or even scupper the project.

"We need a decision soon on the long-term basis for these operations if that is not to be delayed," Magnus Ohlsson, chief executive of HeidelbergCement's Swedish subsidiary Cementa, said last month.

Koen Coppenholle, head of European cement lobby group Cembureau, said he was confident European plants were "cleaner" overall because high EU carbon charges on producers had encouraged them to invest in reducing their emissions.

"In Europe, right now, we are replacing 50 percent of our primary fuel needs by alternative fuels," he said.

They say switching to so-called green hydrogen power would reduce Sweden's emissions by about 10 percent, a big step towards reaching the country's 2045 net zero emission goal.

But for researchers Magnus Henrekson at the Research Institute for Industrial Economics, Christian Sandstrom at Jonkoping International Business School and Carl Alm at the Ratio Institute, this is an example of the "environmental nationalism" that benefits one country, but not the world.

They estimate that if Sweden exported the renewable energy it would use to make hydrogen to Poland and Germany instead - so they could cut back on coal-fired power - overall CO2 emissions would fall by 10 to 12 times more than by making "green" steel.

READ MORE: Wild animals thrive as environment improves

The EU's carbon border levy, meanwhile, is only due to be phased in from 2026, potentially too late to have a bearing on the fate of Cementa's Slite limestone quarry.

Sweden's parliament has agreed to a government proposal to tweak the country's environmental laws to give Cementa a stay of execution, but no long-term solution is in sight.

Environmentalists such as David Kihlberg, climate head at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, say easing regulations gives industries an excuse to put off changes that need to happen now.

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