Nordic countries are frequently hailed as a model political system, their consistent domination of happiness tables is often cited as the reason for the North being the best of what Europe has to offer. 

However, this picture is different when you look at the relationship between the Nordic countries and the environment in comparison to the rest of the continent.

The region is one of environmental contradictions and a closer look at its policies offers the world insights into how it should handle the crisis we currently face. 

In the rankings carried out by the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre, which ranked countries based on their carbon emissions per capita, Norway and Finland were in the 24th and 26th position respectively, whilst the UK was 47th.

A different measure, the Sustainable Development Index (SDI), paints an even grimmer picture. The SDI divides the human development score, which takes factors like income and education into account, by how much a specific country exceeds the planetary boundaries through its CO2 emissions. 

Norway, Finland and Iceland are in the 157th, 155th and 154th spots whilst Sweden is 143th and Denmark 138th (these results are from the 2015 data). This averages out at 149.4, and the only EU states which are worse than this are Slovakia and Estonia. 

One of the main reasons behind this is an economy which relies on the extraction of natural resources. Norway is the worst offender with 26% of its exports being crude petroleum, and another 26% petroleum gas, 36% of Iceland’s exports are raw aluminium and whilst Sweden and Finland have more diversified exports, oil is still their second and first biggest export respectively. 

Denmark offers a more optimistic perspective. Since the 1990s Denmark’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by almost 80% whilst its greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage decreased. It managed this by separating economic growth from carbon emissions through renewable energy. 

Though Denmark’s exports are not dominated by natural resource extraction as much as the other Nordic countries, this offers hope, especially when we consider other Nordic efforts to challenge their unfavourable environmental position.

A 2011 report by the Nordic Council of Ministers, a regional organisation which facilitates cooperation amongst the Nordic countries, emphasised the importance of maintaining economic growth whilst ‘limiting climate change, protecting critical natural resources, and maintaining economic competitiveness’. 

A page on the Nordic Innovation website, an institution which works under the Council of Ministers, pledges further support for ‘Green Growth’ and outlines a range of projects it decided to fund as a part of it. 

The Nordic countries have been following Denmark’s example through a shift towards more eco-friendly energy sources. As of 2018, 44% of Norway’s energy came from hydropower, whilst in 2015 45% of Finland’s energy was renewable and 79% was free of carbon dioxide. 

In 2019, a left-wing coalition was elected in Finland and announced a programme which would increase public spending by €1.23bn a year and spend €3bn over the four-year government to help reach Finland’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2035. 

However, the ‘Green Growth’ approach has been questioned by scientists when applied on a global scale.

A 2019 paper by anthropologist Jason Hickel and economic and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis argues that there is no evidence it’s possible to separate resource use from economic growth entirely on a global scale and that such separation would not achieve the goal of preventing global warming from exceeding an increase of 1.5°C. 

A 2020 article from the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which was signed by 11,000 scientists worldwide, suggests that ‘our goals need to shift from GDP growth and pursuit of affluence towards sustaining ecosystems’. 

This brings the idea of ‘Green Growth’ into question and poses a bigger question of what is needed to solve the climate change crisis we are currently facing. One answer to this, as uncomfortable as it may be, is a complete restructuring of our economy, a complete paradigm shift which doesn’t use GDP growth as the primary measure of success. 

Though it would be helpful to let the Nordic region apply its ‘Green Growth’ plan and use it as a case study to determine whether GDP growth and carbon emissions can be detached from each other, we do not have this privilege. 

World leaders are faced with this decision now, not in 2035, and how far they take their policies is up to them.

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