Humans and the environment

Last updated: 30 9 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

The earth’s climate is affected by how we live our lives. The climate is affected by what we eat, for example, and how we travel, what our houses are like and what we buy. It is not only individual people who are responsible for keeping our planet healthy, of course. Politicians, businesses, organisations and many others also need to help.

This text is about the environment and the climate. It describes Sweden’s environmental objectives and what climate change is. It also describes how you can lead a more environmentally friendly everyday life, and what obligations and rights you have when you are out in nature.

  • Agenda 2030 and sustainable development

    The Swedish government is working to achieve the UN’s global sustainable development goals in Agenda 2030. Agenda 2030 is a blueprint for eradicating poverty, halting climate change and creating peaceful and safe societies.

    Sustainable development means that we have to live in a way today that will allow future generations to have the same opportunities that we do. There are three parts to sustainability: economic, social and ecological sustainability. All three are important. For example, clean water and air are important for our health as well as for the environment.

Sweden's environmental objectives and sustainable development

Swedish environmental policy has one overriding goal. This is that we solve the big environmental problems now, rather than leave them for future generations to deal with. Moreover, achieving the Swedish environmental objectives must not lead to increased environmental problems and health problems in other countries. This policy has been adopted by the Riksdag.

In order for Sweden's environmental objectives to be achieved, everyone in society must help: government agencies, businesses and interest groups, as well as all of us who live in Sweden. Some government agencies have a special responsibility for ensuring that the environmental objectives are achieved – including the Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), county administrative boards and the Swedish Transport Agency (Transportstyrelsen).

The environmental objectives cover many different areas. These include clean air, preserved biological diversity, clean water, the protection of forests and seas, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental objectives are important for efforts towards sustainable development in Sweden. Sustainable development means using our shared resources in a way that is economically as well as socially and ecologically sustainable.

  • Questions to think about

    What is meant by a good environment? What do you think?

    Whose responsibility is it that we get a good environment? What do you think?

Climate change

Weather and climate are different things. The weather can be different every day – sometimes it is sunny, and sometimes it is rainy. Some winters are colder than others. Climate is a description of how the weather has been in a certain place over several years or even centuries. In order to measure climate, researchers need to collect data over an extended period. Often they measure the climate in periods of 30 years or more in order to be able to understand and describe the climate.

The earth's climate has always varied. We have had periods when the earth has been both warmer and cooler. For example, there have been periods in which large parts of the earth were covered in ice. Earlier climate changes have taken several thousand years, but today the climate is changing very rapidly.

The earth's temperature is increasing, and the planet is getting warmer. This is due, among other things, to the fact that we are emitting more greenhouse gases, which makes the so-called greenhouse effect stronger.

The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon. Without the greenhouse effect, there would be no life on earth. The earth would be much colder than it is today. The earth is surrounded by its atmosphere, which is made up of several different gases, including water vapour, carbon dioxide, and methane. These gases are known as greenhouse gases. They envelop the earth and stop the sun's rays from being reflected back into space, and this warms the earth. A greenhouse uses the same principle.

When we humans emit more greenhouse gases, the greenhouse effect becomes stronger, and the planet becomes warmer. We emit greenhouse gases in transportation, from industries, and when we produce food, for example. The fact that the earth is getting warmer is usually called global warming.

Climate changes affect our societies in many ways. Extreme types of weather, such as severe droughts and heavy rains, become more common. Sea levels rise because the ice cap is melting. Land areas near coastlines risk becoming submerged, meaning that people will be forced to move. Climate changes are also happening much faster than before, which means that some animals and plants do not have time to adapt and instead become extinct.

  • Questions to think about

    Did you notice any environmental problems where you lived previously, and have you noticed any where you live now? If so, what problems?

An environmentally friendly and sustainable everyday life

We are all dependent on the planet and on nature for our survival. For that reason, we can all try to live in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way. This section describes different areas of your everyday life in which you can be more environmentally friendly.

Waste and recycling

Sweden produces a lot of waste every year. By law everyone who lives in Sweden has to separate their waste. It is also good for the environment if you separate your waste. Much of what we throw away can be used for something else – this is known as recycling waste. We preserve the planet's resources through waste separation and recycling.

There are stations or rubbish container rooms where you can separate your waste in most residential areas. This means that you throw away food scraps, metal, glass, plastic, and paper in different containers.

There are also other places where you can deposit waste:

Recycling stations
This is where you leave packaging, newspapers, and batteries.

Hazardous waste stations
Everyone has to collect their waste or rubbish that is hazardous to the environment. You can do this in different ways: you can leave your hazardous waste at a hazardous waste station, a recycling centre, or with Samlaren, which is available in shops for example. Sometimes there is also a special truck that travels around the municipality collecting hazardous waste.

Recycling centre
This is where you leave bulky waste and other large items, as well as hazardous waste, such as chemicals and electronic goods.

Water and sanitation

There is a lot of water in Sweden. The water that comes out of the taps is of high quality. The cold water is safe to drink and to cook with. Do not drink warm water from the tap, though, and do not use hot tap water to cook. There is a risk that you will be ingesting certain metals if you do. It is fine to wash your hands, clean the house, or shower using hot water from the tap.

Water in the drains is led to a wastewater treatment plant. The treatment plant filters the water and then releases it into lakes or the sea, for example. Filtration and treatment do not catch all contaminants, and some hazardous substances are difficult to remove from the water. That is the reason we are not allowed to pour paints or medications down the drain, for example.

Throw fats and cooking oils out with the rubbish. If fats and cooking oils are poured down the drain, they cause blockages.

Energy

All the energy and electricity we use affect the environment. Large quantities of energy are consumed in transportation, heating of homes and buildings, and in industry. Often the energy we use comes from burning oil, gas, and coal, which are not good for the environment. To reduce climate change, we need to use less energy and choose energy from water, wind, and sun, which are better for the environment.

One way to contribute to reduced emissions is to use public transport. This means taking the tram, metro, train, or bus instead of your car. You can also choose to travel longer distances by train instead of flying. Another good idea is to be conscious of what you are buying in the supermarket. Choose products which are made close to where you live. You can also choose to eat less meat, since meat production is very energy intensive. And you can save energy in your home by turning off lights you do not need and by lowering the temperature of your heaters.

Sustainable consumption

In Sweden, we consume a lot compared with many other countries in the world. When we buy and use products and services, this affects the environment and the climate. Clothes, shoes, furniture, food, and other things we consume require a lot of natural resources when they are produced. A lot of water is needed to grow cotton for clothes, for example. Manufacturing of products and provision of services also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn contribute to climate change.

We can make our consumption more sustainable by borrowing or renting things, or by buying and selling used things. And many things can be repaired when they break. Another thing you can do is buy eco-labelled products.

Organic food products

When you shop in your local supermarket, you can choose vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, and many other foods that are organic. This means that the farmer or other producer has grown the food according to special regulations in order to affect the environment as little as possible. These regulations include not using chemical fertiliser or chemicals that do not occur in nature. The regulations also specify strict rules for using drugs, such as antibiotics, in animal production.

Eco-labelling

There are many different eco-labelling systems. When a product is eco-labelled, it means that it meets certain environmental requirements. Examples of eco-labelling include Bra Miljöval, EU Ecolabel (the EU flower), the EU leaf label, KRAV, MSC, FSC, and GOTS.

Examples of eco-labelling of food products include KRAV and the EU leaf label.

Locally grown and produced foods

Foods which are grown or produced near where you buy them are known as locally grown or locally produced. The fact that a food is locally produced does not always mean that it is better for the environment. How a food is grown or produced often has a greater impact on the environment than how far it is transported to be sold. There are several other reasons why you might want to buy locally grown or produced foods – you might want to support producers and shops in your area, or you might want to buy produce that is as fresh as possible. Or you might want to avoid goods being transported over long distances.

Spending time in nature

The Right of Public Access

In Sweden, everyone has access to nature, regardless of who owns the land. This is known as the Right of Public Access (Allemansrätten).

The Right of Public Access gives you the right to walk on privately owned roads, for example, or to pitch your tent for a night or two in the woods or open country. But the right also comes with obligations – you have to be careful and show respect for nature. The Right of Public Access can be summarised with the words "don't disturb, don't destroy".

You are not allowed to light a fire if conditions are very dry or if there are strong winds, for example. And you must not light fires on or near rock faces or large boulders – the heat will crack the rock. Parks and nature reserves often have designated places for fires, where you can barbecue. If you are planning to light a campfire or barbecue, check on your municipality's or county administrative board's website to find out if there is a risk of fire or even a fire ban. You can also contact your local rescue services if you have questions about fire risks and lighting fires.

Do not leave rubbish in nature. In Sweden, it is illegal to litter – if you do, you run the risk of getting a fine or even a prison sentence. Take your rubbish with you and throw it away where you separate your household waste.

Yellow chanterelle mushrooms in a woven basket.

Photo: Pixabay

Nature reserves

A nature reserve is a large area of land that the authorities have decided to protect because the landscapes, plants, and animals in the area are particularly sensitive or rare. Nature reserves can also be created because areas are needed for outdoor recreation, where people can spend time in nature. There are several thousand nature reserves in Sweden – they might be ancient woods, tall mountains, or islands in an archipelago. There are always signposts in nature reserves that explain what you can and cannot do in the area. Rules may vary between different nature reserves – in some of them, you are not allowed to pick flowers, for example.

  • Questions to think about

    Why is it important to preserve the nature reserves?

    Which is the nature reserve closest to where you live?

Protected plants and animals

Plants and animals threatened with extinction can receive official protection. The government decides which plants and animals should be protected. You are not allowed to pick, dig up, remove, or damage protected plants. You are not allowed to kill, injure, or capture protected animals. Protection of birds also applies to their eggs and nests.