Student Post:Whose climate? Whose justice? Swedish Climate Policies & (the lack of) Social Inclusion

Isabella Blomstrand & Martina Dahlby, BA students in Global Studies at Gothenburg University | 14 May 2021

The text was written as a part of our internship at the research project Intersectionality and Climate policy making: Ways forward to a socially inclusive and sustainable welfare state. It was written under the supervision of Benedict Singleton, lead author of the article described.

The Swedish government aims to make Sweden one of the first fossil fuel free countries by 2045 (2017: 36). Such an ambitious goal entails considerable action, with complex societal changes and effects. As such, there is a need to incorporate social dimensions into climate policy making. In Sweden, however, climate policies mainly focus on economic actors and technological solutions (Magnusdottir & Kronsell, 2015), neglecting social dimensions. As such, a recent research article seeks to highlight this issue through application of intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory originates in black feminist research traditions and, simply put, is a tool for analysing society’s complexity and problematizing the over simplistic framings of any given situation. The article Intersectionality and Climate Policy-making: the inclusion of social difference by three Swedish government agencies, recently published in Environment and Planning C, discusses the relationship between climate action and the consequences climate policies may have on different groups and individuals within society. It uses environmental justice as a conceptual tool to discuss how environmental impacts are distributed unequally throughout society. The concept derives from earlier research on environmental racism in the US, which showed how environmental pollution unequally affected communities of colour. As such, climate policies are seen to disproportionately affect some society members, while still others may contribute more to Sweden’s climate emissions. The article examines the work of Swedish agencies and analyses how they understand social differences in society, and how climate policy is framed according to this understanding.

The study’s basis is selected climate policy documents from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), the Swedish Energy Agency (SEA) and the Swedish Transport Administration (STA). The agencies’ work with social inequalities in policymaking processes is examined through discourse analysis. Moreover, the authors employ intersectionality theory to the sampled documents, alongside the concept of environmental justice. These theories allow a broader perception of the consequences and effects that climate policy may have for different individuals. Hence, the analysis goes beyond gender to incorporate economic status, geographical position, and age. The article contributes with knowledge about how the welfare state can work towards ecological sustainability, representative of all societal groups.

The three studied agencies work to ensure that Sweden’s climate policies are applied within their respective sectors, where they adapt to the Swedish government’s directives and agreed international sustainability goals. The agencies operate and focus upon different areas, but a relevant common denominator is that climate work is based on the IPCC’s guidelines and both Swedish and international climate goals. However, within the data, the agencies’ primary climate focus is reducing Sweden’s carbon dioxide emissions. Hence, they see their role as encouraging private individuals, companies or sectors to make climate-friendly decisions. There is thus a hope that people will act rationally to change their lifestyles in an ecologically sustainable way. These ideas concerning sustainable behaviour patterns are dominant within the Swedish climate discourse and are deployed to promote more sustainable lifestyles. The article identifies this strategy as problematic, since decision-making is strongly focused on individuals as independent agents, which tends to ignore the complex lives of human beings and the social differences in society.

To exemplify what is described above, SEA focuses on technological solutions and making it easier for individuals to reduce their energy use. Thus, the SEA sees individual responsibility and behaviour as relevant when discussing different possible climate scenarios. For example, companies and individuals in the energy sector are encouraged to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviour, while people in the transport sector are encouraging people to use public transport. At the same time, the agencies want to make knowledge and information accessible for all, so that the members of society can make rational environmental friendly choices. However, there is no further analysis of individuals’ different abilities to act according to sustainable behavioural maxims.

The material collected also shows that the studied agencies appear governed by different rules and norms that contribute to a stable foundation for the political climate agenda. Nonetheless, this may also limit agency work, restricting the inclusion of social justice considerations and change possibilities. However, a certain level of consciousness regarding social differences is distinguishable within the sampled data, and a largely simplistic equality mind-set appears within the agencies. Altogether, the sampled documents lack a discussion of how power relations affect social differences. There is little problematization concerning individuals’ different abilities to act, which relates to how different subject (identity) positions are intertwined, such as gender and ethnicity.

Furthermore, the governmental agencies struggle to go beyond gender when it comes to identifying social differences. For instance, the material depicts women homogeneously as benefiting from an improved public transport system. This understanding is problematic and tends to ignore the different situations that women find themselves in society, and presumes that all women differ from men. The documents also address a need to involve more women within sectors where they are marginalised as a way to support the climate agenda. Beyond this, there is no further discussion regarding agency and power within political representation and policy-making, presenting a simplistic picture of climate justice. In addition, there are few discussions concerning ethnicity, age or class included in the material.

In conclusion, the article has made clear how social differences are interpreted in a simplified way within the agencies. Just climate policy making requires consideration of the complexity of the world and the web of power relations affecting individuals. The understanding of how environmental problems and solutions affect individuals/groups differently needs to change. Thus, an awareness of the intersectionality of these power relations is necessary to just climate policy making, in line with the international development goals. Otherwise, the road towards a just and sustainable society will be long and hard.

Keywords: #ClimatePolicy #Intersectionality #SocialDifference #EnvironmentalJustice #Sweden

Isabella Blomstrand & Martina Dahlby are BA students in Global Studies at Gothenburg University. During our time as students at the institution of Global Studies our main focus has been international relations and gender studies.


Magnusdottir, GL & Kronsell, A. (2015). The (In)Visibility of Gender in Scandinavian Climate Policy Making. International Feminist Journal of Politics 17(2), 308-326.

Swedish Government. (2017). Ett klimatpolitiskt ramverk för Sverige (A Climate Policy Framework for Sweden). Bill 2016/17:146, approved by the Swedish Parliament, 15 June 2017 (Stockholm: Ministry of Environment and Energy, 14 March 2017).