Last week, I stepped onto Swedish soil for the first time. Associated with Björn Borg and Abba in my schooldays, Sweden is today the country of Greta Thunberg. The young activist has energised the environmental movement with a one-person climate strike that, in the space of a year, has developed into a global campaign.

I joined a climate protest in Gothenburg on September 27, the final day of the Global Week for Future (the purist in me wants to insert “the” before “future”). It was a miserable day, grey and damp, but undeterred marchers turned out in the thousands. What set the demonstration apart from dozens I have attended in the past was the prominence of minors in the crowd. Parents had brought along kids of all ages, and many bands of teenagers had come without accompanying adults. In cities across the world, teens were telling adults to stop messing with their future. The broad support for the protest within Gothenburg could be gauged from the patience with which commuters in trams and cars waited for the traffic to clear.

Sweden seems an odd place for the birth of an agitation claiming that politicians are doing nothing to avert a climate catastrophe. Gothenburg, which I visited at the invitation of Ord & Bild magazine, is the greenest city in the world according to the Global Destination Sustainability Index. The GDSI bases its rankings on 30 criteria, including a city’s recycling facilities, waste management, carbon emissions, and public transport options.

Sweden ranks first among all nations surveyed for the Global Green Economy Index. It met its European Union-mandated 2020 emissions target back in 2012. In 2017, it passed a Climate Act binding itself to achieve net zero emissions by 2045, five years earlier than previously planned, and a significant step up from its pledge under the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The Climate Act found support across party lines, and was passed with 254 votes in favour and just 41 against. It’s hard to imagine what more a nation of 9 million could do to help halt global warming before a theorised irreversible tipping point is reached.

A stolen future?

Sweden is also in a good place to ward off the worst effects of climate change. It will face higher water levels, more storms, and wetter winters, but has the resources to adapt, and will welcome some aspects of a warmer climate. When Greta Thunberg refers to her future being stolen, then, she is not speaking in narrowly selfish terms, but identifying her future with that of hundreds of millions of less-privileged children.

The protestors in Gothenburg sang, “What do we want? Climate Justice. When do we want it? Now.” The Climate Justice movement is based on the knowledge that those who will suffer the most from the effects of global warming are those who have done the least to cause it. It is a profoundly noble cause, in which youngsters who could lead perfectly comfortable lives are utilising their time and energy to secure a better life for children less fortunate than themselves.

While its altruism is impeccable, the theory behind climate justice is only half true. The true part is that affluent nations have historically been the highest carbon emitters and continue to produce more greenhouse gases per capita than the poorest nations. What is missed is the fact that nations that have caused little global warming in the past are going to emit a lot of greenhouse gases in the future, thanks to a massive population explosion.

The demonstration in Gothenburg on September 27. Credit: Girish Shahane

Virtually every affluent country in the world today has a birth rate lower than replacement level, which is around 2.1 children per woman in developed states. Not a single nation in the European Union has a fertility rate of over 2 children per woman. The biggest contribution wealthy people are making to the environment is having fewer kids.

On the other hand, Niger, which has very low per capita carbon emissions today, has a fertility rate of over 7. This indicates a population surge even factoring in a high replacement birth rate around 3.5 because of elevated child mortality. Nigeria has 190 million citizens already, and a birth rate of 5.4. This is barely lower than the 6.35 rate it had in 1960. In contrast, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) had a birth rate of 6.72 in 1960, higher than Nigeria’s. This has come down to 2.10 births per woman, which means that the country’s population is now stable, affected only by migration. India has not done as well as Bangladesh, but far better than Nigeria, bringing its birth rate down to 2.3 from 5.9 in 1960.

According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, having one less child is the most effective way to mitigate one’s carbon footprint. It saves 58.6 tonnes of carbon equivalent per year. Other important mitigators are giving up one’s car (2.4 tonnes saved), forgoing air travel (1.6 tonnes saved per transAtlantic flight), and adopting a plant-based diet (0.8 tonnes saved). The figures show how much more important having fewer children is than any lifestyle measures one might adopt.

The growth of prosperity

These are Canadian statistics, but apply with small modifications to affluent lifestyles everywhere. As Nigeria and Niger get more prosperous, their citizens will also live more carbon-intensive lives, and there will be many more of them to do so.

Greta Thunberg fails to recognise this. She has said, at the United Nations and elsewhere, that, “Our future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.” She makes greenhouse gas emissions into a conspiracy of rich capitalists. The uncomfortable truth is that everybody wants the comforts Swedish people enjoy, but few have the resources to pay what Swedes do to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Sweden has the highest carbon taxes in the world. There are energy taxes, sulphur taxes, and CO2 taxes. The oil shock of the 1970s drove the nation to introduce tariffs as policy instruments to induce a shift to renewable sources. Swedish citizens pay three times as much for their power, which comes largely from renewable sources, as Indians do for theirs, derived mostly from cheap and dirty coal.

The inconvenient paradox is that the poor who are the most vulnerable to climate change are also the greatest potential beneficiaries of polluting, greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels. Those emerging from poverty want tube lights and ceiling fans, the new middle classes want smartphones and air conditioners, but they could not afford these if they were to be powered by renewable sources. That is why, in his speeches about the environment, Narendra Modi never utters the word “coal”.

Blind spot

The only way to get nations like India to give up their addiction to coal is to make renewable energy far cheaper and more dependable. The only way for the planet to absorb the rapidly increasing populations of nations like Niger and Nigeria while also offering them a more comfortable lifestyle is to make renewable energy far cheaper and more dependable. Greta Thunberg’s zero-carbon journey across the Atlantic proved how difficult the task is. Her two weeks in a sailboat were the best argument I have come across for burning jet fuel.

The Climate Justice movement, whatever its blind spots, is vital because such agitations create pressure in favour of green energy, leading to progressive regulation, which fosters innovation within state-funded universities and privately owned firms. Our greenhouse gas emissions have created a vicious cycle of feedback loops reinforcing climate change. The only possible counter is a virtuous circle of progressive regulation and innovation.