The Nordic Countries are often portrayed as global icons in their approach to environmental and sustainability issues. This episode takes a closer look into the rankings of these countries in the UN Sustainable Development Report, and compares them to their overshoot dates. How is it that the Nordic countries rank so highly in SDG reports yet have some of the earliest overshoot dates in the world?
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- Earth’s overshoot day was the 29th of July 2021. Denmark’s overshoot day was on the 23rd of March; Sweden’s was on the 6th of April; Finland’s was on the 10th of April; and Norway’s was on the 12th of April.
- The Nordic Countries were ranked in the first top stops in the UN Sustainable Development Report. However, these reports not only measure factors affecting climate change but encompass goals related to a wide range of issues, including education, gender equality, etc.
- A large part of the economy in the Nordic countries is based on fossil fuel industries.
- According to the Global Footprint Network’s calculator, if we lived like the Danes, we would need 4.2 earths to sustain our planet. We would need 3.7 earths if everyone lived like the Finns; 3.6 earths if we all lived like the Norwegians and 3.8 earths if we lived like the Swedes.
- On a more optimistic note, the Nordic countries are definitely trying to combat climate change with Denmark being a world leader in wind energy; the Swedish government has more than tripled their climate aid to developing countries and Finland is focusing on two interlinked strategic efforts – cutting greenhouse gasses and building a bioeconomy.
Among wealthy nations, Nordic countries are leading the pack on sustainable development – An article by CRAIG JAMES WILLY
“Sweden […] managed to cut its already outstandingly low levels of greenhouse gas emissions relative to GDP by more than another third (35 percent) since 2006. Such enormous progress at an already high level puts other countries to shame and is worthy of emulation. [. . .] Concrete policy instruments which have fostered this success in Sweden include the carbon tax on the use of coal, oil, natural gas, petrol, and aviation fuel. It set the right financial incentives for the use of biomass, such as waste from forests and forest industries, in heating systems instead of using carbon.”
The Nordic model then continues to be the best one for broadly shared prosperity and Sweden shows an assertive national policy can improve upon already existing high performance on the environment, one of the most critical issues facing us this century. Foreign models cannot in most cases be uncritically imported into a given nation but the Nordic countries provide us with a powerful example of how we can achieve sustainable development this century.”
Jaya: Stop, stop, Stooooop! The 29th of July was World Overshoot day. That day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.
However, in the Nordic Countries we have already used up all resources and services far earlier:
26.03. – Denmark
06.04. – Sweden
10.04. – Finland
12.04. – Norway
So, today, we wanted to talk about the contradiction of the Nordic Countries being perceived as the global role models for sustainable development yet being one of the first nations to use up their share of resources in March and April of this year.
Jaya: This idea of the Nordic countries as role models for sustainability is not coming from nowhere, nowadays there are so many sustainability reports that it is hard to keep track of them. Just recently, the Sustainable Development Report ranked all Nordic Countries in the first top spots. Finland climbed two spots from 2019 to first, just ahead of Sweden and Denmark. 
Roosa: I feel like it is so hard to keep track of all these reports, with some stating that the countries are doing well and others stating that they are some of the first countries that have reached the overshoot day early these past years.
Gesa: I think we have to always look carefully at what these reports actually measure and what indicators they use. Each of them has different once and it is hard to keep track what they actually mean.
Jaya: So if we look at the Earth Overshoot firstly, which indicators are used to determine a country’s ranking?
Roosa: It measures the current use of resources and services of countries and compares that use to the amount we are allowed to use up without damaging our planet.
Gesa: The concept of Earth Overshoot Day was first conceived by Andrew Simms who partnered with Global Footprint Network in 2006 to launch the first global Earth Overshoot Day campaign. WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, has participated in Earth Overshoot Day since 2007. So the initiative has been independent of big industries.
Roosa: What the Global Footprint Network does, is that it calculates the number of days that Earth’s biocapacity can provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. Or in other words, this much we can consume and use without putting pressure on our biodiversity and raising the global temperature. 
Jaya: So, simply put, once we reach the Earth Overshoot day, we are living on the costs of future generations because we have used up all available resources for that year?
Roosa: Basically, yes. And not only future generations but also our biodiversity and many species which are threatened to be extinct are reaching a point of degradation from which they are not able to recover anymore.
What is rather unique about this calculation is that it does not only measure the Carbon Footprint of a state or the globe but goes beyond that and measures the Ecological Footprint.
Gesa: The ecological footprint measures the demand on and supply of nature. Normally you would find those terms in a business context. Supply is basically what is there, and demand how much people want.
The supply here is our biocapacity. In this case that means, how much is available of nature. This supply of nature is measured by Built-Up Land, Forest, Cropland and Pasture and Fishery.
Roosa. This supply of nature is then compared to the demand on nature humankind has currently. This is calculated by our use of Energy, Timber, Food, Fiber & Seafood.
This can get a little confusing, so I will give an example: For the traditional use of these terms, we can look at the Covid-Vaccines. At the beginning, we had a big demand which was exceeding the supply we had. So not everyone could get a vaccine immediately. What Europe did then was to level up the production to meet the demand.
With the Earth we can not just do that: We can of course extract more oil to fuel more cars but we will certainly reach the point where we have no oil left, because it is a finite resource. So what we would have to do instead is use oil at a rate in which it can regenerate itself without being used up.
Gesa: This is currently not happening and this is visible through the earth overshoot day. 
Jaya: If the consequences of the Earth Overshoot Day is that we are living on a credit we are taking from Earth but we will never be able to pay it back, why are we so often talking about the Nordic Countries doing so well in transitioning towards a sustainable future?
Gesa: That is a good question considering for instance that if everyone would be living like Denmark, we would need 4.2 Earths in order to sustain our planet.
Jaya: That is a lot! So that basically means that if every person on this planet, from Australia to Africa and Canada would live like Danes do, we would need 4.2 times the resources this planet provides us with!
This really does not add up to the image we heard in the beginning. When doing your research for this episode, what did you find out? What were the reasons?
Roosa: A rather mean article of The Guardian titled “Why Scandinavia is not the model for global prosperity we should all pursue” said:
“Part of the problem is that the Scandinavian nations (with the possible exception of Denmark) have based their economic success on extractive industries – whether it’s Norway’s oil, Sweden’s iron ore or Finland’s forests, creating huge carbon footprints. Being geographically remote and subject to extreme cold for parts of the year also means that their food production capacities are small, with the consequence that a high proportion of food and other goods have to be imported, creating road, air and shipping miles.” 
Roosa: So, they are saying that the high usage of resources comes from:
- the Scandinavian success through extractive industries
- their geographically remote and extreme cold parts of the country, and
- their import of food as potential drivers of intensive resource use.
Gesa, do you have something to add to these claims?
Gesa: That the Nordic Countries have built their early industrialization success on some key natural resources is certainly true. The countries have diversified their economies until today, the extraction sectors are still an important backbone of their economies. 
That’s one of the reasons why the ecological footprint of all countries is quite high. But we also have to keep in mind that with a strong and flourishing economy also come higher living standards and in turn higher consumption levels.
Jaya: Thank you for your input. I guess we will hear more about it when looking at the countries in a bit more detail to find out how exactly it all relates. So let’s have a quick introduction to where each country stands with its ecological footprint. Gesa, do you want to start with Denmark?
Gesa: Let’s have a look at Denmark, shall we. We all know Denmark as a rather tiny country in the north of Europe and South of the Nordic Countries. 
Denmark was the first of the Nordic countries to have its earth overshoot day this year: 26th March. As already mentioned, if everyone on this planet lived like the Danes, we would need 4.2 Earths to not exceed capacity. Usually Denmark is in the top 10 countries reaching their overshoot day first worldwide. 
Denmark’s economy is focused on the meat industry. The meat industry is a sector that has a big impact on the ecological footprint in two ways: On the one hand, the “production” of meat results in high CO2, greenhouse, and methane emissions. That is visible in Denmark’s Greenhouse emissions where agriculture amounts to the third highest amount of emissions.  On the other hand the meat industry requires a high amount of other resources as well, for instance water, as well as grain for the animals themselves, and then water throughout the production cycle of the meat as well. That means that Denmark could be using a lot of its biocapacity already for the production of meat.
Jaya: So the industry that the country is focusing on plays a role in the earth overshoot day, correct?
Gesa: Yes, But also there is something else that can be said for all Nordic Countries and their earth overshoot days: their prosperity which in turn results in higher consumption. Simply put the Nordic countries are rich countries with high living standards. With prosperity and higher living standards comes higher consumption. And higher consumption always means more use of resources. In Denmark this is most visible in the carbon footprints in relation to single households. With the rise of living standards more people are living in single or two people households. Over 50% of households in Denmark are single or two person households and are responsible for over 70% of the country’s carbon footprint, as they require more resources than they would sharing a household with more people. 
This is something we can see in other Nordic Countries as well, right?
Roosa: Oh wow! I am also living alone but luckily my girlfriend will be moving in soon! Maybe that will help Finland to get better with its Earth Overshoot day? Because Finland’s overshoot day places usually between late march and mid april. If every person lived like in Finland, 3.8 globes would be needed to cover resource consumption sustainably. 
Jaya: That is quite similar to Denmark. So what are the drivers in Finland for such a big ecological footprint?
Roosa: As mentioned earlier, Finland’s main industries are a combination of the primary sector, such as forestry and mining, but also includes fastly growing electronic industries. Most of Finland’s emissions come from agriculture, mining and forestry industries, but high emissions also come from basic metal and chemical industries. 
Let’s focus a bit on the forest industry in Finland. As forests are an important carbon sink, hacking up forests causes high greenhouse emissions and can risk the future for long term carbon storage.
Jaya: For those of us who aren’t super clued up on this terminology, what is a carbon sink and why do we need them?
Roosa: A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases – for example, plants, the ocean and soil. These sinks are very important in keeping the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at manageable levels
Gesa: That makes a lot of sense, forests are essential for our ecosystems and should be taken care of! Is Finland doing that?
Roosa: Well, yes and no. During the last decade, forests in Finland corresponded from 30 up to 50% of Finland’s total greenhouse gas emissions per year. Therefore it is essential that forestry is done in a sustainable way, so that the forests won’t lose their ability to act as carbon sinks. Sustainable forest management, well-time management and regeneration of forests is essential for the industry to remain sustainable.  So in a way the forest industry is kind of a two way sword: at the same time hacking up forests reduces the amount of forests acting as carbon sinks, but sustainable forest managment can also increases forests ablilty to act as carbon sinks for a longer time.
And interestingly though, Finland is still one of the few countries that has larger biocapacity than its ecological footprint.
Gesa: Well that sounds at least like a good start, but nothing changes about the fact that Finland is still using up way too many resources… How about Sweden?
Jaya: As we know, Sweden has large iron reserves and forest resources. Sweden has a history of being financially dependent on the timber industry and is the world’s third-largest exporter of pulp, paper and sawn wood products although its forest land only makes up just under 1% of all the forest land on the planet. Globally, the “Swedish forestry model” is being promoted as a ‘sustainable’ model within the industry, however, their model is destructive to the biodiversity of forests and causes massive losses to natural habitat.
The FAO’s definition of a forest does not differentiate between natural forest ecosystems and industrial tree plantations, the latter of which causes losses of natural habitat and biodiversity. In Sweden, much of the natural forest has been replaced by these tree plantations that normally contain even-aged trees of a single species, mostly spruce, pine or non-native species.
Roosa: Sounds quite similar to Finland. But why is this so bad?
Jaya: Well, deliberately replacing forests with tree plantations not only destroys natural habitats but reduces soil fertility, undermining long-term land productivity. The process leads to increasing soil acidity and erosion. The plantations also change the micro-climate, weakening ecological resistance to extreme climatic and environmental changes. Naturally regenerated or restored forests with a mix of local native plants are more resilient to diseases, insect attacks, wind, drought and fire.
Although claiming their model to be ‘sustainable’, the objective of tree plantations is to increase timber production. Even though Sweden has increased its total number of trees, Sweden has lost around 17% in natural forest coverage since 2000 (Global Forest Watch).
Gesa: Wow, that is a huge amount. How is Sweden’s Earth Overshoot day looking?
Jaya: Sweden’s Overshoot day this year was on the 6th of April. Accordingly, If we all lived like those in Sweden we would need 3.8 earths to live sustainably and not use up the natural resources needed for future generations.
Sustainable Development Report
Theresa: Wow, that really doesn’t sound better than the other Nordic Countries. Thank you all for this overview and explaining the reasons behind the Nordic Countries using up their resources so quickly. After hearing those presentations, it seems like the Nordic countries are really not the overarching role models because they use way more resources than they should.
Gesa: Yes agreed, that surprises me a little bit. because usually when you hear about the Nordic Countries they are presented as examples of Sustainability, as Green Countries etc.
Roosa: Yes they are indeed. In the sustainable development report ranking, Finland is placed first, Sweden second, and Denmark 3rd. 
So this brings us back to what we mentioned in the beginning of the episode. There is a strong contradiction between how the countries are viewed, and also portrayed when it comes to sustainability and sustainable development and their ecological footprint.
Jaya: Shall we move on and discuss why they are then ranked so well in the Sustainable Development Report of 2021? Maybe that sheds some light on the contradiction?
Gesa: Yes, of course! The Sustainable Development Report 2021 (SDR2021) presents data on countries’ performance against the SDGs. This Index is an assessment of each country’s overall performance on the 17 SDGs, giving equal weight to each Goal. It is very important to keep in mind that the SDGs are 17 goals which cover all kinds of development issues like gender equality, economic growth, ending hunger and improving education.
Roosa: So their focus is not on combating climate change, right?
Gesa: Exactly, Combating climate change is only one goal out of the 17. You can already see that these goals are mainly targeting countries from the Global South as the goals focus to a large extent on ending extreme poverty and providing access for all to basic services and infrastructure. If we look at the Nordic Countries it is obvious that ending poverty or basic infrastructure are goals which have been met ages ago and therefore, they automatically score well in these.
Jaya: Oh wow! I did not expect that. When I hear “sustainable development report”, I automatically think about sustainability in regards to climate change, biodiversity, carbon emission etc. and did not even think about issues like gender equality. Of course, it makes a lot of sense to include these issues as well when we talk about global development, just never thought about it, and it is good that you mentioned it.
But what does the report say in regards to climate action in the Nordic Countries are then?
Roosa: Before diving into the Nordic Countries issue, I think it is important to say that the report concludes that all countries face significant challenges in achieving several SDGs.
Almost all countries of the Global North score “red”, meaning that major challenges remain on at least one SDG. High-income countries have been insufficient in the areas of sustainable consumption and production, climate action, and biodiversity protection.
Gesa: Yes, it is good to mention that it is not only an issue of the Nordic Countries but of basically all wealthy countries. But the Nordic Countries are also no exception: Finland and Denmark score red in Climate Action and Responsible Consumption and are stagnating at the point of improvement. And Sweden has a red dot in these two plus “Life on Land” and “Life below water”.
Jaya: I hoped for a more optimistic answer actually! But with this explanation it also makes much more sense that the Nordic Countries can score so high in the SDG report and so low with the Earth Overshoot day. The Earth Overshoot Day basically measures all the goals that the Nordic Countries also struggle with.
Before ending this episode, maybe we can end on a more optimistic note. Do you guys have any examples of what the Nordic Countries actually do to combat the climate crisis? And what explains the image many people have of the Nordic Countries being sustainable role models?
Theresa: Yes, I have one! Denmark is the world leader in wind energy: So we can look at Denmark for a great local example. The island of Samsø, with its farming community of about 4,000 inhabitants has become a showcase for Danish efforts to switch to green energy using local resources.
The island has community-owned wind turbines that today produce more than enough electricity to meet the islanders’ annual needs. About 70% of the island’s heating needs are met by renewable sources, since most homes are connected to district heating systems fuelled by surplus straw, while other households are increasingly using solar panels, heat pumps and wood pellet boilers. 
Gesa: This island sounds very interesting! I would love to visit it! This time i have an example from Sweden. Sweden has a lot of ambitious plans, for example to become one of the first fossil-free welfare nations in the world. 
Since 2014, the Government has more than tripled its climate aid to developing countries. Climate financing in 2019 was 20 per cent higher than in 2018.  By 2045, Sweden is to have zero net emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 
So Sweden has a robust and good environmental governance structure: The basis is there and puts climate change into focus in legislation. The conflict remains how Sweden will transform its extractive industries and which factors it will give priority, the industry or the climate?
Roosa: Yes, that is similar to Finland’s efforts. The country has been praised internationally for its two interlinked strategic efforts: cutting greenhouse gases and building a bioeconomy. This year, in the spring 2021 Finland also adopted a new policy programme which aims Finland to be carbon neutral by the year 2035. The aim of the programme is to transform the economy into one that is based on the principles of circular economy by 2035. The goal is that the total consumption of domestic primary raw materials in 2035 will not exceed the 2015 level.  This is an ambitious programme, and it is yet unclear what are the concrete actions in order to reach this goal.
Jaya: Hearing this makes me a little bit more optimistic for the future! Thank you for giving these interesting examples. I think we can conclude our first episode by saying that the Nordic Countries are by far not an overarching sustainability role model and the countries have a lot of work ahead of them.
Gesa: Yes! I would say that the Nordic Countries have, due to its industries and high-living standard, one of the biggest carbon footprints in the world and therefore they have to reduce their consumption significantly. The Earth Overshoot Day made this very clear and that they are far from having found the perfect way to transit to a sustainable economy.
Roosa: However, the example we gave also shows that new ideas and thinking is coming from the countries which may explain why they are seen as role models. I feel like we are at a crossroad at the moment and the Nordic Countries have to show now that they actually mean what they say and put their goals into action!
Jaya: Well that was a lot of input! But I think I am starting to understand more the contradiction of the Nordic countries and where it is coming from.
Roosa: So we could say this was a first step in demystifying the Nordic Utopia?
Gesa: Yes, I couldn’t put it into better words! And I am looking forward to find out more about the Nordic Countries in the next episode
Theresa: Thank you for listening, we hope you were able to learn something new about the Nordic Countries today!
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