Country profile - Societal developments (Sweden)

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Past developments in society. Links to more national information.
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Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
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Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
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Last updated
23 Sep 2011
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Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
Published: 23 Oct 2010 Modified: 28 Jun 2016 Feed synced: 23 Sep 2011 original
Key message

Traditional basic industries (paper, paper pulp, wood products, iron ore, steel and chemical products) continue to account for significant export volumes.

b) What have been the major societal developments since 1980 compared with the period 1950–1980?


War and international dependence

Sweden has not been at war since 1814. Blockades during the two world wars forced the country to temporarily rely on domestic and, to a large extent, renewable fuels, but when the borders were reopened in 1945, Sweden soon became the most oil-dependent country in Europe. After the oil crises in the 1970s, interest in domestic biofuels quickly revived, which contributed to expansion of the renewable share of energy consumption to 40 % in 2005, significantly more than in any other EU country.  


In the transportation sector trends towards deregulation have been manifest ever since the beginning of the 1960s. The government's support of the railways then came to an end, which brought about the shutting down of more than 20 % of the railway network and contributed to the expansion of road traffic that still continues today.

On the other hand, the environment benefited from the fact that the government provided only limited support for industries subjected to increased foreign competition. In the 1970s the metal industry, for one, was thereby forced to undergo a comprehensive structural rationalisation, which meant that many older facilities with large emissions were replaced with fewer, but larger facilities with effective emission controls. The shipbuilding and textile industries, which were unable to carry out such a rationalisation, were almost entirely wiped out during these years.


Swedish industry has long supported itself largely through exports. Traditional basic industries (paper, paper pulp, wood products, iron ore, steel and chemical products) continue to account for significant export volumes.

During the 1980s, Sweden was a leading investor in enterprises abroad, a position that deteriorated, however, during the early 1990s.


As far back as 1950, urbanisation was well advanced in Sweden. 65 % of the country's population then lived in built-up areas. The rural population continued to decline up until the 1970s, but has since remained constant to a large extent. The population in built-up areas is constantly increasing – in 2008 it accounted for almost 85 % of the country's 9.2 million inhabitants – and growth is greatest in the metropolitan regions.

The fact that cities have become ever larger and more populous has contributed to increases in travel in Sweden , from 8 to 40 km per person and day between 1950 and 2008. Public transport is relatively well developed in metropolitan regions, but the recent establishment of superstores and similar enterprises on the outskirts of cities has contributed to continued growth in car traffic, which now accounts for three-fourths of all passenger traffic.


The oil crises and the structural crisis in the 1970s stand out as crucial dividing factors in recent Swedish economic history. During the 1945–1975 period, Sweden experienced a growth rate of about 3.5 % per year; during the 1975–2000 period it averaged 1.5 % per year. In 1970, Sweden still ranked fourth in prosperity (GNP/capita), but it subsequently began to go down in the ranking. In recent years, however, Sweden has had a higher rate of growth than the average for EU and OECD.

Until about 1970, emissions of pollutants approximately kept step with economic development, but since then emissions have generally declined, despite continued increases in production. In relation to GNP, carbon dioxide emissions also have markedly abated since 1980. One of several reasons is the balancing of one tax against another that has been implemented since 1990. Taxes that previously were levied on wage earnings have been transferred to energy consumption through special taxes imposed on emissions of sulphur and carbon dioxide and by other means.

Generation of household waste, on the other hand, retains a strong linkage with economic growth. 

European Union 

In 1995 Sweden became a member of the EU, whose environmental policies have since governed Swedish environmental legislation and protection to a large degree. In several respects, Sweden was previously a forerunner in environmental matters, but adapting to the EU meant that aspirations had to be lowered to some extent, especially with respect to chemical policies. At the same time, membership has provided opportunities for Sweden to spur the entire Union's environmental efforts, particularly in the areas of acidification and climate.


The tourism industry now contributes almost 3 % of Sweden's GNP and employs more people than agriculture, forestry and fishing combined. The right of public access and the vast countryside provide excellent opportunities for both traditional recreation and modern adventure tourism.

The number of leisure trips abroad by Swedes has multiplied since the 1950s. Holiday travel by air now accounts for a large share of the average Swede's contribution to the greenhouse effect.


C. Bernes and L.J. Lundgren (2009): Use and misuse of nature's resources. An environmental history of Sweden. Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Monitor 21, 


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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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Phone: +45 3336 7100