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[Herald Interview] Swedish envoy touts first-mover advantage in green transition

‘Renewables deliver profits from more sustainable green growth’

Jakob Hallgren, Swedish ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his official residence in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Jakob Hallgren, Swedish ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his official residence in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is now a global initiative, and those realizing that ambition earlier than others will see more than clear air, clean water and nice nature, the Swedish ambassador to Korea says.

“It’s not only the government, civil society and individual consumers, but actually driven these days very much by enterprises by the private sector because they see that there is a gain in being a first mover,” Ambassador Jakob Hallgren said during an interview with The Korea Herald.

The Swedish envoy, whose government aims to make his country carbon neutral by 2045, said industries are scrambling to find ways to make their businesses run on renewable energy to “reap profits” from more sustainable green growth.

“That’s where the world is going and it’s better to be ahead of that curve,” Hallgren said, referring to the Sweden-Korea Green Transition Alliance announced in May. Thirteen Swedish companies based in Korea pledged to support Seoul’s initiative to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Hallgren described the latest partnership between the two countries on climate action as “the way forward” in bringing about the green transition. Seeking green growth is a winning strategy and future-proofing industries has simply become common sense, he said.

The Swedish envoy discussed how his government reconciled solidifying the carbon-cutting commitment with relying on nuclear energy, which many countries embrace as a stable energy supply whereas some shun it because of radiation worries as shown in the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters. 

President Moon Jae-in, who promised bigger emission cuts at the US climate summit in April than previously revealed, has been criticized for sticking to his decision to phase out nuclear power. Critics argue Seoul cannot go carbon-free without nuclear power, as renewables provide little input.

Hallgren, who said Sweden relies on nuclear energy for 35 percent of its entire energy while using renewables -- hydro, solar and wind -- for the rest, stressed that his country was keeping nuclear power while pursuing the carbon-cutting target, though he said there were conditions.

“Nuclear sectors will not receive government subsidies, they have to operate on their own commercial merit and we will invest heavily in renewable energy sources in the meantime,” he said. Sweden, which overturned its decision to phase out nuclear power by 2010, currently operates six reactors.

Sweden plans to phase nuclear energy by 2040, in line with its net-zero target, Hallgren said, noting his country will be able to come up with new technologies to replace it over the next 20 years. But for now, fossil-free nuclear power will do its part to help combat climate change he added.

Jakob Hallgren, Swedish ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his official residence in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Jakob Hallgren, Swedish ambassador to South Korea, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his official residence in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Meanwhile, the Swedish envoy addressed the contentious debate in Korea about subjecting both men and women to its mandatory military service. Younger Korean men have stepped up calls for conscription for women as a matter of gender equality. Sweden has conscripted women since 2018.

Hallgren said a similar debate about gender equality followed in Sweden and that the public swiftly reached consensus on the issue.

“There’s a lot of brains in the other half of the population as well and it’s not only muscle that is needed in all positions in any defense force,” he said, noting an expanded military saw more talents bolstering the armed forces.

There had been little resistance to that movement and a majority of Swedes would not have endorsed the opposition anyway, Hallgren said

The envoy discussed another major change the Swedish military underwent as it started conscripting women in 2018, when it went back to a conscription system from an all-volunteer military it introduced in 2010.

In 2014, Russia “illegally” annexed the Crimean Peninsula and that was the wake-up call that prompted Stockholm to return to conscription and beef up its military readiness, Hallgren said, adding the international agreement that set out borders after the Cold War seemed no longer “sacrosanct.”

Hallgren called Sweden a “neutral player” that could provide help to the longest running Cold War-era conflict in the Korean Peninsula, where South and North Korea have yet to exchange a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

Sweden, which maintains diplomatic relations with both Koreas, has a unique standing in inter-Korean relations in that it has engaged both Koreas deeply for a long time. 

Stockholm was the first Western country to open an embassy in Pyongyang; it is the only country along with Switzerland to field representatives to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. The NNSC oversees the Seoul-Pyongyang armistice agreement.

Stockholm was also a venue for the latest working-level nuclear talks between North Korea and the US in October 2019. 

“We are there if we are asked, and we will offer our help to see what can be done to facilitate trust building or dialogue or a process toward more peaceful outcomes, because we have that historical role,” Hallgren said.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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