The Nordics’ Embrace of the Sustainability Agenda

by Sophia Kownatzki

On Tuesday, February 12, Ove Ullerup, the Danish Ambassador to Sweden, came to IES to deliver a talk entitled “Sustainability: Why and How? The Nordic Way.” Ullerup first traced the historical development of the sustainability agenda in Denmark, highlighting the widely accepted need for energy alternatives and policy changes. This need is reflected in policy aspirations such as the country’s goal to become a fossil-free country by 2050. Ullerup then launched into a broader discussion on both the public and private sectors’ embraces of sustainable practices in Nordic countries, focusing particularly on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While critics may prioritize economic growth over decreasing emissions, Ullerup pointed to the Danish model, in which gross domestic product (GDP) has nearly doubled alongside sustainability initiatives. According to Ullerup, the Nordic justification for sustainable development is not simply altruistic or ethically driven, but beneficial for governments and the private sector – he commended the SDGs as “a business plan for the world.”

To be both sustainable and competitive, he argued, requires good governance and an embrace of corporate social responsibility; intellectual, social, and natural capital; and resource efficiency. Ullerup ended his talk noting that, while the Nordic countries have embraced the sustainability agenda, there is always room for improvement. He emphasized the importance of cities in the future development of the sustainability practices when governments fail to follow through on their agendas.

During the engaging Q&A with an audience of over 40 people, Ullerup shied away from claiming the Nordic countries as the leaders of the sustainability movement. Instead, he emphasized the need to share ideas, present alternatives, and innovate in conjunction with other countries and cities. He also discussed the specific characteristics of Nordic countries that may have helped stimulate a quicker embrace of sustainable practices, such as population size, relatively homogeneous demographics, community efforts, and a transparent, conscientious business culture.