Facts & Figures
AC member since 1996Latitude
62°0’0” NArctic Population
264,000Arctic Land Area
~61,550 sq km
Stockholm, Sweden’s largest city and the capital, has a population of 1.486 million. Most big cities, including Stockholm, Gothenburg (504,084), Malmo (261,548) and Uppsala (127,734) are situated in the south of the country. Although it is sparsely populated, approximately 15% of the total land area is situated north of the Arctic Circle. Kiruna, the northernmost and most populated town in Sweden’s Arctic, was home to 18,148 inhabitants in 2010. Kiruna, built on top of an iron ore mine, is in the process of moving three kilometers east by 2033 to avoid collapsing into the mine pit. While general weather conditions in northern Sweden are harsh, with average winter temperatures hovering around -10 C°, its 17 C° summer average and long hours of sunlight allow for the industrial cultivation of grains, potatoes, and grass for hay.
Sweden has positioned itself to be one of the more progressive countries on environmental issues in the world. With 99% of its solid waste recycled or used to produce biogas, Sweden was the first country to establish an environmental protection agency in 1967. Despite its reputation as one of the world’s most environmentally progressive nations, Sweden has surprisingly light forestry laws, and often leaves decisions about logging to timber companies. The result of such lax regulation is the loss of large swaths of biologically-rich boreal forests in the North to clear cuts that remove up to 95%of the trees, leave deep tire tracks, and often replant with lodgepole pine, a species imported from North America,. The Word Wildlife Fund has reported that two thousand forest-dwelling species are threatened in Sweden. Polar mining, in particular iron ore, in Sweden’s northern county of Lapland has also led to environmental concerns over waste materials, heavy metal leaching, water contamination, and habitat destruction. One town, Kiruna, is in the process of relocating as the Kiruavaara mine undermines the structural integrity of the current town center.
Sweden accounts for less than 0.2% of total global emissions, and has committed to building a society with no net greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. Northern Sweden is home to several climate research stations monitored by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, including an atmosphere radar facility and field stations capable of glacier monitoring and permafrost studies. Like the rest of the Circumpolar North, Sweden’s Arctic territory is facing some of the world’s most intense temperature increases and increased precipitation. Such changes may lead to greater water flows, changes in soil conditions, and more extreme weather patterns. Sweden has made climate change research, mitigation, and adaptation top priorities in its national Arctic policy. Climate change leaves Sami culture and industries particularly vulnerable, as they traditionally have strong links to the surrounding natural environment and weather conditions. Sweden’s plan calls for specific data and action to strengthen the long-term capacity of these communities and surrounding environment to help them adapt to a changed climate.
Of Sweden’s total population, only 5.4 % live in the Arctic. The population of northern Sweden mirrors the Arctic region at large in its ethnic complexity, comprised of various groups whose ancestors have resided in the region for millennia and those who have migrated there since then. In 2010, there was an estimated 264,000 people living in northern Sweden. With an average age of 41 in the north, Sweden is the second oldest Arctic nation and has seen a moderate decline of population since 2000 that is projected to continue. A testament to the internationalization of place and population in the 21st Century Arctic, each year just over 50,000 seasonal migrant workers from Southeast Asia, Asia, and Eastern Europe are provided temporary work permits for berry picking.
Of the 254,000 residents, an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 are Sami, an indigenous Finno-Ugric group that speaks the official minority language of Sami. Sami country, known as Sápmi, stretches across the northern parts of Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The Sami were originally nomads, living in tents during the summer and more sturdy peat huts during the colder seasons. Nowadays Sami live in modern housing and only use tents as temporary accommodations during reindeer migrations if they do not already own cottages. Oral storytelling and Sami music have a central role in traditional culture. Yoiking, a distinctive form of singing to recall events, people, and nature, is a core part of this tradition. Today Sami are able to choose between attending government Sami schools or regular municipal nine year compulsory schools, where they can also receive instruction in Sami. The aim of Sami education in Sweden is to give the children the same instruction that Swedish children receive in the compulsory school while providing them with schooling that takes into account their own linguistic and cultural background.
Traditionally, their best known means of livelihood is reindeer herding to provide meat, fur, and transportation. About 10% of Sami today are connected to reindeer herding. For centuries the Sami faced discrimination throughout the Nordic countries, often resulting in disputes over grazing rights and logging territories. Since the 1970s and 1980s, however, the Sami in Sweden have steadily gained special protection and rights. In 2011 the Supreme Court in Sweden ruled in favor of the Sami, giving them common law rights to specific area of land.
Sweden’s Arctic economy is an export-oriented mixed economy, where timber, hydropower, and iron constitute the resource base. In 2010, Sweden’s Arctic regional GRP was 20,345 million USD (PPP), comprising 4.6% of the Arctic’s GRP and 5.5% of national GDP. Across the region, Sweden’s northern economy is seen as a “more mature north,” with less than 20% of their output in natural resource production and more than 40 % of their economy outside of resources and public sector. About 3% of the total GDP and 10% of Sweden’s export value is from forestry – mainly from the boreal forests in the North. Such economic activity is often in contention with Sami reindeer herding, as both forest owners and herders hold parallel ownership rights. Due to globalization and advances in technology reducing labor costs and increasing efficiency, there has been a sharp decline in demand for forestry employment in the Arctic and Subarctic, a trend that is projected to continue. While the forestry sector is facing challenges in an age of international markets, mining and tourism in Sweden’s north present opportunities for economic growth.
Sweden is the European Union’s (EU) strongest mining nation, producing over 90% of the EU’s iron ore and almost 20% of its base and precious metals. Mining and petroleum account for 7.5% of Sweden’s northern economy, with another 7.2% made up of resource processing. Much of this mining in the high north is for iron ore, as seen in the aforementioned Kiruavaara mine. While much of these minerals and metals are mined by LKAB, the state-owned Swedish mining company, other international firms from the UK also operate in the region. To support further investments, the Swedish government have been vocal about its commitments to improving infrastructure connected to mining and improving regulation to advance environmental protection and competitiveness.
Tourism is also deemed to have considerable growth potential to create new jobs and boost Arctic economic growth. A number of regional destination development projects are already underway, cofinanced by EU structural funds. Though climate change will inevitably pose challenges to long term winter tourism growth, innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly in food tourism, will help to grow local economies in rural and geographically remote areas of Sweden’s Arctic.
Although Sweden is a member of the EU, it remains outside the Eurozone because of concerns over its impact on the country’s economy, welfare system, and sovereignty. Since the 1990s, Sweden is one of the few industrialized countries that has been able to reduce GHG emissions and keep economic growth, mostly due to its introduction of a carbon tax. The government has also introduced initiatives to help the economy grow sustainably, such as an electricity certificate system and public funds for climate investments.
Sweden’s governance of and policy for the Arctic can be sectioned into four categories: (1) domestic; (2) European Union; (3) regional; and (4) Sami.
Domestically, Sweden is a parliamentary democracy with general elections every four years. While central ministries in Stockholm make decisions and administer issues relating to the north like natural resource development and environmental protection, northern and remote regions like Norbotten County exercise a limited degree of autonomy through their centrally appointed governor. Sweden’s Arctic Strategy guides decisions relating to the country’s northernmost stretches at both the federal and regional level. Approving the strategy in 2011, Sweden was the last of the eight Arctic states to issue an official policy on the circumpolar region. It focuses on climate and the environment; economic development; and the human dimension (i.e. the people living in the Arctic region).
As a EU member since 1995, northern Sweden has benefited from structural support funds, particularly in northern communities. Sweden’s Arctic policy and governance choices are also in part determined by the Northern Dimension Program. The Program is a joint policy between the EU, Russia, Norway, and Iceland regarding cross-border and external policies in the Arctic region. Established in 1999 and renewed in 2006, the policy aims to strengthen dialogue and cooperation between EU and other northern countries on economy, human resources, the environment, justice, and cross-border development. For further information on EU policy and action in the Arctic, please read our EU go-to guide here (LINK TO EU BACKGROUNDER COUNTRY PAGE).
Regionally, Sweden is party to a number of intergovernmental forums, including the Nordic Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and the Arctic Council. Each of these provide Sweden the opportunity to engage in interregional cooperation across a variety of issue areas including trade, security, defense, environment, Nordic welfare, and natural resource industries. In its 2011 strategy, Sweden noted that the Arctic Council “Should be more active in developing common policies and practical projects.” This may be in response to their exclusion from the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008 – a point of contention in the region between coastal and non-coastal states. The declaration was the result of discussions by the five coastal states on the Arctic Ocean, climate change, the protection of the marine environment, maritime safety, and division of emergency responsibilities if new shipping lanes are opened. As a non-coastal state, Sweden was not included in the Ilulissat Declaration or any discussions about maritime activities. Since the Declaration in 2009, Sweden has emphasized the need for greater collaboration among the coastal states and non-coastal states in open fora where pan-Arctic issues should be discussed by the wider Arctic community.
Because of their Indigenous status, the Sami people have a different political standing and governance structure through the Sami Parliament. The Parliament is a publicly-elected body and state agency regulated by the Swedish Sami Parliament Act. They have political autonomy to develop policy recommendations to the Swedish Parliament, but are limited in that the recommendations are advisory and not legally binding. The Sami are also regionally represented in the Sami Council and as permanent members of the Arctic Council. Sweden is generally more open to the influence of international law than other Arctic states. It passed UNDRIP, the UN Convention on Indigenous Rights, though with “serious reservations as to the existence of group rights.” It has not yet passed the International Labor Organization’s concerning Sami’s rights to reindeer herding. Issues of herding, as detailed in the People section of this go-to guide, are the biggest point of contention between Sami governance and the Swedish government. Sami representation feels that national law has provided inadequate protection policies in the face of mining and more recently wind parks.
Generally, the Swedish Arctic strategy is straightforward and not very controversial, with a focus on multilateral cooperation and the environment. Sweden is a country with strong historic and cultural ties to the region, as well as security and economic interests, such as mining and aerospace industries. The strategy of 2011 defined Sweden as an Arctic nation and reaffirmed the Swedish commitment to the region.
Sweden’s Strategy for the Arctic Region (2011), Ministry of Foreign Affairs: www.openaid.se/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Swedens-Strategy-for-the-Arctic-Region.pdf
Sweden’s Environmental Policy for the Arctic: www.government.se/reports/2016/01/new-swedish-environmental-policy-for-the-arctic/
Sweden’s Arctic Council country webpage: www.arctic-council.org/index.php/en/about-us/member-states/sweden