The Swedish Environmental Code

The Environmental Code constitutes a modernised, broadened and more stringent environmental legislation aimed at promoting sustainable development. It came into force on 1 January 1999. It replaced fifteen previous environmental acts which were amalgamated into the Code.

Sustainable development

The principle of sustainable development was introduced by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 in the report Our Common Future. Since then it has had an ever greater impact on both national and international environmental protection.

At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the concept gained recognition as a key point of departure for the future development of society. With the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, the principle has been written into the Treaty on European Union as one of the goals of the EU.

For the concept of sustainable development to progress from being a general policy statement to a principle that can form the basis for specific demands for action, regulation in the form of legislation and its application is necessary.

The role of legislation

Legislation has for many years been the key tool in Sweden with which principles of environmental policy have been converted into practical action. The previous environmental legislation was, however, insufficient to tackle some of the environmental problems that have been identified in the vision of sustainable development.

One of the main ideas behind the reform of the Environmental Code was to modernise and update Swedish environmental legislation. Gathering the key environmental laws into a code and making substantial systematic and judicial changes to them are just part of the reform. The fact that working with the Code has encouraged a much needed broadening and tightening-up of central legislation is probably of greater significance.

The purpose and scope of the Environmental Code

The purpose of the Environmental Code is to promote sustainable development which will ensure a healthy and sound environment for present and future generations. To achieve this, the Code is to be applied so that:

  • human health and the environment are protected against damage and detriment, whether caused by pollutants or other impacts
  • valuable natural and cultural environments are protected and preserved
  • biodiversity is preserved
  • the use of land, water and the physical environment in general is such as to secure long-term good management in ecological, social, cultural and economic terms
  • re-use and recycling, as well as other management of materials, raw materials and energy are encouraged so that natural cycles are established and maintained. 

The scope of the Environmental Code is directly linked to the promotion of sustainable development. The Code is applicable to all activities or measures that are of significance for this purpose to be achieved. It therefore concerns all types of measures and operations that may be of importance to those interests the Code is intended to protect, regardless of whether they are part of a private individual's daily life or are some form of business activity.

The scope of the Code is not just important for the situations in which the Code can be applied. Primarily, it decides what types of environmental issues can be examined in a court of law, for example, a condition that may be imposed for an environmentally hazardous activity to start might be anything that promotes sustainable development.

All in all, this means in many cases that the regulations that were part of previous environmental legislation now have new and broader application.

General rules of consideration

Chapter 2 of the Environmental Code contains a number of general rules of consideration that express, for instance, the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, the product choice principle and principles regarding resource management, recycling and suitable localisation of activities and measures.

The rules have a preventive effect since they make binding demands on anyone running a business or an operation or taking action to learn about the environmental effects of such activities and express the principle that the risks of environmental impact should be borne by the polluter and not by the environment.

Supervisory and licensing authorities have the power to base their decisions on these general rules of consideration concerning injunctions, bans, permit conditions etc. As a result, the content of these rules becomes much more specific through regulations or decisions in each individual case.

Objectives and goals of environmental quality

The Environmental Code places greater emphasis on goal and outcome management than previous environmental legislation. Government ordinances and regulations from authorities will therefore not only be governed by the purpose of the Code and the general rules of consideration, but also by other environmental goals not included in the Code.

Licensing and supervisory work is to be guided by the national environmental objectives, specified in the form of regional and sector goals. This means that the licensing and supervision of activities and measures must take the goals of environmental policy into consideration.

Environmental quality standards

The Environmental Code contains environmental quality standards (EQS), which are a new feature of Swedish environmental legislation. EQS are regulations concerning the quality of land, water, air and the environment in general. While the previous environmental legislation was only aimed at minimising and alleviating environmental disturbances, as far as reasonable, the Environmental Code with EQS makes direct demands on the final result.

Area and species protection

Regulations concerning different types of area protection, such as national parks, nature reserves, habitat protection and shoreline protection, have been collated in the Environmental Code. Together with regulations regarding protection of species, the purpose is to preserve biological diversity.

Environmental sanction charges

One reason why compliance with the previous environmental legislation was poor was that the risk of being penalised for an environmental crime was quite low. Consequently there has been a need for a rapid and effective way of responding to infringements of the environmental rules. Penalties in the form of environmental sanction charges were therefore introduced with the Environmental Code. These charges are levied directly by the supervisory authorities when an infringement has been established.