• The Race to Zero must include all nations and communities.
  • It’s vital that we don’t overlook the ocean as we fight climate change.
  • Sweden is leading the way by appointing an Ambassador for the Ocean.
  • She says nations must work together to stop 'carbon leakage' across borders.
  • Electric vessels and automated sails are the key to zero carbon shipping.

Helen Ågren is a very special kind of diplomat. She’s Sweden’s Ambassador for the Ocean. Although the term “ambassador” is often used quite loosely, she’s the real thing: an official representative of her government.

Oceans biodiversity health Race To Zero
Helen Ågren is Sweden’s Ambassador for the Oceans.
Image: Blue Action Fund

Sweden has long placed environmental concerns at the heart of its world view and Ågren’s role at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs is to advance her country’s concern for the marine environment on the international stage.

She started young as a youth delegate to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and, more recently, she co-chaired the United Nations’ first Ocean Conference in 2017.

In an interview to mark the start of the Race to Zero Dialogues, hosted by the World Economic Forum, Ågren emphasised the need to keep the ocean at the forefront of the fight against climate change and said nations must work together to stop “carbon leakage” across borders.

Tell us about your work as Ambassador for the Ocean

We've been working hard to raise the role of the ocean on the global agenda first by hosting the first UN Ocean conference in 2017, together with Fiji. We want to make sure the ocean is part of the work of the (UN) Climate Change Convention and the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

It’s also important to raise the importance of ocean in overseas development assistance and to support countries and communities most in need because they are the ones most vulnerable to changes in the climate, but also in the ocean.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing our ocean right now?

Well, I would say that the biggest challenges would be climate change and emission of greenhouse gases because it affects the ocean in many ways - the warming of the ocean and sea level rise impacting coastal communities.

But there is also a loss of oxygen and acidification of the ocean which changes ecosystems and affects different species. There are many other stressors like pollution and the effects of exploitation of coastal zones.

Tell us about Sweden’s approach to achieving net zero emissions

There is a broad understanding in parliament that we share a common goal to reduce carbon emissions and become carbon neutral by 2045. That is not only a task for the government, it's also a major challenge for research, businesses, organizations, local communities to change behavior, to innovate and to transform into the new future.

Fossil Free Sweden is an initiative by the government to see what each and every one can do to achieve the transform to a low-carbon society. Currently 22 different sectors have developed roadmaps on how to align to the Paris agreement and to the national goal for Sweden.

How important is shipping in achieving net zero?

We need to change a lot to have zero emissions from shipping, both in terms of the ship design, the fuels, and how the ports are designed, but also to develop policies that really incentivize and reward the early movers.

Our roadmap for fossil-free shipping has a goal of becoming climate neutral in 2024-25 and to get there, to promote electrification, the government has reduced energy tax on shoreside electricity to contribute to the deployment of charging facilities in Swedish ports.

Sweden's state-owned ferry companies are actively working on conversion to fossil-free operations, including battery operation and electrically driven cable ferries. It's a matter of joining forces on research so the government has increased funding for innovation in this field.

We also have a couple of shipping companies developing new vessels that will reduce emissions by 90% with modern sails, automated to make wind propulsion really efficient. They are aiming for launch in 2024 which shows they've come far in the design and development of these ships.

What can we do about plastics in the ocean?

We can do a lot with the voluntary commitments and actions by the private sector but we really need a global agreement, a global framework, because the private sector is operating in a global market. So we need a level playing field.

If we have too much fragmentation in the way that countries are tackling different problems, it will be expensive and difficult for companies to do the right things and make the right investments. So Sweden and the Nordic countries are pushing really hard for a global framework on plastics and micro plastics. So here we really need support from other countries.

What would you say needs to change in Sweden and globally if we're going to get to net zero emissions?

We have to work at speed to get across the line and get everyone on board. The challenge is to reward the early movers but not allow the laggards to be left behind.

Sweden is a member of the European Union so we have to have all the member states on board to change the basic regulations. For example, if you want to sharpen energy or carbon dioxide taxes it won't help if we have carbon leakage, if companies just move across borders. So aligning policies across nations is really needed.