Human rights, gender equality, freedom of speech, environmental protection, and fighting climate change. “These are areas where my government is very active globally. And we like to advocate these matters also here in the Philippines. I appreciate that it’s easy to find partners in advocating our priority concerns.”
Addressing a crowded hall filled with guests celebrating his country’s National Day last June 6, Sweden’s ambassador to the Philippines, Harald Fries, made a pitch for closer relations that, refreshingly, seemed devoid of the patronizing or overbearing tone that one has become accustomed to at many such events.
#TEAMSWEDEN was the hashtag/focus of the celebration of “Swedish collaboration and values.” Nine top Swedish firms (members of Team Sweden that have established presence in the Philippines) were partners in the celebration – along with Banco de Oro, which the embassy cites as a “strong advocate of climate-smart projects and sustainability,” and ice-cream manufacturer Carmen’s Best.
“A reflection of Sweden’s policy of inclusivity” was how my wife described the reception, where locals from various walks of life, from urban poor organizers to artists to middle executives to civil society activists, outnumbered the foreign diplomats, Filipino politicians and prominent businessmen who comprise the usual population of guests at diplomatic soirees.
There was even a video presentation featuring Ambassador Fries in a yellow T-shirt (nothing political: yellow and blue being Sweden’s national colors) taking the wheel of a Volvo van on a fun ride with the embassy staff. Segments showed individual representatives of partner firms alternatingly taking the front seat and engaging the ambassador in discussion of what sustainability innovations their firms had introduced in their products and services, interspersed with banter and laughter. The fun and witty video showed Fries gamely joining his enthusiastic staff in belting out “Dancing Queen” which is of course a popular pop favorite by Abba.
Another video shown introduced a new Swedish sport, Floorball, which is akin to ice hockey but can be played in an ordinary basketball court. The game, Ambassador Fries pointed out, “is spreading like wildfire around the world.” In a mini-competition among Filipino and foreign teams shown in the video, the University of the Philippines team won third place.
In an interview published in Philippine STAR Thursday (the source of the quotation at the beginning of this piece), Ambassador Fries – who assumed his diplomatic post in 2016 and whose wife Susan is a Filipina – noted that to a large extent, the Filipino youth share with Swedes the core values that he mentioned.
“I think the most important thing we can do,” he emphasized, “is to introduce Swedish know-how and technology to the Philippines.” One area is in environmental protection and climate change, where innovative technologies have been developed to make their products and systems sustainable “both in terms of minimizing the negative effect on the environment and offering long-term, high-quality solutions.” For instance, 99.5 percent of Swedish household waste is either recycled or transformed into energy, with only half percent going to landfill or used as materials for building roads.
Most recently, as reported in the Guardian, the Swedes have successfully carried out a shift in domestic transportation – from air to rail – as a means of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emission by commercial airlines. A simple plane flight between Sweden’s two biggest cities (Stockholm and Gothenburg), one study shows, generates as much CO2 as 40,000 train journeys. In fact, Sweden’s aviation sector produced 1.1 tons of CO2 emissions per head of its population, according to a report published in 2017; this is five times more than the global average emission.
A Swedish Railways survey last week showed that 37 percent of respondents chose rail travel instead of airline flights, compared to 26 percent last autumn and 20 percent in early 2018. On the ground, this was affirmed by the railways’ records that show the number of train passengers rising by five percent in 2018, and further to eight percent in the past months of 2019. Passengers taking flights in Sweden’s 10 busiest airports fell by eight percent from January-April 2019, after an initial drop of three percent in 2018, reported Swedavia which monitors the flights.
The shift in travel mode from air to rail in travel may largely be credited to the campaign to fight climate change, which 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thurnberg singlehandedly began, in August 2018, as a “school strike for the climate.” She has refused to fly because she said doing so harms the environment (a finding affirmed by an international climate-change conference last year).
Greta’s campaign quickly generated support in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In April 2019 she addressed the UK Parliament, frankly telling its members that their government’s active support for fossil fuels and airport expansion was “beyond absurd.” On May 1, the UK parliament members endorsed a Labor party motion to declare formal climate and environmental emergency. The “climate crisis” has since ranked third most pressing issue after Brexit and health.
Last May 23, Greta and 46 other youth activists from various countries issued a declaration, as they prepared for a strike the next day that entailed 4,000 events in 150 countries, demanding that governments immediately provide a “safe pathway to stay within the 1.5C of global heating.” Succinctly the declaration said: “Young people have led the climate strikes. Now we need adults to join us too.”
“So this is our invitation,” the 48 youth activists wrote. “Starting on Friday, 20 September  we will kickstart a week of climate action with a worldwide strike for the climate. We’re asking adults to step up alongside us. There are many different plans in different parts of the world for adults to join together and step up and out of your comfort zone for our climate.
“People have risen up before to demand action and make change; if we do so in numbers we have a chance,” the declaration says. “If we care, we must do more than say we do. We must act. This won’t be the last day we need to take to the streets, but it will be a new beginning. We’re counting on you,” it concluded.
The “awoke” youth led by Greta Thurnberg have made a very valid appeal. Will the adults respond positively?
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Published in Philippine Star
June 8, 2019