The United States, China, and Sweden have pursued vastly different responses to climate change—even as residents of the three countries increasingly express high levels of support for climate action.
Over the past decade, the United States has shifted gears on climate policy between presidential administrations, enacting and then rolling back environmental regulations, and joining and then withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. China has announced plans to price carbon and achieve carbon neutrality. And Sweden has remained ambitious, with its government committing to negative emissions after 2045 and one of its citizens helping spawn the global youth climate movement.
But despite these disparate paths, opinion on climate change and policy responses across these three countries has increasingly converged, according to a recent study coauthored by RFF Senior Fellow Alan Krupnick, University Fellow Thomas Sterner, and others in Sweden and China.
Though differences in public opinion remain, citizens across all three countries report a willingness to make economic sacrifices to mitigate climate change and are willing to pay more to achieve significant emissions reductions. Based on data from surveys conducted in 2009 and again in 2019, support for strong climate action remains high in Sweden and is growing substantially in the United States and China.
“The most surprising result of our survey is that there appears to be a convergence in preferences for climate change mitigation over the ten-year period, with increasingly high willingness to pay across the board,” Krupnick says. “At the same time, polarization in attitudes within countries is increasing.”
The survey examines how much money people would pay to bring down greenhouse gas emissions levels, and in each country, residents are willing to pay more in 2019 than they were in 2009. To reduce emissions by 30 percent, Chinese citizens are willing to pay a greater share of their income—as much as 0.9 percent of their income for a 30 percent reduction in emissions, compared to 0.8 percent in Sweden and 0.6 percent in the United States. As shown in the infographic below, on a per-ton CO₂ reduction basis, Swedish citizens are willing to pay $129 per ton of emissions reductions—nearly triple what people would pay in China ($44 per ton) and more than quadruple what US citizens would pay ($31 per ton). Notably, Swedes’ willingness to pay aligns closely with the Swedish carbon tax, which charges $126 per ton of CO₂ emitted.
Though Sweden is widely considered a leader in climate policy, the country has fallen behind China and the United States in national support for climate action in some regards. Fewer Swedes in 2019 are willing to prioritize the environment over jobs than in 2009—55 percent, which is surpassed in the United States (60 percent) and China (82 percent). And although nearly three-quarters of Swedes think their country should act on climate change regardless of what other countries do, this number is lower in 2019 than in 2009 (81 percent) and lower than in the other countries in 2019 (79 percent in the United States and 89 percent in China).
“Ten years ago, Sweden stood out, with a larger fraction of believers in anthropogenic climate change and a higher willingness to pay for mitigation,” the authors write. “[The 2019 survey results] may also be seen in the light of a country that has been rather ambitious in its climate efforts but, with a relatively stagnant economy, is now looking for others to step up.”
Despite these small differences in public opinion among these countries, the survey results show that people across the globe already support ambitious climate action and want their governments to do more. But the burgeoning consensus among residents of three politically and economically distinct countries does not easily track with the actions taken by global leaders in response to climate change. Support for climate action might be rising steadily, but political inaction has plagued climate policy over the last decade.
President-Elect Biden has made clear his plans for the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rejoin the Paris Agreement, though it is unclear whether the incoming administration will mobilize support in Congress for ambitious policies or will move ahead with a more limited agenda through executive fiat. And whether these developments will herald a new era in climate policy—one where policymakers' priorities align with their citizens' appetite for stronger climate action—remains to be seen, too.
“With Biden, we will have a president who at least understands the urgency to address climate change as an existential threat to the entire world,” Krupnick says.