The Swedish Automobile Industry and the Environment during the Oil Crisis: The present-day environmental transition in perspective

Nya Fest Session 3: Sustainability and energy transitions in economic and business history organized by Mattias Näsman and Josef Taalbi


Mattias Näsman


The climate crisis and other environmental problems pose major challenges to contemporary societies, even existential risks. Effective mitigation of climate change as well as other environmental problems will require transformations of social and technological (socio-technical) systems (Khöler et al 2019). While scholarship in various social scientific disciplines including economic and environmental history as well as the history of technology have began studying the drivers, challenges and complexities relating to environmental and energy transitions, business history has thus far overlooked these topics (e.g. Taalbi 2019, Van der Vleuten 2020, Miller and Warde 2019). This proposed paper has a dual purpose: it proposes a transition research agenda for business history research while providing a case study of the Swedish car industry’s political activities during the energy crisis, aiming at delaying regulatory driven environmental adaption of passenger cars. Business history scholarship have a lot to offer in understanding present-day transitions, not least regarding the role of big business in shaping the rules governing the transition (Bergquist and David 2022) and the role of incumbent industries in directing investments deciding future “sustainable” technologies and their development (Newell, Geels and Sovacool 2022). I believe that an exploration of the Swedish automobile industry’s political activities during the oil crises are particularly illuminating for this purpose. The target period bears many similarities with the present, where Western political and business systems were facing ‘polycrisis’ – multiple crises spanning the environment, the breakdown of the Fordist production regime, as well as crises in energy, economic and monetary systems (Zeitlin, Nicoli and Laffan 2019). The paper shows that Swedish carmakers Volvo and Saab, despite being global leaders in complying with stringent emission standards on the US market, heavily objected to implementing stringent emission requirements and introducing advanced emission control technologies in Sweden, while showing how these objections related to crises in the European economy. The paper draws from state archives as well as the library of the Swedish Automobile Industry Association (Bilindustriföreningen) to highlight how the Swedish industry employed several different strategies to exercise power in order to convince or force the, in a European context, very proactive Swedish government to lessen its ambitions on exhaust emission control regulation. Thus, the paper aims at contributing to scholarly debates regarding power in governing transitions while aiming to shed historical light on the present transition of the vehicle fleet toward zero emission vehicles.


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