Sweden widely flouting EU freshwater health rules

Posted on 13 June 2022

The Swedish government is systematically applying exemptions to EU water protection rules under the Water Framework Directive (WFD), seriously jeopardising the health of the country’s freshwater ecosystems. A new study found that Sweden is overusing WFD exemptions to avoid implementing environmental measures at hydropower plants.
Sweden has recently started a legal process to give all hydropower plants new environmental permits. However, these permits will be of limited ecological benefit if a political goal limiting production losses to 2-3 % of the annual energy production from hydropower is allowed to influence the process.  This goal breaches the WFD requirement to assess and justify exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
The European Commission has already criticised Sweden, and many other EU countries, for the overuse of exemptions to the Water Framework Directive. But, in its water legislation, the Swedish government has explicitly mandated national water authorities to apply exemptions in the river basin management plans.

Giulia Riedo, EU Water Policy Officer, WWF European Policy Office, said: “Sweden’s political agenda reveals that the country is set to continue harming some of Europe’s most endangered ecosystems. Most of the hydropower plants currently planned in Europe generate marginal amounts of hydropower at a disproportionately high cost to nature.”

60% of Europe’s freshwater ecosystems are in poor ecological condition. The WFD aims to nurse them back to health by 2027, but the abuse of exemptions is the main reason why WFD objectives are far from being met. Hydropower is one of the main reasons the WFD is breached. 

Following the launch of the EU’s REpowerEU plans, WWF is concerned that more exemptions for hydropower may be used under the “Overriding Public Interest” principle. WWF calls for the continued application of exemptions to hydropower plants to be considered on a case-by-case and limited number basis, only authorising plants that meet strict environmental criteria. Moreover, the sector in Europe should focus on refurbishment, instead of building new small hydropower plants.

Giulia Riedo said:“Not all renewable energies are equal: hydropower in Europe causes massive harm to river ecosystems by blocking migratory fish routes, through sediment build-up, methane release from reservoirs and damage to downstream ecosystems. Europe does not need new hydropower to achieve its climate goals and must refurbish existing plants to reduce the damage to ecosystems.”