Change is possible when people mobilize

The regimes in the former Eastern Europe fell thirty years ago when sufficient numbers of people went out onto the streets to demand change. The right to vote was introduced one hundred years ago when public demand became so strong that those in power feared revolution. Big changes happen when people mobilize.

Several reports arrived last week that urge change:

  • The EU Parliament adopted by a large majority a resolution to see tougher emission goals for the EU and that at least 35 percent of research should address climate issues.
  • The Agenda 2030 Delegation presented a range of proposals as to how Sweden should be able to work towards the realignment necessary if we are to achieve global sustainability goals.
  • The Swedish Environment Protection Agency submitted a report on the changes that are necessary if Sweden is to achieve these climate goals.

The demonstrations on Friday in Sweden, Europe and other parts of the world indicate ever growing support for a more active climate policy. One illustration of this is that there were ten times more people demonstrating for the climate in France than at the Yellow Vests demonstration.

Now, it’s a case of continuing to work for change. A climate neutral society is possible. We have the technology for this. It is a matter of people, companies, authorities and organisations choosing this.

At KTH, we are continuing to work towards integrating sustainable development into study programmes and research. Last week, I had the opportunity to provide a few examples of climate research to Matilda Ernkrans, Sweden’s Minister for Higher Education and Research, when she visited KTH. The research examples I presented included:

  • Climate modelling
  • Sustainable consumption
  • Smart mobility and accessibility
  • Smart materials
  • A circular economy
  • Sustainable urban development
  • Sustainable production technology
  • Renewable materials
  • Renewable energy
  • Digitalisation and sustainable development

The best thing was that I could have continued for a good while longer and present even more examples.

Tip of the week You can profile your study programme towards sustainable development at KTH . All degree programmes pay special attention to several of the global sustainability goals.

Prioritise environment goals now

In the 1990s, the Swedish Parliament resolved with a broad consensus that the overall aim of Swedish environment policy was for the major environment problems to be resolved within one generation. A number of national environment quality goals were also resolved on, with specific and interim goals. The concept “within one generation” was specified as by the year 2020.

Last week, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency released a report to near total silence. This report was an in-depth evaluation of Sweden’s 2019 environment goals ahead of when the generation goal is due to be met. The brief summary is that things are not going particularly well. Just one of the 16 national environment quality goals will be achieved. A protective ozone layer.

In the case of certain of these environment goals, we are moving in the right direction, such as with regard to acidification and air quality. However, with several others, we are moving in the wrong direction. Emissions of greenhouse gases need to be reduced at a faster rate, ecological connectivity in the landscape needs to be strengthened, and the spread of hazardous substances needs to be reduced.

One important, but difficult question, is why has Sweden not been more successful in the things we have decided upon? Naturally, there is no simple answer to this question. Even so, I think the preface to the report suggests that the reasons why not are understood to an extent. Firstly, we probably underestimated the complexity of these issues that have also increased with globalisation. Secondly, decision-makers at different levels have not given a big enough priority to environment and climate issues. Society sets goals, but when we need to weigh these against other goals, environment and climate issues have hitherto been given far too little weight.

The government report states that the environment goals system is to be further developed and new interim goals set. I think it is good that Sweden is sticking firmly to its environment goals. They define the ecological dimension of sustainable development and provide an important complement when specifying global environment goals. There are also strong connections between ecological and social sustainability. The goals continue to be extremely relevant. They must now be prioritised.

EU raises the bar – but is it high enough?

Towards the end of last year, the EU Commission published  a long-term climate strategy for the EU. The paper raises earlier targets and proposes a climate-neutral EU by the year 2050.

The EU Commission communication will now be discussed in the European Parliament and European Council. The aim is to be in a position to establish a long-term strategy by no later than the beginning of 2020 as part of global climate efforts and as a continuation of the Paris Agreement.

The communication includes many important messages. The Commission states that the entire European economy needs modernising and that initiatives need to be implemented earlier. The document also highlights several important areas such as energy efficiency measures, the replacement of fuels to move away from fossil fuels, utilising a bio-based and circular economy and to expand technology for carbon capture. That all these areas need to be combined is of significance. Any of these strategies on their own will not be enough.

I personally envisage a need to also discuss demand limiting measures to a greater extent. If the focus lies on efficiency gains and technological developments, there is a risk that consumption will increase that will eat up the gains of efficiency improvements. There is therefore a need to work in parallel with technological measures and actions that limit and change demand.

The communication also highlights the importance of levying charges on emissions of greenhouse gases. In such cases, this ought to mean that emissions that are largely exempt from charges or taxes today, such as from food production and international transport, are also taxed which would increase opportunities for cost effective measures. It could also lead to being paid for negative emissions, something that is perhaps necessary to make this worth pursuing.

One important question is whether this strategy goes far enough to achieve the Paris Agreement goals on limiting global warming to two degrees and aiming for 1.5 degrees. It is doubtful whether emissions will be reduced quickly enough for this and if the strategy will lead to negative emissions beyond 2050. It is therefore important to continue to discuss these issues, not least in association with the elections to the European Parliament that will play a role in what decisions are taken.

Tip of the week: Södertälje Science Week. Plenty of interesting discussions and activities. More about the programme here

Let´s talk about AI

Big investments are being made in Artificial Intelligence (AI) right now. What society can and would like to use AI for is less frequently discussed. A more detailed dialogue is needed.

Artificial Intelligence is described in various contexts as a key technology that is going to change society and industry in a fundamental way. Different research funding bodies are providing big sums. The goals of these investments are said to include to benefit Swedish industry and to fuel industrial development.

I think AI offers enormous potential. For this very reason, those of us within research also need to discuss what society can and would like to use AI for.
Does it matter which industry will benefit or are there certain applications that are of more or less interest?
Are there risks with AI we need to become aware of, to further research and discuss?
How can AI contribute to sustainable development and is there a risk that it will prevent this? If we are to address these and other questions, research into AI cannot simply be the domain of the most closely related scientific subject areas, it must also embrace other relevant areas.

In association with international discussions on the opportunities and risks of AI, researchers and other stakeholders have formulated a number of principles for AI research. One of these principles concerns the goals of the research: “The goal of research into AI should not be to create random intelligence but benign intelligence”. Another principle states that “Investments in AI should be accompanied by the financing of research to guarantee the benign use of AI. Research should include thorny issues within computer science, economics, politics, law, ethics and social science…”. These principles could be interesting starting points for further debate.

If you compare the principles quoted above with the goals of the substantial investments within AI that are being made today, there appears to be daylight between them. It is therefore important that there is increasing debate both within universities and beyond, concerning what AI research is needed, how it should be financed and what the purpose of the AI research should be.

Tip of the week:Follow the webinar on how CO2 emissions can be halved by 2030, from 13.00-15.00 on 11 January. Researchers from KTH and other universities present The Exponential Climate Action Roadmap. For more information and to register, click here.

How aviation can reduce its climate impact

Air travel accounts for an increasing share of the climate impact of Swedes. Flights are currently responsible for just over 10 percent of the carbon footprint attributable to Swedish consumers. That is around about the same as private car use in Sweden.

To reduce the climate impact of aviation, several different types of measures are required:
• More fuel efficient aircraft.
• Fuel with a lower climate impact, such as biofuel or hydrogen. However, these fuels will not totally eliminate climate change effects as they still give rise to so-called high-altitude effects and emissions during the production of these fuels.
• Higher occupancy rates in aircraft.
• Better organisation of air traffic (e.g. greener landings, shorter flightpaths and flightpaths that reduce the high-altitude effects)
• Reduced air travel.

Actions within all these areas are needed to reduce the climate impact of aviation. The first four points show the effects on emissions per passenger kilometre. There has been substantial development over the past few decades that has helped to significantly reduce emissions per passenger kilometre. It is important that development work continues, and these areas are likely to offer big potential. However, the number of flights is increasing at the same time, which means total emissions have increased. If we are to be able to reduce total emissions, the number of flights must therefore also be reduced.

This week I took part in a seminar arranged by the Expert Group on Public Economics (ESO), on climate policy that inter alia, addressed the climate impact of aviation. Politicians from the Swedish Social Democrat, Conservative and Center parties took part in the panel discussion and they were all agreed that the price of air travel will increase moving forward, via requirements for a mix of biofuel and/or taxation. It is therefore of interest that the final point, reduced air travel, will also be affected. However, the question is whether the above will have a significant enough impact on emissions, or if additional instruments will be required.

Tip of the week: Go to a lecture on batteries or TEDxWomen Conference a lecture Where will Future Paths lead us? All at KTH on 6 December.