Seventh in the world

KTH ranks seventh in the Times Higher Education (THE) global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The whole of KTH should take a bow. It is extremely pleasing to see that our long-term work is paying such dividends.

It is especially exciting that this high ranking is based on the UN Global Sustainable Development Goals. Universities are ranked according to 11 of the 17 Sustainability Goals, plus a total ranking. The rankings are exciting in their own right as they combine traditional academic data on scientific publications with information on how we manage our own activities. Being so highly placed means we are performing well from both perspectives.

To take part in the rankings, universities were invited to submit a substantial volume of information which required extra work. However, having the data available and so be able to participate in the rankings is also a kind of stamp of quality. Over 500 universities around the world took part in this year’s survey, and it can be assumed that universities that hoped to be able to perform well also participated.

In addition to our overall seventh place, KTH also ranked in the top 10 in three other areas. These are linked to working terms and conditions, innovations and climate. It is fun that these are such different areas. In the case of working terms and conditions, we have scored well for reasons such as doctoral students often having employment contracts and that a large proportion of our staff have permanent rather than temporary contracts. In terms of innovations, our research revenues and number of spin-off companies scored highly. When it comes to climate, things such as the work we are doing to integrate climate and other sustainability issues into teaching was praised. These examples illustrate how the THE survey questions have managed to embrace different parts of a university’s activities within research, education, cooperation and administration.

This is the first such ranking survey by THE and the questions will surely be further developed in various ways. For example, they have said that the rankings will eventually cover all 17 sustainable development goals, plus more universities are bound to participate. This means that we will need to work hard to maintain our ranking and ideally, improve it. This is also line with the priorities that have been set out in Vision 2027, in our development plan, and out sustainability goals, for example. Something else that I think stands out in these fine rankings is the long-sighted approach we are taking in our work. This is something we need to firmly adhere to. Read more about our strategy concerning the work we are doing on sustainability issues in a piece I have written for the THE website.



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.