To offset or not offset?

I often get asked about carbon offsetting. Is offsetting your carbon footprint a good idea and does it make you climate neutral? These are questions that are by no means simple to answer.

The kind of carbon emission offsetting most often talked about concerns supporting projects for renewable energy in developing countries. The thinking is that this renewable energy will replace fossil fuels and reduce emissions and that this reduction will offset emissions that occur elsewhere. This can concern planting trees or reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from landfill sites or industrial processes.

These are often good projects that lead to increased production of renewable energy or reduced emissions. They can also contribute to technology transfer, increased learning and employment, which in turn, can lead to new projects.

However, the question remains as to whether such projects always do lead to reduced emissions. It can be the case, for example, that investments in wind turbines or solar cells would have been made anyway. Nor can we be entirely sure that they really will replace fossil fuels. It can perhaps be the case that this new renewable energy is used alongside old fossil fuel power stations. Per se, it can be good to gain access to more electricity production capacity in this way, but actual emissions would not of course, have been reduced.

I therefore think the use of terms such as climate neutral when adopting this type of carbon offsetting is questionable. Occasionally, a discussion arises as to whether Sweden ought to invest more resources in international projects rather than in measures in Sweden. There can be good reasons to increase such international investments, i.e. to enable more carbon offsetting, but I think there should be a discussion as to whether or not these investments actually do lead to lower emissions and if there are risks of some negative social impact and if they genuinely can replace measures in Sweden.

It is similarly problematical that the long-term strategy of the international aviation industry to use carbon offsetting to keep emissions down. Here too, we need to ask if emissions are actually reducing.

I think we need to invest more in processes that actual remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and maintain this for longer periods of time. This can be a matter of the capture and geological storage of carbon dioxide or the production of biocarbon for use as a soil improving agent. If such types of carbon offsetting are used, I think it is reasonable to talk about being climate neutral. These kinds of carbon offsetting are available today but they are expensive compared to traditional carbon offsetting. However, not unreasonably expensive in relation to the financial damage that carbon dioxide emissions cause.

Tip of the week: Listen to Sverker Sörlin and try the sustainability pub night for younger researchers and doctoral students. Register here.

A circular economy – a necessary part of our reorientation

Society is in the process of moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources. But that is not enough. Society also needs to switch to more sustainable production and consumption patterns. A circular economy will play an important role here.

Material flows are mostly linear in society today. This can be clearly seen if we look at how society uses oil. Crude oil is pumped up, refined and mostly combusted as fuel that generates carbon dioxide emissions. This, in turn, contributes to climate changes and ocean acidification. Some of the oil is used to make different materials, such as plastic products for example. However, in the case of Sweden, only around 10 percent of plastics used is recycled. Most of it is sent for combustion to turn waste into energy instead, primarily for heat and electricity, but this also generates emissions of carbon dioxide.

A circular economy is being promoted as an alternative to this linear model. This means that materials and products are used in ways that enable the products to be re-used and the materials to be recycled. And in so doing, minimise the amount of waste. Substantial environmental benefits are often associated with this. For example, recycling 1 kg of plastic (instead of it going to combustion and new plastic being manufactured from oil) would cut emissions by several kilos of carbon dioxide. Recycling metals such as aluminium and steel can also save many kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

Reusing products is another example. When KTH neighbour IVL renovated their offices in Stockholm, they resolved to reuse furniture and interior design materials wherever possible. In so doing, they not only reduced the amount of waste by 12 tons and emissions of greenhouse gases by around 40 tons, but the final cost was cheaper.

A circular economy needs to be combined with the elimination of fossil fuels. If electric cars are to be sustainable, the batteries must be able to be recycled and vehicle materials recovered. If the steel industry is to become climate-neutral by 2045, neither the development of fossil fuel free production nor circular business models with increased recycling will be sufficient on their own, only by combining the two will this be a possibility.

A circular economy is not simply about recycling more, reusing more and using renewable materials. It also calls for new product designs, new business models, new product systems, new consumption patterns and new instruments of control that support a circular economy. KTH is pursuing research in all these areas, such as  herehere and here.

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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.