How Swedish consumption impacts the international environment

Consumption in Sweden affects the environment both here and in numerous other countries around the world. However, it is now possible to estimate this environment impact and take steps towards more sustainable consumption and production.

Achieving sustainable consumption and production patterns is one of the global sustainability goals. We also now have new methods to estimate the environment impact of Swedish consumption. These have been developed in cooperation between researchers at SCB, KTH, Stockholm Environment Institute, Chalmers University of Technology and the universities of Trondheim and Leiden. Previous analyses have primarily focused on climate impact, but methods are now also available for other air pollutants, the use of hazardous chemical products, water, land and materials.

In the majority of these aspects, the environment impact of Swedish consumption is greater beyond Sweden’s borders than within the country. For example, 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from Swedish consumption occur in other countries.

Around 80 percent of hazardous chemical products usage linked to Swedish consumption occurs abroad. This also covers pesticides and antibiotics used in veterinary medicine that are far more prevalent outside Sweden. Emissions of a number of hazardous substances also arise to a greater extent in other countries. Important countries with regard to the use of pesticides include The Netherlands and Brazil, Germany and Spain for veterinary medicines and China and Russia for emissions.

There is a long list of possible measures available to reduce Swedish consumption related emissions. One such area that is also relevant to KTH as a public body is to use procurement as a tool to specify stricter requirements. Another is to reduce the use of fossil fuels as this will not only lead to lower emissions of greenhouse gases but also of a long list of other substances. The choice of building materials and food products also plays a role.

Tip of the week: Take the boat. I was in Helsinki the other week and went there and back by boat. It worked really well.


Something that is socio-economically profitable can be unsustainable

Sometimes, socio-economic profitability and sustainable development are at odds with each other. One interesting question then is what should take priority?

To be able to compare costs and benefits that arise in the future with those arising today, some form of discounting is often used, interest, in other words. This enables you to calculate future costs and benefits at today’s value.

Naturally, one important question then is what discounting rate should you choose. Do effects in the future have a greater or lesser value than those happening today? If you consider that future effects are less important, you choose a high positive interest rate, if you feel they are more important, you choose a negative interest rate.

In current socio-economic calculations, a rate of 3.5 – 4 percent is often chosen. This means that the value of future effects falls rapidly over time. In 2118, 100 kronor would be worth the equivalent of 1.60 kronor today. In a report from the Swedish Scientific Council for Sustainable Development to the Swedish government, we write that a high discounting rate is incompatible with long-term sustainability if it leads to measures that are necessary for sustainable development being rejected because they do not compute as being profitable from a socio-economic perspective.

That socio-economic profitability and sustainable development can conflict with each other is an important insight. The question can then be what should take priority. As a public organisation (such as a university) you can fall back on the form of government (one of Sweden’s constitutional laws) that states that the public sector should promote sustainable development. We also write in the report from the Scientific Council that a rate that is low enough to be compatible with long-term sustainability ought to be chosen.

Tip of the week: DN debate about the role of universities in a climate change reset.

When you remove carbon dioxide you should get paid

If you give off carbon dioxide emissions, you may need to pay a carbon tax. In which case, it is reasonable to be paid to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The latest report from the IPCC was clear. We need to drastically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases already today if global climate targets are to be achievable. One way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and raised in the report is to use so called negative emissions, that is to say, in one way or other, to be able to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it.

One way of doing this is to cultivate vegetation that uses carbon dioxide from the air to grow. If you then burn this vegetation, you can produce district heating and electricity, but you can also get carbon dioxide emissions, the same amount as the vegetation has locked in. But if instead of releasing the carbon dioxide, it can be captured and stored, you will then have created a carbon sink. You can also convert vegetation into biochar, that can be used as a soil improvement agent. Biochar can also act as a carbon sink.

These technologies for negative emissions cannot replace other measures to reduce emissions. On the contrary, we need every method we can possibly find to help reach climate targets. Some of these technologies are already available. They are not science fiction, they could start being used right now. This could be done at Stockholm Exergi facilities for example, which is being investigated in a project in partnership with KTH (in Swedish). All it needs is a decision to start building.

So, why isn’t this happening?
One reason is that it costs money. It costs a bit more to produce heat and power if this is done in a climate positive way. But, the costs are far from unreasonable. The estimated cost of removing carbon dioxide is roughly half the carbon tax that can be payable if you burn fossil fuels and release carbon dioxide. If we could create rules that mean you are paid to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it could be profitable.

In other words, our new parliament and incoming government ought to be clearly tasked with putting forward proposals on a reverse carbon tax. Pending such initiatives, there is nothing to stop property owners (such as Akademiska Hus and other socially responsible companies) from saying “we want to contribute to lowering carbon dioxide emissions, however. We are prepared to pay a bit more for heating to contribute to new technology being implemented and to get climate positive heat.” Stockholm Exergi and its owners (City of Stockholm and Fortum) can also say that “we think it is worth the cost. We want to lead the way and contribute – we are therefore making these investments.”

Our individual responsibility to slow climate change is sometimes discussed. There are wise individuals at all these companies and public authorities that can contribute with good decisions.

Tip of the week: Watch Cecilia Sundberg, Associate Professor at KTH talk about negative emissions here (in Swedish).

The environment impact of construction can be reduced as early as today

The construction industry accounts for a big part of climate change. The good news is that it is possible to significantly reduce this already today. And with new technology, the picture can be even brighter.

In a recent study by Docent Tove Malmqvist and other researchers including from KTH and IVL (Swedish Environmental Research Institute) in consultation with the Swedish Construction Federation, the environment impact of five construction systems for a residential apartment block were compared. Three of them were constructed in concrete and the other two were timber-based. The systems are used today. The research was based on an existing building in Hökarängen, south Stockholm. They looked at the climate impact of the building, if it were to have been built today with the five different systems.

The results indicate that by simply choosing a different system, the climate impact of the construction phase can be reduced by around one third. Added to which, each system has room for potential improvement of over 20 percent compared to the technologies used today. In other words, it is possible to halve climate impact using solutions that are already available and that can be used.

The report presents a number of recommendations for contractors and developers. These include:
• Order low carbon cement concrete
• Order the best products climate wise
• Switch to renewable fuels for transport
• Avoid long distance transport of materials and components
• Optimise energy usage on the construction site
• Factor in climate impact and learn more about this

As such, it is not a case of advanced super solutions, but of pretty basic steps that can made a big difference. Now, it’s up to clients, developers and planners to actually take action. Sometimes, we talk about what responsibilities an individual has versus society. (See for example, this interesting article in Svenska Dagbladet by Anders Rosén, Associate Professor at KTH, and others. However, we also have an individual responsibility in our professional roles. So, let’s get started and do what can be done.

Tip of the week: Jonathan Metzger, Associate Professor at KTH writes about this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics winner in Aftonbladet.

When the fire alarm goes off

Last Monday, 8 October, the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published. The report contains the sum of current knowledge on what 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of global warming respectively entails. These temperature increases are linked to the targets that virtually every country in the world has agreed on in the so-called Paris Agreement.

 The IPCC brings together researchers within different fields from all round the world and each report is subject to comprehensive review processes. The work is consensus based and careful to ensure everything included in the report is based on solid scientific grounds. This means they err on the side of caution, i.e. that they tend to underestimate the risks associated with climate changes. It is therefore not that surprising that the warnings and risk assessments have been dialled up in this report compared to earlier reports. As more research is done and knowledge acquired (and as the world gets warmer) new effects will also be discovered.

 The report points to the need for more urgent changes now if we are to achieve the climate targets set. We also know what needs to be done. We should stop using fossil fuels, we should build climate-smart houses, we should find new ways to produce steel, cement and plastic, we should eat less meat and dairy products from ruminants and we should fly less. All these pieces must be part of a strategy for a sustainable society in line with the Paris Agreement. We cannot do everything in one day and we do not have all the details ready, but we know where we can start. For example, I have previously written about transportation and buildings.

 Right now, we are a bit like a group of people sitting in a house where the fire alarm has gone off, but nobody is reacting, because we are all thinking that if no one else does anything, maybe I misheard and maybe there is no fire alarm. But there is. And what’s needed is for some people to stand up and do what has to be done. If some people start, others will then follow.

 But not everyone will be celebrating. Those with large holdings of fossil fuels will lose out. Lobbyists will employ their usual arguments and do what they can to slow this development. They may not say that the measures are wrong, perhaps, but they will find arguments that someone else should do something else, later, not now.

 However, the longer we wait to tackle climate change, the more expensive it will be. We have waited long enough about acting on the information we have had, and this means that we need to act now and use the alternatives that are available. To reach the climate targets, we need to roughly halve emissions every decade. That is totally doable. It’s just a matter of getting started.

 Tip of the week: Access the material from the IPCC. The report itself is comprehensive but there are several different summary versions on different levels. Everything is available here