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The model ambassador who counts on ecosystem services

Street view with trees
Urban trees deliver ecosystem services, e.g. by regulating temperature. Photo: Johan C Thorburn, KTH
Published May 24, 2022

By including relevant aspects of sustainability and having a longer time perspective it is possible to get a better view of systems and how they can be used sustainably. This insight is one of the foundations for Ulla Mörtberg’s research and it is reflected in her professorship in energy systems and environmental assessment. On her way there she has been working with large scale issues, like the forests of Brazil and Lithuania, as well as on a local level, e.g. studying which ecosystem services street trees supply, as compared to trees and forest areas in the urban landscape of Stockholm.

Earlier this year, Ulla Mörtberg was promoted to professor in the unusual combination energy systems and environmental assessment, which followed a docentureship in spatial and environmental systems analysis. Systems analysis is about analysing complex systems by mobilising knowledge from different disciplines and also finding critical parts that can link between different systems. Ulla Mörtberg’s work has consistently had a spatial dimension and it has been important to her to include environmental aspects, which often run the risk of taking second place.

“A classic field of research is energy system analysis where you primarily investigate different energy sources and their costs, how much energy you can get, energy security and some types of environmental problems, e.g. CO2 emissions. My idea was to link directly to a broader environmental assessment focusing on ecosystem services, explains Ulla Mörtberg. I have developed methods to connect the systems to include the environmental questions from the beginning instead of being added afterwards. You could say that I am an ambassador for using and linking models from different scientific disciplines to better understand systems.”

Ecosystem services in forests and cities

One example is how Ulla Mörtberg and her colleagues, in collaboration with researchers from SLU, worked with the Lithuanian Institute of Forestry and the Lithuanian Energy Institute, using spatial analysis to investigate to what extent the country’s forests would suffice for different ecosystem services like recreation, support for biodiversity as well as production of biomass for material and energy. The time horizon was a hundred years, a reasonable time frame when it comes to forest. The analysis gave insights about the importance of using the forest strategically and for example, only burning waste wood and not timber in power plants, and including different ecosystem services in the calculations.

“Ecosystem services can be divided into provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural services and they are all important to include in the analysis. For example habitat for biodiversity, cleaning of air and water, raw goods and recreation opportunities. We develop methods to connect the analyses to different energy futures.”

Ulla Mörtberg also works with other types of renewable energy, e.g. spatial analyses of planning for wind power. Another area is urban systems where there are many energy aspects and where people’s usage of the urban landscape can be connected to ecosystem services and biodiversity. The same questions return in different systems and the approaches are similar, what differs are the applications.

Economy and digital tools in collaboration with other universities

In many contexts, the trade-offs between alternative usages can become the ground for conflicts. In a planned collaboration with Luleå University of Technology, Ulla Mörtberg wants to develop the application of models to take economic aspects into greater consideration. It is for example important to know how landowners’ economic result is affected if the forest is used in one way the other.

In an ongoing collaboration with the City of Stockholm and MIT, Ulla Mörtberg studies ecosystem services at a local level, which ecosystem services street trees supply, compared to trees and forest areas in urban landscapes in Stockholm. Using sensors mounted on vehicles they investigate how the trees affect the surrounding temperature. In another collaboration with universities in Germany and Italy, the researchers also use digital tools for spatial analysis to integrate ecosystem services and green infrastructure – closely connected to biodiversity.

“In the long run, it is profitable economically, for health as well as from an attractivity standpoint to include the green perspective when you are planning a city. I use to say that with time, sustainability and economy intersect. Sustainable use of natural resources and economy becomes the same thing if you only prolong the time axis.”

This shows not least in insurance companies having come far when it comes to ecosystem services in connection to risks and costs. Another example that Ulla Mörtberg raises is the solid knowledge possessed by Dutch experts who have taken powerful measures like replacing urban areas with parks that can accommodate enormous volumes of water and also be used for recreation. They simply make room for water instead of trying to stop it. All to mitigate the risk it entails that large parts of the country are situated downstream from both the Atlantic and large rivers.

Brazil’s rainforest show the importance of a big perspective

A different system facing challenges is Brazil’s rainforest, which is under hard pressure. When the earlier president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, visited KTH in 2015, much of her interest went to the poster that Ulla Mörtberg’s doctoral student Flavio LM de Freitas presented and that showed possible loopholes in the current forestry regulation.

“After a long discussion in Portuguese with Flavio, she turned to me and said, in English ‘It will not be like that’. It is about hot topics at the highest political level, where it is important to include several sustainability perspectives in decision support for policy and planning.”

Forest deforestation in Brazil has, among other things, led to disruptions of the rain cycles. It is another example of how a system analysis that considers ecosystem services and biodiversity can shed light on the consequences of a choice of action. And also the need of having a management perspective that takes into account issues like carbon stocks and biodiversity without affecting individuals excessively.

“You have to handle the ecological aspects coupled with the social and economic ones, both when it comes to the rainforests of Brazil, where wind power should be placed in Sweden and other politically hot issues. It is important to understand who is affected since solutions also have consequences.”

This is the 32nd article in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment 's new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here: Archive 

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: May 24, 2022