Friday, December 05, 2014

Fudan International Summer Session

Back in 2011, I was teaching a summer school at Peking University. The experience was extremely gratifying and I learned a lot from my students who came both from China and the rest of the world. Due to a somewhat unexpected twist of events, I am now scheduled to return to China for one month of intensive teaching in July 2015. This time however the setting will be Fudan University in Shanghai and it will be a trip with the whole Eriksson-Karlsson family. Yet, like in Beijing, I will offer a course on global environmental governance:

“In a time of great power rivalry but also global cooperation, this course examines new and old forms of environmental governance at both the national and international level. Taking China as its natural starting point, the course looks at what role China could play in driving the global transition to sustainability. The course is primarily focused on climate change but seeks to offer a more general introduction to the environmental challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. By taking the course, students will not only learn about environmental sustainability but also develop a deeper understanding of how science influence policy and how international regimes are designed, negotiated and implemented”

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Why saving electricity in Sweden may in fact be bad for the climate

As the snow flurries whirl about outside and darkness falls over North Sweden, one is tempted to turn on some of those fluorescent lamps. Conventional wisdom among environmentalists however suggests that this indulgence is one that the global climate cannot afford. It is already late in the hour and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are almost at 400 ppm. No matter how small, the mainstream view is that each contribution matters and that we all need to accept that the “age of abundance” is forever over.

Yet, when pondering global energy trends, it seems as if the poor did not get that memo. Instead they are doing exactly the same thing as we in the West did in the past, they are investing heavily in fossil energy to power their increasingly industrialized economies and booming megacities. With 3.5 billion people still lacking access to modern energy, it is not surprising that many developing countries are desperate to expand their energy infrastructure, regardless of the climatic impact. Few countries however are as fortunate as Sweden. Thanks to numerous rivers suitable for hydropower and a wise decision to build nuclear energy, Sweden’s electricity today comes almost exclusively from zero carbon sources. As developing countries often lack similar geographic fortunes and the upfront capital needed for nuclear, it is not surprising that the global share of coal power is again the highest it has been since the 1970’s. Thousands of new coal power plants are currently being built in countries as diverse as Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia. While China is finally in a position to afford more nuclear in its energy mix, India recently made a solemn promise to not cut its emissions for the coming thirty years.

One may ask what all this has to do with Sweden and a single light bulb in Umeå? Well, the key issue here is the widely shared belief that the solution to climate change is one of demand-side reduction. The problem with this belief is that it might actually work. In Sweden. So, instead of investing in new generations of nuclear reactors and breakthrough energy innovation, Swedish policy-makers may find that saving energy is actually the way forward. By making electricity more expensive at home through renewable mandates, importing carbon-intensive goods that are produced elsewhere, and not counting emissions from overseas travelling, Sweden has become the poster-child of “low carbon growth”. While this image is clearly not accurate, the all-too-expected reaction from the Malthusian camp is also misleading. Because what happens when Sweden and other rich countries only care about the demand-side of the equation is that we essentially leave the poor to themselves and the planet in peril. This is why, ultimately, every lamp we turn off in Sweden is part of the problem rather than the solution.

While mainstream environmentalists may sometimes grudgingly accept the need for breakthrough supply-side innovation they have never made such innovation a central demand of the movement. In fact, despite the many possible co-benefits (such as solving much of the waste issue), they instinctively resist research into fourth generation nuclear energy. Instead, many environmentalists keep repeating the same tired demand-side prescriptions that not only fuel ideological polarization at home but also remain wholly inadequate to stem the global growth in fossil infrastructure.

(on a much happier note, please take a moment to watch this breathtaking short movie by Erik Wernquist and narrated by Carl Sagan - as much as Malthusian thinking may dominate cultural discourse today, I am confident that it will ultimately prove to be, if nothing else, spiritually unsatisfactory for future generations)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Woolen socks

This morning, Eddie woke up around 4 am with little desire to go back to bed. Three hours and many long journeys with the Brio train later, he accepted to go for a ride in the stroller and return to dreamland. As for myself, now wide awake, I decided to instead cuddle up in the sofa with my new woollen socks and a tumbler full of Clipper Americano. These socks instantly reminded me of wild races down the long corridors of Eden at night and of all the things that are no more.

But there is new life and new stories for sure. In a couple of weeks we hope to welcome a new member of our family. And despite the frigid morning, Umeå has been very good to us this far. I have found a great gym down at the river and, in academic terms, this autumn has been extraordinary merry with two major publications accepted in highly ranked journals. Once they become available online, I will post more here on Rawls & Me.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Maardam

We all have dark secrets. I, for one, have many. In the early 2000s, I lived in a mid-size Swedish town with too much time to read second-rate novels at night. Naturally, I stumbled upon Håkan Nesser and over an autumn I finished all his crime stories about the retired Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. These stories, set in the fictional city of Maardam which is an eclectic mix of the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and Scandinavia, had a certain resonance with my own post-adolescent existence of transcendental daydreaming and Mitteleuropa nostalgia.

Ten years later the night train Malmö – Berlin is no more, I have lived on four different continents and I never have any time to read novels. But tomorrow morning, I am flying down to the Netherlands for a piece of Maardam and some time with old friends.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Where we travel (and why it matters)

Over the past week I have had the privilege to, among other things, review a book for the journal Environmental Values. The book is called NatureTM Inc. and is a relentless critique of neoliberal conservation strategies. I am not going to say much more about it here but the case studies in the book reminded me of to what extent our perceptions of the world are shaped by where we travel (and likewise, where we chose not to venture).

Looking at my own bookshelf above, I can tell that Africa (with the exception of Morocco and Cairo) is still largely a white spot. So is all of South America. And Russia. I think that the fact that I have not been to these places helps explain a bit of my sometimes naïve worldview, that I generally see social progress, that, even if I would never suggest that the path is going to be straight by any means, I still think that we are moving towards global convergence in terms of living standards and values. But if I err too much towards optimism, the opposite is definitely true for those who only see exploitation, corruption and ecological devastation.

As I, somewhat rhetorically, asked when I was discussant in Sydney some weeks ago, what did you expect? Of course it was going to be difficult for humanity to emerge as a planetary civilization, of course it was going to be difficult to contain, yet make wise use of, our Promethean energies. And of course many people will fail to see the broader picture and jump to the wrong conclusions (such as that humanity should be forced back to some kind of romanticized Arcadia). Yet, I have trust in that most people will ultimately recognize the value of civilization and stand up for democracy, pluralism and an open future. The dynamics of globalization alone are such that once the genie has been let out of the bottle, people may moralize about long haul flights or the shallowness of consumption, yet the next moment plan their own hikes in New Zealand, want their kids to study abroad or set up auto-replies announcing that they are off to a yoga retreat in Bali (in order to get away from materialism). The challenge of course is to make these things universal and not just the privileges of a tiny minority. With social investments, open trade and public innovation, I believe that we already have some of the tools but that we still lack the necessary commitment to politics, we lack the courage to stop running and instead realize that we are the masters of own fate as a species. 

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Friday, October 03, 2014

Sydney

Just as we are about to fly out over the Baltic Sea and begin our descent into Copenhagen, I find a minute to reflect on my week in Australia. As always, Jon and I talked a lot, there was plenty of coffee in the sun and some great vegetarian food. But most of all, coming back to Sydney created a sense of perspective on time itself. I smiled when I saw the bottles of Rolling with their bicycles even as I knew how frustrated I actually was that autumn in Melbourne, how incapable I felt of writing my PhD yet how meaningless it was to give in to self-pity. Total loss, yes, but I was still alive and resorting to cynicism would only make it worse.

Meanwhile, the world went on. Obama became president, I ran 10-15 km every other day and, in the end, I even made some limited progress on my PhD. I got to see New Zealand, the Great Ocean Road and Coogee Beach. How reckless one can be with time when one is not a parent. I remember reading eight hundred pages long novels about alternative universes, writing lengthy blog posts on the financial crisis and spending days just walking around without direction.

Ok, time to land. Apparently, Copenhagen is reporting fog and twelve degrees. Already very far from the Sydney sun.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A380

Walking down the airbridge, I could immediately tell that there had been an equipment change this evening and that the old boring 777-200ER had been replaced by a shiny white Whalejet. Though I had an A380 segment on the return in the original booking, this was still a most appreciated surprise for an aviation nerd like myself. Maybe I should have suspected something already when I was handed my boarding pass with the magic words “Main deck” stamped on it. Despite almost seven years in service with a number of different airlines, this will be my premier flight on the A380-800.

Seeing the signs leading passengers away to their Suites, First and Business class cabins respectively, I inevitably felt a sting of envy. But as this is Singapore Airlines after all, I must say that I feel reasonably comfortable sitting here at 37A, looking forward to my soon-to-be-served G&T. Also, as one would expect, the cabin feels really spacious despite the ten-abreast economy configuration.

The flight time down to Sydney is 7.10 hours with some light to moderate turbulence expected en route. The take-off alone was a big treat, extremely gentle yet massive as the 575 000 kg heavy aircraft rushed down the runway. And being able to use the inflight internet to post this as we cross the equator is also pretty cool. However, as I have finished most of my preparations for the conference, I will try to sleep a bit now. Maybe I will have time for another blog update once I get down to Australia.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Boarding pass

More or less on the day six years ago, I was on the same lunchtime triple-seven departure to Singapore. Like now, I had an onward ticket to Australia. Unlike then however, I am not going to spend three months of melancholia writing away in small cafés or running along St Kilda Beach. This time around, I will head straight to Sydney for a week of intensive conferencing and editing. Nonetheless, printing that boarding pass at Stockholm Arlanda had a certain magic to it. This is really a trip to the other side of the world.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Recovered


Few things feel as good as having been really under the weather and then recover. Last week, I had a close encounter with the nursery bug Coxsackie A16 leaving me with around 40 degrees fever. But now I am back on my feet, getting ready for a super intensive September with 70 hours of lectures before I head off to Sydney on the 26th for the annual meeting of the Australian PSA. To stay healthy through all those hours in class, I found the perfect beverage today at the supermarket.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Visa-free travel as a political response to Putin

For more than a decade, I have argued the need to politically and economically integrate Russia in the wider European community. For the most part, I have been met by ridicule suggesting that I have underestimated the “foreignness” of Russia and its “natural” instincts to dominate its neighbours. Instead of integration, we Europeans have locked Russia out, most visibly by denying its citizens the right to visit our continent without a visa but also politically by constantly expanding both NATO and the EU towards its borders yet never even hinted the possibility of Russia also eventually becoming a member.

When Putin, in clear violation of the Budapest Memorandum, overtook Crimea he acted precisely as my friends had suggested, something that they were of course quick to point out. Yet, like always when it comes to history, we must also consider what would have been possible had we pursued more idealistic policies in the past. Instead, the cynics and the military realists had their way and now we (not to mention the people of eastern Ukraine) are paying the price for our complacency and short-sightedness.

Yet, just like in the past, the appropriate solution is not sanctions or isolation which would only feed into Russia’s sense of eternal victimhood. Instead, it is more important than ever to show the Russian people that we in Europe can look beyond their autocratic leaders. A simple and highly symbolic way of doing this would be to unilaterally end the Schengen visa requirement for Russian citizens.

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