Monday, December 22, 2014

William Ivar Eriksson

Twelve days ago, William Ivar Eriksson was born here in Umeå. Unlike his older brother who already had a passport and an intercontinental flight ticket by this age, William is enjoying the Christmas peace that has fallen together with the snow. 

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”


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)