söndag 25 november 2012

What do we do then? (conference)

I went to Naturskyddsföreningen's [The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, SSNCautumn conference Friday this week. I've written about it before, because I was one of no less than 18 "official bloggers" that got to go for free. This  (subjective, partial) post-conference summary is part of me paying them back for the courtesy of allowing me to go for free.

Since I knew I was going to write about the conference, I took diligent notes throughout the day. But if I follow my innate ambition and write exhaustively about the conference, this would become a blog post of such magnificent length that not even my mother in heaven (may she rest in peace) would have the endurance to read it all from beginning to end. My strategy is thus to cover a part of the event and my goal is to spend two hours writing this blog post (excluding the time it took to type down all my notes - I forgot to bring the power cord to the conference).

Much of the event was filmed and is accessible online - no less than five hours of talks! You can look at it all here - four one-hour+ long films, or, better, you can go here, pick the speaker of your choice, and listen to their talk and/or see their set of slides. After lunch, we had the choice to join one out of five different sessions and these were not filmed. I think I can be of best use here by covering the session I went to ("How far can technology take us?") and relate them to a few of the single-track (filmed) talks. But first a few general comments.

The conference was sold out and there were thus 500+ persons at the Stockholm Conference Center. The event was very professionally organized. One of the secrets is to have a good moderator who knows the subject (good enough) and who makes sure that people stay on topic and that the program stays on track (time-wise and more). Nina Ekelund did that (sometimes with help from SSNC General Secretary Svante Axelsson. The event was very much a one-directed affair (I was not so much a participant as part of the audience). That was ok though since the general quality of the speakers was generally very high. Also at the conference was Elina from my department and Teo, Sara and Karin from Green Leap ("nearby" in my organization). They were my "homies".

The session I went to had four speakers. They were all very good. The weakest link was the moderator who did not have the guts/experience to cut a woman short who clearly did not want to ask any particular question, but who rather just aimed for kidnapping the Q-and-A session and give an impromptu talk (not prepared, unclear, hard to follow). All four session speakers' slides are already available online - a great service to the audience and not something that is (yet) true for the other sessions!

Session E speaker 1 - Christer Sanne (author, retired researcher from KTH), "How we can live sustainably 2030: Technology, rebound effects and lifestyle as key questions"

Technology invention and technological developments progress in small steps every year. These small steps create a great potential for savings over time, but they tend to a large extent to be eaten up by social changes (e.g. increased consumption). Here's an example of Christer's: We need less energy to run our cars now compared to in the past. We can in fact make a car run with 60% less energy than 40 years ago, but the weight of the average car has gone up by 60% in the same period! ..There are furthermore a lot cars around today than there were 40 years ago... This example is thus an example of the dreaded "rebound effect".

Technological progress in small steps every year is like standing on an escalator. Everything becomes 2% more effective every year, but this positive change is compensated (eaten up) by a 2% increase in the production every year. Perhaps we would (almost) be at a standstill in the escalator if we could have environmental improvements with a 1-2% mitigating effect per year? Unfortunately we are already standing at a height in the escalator that is too high up (not sustainable). How can we walk contrary to the direction of the escalator and actually take big (necessary) steps "downwards", towards a sustainable level of (resource) consumption, energy usage and carbon emissions? How can we Swedes decrease our carbon footprint by 90% until 2050 - as we have pledged to do? How can we go from 10 to just 1 ton of CO2e emissions per person per year in less than 40 years? In order to reach that goal, we need to decrease our footprint by 7% every single year, reaching 70% reductions already by 2030 and 90% reductions by 2050. Sanne's suggestion is to divide the necessary 7% reductions into two components; a 2% reduction in working hours per year (instead of a 2% salary increase), and a 5% reduction through environmental improvements and decreased emissions due to changed lifestyles.

Very simplified, Christer's proposal for 2030 is to 1) go back to 1990's standard of living but 2) using the much-improved technology of 2030 and 3) have 10 hours more of leisure time (decrease the work week by 25%). Christer's thoughts are further elaborated in a just-finished report that is written for Naturvårdsverket [The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency], "Hur vi kan leva hållbart 2030" [How we can live sustainably 2030]. The report (in Swedish) is 130 pages long, it is available for download and I plan to read it!

Session E speaker 2 - Oksana Mont (professor in sustainable production and consumption at the International Institute of Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE) at Lund University), "Will technology save us and if not what else can we do?"

Technology solves some problems and creates other problems. Oksana, just like Christer, pointed to tricky rebound effects ("improved per-unit efficiency overcompensated by increasing consumption"). Cars do get more efficient (see above), but is their utility really improving that much? The average European car is used for only 29 minutes per day, the average 12 year old car has thus been rolling for (only) 90 days (24 hours per day) and the average car speed in European city centers is a scant 17 km/hour, i.e. just about or less than the speed of a bicycle.

Our business models are tied to materials throughput (selling objects, replacing broken objects). There is thus no incentive for companies to economize with resources today. Companies should shift to providing services instead of selling "stuff" (cars, washing machines etc.). Oksana also showed a slide where the practices that provides people with the most happiness (sex, socializing, relaxing, praying/meditating, eating and exercising) also happen to be low-energy and low-carbon emissions activities. So how do we make such low-energy activities become high-status practices (instead of bragging about our latest transcontinental vacation or buying an expensive car)?

At this point, Oksana started to talk about "collaborative consumption" and explicitly referred to Rachel Botsman's and her book (together with Roo Rogers): "What's mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption" (2010). This is a key reference in my and Karin Bradley's research grant application "Cities of sharing and rise of collaborative consumption" - so I guess me and Karin should get in touch with Oksana! Oksana also referred to a EU project, "Sustainable Lifestyles 2050" (SPREAD). This is definitely something we should check up!

Session E speaker 3 - Johan Ehrenberg (author, publisher, entrepreneur).

1% of humanity create 50% of all CO2 emissions and 10% of humanity create 80% of all emissions (i.e. use 80% of all energy). These persons - us - represent the really urgent problem, not the much greater number of people living in poor countries. It is possible to "save the world" already today - and with existing technology - and Johan was a great believer in solar power and claimed that 50% of all energy in Sweden could be produced by solar power. The key is ideology, politics, policies and incentives, since the market won't fix this by itself. Why does so much electricity come from coal today? Because it's less expensive that other sources of course. So let's change the political and societal rules so coal isn't that inexpensive any longer - what's the problem?

I remember a great talk by a guest lecturer, Nicklas Lundblad, in one of my courses. Nicklas has a background in philosophy, law and informatics and is nowadays the director of public policy at Google. His talk was called "Out of sync: The legal system vs. music practices". His point was that it is easier for Sweden to reintroduce the death penalty (only needs two consecutive majority votes in the parliament) than to change our copyright laws, since the copyright laws are tied up in other, more general trade agreements. It isn't possible to break the copyright agreements without breaking a lot of other agreements too. The result is then a bifurcation between what the law says ("who cares?") and what people think and what people do when it comes to copyrighted materials. So my question in relation to Johan's talk is if it easy or even possible for Sweden to unilaterally change laws and incentives the way Johan proposes? Wouldn't that be a prime example of so-called "trade barriers" (and yet another reason why I'm not so fond of the European Union)?

Session E - speaker 4. Greger Henriksson (researcher at KTH/Environmental Strategies Research), "Behaviors, habits, environmental actions..."

Greger is affiliated to the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) and so am I (I'm part of the management team as of this summer). Greger even helped me out earlier this autumn with parts of my course "Sustainability and media technology", but I have in fact never heard him speak in a public setting before.

Greger has, as an ethnologist, visited people to see what they actually do (as apart from what they say that they do), and to interview them. He has also analyzed behavioral diaries (for example regarding recycling practices) and used these as input to interviews. He subscribes to "social practice theory" and does not think that understanding must proceed action. We change our behaviors not primarily because we realize the unsustainability of our current practices, but because we mimic someone else who behaves in a particular way. Changing people's habits can thus be seen as a popular movement and every-day practices can either win or loose supporters and followers (like a football team). 

As to the single-track program (captured by the camera), I think the talks above can be tied to especially two talks. I really should go back and listen to the recorded talks a second time, but I just don't have the time so my memories and my notes will have to do for now. 

Björn Sandén (professor in environmental systems analysis) gave a talk called "On the threshold of a new industrial revolution". He said that we are facing a "gigantic challenge that houses enormous risks and possibilities". Beyond a recap of the history of the Earth (with a special emphasis on the last 10 000 (agriculture) or 200 (industrialization) years, my impression of Björn was that he was impossibly cheerful about the possibilities of technology to solve the problems we are currently facing. He didn't feel so much as a scientist (extrapolating from his research) as a technological evangelist. To Björn, technology is a solution, indeed it seems to be the only way forward, and it represents salvation from our current woes. The implicit message that I heard is "give me more money (and prestige) and I will solve your problems". Great for him, but my train is going in the other direction. 

Someone who might have listened (a little too closely) at Björn was Lena Ek, Sweden's Minister for the Environment who gave a talk called "The playing field of environmental politics". She referred to the just-published International Monetary Fund (IMF) "Doomsday report" stating that we are heading for a 4-degree increase of temperature on Earth (with devastating effects) by saying "to many of us this was not news". If this was known to Lena, why haven't we heard anything about it from her or from the government? And why don't we (Sweden) do more in order to stop that future from coming true?

Lena is very positive about the possibilities of technology to solve our problems and hinted at several (unnamed) technical miracles and revolutions just around the corner. How else is it possible to interpret her rapt retelling of when her grandmother turned on the electricity for the very first time, or her very first telephone conversation? I assume Lena's revolutions will happen in the energy field, but we didn't really get any concrete clues about that or indeed about anything else of importance. But I have to give it to her, Lena is pretty good at speaking and answering (tough) questions. Good for her - it's a pity I don't have the confidence she has!

See further a full spread about Lena in the Sun Nov 26 issue of Svenska Dagbladet, "Technological solutions give hope for the environment". It must be such a relief for a politician not to have to be the bearer of bad news (for example that we have to stop consuming so much, flying so much or eating so much meat.) It must be great to instead be able to "argue" for all of us to lean back, cross our fingers and hope for the best. Technology will save us (like the hero does at the very last moment in sooo many movies we have all seen). Good for her!

Beyond technology, Lena also has great confidence in the political system and in (current) political processes to solve the problems we are facing. Despite the above-mentioned "doomsday report", it seems like Lena's (conception of the) problems are neither immediate nor insistent. She seems to have a relaxed attitude to the immediacy of current challenges. Good for her again - it's a pity I don't have the confidence she has! 

People who are worried include professor Johan Rockström and renowned nature photographer Mattias Klum. I liked their talk, but what I found truly intriguing and impressive was the very tight, super-praticed and successful combination of 1) facts (by scientist Johan) and 2) feelings (evoked by Mattias' nature photographs) together with the 3) strong pro-nature contra-CO2-emissions sentiments of both speakers. Their talk was called "Vår tid på jorden" [Our time on Earth] and that also happens to be the title of their just-published book. I've put that book on my Christmas wish-list. The very same book is also available in English but is (for some reason) then called "The human quest: Prospering within planetary boundaries".  

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