Automatgenererad bild.

14 October 2014

Popular anniversary conference with US researchers on the power of shame

Mistra’s 20th-anniversary conference focused on today’s global environmental challenges, but also on how shame and pride affect our interest in cooperating for a better society. More than 150 delegates found out about the latest sustainability research and there were discussions on how the business sector and the community at large can contribute to a sustainable society.

When Mistra started in 1994, this organisation’s voice was unique in calling for interdisciplinary sustainability research. Since then, although a growing number of funders have become interested in this area, Mistra still has a key part to play. Many of the speakers expressed this view during the day.

The keynote speaker was Jennifer Jacquet, a New York University researcher who, in her work, unites environmental and social sciences with psychology. Her interests include the drivers that propel us towards self-interest or cooperation. With game theory as her starting point, she has shown in various group experiments that both the risk of being revealed as a shirker and the chance of being rewarded for good cooperation enhance our public-spiritedness. Knowing that we behave like this is, as Jacquet sees it, valuable for stakeholders wanting more effective environmental management.

The conference delegates, numbering about 150, included representatives of the business sector, think tanks and the press, as well as of Mistra’s research programmes. Kristina Norman and her colleague Patrik Zingmark from Swedbank were among those who made their way to the old Customs House in central Stockholm. Apart from several good speeches, the conference also provided ample networking opportunities, Norman thinks. She also gained new ideas about future business models.

‘The panel debate was an eye-opener for us — finding out about other companies’ practical steps towards sustainability. It also gave us an idea for our own work that we’re going to pursue,’ says Norman, Client Executive at Swedbank.

The conference was opened by two well-qualified Swedish environmental researchers who are active in international affairs. Thomas Sterner, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Gothenburg and one of the researchers in the Mistra Indigo programme, based his talk on climate change. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will exceed 400 ppm any day now — and the figure is continuing to rise at a rate that is unparalleled in Earth’s history. There are no quick fixes, as Sterner pointed out. He was the leading writer of sections on climate taxes and other policy instruments in the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). New regulations are necessary, but to date the world’s countries have had difficulty in agreeing on emission cuts. Sterner, who has attended UN climate meetings, related discouraging details from the climate negotiations of the past few years, in which not only cultural differences but also various special interests have made concrete results more difficult to achieve. Sterner wants to see major investments in new technology, but he also sees needs of new research in, for example, behavioural sciences and policy issues. Interdisciplinary initiatives are necessary and desirable, according to Sterner, but he also sees difficulties and indicates that Mistra’s major challenge for the future, too, is to safeguard academic quality while providing answers to current social questions.

Johan Rockström, Professor of Environmental Science and Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a Mistra initiative, points out that Earth has now definitively entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene. Its characteristic feature is that humankind has become as mighty a force as earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural forces since we are changing Earth’s ecosystems at global level. In several cases, according to Rockström, these ecosystems are approaching the limit of possible natural recovery. If current trends continue beyond certain tipping points, we risk irrevocable effects on the global climate. On a world map, he pointed out the areas that are most vulnerable, including parts of the Arctic, Antarctic and Amazon rainforest. Rockström cited several shocking examples of challenges we must meet if we are to turn the trend towards sustainability. Three billion people are, for example, expected to move out of rural areas in the next few decades, and this will require more than a doubling of present-day cities.

To meet this and other challenges, Rockström spoke fervently of the need to establish new forms of interdisciplinary environmental research. This calls for cooperation both across national borders and among different academic disciplines. Rockström and his colleagues in resilience research are well ahead in this work.

‘Sweden, along with Canada, Japan and other countries, is taking the lead in sustainability research. This is something we can build further on, with Mistra’s help,’ Rockström says.

The morning ended with a ‘recce panel’ that, with Eva Krutmeijer as moderator, discussed what may conceivably come to dominate environmental debate in the next 20 years. Management of natural resources was a recurrent topic, raised by several panel members, including Lisa Sennerby Forsse, Vice-Chancellor of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Henrik Carlsen, a Stockholm Environment Institute researcher, stressed the importance of security and geopolitics — factors he thinks are often disregarded in environmental contexts. He cited growing interest in, and conflicts about, Arctic natural resources as examples. Ulrika Björkstén, Head of Swedish Radio’s Science Department, emphasised the role of journalism. In particular, she cited the importance of not only communicating the latest research findings to the public, but also letting relevant scientific opinions and views confront one another in a positive way. Caroline Westblom, a Lund University student and member of the PUSH Sweden network, found visions of the sustainable society lacking and expressed the wish for a clearer public debate on what kind of society we want in the long term.

Mathilda Tham, Professor of Design at Linnaeus University and a member of Mistra’s Board, then spoke about sustainability from a fashion point of view and the role design can play in processes of change. She gave several examples of the fashion industry, both clothing creators and fashion consumers, making a concrete contribution to greater sustainability through, for example, reuse of clothes or simply borrowing or renting of garments.

SEB’s senior economist Klas Eklund — another Mistra Board member — spoke about an old distrust between environmentalists and economists, a gap he thinks it is high time to bridge. Eklund mentioned several initiatives that, in various ways, seek to combine sustainability with economic science. One is an EU project that, with the support of Sweden and other countries, involves research on the scope for developing a modern, green definition of GDP that includes natural capital.

A circular economy and new business models that support sustainability were two subjects discussed by a panel comprising Klas Eklund, Mathilda Tham, Anna Forsberg,head of the building company Skanska’s Green Business unit, and Jan-Eric Sundgren, former President of Chalmers University of Technology and now advisor to Volvo Trucks. The circular economy is a relatively new concept that, essentially, involves conserving financial capital and entirely eliminating waste from new products, or creating scope for their reuse, right from the planning stage. Sundgren stated that the circular economy entails great potential for the business sector to create new business models, and he described how Volvo Trucks is working to enable worn-out parts of goods vehicles to be dismantled in the company’s workshops and then reused.

In a concluding discussion under the title of ‘Governance for sustainability’, Jennifer Jacquet and Professor Carl Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre Science Director, talked about how a sustainable society can and must be shaped interactively by research, business, consumers and politicians together.

The challenges are thus many and large, and leading environmental research that can contribute new solutions is just as important today as when Mistra was formed 20 years ago. Mistra’s Board Chair Lena Treschow Torell mentioned three upcoming Mistra initiatives about the Arctic, the circular economy and (a continuing focus) sustainability in the financial market. Mistra’s new Chief Executive Åke Iverfeldt brought the day to a close by emphasising that the organisation will keep pushing for boundary-crossing, forward-looking research. Iverfeldt also mentioned that Mistra’s own asset management, a portfolio that has long been operated according to sustainability criteria, is to be aligned further with the research Mistra conducts.

Text: Henrik Lundström, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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