You are the Zennström Visiting Professor in Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University, what is good climate leadership to you?
– Good climate leadership is not the sole responsibility of political leaders, but just as importantly is something we all need to demonstrate, within our families, amongst our friends, at work, across our municipalities and in our active engagement with national politics. If we are to address the very challenging issues associated with rapidly eliminating our carbon emissions (i.e. stopping the use of fossil fuels) and preparing for the climate impacts our historical failure to reduce emissions has already locked into the system, then we need a strong and honest partnership between civil society and policymakers. Finally, at the heart of good climate leadership is a careful and cogent understanding of the issues and a recognition that equity needs to be at the core of our responses to the existential challenges climate change poses.
In Sweden you are known as the climate professor that do not fly due to high carbon emissions, how did you come to that decision?
– In the late 1990s I began to research the climate implications of aviation – from the science of emissions released at altitude, through the technical options for reducing aircraft emissions and on to the rates of growth in the sector. It quickly became evident that aviation dominated the emissions of the wealthier groups in our global society and that we were, and still are, the primary drivers of aviation expansion. At the same time, it was evident that in the near to medium term, there was no viable alternative to high carbon kerosene for powering aircrafts. Moreover, aircraft engines are beautiful pieces of engineering representing the pinnacle of internal combustion engine design and consequently there is little opportunity for significant improvements in efficiency. So until an alternative zero carbon fuel can completely substitute for kerosene, a rapid and deep reduction in the levels of aviation is necessary if we are to have a stable and livable climate. Aviation’s carbon emissions are already as high as those of the UK – but are set to expand rapidly over the coming decade and beyond. Put bluntly, this is incompatible with our Paris commitments. Bringing together my research on aviation with my concern for the future wellbeing of our society specifically and wider global ecosystems more generally, I decided I could no longer justify locking-in an industry set to undermine any prospect of a safe, flourishing and decarbonised future. Consequently I have not flown since 2004.
Are scientists good at communicating and translating climate science to decision makers, the business sector, civil society and the media?
– Scientists, academics and experts more generally are typically not good communicators. We are able to translate our highly specialised science and knowledge into the language of those policy makers, NGOs and business leaders already au Fait with the subject area. But beyond this particular and small group our ability to engage is very limited. Here we need help from a well informed and unbiased media, from the creative industries – not just theatre and ‘high brow’ art – but those developing popular television programmes, story tellers, movies and music, etc. Ultimately science needs to be translated into culturally-tailored narratives if it is ever to have the societal resonance necessary to inform an alternative and urgent and low-carbon paradigm.
Does Brexit mean the end to EU leadership in climate?
– The simply answer is no – unless leaders want to use it as a further excuse for inaction. But more importantly, I do not think the EU, or indeed any nation, has demonstrated leadership approaching what is necessary to deliver on the Paris 1.5 and 2°C commitments. The EU’s Paris pledge was for a reduction in its emissions of 40% by 2030 – less than half of what is required for the EU to make its fair contribution to a likely chance of staying below 2°C. Brexit, as with Trump, are potential excuses for the inaction we all prefer. But if we genuinely care for our own children’s futures we could instead see both Brexit and Trump as catalysts for redoubling our commitments and action on climate change. The UK and US have a combined population of around 400 million and represent less than 20% of the global economy (on a ‘purchasing power parity’ basis – PPP). So let the other 95% of the global population and 80% of the worlds economy get on with climate change – and if the UK and US choose to opt out, then borrow from Trump’s enthusiasm for tariffs – and impose a carbon levy on their exports.
How would you describe the role of the business sector in climate leadership?
– It is fundamental. If the global community is to respond to the commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement, the business sector needs to demonstrate leadership. As with nations, virtually no business is actively pursuing an equitable and scientifically appropriate mitigation agenda – so big changes are needed – now. If the carbon budgets for 1.5 and 2°C are not to be exceeded, then significant innovation from within the business sector is required – not just technical, but in business and ownership models, in developing not-for profit and steady-state organisations, in working within a small and rapidly dwindling carbon budget, with equity as a key issue, and a much greater awareness of the international implications of their activities. Businesses are central to a progressive low-carbon transformation, but thus far they have fallen far short of the mark.
Do we have the right leaders in the world to save the climate?
– As with #1, we are todays and tomorrow’s leaders. What we lack is the courage, imagination and clarity to conceive of a different future. We must escape the stifling constraints of our doomed financial model. The future is going to be radically different to the present. Either we prefer our own short-term hedonism at the expense of future generations or alternatively we undertake a challenging and rapid programme of local and international mitigation and bequeath our children a decarbonized and prosperous future. Choosing the latter will not be easy, it will take considerable leadership; leadership that starts or fails with us.