Category Archives: CEMUS

CEFO Workshop with Marina Fischer-Kowalski

In the beginning of March, CEMUS had yet another prominent guest: Dr. Marina Fischer-Kowalski. As the director and “designer” of the Institute of Social Ecology at Klagenfurt University and senior lecturer at the University of Vienna she has published numerous texts on social ecology and social metabolism. Marina has also worked for the United Nations Environmental Program and she used to be the president of the International Society for Ecological Economics.

CEFO – the research forum of CEMUS – had organized a workshop on social metabolism with Marina and I was lucky enough to be able to participate in it. While the concept of social metabolism was relatively new to me, it is apparently tackling many familiar issues. So the workshop was a very enriching experience. Many things were discussed in detail that day, but to keep it “readable” I will focus on some main points here.

Marina explained that social ecology is about how society behaves towards its environment. Her model of social metabolism considers the natural and cultural sphere of causation and how they interact. She claims that other existing models do not connect these two spheres at all, or in the wrong way. She visualized these approaches somewhat like those two for instance:

Marina claims that her model is more holistic and looks at different levels of interactions. It reminds me of Jay Forrester’s System’s Thinking.

The whole cultural sphere – including the overlapping part – forms our society. For all those of you who wonder what belongs to the coinciding part: that’s for example the world population, but also artefacts and life stock. A lot is happening between those two spheres. Through our labor we change the natural realities and experience feedback from that. In the cultural sphere, we develop programs within subsystems like economics, law, etc. – as a reaction to natural feedback, for instance.

Social Metabolism

After a really stimulating discussion and a fantastic Turkish lunch, Marina held a lecture in the afternoon. That was the part I was really most interested in, as it was about decoupling environmental impacts from economic growth. Probably this is THE dream of every economist these days (and if it is not, it should be!). Marina promoted an idea of a tax shift from labor to resources brought forward by Prof. Robert K. Weizsäcker. She highlighted that one needs to distinguish between resource and impact decoupling. When presenting material use and GDP growth over the last century, one can see a “spontaneous” (not following a certain policy) decoupling of these two indicators since the 1970s in the developed countries. Marina presented several possible explanations for this phenomenon: (1) slower economic growth, (2) outsourcing of material production (to developing countries), (3) increasing income inequality, which reduced mass consumption to a certain extent or (4) maybe even a saturation of material needs. Some of these suggestions deserve attention, but with respect to the second point: outsourcing of production to developing countries, it would have been interesting to look at consumption-based resource use. I wonder how much decoupling we could have seen then. The saturation of material needs also is an argument limited to the developed world.

That is something I need to criticize about this lecture in general. Marina often gave examples from Europe. Due to global trade and supply chains the approach to decoupling should always be global, though, in my opinion.

GDP growth and material extraction. The “metabolic rate” is the amount of resources required per year and capita.

We also talked about productivity a lot during this presentation. Marina mentioned in the beginning that technology is one of the key factors when it comes to decoupling economic growth from resource use and pollution, actually. She showed some graphs where one could see how much faster labor productivity increased compared to energy and material productivity. This is where the proposed shift of tax burden comes into play. It would make labor cheaper relative to materials or energy. As Rob Hart suggested in our latest course on sustainable economic growth, the main reason why labor productivity increases so much faster is that the relative factor share of labor is much higher than that of resources within global production.

However, there are many ways of looking at resource consumption and it was really inspiring to discuss this with Marina. I want to thank her for a very pleasant and informative day and I hope that she will visit us again.


Climate Change and 2 Degrees: Is the Parisian Emperor Naked?

Last Thursday Prof. Kevin Anderson held an open lecture on the Paris agreement. As the title – obviously inspired by H. C. Andersen’s short tale – suggested, he took the audience to an expedition looking for substance in the Paris agreement. As usual, Kevin spoke his mind claiming that the emperor is indeed naked, but that there had not been a child to speak up yet: Climate policy is really nothing more than hot air.

1, 2, 3 – What degree will it be?

The 2°C scenario is not some kind of optimal degree of warming, but a political goal on the threshold to dangerous climate change, fine-tuned to political and economic sensibility. While the agreement on a target itself is quite positive, “Paris” contains too many flaws, like the missing references to shipping, aviation or even fossil fuel combustion. Many of the percentage reduction goals in carbon emissions as set out for 2030 or 2050 just don’t matter. Kevin highlighted that these kinds of goals cover up what truely counts: carbon budgets. Continued emission of carbon, we will have used up the complete “budget” for the 1.5°C target within the next 3-13 years. The more CO2 we release now, the stricter future reductions will need to be. According to Kevin’s assessment, the current INDCs (Intended National Determined Contributions) equate to rather 3 to 4°C of warming than to 2°C.

Paris goals and energy

Looking at energy consumption gets quite depressing. Technological progress is unlikely to suffice for the required changes in energy demand, especially when taking behavioral effects, like the rebound, into account. Even on the supply side massive electrification is necessary to be able to move towards renewable energy production. Kevin named nuclear power as one example of a low carbon source. Currently it only meets about 2.5% of global energy demand. If one was to raise this share to 25%, there would be a need for 3000 (!) nuclear power plants worldwide. To put this in perspective: today there are around 430 nuclear power stations and about 70 are under construction right now. Even if we want to switch to renewable energies, this will be a Herkulean task.

The “magic trick” of climate policy

What is really necessary to stick to the Paris agreement is a 10% (rather 12% for the developed countries) yearly emission reduction starting now, i.e. zero emissions by 2035. What the EU suggested was a reduction by 40% by 2030. This goal is basically half of what is needed and it was set by the probably most ambitious countries. The attentive reader will now wonder what is supposed to happen to the other half of the emissions. Well, the answers are two fancy acronyms: NETs and BECCS. Negative emission technologies and biomass energy with carbon capture and storage. I will try to elaborate on this further in another blog post, but basically these are technologies which shall suck emitted carbon back from the atmosphere. They have however never worked at scale so far. Also are they inefficient and require massive areas of land. These technologies are the “magic trick” within the model forecasts, because the possibility of their actual implementation is highly questionable.

So what to do?

While the to-do list is infinitely long, Kevin claims that climate change demands system change. We need to fundamentally question our norms and paradigms: higher, further, better. While I agree with Kevin to a certain extent, his general and ubiquitous criticism of economic growth is far too generalized. I am thinking about decoupling growth from resources here, for example. However, Kevin’s most important direct action points are (1) large scale electrification, (2) a sustainable way to produce biofuels and (3) to leave the so-called “unconventionals” (e.g. oil sands) in the ground. For Sweden particularly, Kevin suggests the following list:

  • higher efficiency standards
  • a broad renewable energy program
  • a low-meat diet
  • extended lifetimes of nuclear plants
  • a shift from cars to public transport
  • an upgraded rail networks (especially faster trains)
  • carbon capture and storage for steel and cement production

All necessary facts about climate change have been on the table since the first IPCC report in 1990, but mankind has lacked the courage to take the crucial steps. And we still are. What a sad truth.

If you are interested in climate change you can find a summary of another lecture held by Kevin Anderson here! Also, I would really like to hear your opinions on this. Please leave a comment if you feel like it!

Take care and think twice before booking the next flight or ordering a steak! 😉


Jubilee: 25 years of Cemus!

Uppsala’s Center for Sustainable Development, a collaboration between SLU and UU, started the celebrations for its 25th anniversary today. Bengt Gustafsson, professor in astrophysics and one of the supporting founders of Cemus, gave a lecture on the history of the center and the future challenges of sustainability.

While during the 1970s there were already several attempts to start centers for interdisciplinary studies, it took another two decades before students succeeded in establishing the first student-driven course at Cemus. That course was called “Man and Nature” (1992) and attracted more than 500 applications. Cemus was born and has been established over at least 10 generations of students – unfortunately as Bengt remarked “sustainability is a sustainable issue”.

Thus he devoted the second part of his lecture to future problems and challenges. He talked about many issues that concern the Anthropocene (the age of significant human impact on our planet). Some of them like digitalization, globalization or ecosystems are more obvious, but he mentioned things like world views, religion and moral as well. While I agree that a shift from collectivism towards individualism can be seen (at least in many of the Westernized cultures), I think that the Internet was judged a little too hard. Although censorship and surveillance are huge problems in many countries, the World Wide Web allows for tremendous steps in democratization processes or in improvements of certain human rights (such as education). An interesting approach Bengt talked about was the transformation of pilgrims to tourists; the former aiming to see a certain destination and learn about it and the latter more or less walking the Earth blindly. This is obviously too simplified, yet it contains a grain of truth.

What I really liked about Bengt was that he was trying to convince us to shed some hope. He kept coming back to the famous three Japanese apes and the premise that scientists need to see the evil, or bad. It’s their obligation to look at it and to do something about it. While I think this should not only hold for scientists, but for all of us, it was really great to include it in the lecture. Bengt finished off with a few recommendations, three of which I want to share: (1) see and report truthfully, (2) keep up the dialogue with other people and with your own conscience and (3) provide hope for those who have none.

Thanks to Bengt for a really nice talk and some interesting thoughts!


Have a good week everybody,


Happy Holidays & Some Other Stuff

A very late merry Christmas to everyone! I hope you have enjoyed your holidays with family or friends and if you are as lucky as me, you are still on a break (more or less).

The last weeks before Christmas had been super busy for me. We’ve finished up the Cemus course, which came with many hand-ins, assignments and studying for the exam, of course. In this course we had a collective exam, where the whole group needed to work together to collectively pass (or fail) the test. It was a great experience: fun but very stressful at the same time. I must really say that “The Global Economy” was one of the best classes I have ever had and I can only recommend all Economics students to take a course like that. It felt like stepping out of a bubble (for once) and putting your subject into perspective with other disciplines. It surely didn’t train my Math skills, but I got a lot of ideas and inspiration from it. Hopefully I can manage to use this motivation for my upcoming master thesis and job search.

Apart from that, I have been (and I still am) taking the course “Economic Growth and Sustainable Development” at SLU, where we have the exam in January. After that the “only” thing I have left is my thesis, so I am planning on giving a little feedback on the program courses soon.

Hopefully I will have the time to post regularly again once I get back to Uppsala. For now I want to wish you a happy new year 2017. Take care everyone and remember that the deadline for applying to the master programs in Sweden is the 16 January (for the autumn semester!). Find more information here.

Vi ses nästa år!

Franzi 🙂

The Great Global Experiment

Last night was all about climate change and its consequences. We had Kevin Anderson as a guest lecturer in our CEMUS course. He is the new holder of the Zennström Visiting Professorship in Climate Change Leadership here in Uppsala. This professorship is funded by UU alumnus Niklas Zennström and his organization Zennström Philanthropies. Apart from the visiting professorship he currently holds, Kevin is a professor of Energy and Climate Change at Manchester University as well as Deputy Director Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Kevin started off his lecture with some general information and “basics” about the weather and climate, which I was very grateful for. Of course, there are many factors which drive the weather and climate of our planet, such as gravity, topography or volcanic activity.  But it’s not only geological factors rather than life itself as well. That can be plants, animals or you and me. Nowadays the terms Greenhouse Effect (GE) and climate change tend to have a negative connotation and they are likely to be confused a lot. But we should recall that they are natural and partially even necessary in the first instance. Remember that without the GE we would all (literally) catch our death out there at an average temperature of -18°C. While it is uncontested that GE and climate change are real, the existence of anthropogenic climate change is still contested by some, even though there is evidence like the tight correlation between the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration and anthropogenic emissions, or the declining ratio of carbon 14 in the atmosphere, suggesting that anthropogenic climate change is actually real.

Why the math does not suffice

Some of the big issues no one really expected some decades ago are positive feedback effects. Formerly, it had been calculated that doubling the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels would lead to some 1°C rise in average temperature. Today we know that it will actually rather cause a 3°C change due to positive feedback effects. One example for this is the sea. Since polar ice is white, it reflects much of the solar radiation. When this ice melts due to global warming, the bright area decreases and the dark surface of the sea increases. This in turn leads to an even higher absorbance of heat and thereby more global warming. It is a vicious circle.

Global Warming Potential

Some of the drivers for climate change – and probably THE driver for anthropogenic climate change – are greenhouse gases (GHGs). There are many GHGs resulting from different sources (like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, etc.), so one is trying to make them comparable by looking at their global warming potential (GWP). That is how much a GHG warms the atmosphere within a certain period of time. If you are checking these numbers, the trick here is to look at the underlying time horizons very carefully. As the GWP is measured relative to CO2 and the gases have different lifetimes, the warming potential can vary a lot when using different time periods.

How to react to climate change?

If anthropogenic or not, climate change is real and already demands strategies today. There are generally two ways to tackle this issue: mitigation (= preventing CC) or adaptation (= adapt to CC). According to Kevin, not much – and definitely not enough – is happening in mitigating climate change today. At the moment we are focusing more on adaptation strategies. This has become necessary at the moment as a result of more extreme weather events, which lead to floods, food shortage, etc. In the medium to long term climate change will be likely to cause huge migration flows, increased military tension and other problems as well.

Why focus on 2°C goal?

A temperature rise by 2°C was formerly estimated to be on the border between acceptable and dangerous warming. Today it seems more likely that 2 degrees are way within the dangerous warming zone. We know that the impacts will be worse than anticipated, but today we have already reached an increase in temperature by 1 degree. Last year’s Paris agreement was an important step into the right direction because almost every single country agreed in written form to keep global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Yet, this text is far from enough to save our planet. It doesn’t include any references to fossil fuels or decarbonization, it exempts aviation and shipping, it relies on negative emission technologies, and so on. So this agreement doesn’t provide a solution, but it provides some leverage for everyone engaging in climate change mitigation.

Possible scenarios

Pursuing the lecture, there are two possible future scenarios. The first one is that we start mitigation right now, as the only thing that’s missing is the will to act. This might enable us to actually stick to the goal of a 2°C warming. The second scenario will unstoppably occur if we do not react and will include temperature increases of up to 3-4°C. Under these conditions, summer heat waves in Europe for example will most likely melt roads, train tracks and kill thousands of people.


Some comments

This was surely one of the greatest lectures we had in the CEMUS course so far. It provided a nice density of information about climate processes and scientific basics, combined with a very inspiring discussion of the relevance of climate change and its possible future impacts. For my part I have learnt a lot yesterday. Many thanks to Kevin Anderson for visiting us!

I hope you guys felt like this was interesting. You probably knew a lot of it already (I knew at least sooome of it), but the lecture gave me some hope with respect to what is actually possible technologically and it also provided some new things to think about, like the sense or absurdity of negative emission technologies.

Sorry also that I didn’t manage to finish this last night. At least now I can almost wish you a good weekend!




CEMUS – The Global Economy

Hej, hej!

I am sorry for not posting anything on Wednesday, but I had a very busy week and you might still not be done reading my last entry since it became soooo long. Today I would like to tell you about one of the two courses I am currently taking.

With my first year during the master – as many study years before – being a little loady on math and statistics, I was looking for something different this semester. Even though most of the courses I did felt necessary, education in economics tends to be somewhat unilateral. With that in mind, I decided to try out a course offered by CEMUS, the Centre for Environment and Development Studies. CEMUS is a student-initiated, transdisciplinary center of Uppsala University and SLU.

The course I am taking is called The Global Economy (GEC) and it is split into three parts: (1) The birth of the global economy, (2) Understanding economies and (3) Possible (R)Evolution(s). The participants are Bachelor and Master students from various countries with different academic backgrounds and we have altering guest lecturers according to each week’s topics.

There are mainly three reasons why I am thrilled about this course. The first one is the style of teaching. While as a student of economics I am used to traditional chalk-talk teaching, GEC is much more interactive, by adding seminars, workshops and debates, film reviews and discussions to the regular lectures. Even though I appreciate most of the traditional lectures I have attended over the years, this is a very welcome variety for me. The second factor is the transdisciplinarity of the course: different backgrounds mean different opinions. I really, really appreciate the discussions that we have in class. Economics is omnipresent to all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, and if you ask one hundred people about a current economic issue (say the European financial crisis or the Brexit), you will get one hundred different answers. I think that it is very important for us economists to sometimes step out of our bubble of economic models and just try to see the world through someone else’s eyes (that last part holds not only for economists). In class my sentiments range from anger to curiosity, but there’s always something new to learn. The third reason why I enjoy this course so much are the topics we talk about. With some of them being more interesting than others – obviously – GEC covers many topics that I find are often neglected in the studies of economics (e.g. alternative economic theories or current issues touching upon economics).

The first module gave quite some insight to the past. We heard and talked a lot about the history of globalization, finance and economic theories. I actually used to have a class in economic history on the Bachelor level, but the topic changed every semester, so unfortunately I only learned about the era of the Great Depression. That was of course dramatic and important to be familiar with, but it also provided a rather restricted view on overall economic history, I must say.

However, even though I could increase my knowledge on economic history to a certain extent in the following years, there was still much to learn for me in the first module of the CEMUS course. Most appreciated is that I had the feeling to take a step back from detailed modelling and look at the whole picture again. I forgot how useful that can be every once and a while.

For everyone who is interested in sustainability or development issues, you should really pay a visit to the CEMUS site. I am also planning on posting about this course further and in more detail regarding the content soon!

I wish you a lovely week!