Column by Martin Wetterstedt: The University Must Show Climate Change Leadership

6 november 2018

The current gap between what needs to be done to avoid catastrophic climate change and the policy goals set is enormous. Perhaps it is therefore not so strange that an ever-increasing number of voices are heard that we need to work with so-called science-based targets, that is, goals, especially political goals that have a scientific basis.

For example, our Swedish goals only indicate that at some point in time we will emit less, without taking into account how much carbon dioxide is emitted along the way, the so-called integral of the emission curve, put plainly. The Paris agreement therefore stands out in saying that the goal is to keep significantly below 2.0 degree global warming, and aim for 1.5 degrees.

At present, a commissioned research project is underway at the Climate Change Leadership node, CCL, at Uppsala University, where ten municipalities and five counties are being helped in breaking down the Paris agreement's temperature target into local commitments using so called ‘carbon budgets’. In the process of creating these budgets, theory, science, politics, and ethics intermingle and ideas about what is fair and equitable are expressed in numbers. For example, non-industrialised countries can initially increase their emissions, while industrialised countries must immediately reduce - Swedish municipalities by around 16 percent per year, starting immediately! The work is similar to that what Kevin Anderson, Uppsala University's second Zennström Climate Change Leadership guest professor, developed for Manchester in England, as well as in his article on emissions scenarios for a new world. Influenced by Anderson’s work, the work at CCL uses territorial emissions, that is, emissions that are accounted for where they occur geographically. An alternative way of reporting emissions is from a consumption based perspective. Then, instead, emissions would be included for the goods and services we buy regardless of where the emissions occur physically. Sweden's emissions are then, from a consumption based perspective, about twice as high, but uncertainty is also much greater.

Currently, we get many questions about using carbon budgets to set science-based goals for organisations. We do not have a fully developed method for it, but the rate of reduction must, of course, be in line with the total territorial reductions that need to be made.

Much has been written about universities as a key in the climate change transition. It is here that knowledge about the underlying processes at work is created and disseminated and where researchers, educators, and learners develop understanding of how different sustainability aspects interact. But universities are also a driving force in the creation of social movements and innovation - innovation described today through various dimensions such as political, social, and technological innovation, just to mention a few.

Uppsala University can also show leadership by being a forerunner and by showing how scientifically set goals can permeate an organisation –it is hard to imagine any other organisation more suitable. Within two areas there are special opportunities –investments and travel. Chalmers is the first Swedish university to ensure that university funds are not invested in fossil fuels. This is something that can be seen as self-evident, especially when I, as a scientist, argue in a Vinnova application for why we should get funding for research to reach the Agenda 2030 goals, which aims, among other things, to make Sweden the world's first fossil-free welfare country.

And when it comes to flying, academics are a group flying a lot - what does the relationship between academic excellence and flight travel really look like? Is all the flying really motivated? We know, in any case, that it is not justifiable from a climate perspective.

Martin Wetterstedt, project leader and researcher at the CCL node, Uppsala University


Read on:

Three ways to calculate the climate impacts of emissions (in Swedish)

More on the Climate Change Leadership Node, CCL, at Uppsala University



Anderson, Kevin, and Alice Bows. 2011. “Beyond ‘dangerous’ Climate Change: Emission Scenarios for a New World.” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369 (1934): 20–44

Kuriakose, Jaise, Kevin Anderson, John Broderick, and Carly McLachlan. 2018. “Quantifying the Implications of the Paris Agreement for Greater Manchester,” no. March: 35.