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Incentivising change: an expert interview on the individual’s fight for sustainability

At Ducky, we’re all about empowering the individual in the fight against climate change, by helping them to reduce their carbon footprint.

Yet the constant stream of media surrounding industry and government-related emissions can make them fight seem futile, and often lead to a defeatist attitude.

With that in mind, I spoke to Professor Edgar Hertwich and Professor Francesca Verones of the Norwgian University of Science and Technology. Edgar and Francesca have been studying how human related activities, from land fragmentation to buying habits, can impact the world around us.

I spoke to them about the importance of the individual’s fight for sustainability, and what we can do to drive a greener world.

Sam Perrin (SP): We’re often inundated these days by the impacts that industry and governments have on the environment, which can often make our personal efforts to be more sustainable feel a bit futile. But the individual’s fight is still important, right?

Professor Francesca Verones (FV): I would say yes. There is still is a lot that an individual can do. One side of course is buying practices and lifestyle. But the other side is that many of the companies which produce these emissions have a reputation, and if we consumers make our voices heard, then it will lead to a change eventually. The power of the consumer can affect change.

Professor Edgar Hertwich (EH): Consumer behaviour can definitely drive market change. Consumer action by itself will not solve the problem though. Consumer action in support of the political measures that are needed to attain the goals is positive, but that consumer action shouldn’t be seen as an alternative for governments to getting those policies in place.

Take the US for example, the emission reductions that they have achieved through shifting away from gas and coal power are just so much larger than what you could hope to achieve from individual action.

FV: I think it’s very cheap for people to say “I alone can’t make a difference”. Because it’s not true. In the end it’s also the people who decide the politics. Who are you voting for? That can lead to positive changes as well.

SP: What are some of the most effective lifestyle changes people can make?

EH: Some of the most important things you can do as a consumer is to purchase the green products, purchase the electric heater instead of a gasoline powered heater, that’s a big change. Choose a smaller and more energy-efficient residence compared to the average one, I mean those things are really important.

FV: Vehicles make a difference too. An interesting sidenote, I was reading an article in Adressavisen in March on how many cars have been sold in the whole of Trøndelag. Of approximately 30,000, only 5 were not either hybrid or electric. Trends make a difference!

SP: How do we create economic incentives for a business to go green?

EH: I mean there can be a positive starting rate in terms of innovation. I think the example of electric vehicles is a nice one. Initially they were outrageously expensive, and then you had massive reductions in taxes for them, plus other subsidies like being able to use bus lanes. That got the first people to buy electric cars. But if you look at car prices today, electric cars are no longer more expensive. Their operation is actually cheaper than fossil fuel powered cars. And that’s because of all the innovation that has happened in that intervening time period.

Look at Russia, which thinks that climate change is good from a strategic perspective. Once EVS are really cheaper – a few years down the road – will the Russians keep on driving gasoline powered cars? I’m not sure.

FV: It’s not just economic. To take the car example, it’s becoming harder to find parking spaces in most cities these days. There’s the perception change as well. If somehow people start to think something is better or cooler, then that  has an effect, especially on younger people. It’s just a perception change as well, what is perceived to be trendy also has an effect.

You have a couple of influencers who are really well liked and followed, then that can have tremendous impact as well. It remains to be seen how long lived those trends will be, but you at least bring the message to many different people.

SP: In Norway, perhaps moreso than elsewhere, there are a lot of traditional practices which are very hard to change, and many of which can be very detrimental to biodiversity. You have free roaming cattle and sheep, as well as a long history of wood harvesting. These are century old practices, how do we communicate the message that these need to be changed?

FV: I think one thing maybe is looking at scale. Maybe they were traditional practices, but I suspect that there were fewer people when they were developed. Over time their impacts have accumulated, to the point where you can no longer say these practices are sustainable. Now we see their effects and have to change.

When it comes to the predators, you could just do like they do in Italy, and continue to compensate the farmers for their losses, or start using sheep- or cattle-guarding dogs. At least in Switzerland, they’re trying to introduce that now. The sheep are still running freely, but the dog is running with them.

It’s a matter of trying to find new management practices, or adapting different ones from other countries. I mean there are countries where they’re still living with predators, so it’s just a matter of being a bit more open-minded, but also trying to take care of the concerns of farmers. We can’t just impose solutions that discard them, we need to offer inclusive solutions.

SP: Moving to more recent ‘historical’ practices. Norway’s economy is obviously very strongly tied to oil now. It has almost become part of the national identity for some people, so throwing it out can be quite scary. How do we make it obvious to people that this simply can’t continue?

EH: I think that’s a generational thing to be honest. I mean the fact that we have to change, and we have before. We’ve changed what our livelihood is before in Norway. The oil is fairly new in Norway in a historical sense, and Norway was already developing very positively before the oil was discovered. Of course the oil gave us a big boost, but our neighbouring countries show that you can do just fine without the oil.

There’s no reason to assume that Norway wouldn’t manage to have a service economy like other developed countries. The idea that we need to rely on resource extraction is just not correct. Most developed countries are not resource extracting economies.

FV: It’s also a matter of the alternatives. Right now Norway is still dependent on oil, but if we move everything to aquaculture, the next big thing in Norway, this is also really not so sustainable or the best idea, so it would be nice if the next solution was a bit out of the box.

Again, you could compare it to Switzerland, which is a small country in terms of population, with no resource extraction. Switzerland is such an innovative place, and I think that Norway would tbe a perfect country to lead new innovative industries.

SP: Looking to the future, what do you think the next IPCC report will look like?

EH: I think the message of the 1.5 degree report was quite stark, but in some sense, it shifted the goalposts. We were always driving towards a mitigation discussion for a “two degree warmer world”, and suddenly the IPCC showed that actually there is a huge difference in impact between 1.5 and 2 degrees. If we manage to halt global warming at 1.5 degrees, that will be much better for ecosystems, it will reduce the damage to human infrastructure and health impacts and so on.

But at the same time to achieve that goal we only have until 2030 to radically shift our economy. Of course we couldn’t be done in 2030, but action would need to be imminent and drastic, and it would need to be almost a wartime level of effort. It doesn’t look like we’re engaging in that level of effort.

There are a lot of things happening, but we are still on a trajectory towards a “three degree warmer world” trajectory by the end of the century if we continue on with the current polices.

I think basically the report will find that yes there are opportunities to make progress, but that we’re currently not undertaking the required effort to take those opportunities.

You can find an extended interview with Francesca Verones on Sam’s blog at this link.


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About Sam Perrin

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and is currently working as a climate data analyst at Ducky AS. You can learn more about his research, read his articles at Ecology for the Masses, or follow him on Twitter at the links below.