The world’s leaders will be gathering in Paris soon to make sure that the rise in global temperature will be as far below two degrees as possible in order to prevent dangerous climate changes. A fateful issue, but Max Åhman, Reader in Environmental and Energy Systems Studies at the Faculty of Engineering (LTH) considers that ”learning by doing” can deliver results.
Do today’s technical advances provide hope for a fossil-free future and a bright future for the planet?
A lot has happened in the past seven or eight years, particularly regarding renewable energy. Renewable energy has made a breakthrough in large parts of the world, and in the EU, USA, Brazil and China there is now a perception that it is possible to achieve considerable effects with renewables.
Previously, it was mainly researchers who believed that renewable energy could replace fossil sources. Now, politicians are also starting to talk about it, and it’s a development that is being driven by a number of countries. Germany is a significant player in this, and also Spain and Brazil to some extent. China and the USA are investing considerable sums in renewables, and Sweden is also playing a part.
What is your view of Sweden’s contribution to efforts to reduce global warming?
We are a small, but ambitious, country in this context. In Sweden we have a lot of expertise in bioenergy, and we have introduced a good, broad climate policy. We usually boast about our carbon dioxide tax, which has a considerable symbolic value. However, as a researcher I think that its good effects have been exaggerated. All focused initiatives, such as support for biofuels and energy efficiency enhancements, are also important.
Are there technological solutions that have great potential, but are not used today due to misjudged political decisions?
Not really, if we are talking about Sweden and the EU. Most politicians today are highly aware of what works and what doesn’t.
What progress has the world’s political leadership made so far?
The 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is often made fun of – it’s described as a failure. However, the fact is that during the preparations for the meeting, the world’s countries did acquire a climate policy. Even though it was a kind of first effort, it was a considerable step forward. When countries actually introduce a climate policy, they often discover that it is neither as expensive, difficult or complicated as they anticipated, and that the policy does not adversely affect them – on the contrary, it provides many advantages.
What good news can we expect from COP21 in Paris?
If I was to highlight something, it would be that today we have a completely different political landscape. The countries are more prepared, and more states are ready to take responsibility and work actively. Actually, the risk of failure is not as great in Paris, because the stakes are not so high this time. We know largely what the meeting will be about. There will be no binding agreements, no hard measurement targets, but on the other hand there will be a lot about what is to be reported, how countries’ measures are to be reported and how often we need to update the level of ambition. Unfortunately, the measures that countries are now promising to take are not enough to achieve the two-degree target. Every country is to contribute as much as they can, and then the idea is that climate policy will become more rigorous as time goes on. Now it is a matter of learning by doing.
What do you see as the challenges ahead in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases?
In the long term, oil and coal-dependent economies will run into problems. It will be politically complicated for them to adapt. How are they going to adjust? Another question concerns tackling the emissions of Sweden’s basic industries. We want to lead the way, but at the same time these are global products sold in a competitive market. How do we lead the way without losing competitiveness? Enormous challenges remain concerning what countries will do in the long term.
Do companies understand that there is money to be made from switching to renewable energy?
The companies that have understood have earned money. Over the past five years quite a lot has started to happen regarding investors and the financial markets. Fossil assets have started to be seen as a risk. Of course, major industry clusters in the fossil economy are turning a deaf ear to this, but investors have realised that the threat is real and that there will be a climate policy in future.
FACTS / Max Åhman
Max Åhman has a PhD from Lund University (2003) and devotes a large part of his time as a researcher to the issue of energy transition in Sweden’s basic industries.
For several years he was active as an international consultant and researcher in Nairobi and Tunis, and has worked as a climate analyst for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency in Stockholm.
Since 2012, he is again been employed at Lund University as a full-time researcher at the Division of Environmental and Energy Systems Studies, Faculty of Engineering/LTH.