“Sustainability needs to become the pathway to economic success”

Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam. The Swede is one of the most cited researchers in the world and advises, among others, climate activist Greta Thunberg. This May, he became a member of the Daimler Advisory Board for Integrity and Corporate Responsibility. On the occasion of World Environment Day we spoke with him about right and wrong conclusions from the Corona crisis, the correlation of economic development and sustainability and Sweden’s leading role in climate protection issues.

We're having this interview in late May. So it’s still too early for final assessments of the impact of Corona. What’s pretty clear though, is that global emissions of greenhouse gases are going to be much lower this year than in many previous years. Are you happy about this?

I have mixed feelings. The greenhouse gas emissions reductions we see are just temporary, and they happen for all the wrong reasons. The current reductions are a direct result of the fact that the economy has had this dramatic slowdown. This is no surprise because we've seen over the past 50 years how emissions of greenhouse gases follow economic activity. Yet the challenge is not reducing economic activity but decoupling it from emissions. If people start perceiving that the only way to protect the planet is by sacrificing the economy, that would be a complete failure. The solution for us to succeed in a sustainable future for all societies and sectors is when sustainability becomes the pathway to economic success. If Daimler wants to be a global player that lives up to its responsibilities, it must bring forward competitive solutions that are good both for jobs and for the environment. This is not about marketing, it’s about real change way beyond Corona times.

How will Corona affect the way we deal with climate change?

I think that what we are seeing around the world today – businesses and societies going digital when stranded on the ground and in their homes – may provide learning that can become permanent after the crisis. The post-Corona world is thus unlikely to be the same as the pre-Corona world. And what makes this more than just speculation, is that the pandemic only speeds up already existing trends. Many years before the Corona crisis we have been on a trajectory towards digitalization and we are at this exponential digital revolution with AI, 5G, big data management and basically becoming much more hyper-connected in the digital space. The Corona crisis abruptly forced us to accelerate that digital lifestyle. And there will be elements of this that stick after the crisis. I also think there will be permanent changes in our behavior, for example when it comes to the percentage of time that we spend in transporting ourselves between different locations.

At the same time, this is the biggest shock to the global economy since the 1930s. It is a health drama, it is a tragedy. And we need to do all we can to prevent similar crashes in the future. We cannot entirely prevent future pandemics, but we have enough evidence to say that halting the destruction of wildlife and natural ecosystems, and rapidly decarbonising the world to hold global warming well-below 2C, are two key strategies.

Why is that?

It’s because the majority of these virus infections are zoonoses, i.e., virus spill-overs from wildlife to humans, reinforced by our unsustainable and risky interactions with nature. Risks of future pandemics are likely to rise if we continue to destabilise the climate and nature. We therefore have to try and turn it into a unique momentum for us to rise after this crisis. To take deliberate decisions to accelerate and to amplify the investments and the pathway towards a decarbonized economy. Therefore, I would advise that future-oriented programs, like the European Green Deal or any stimulus packages, should be associated with criteria that enable us not only to save jobs and the economy but also to accelerate the pathway towards more resilient societies running on a zero-carbon economy. Now, what role will Daimler decide to play here? The global transformation towards sustainability is necessary.

The financial crisis in 2008 just led us to bounce back to the old logic.

Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The financial crisis in 2008 just led us to bounce back to the old logic. Now the question is: Will we – and will Daimler - just bounce back to the old unsustainable, fossil logic? Or will Daimler, will in fact all of us, have the courage to embark on a green re-boot?

No contradiction: economic development and sustainability

Let’s come back to the broader question in how far economic growth is compatible with sustainability. Many climate activists seem to believe that economic growth is per se incompatible with sustainability…

And I think that’s wrong. At the general level, I think it's important to recognize that there is no contradiction between economic development and sustainability. The reason why we have a debate about economic growth is the assumption that economic growth per definition is unsustainable. That economic growth unavoidably occurs at the expense of exploiting natural capital and the climate. But there is, in principle, no such contradiction. There is enough practical empirical evidence to show that we can run our economies on zero carbon, we can have circular business models, we can close element cycles of metals, nutrients and pollutants. Sure, we cannot be 100% sustainable on all fronts, but there is no convincing hinder for economic development within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries. This suggests that there is an economic development path which does not collide with hard sustainability principles. But with our current economic growth paradigm and a GDP-based measure on economic growth we have a problem. This is because our current economic growth occurs at the expense of Earth's life-support and stability. That is a fact and it's a big dilemma.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are political objectives of the United Nations (UN), which are intended to ensure worldwide sustainable development on an economic, social and ecological level.

In other words: We have the wrong type of economic growth?

Exactly. When we look at the economies of the 195 countries in the world we see three different clusters of countries. One cluster is the OECD countries like Germany, where labor, knowledge levels and education levels are high and population growth is very low. These economies have reached a high level of maturity and are unlikely to grow further – even at the best trajectory. Then we have a second cluster of rapidly emerging economies, like India, that still need the 4-5% economic growth levels in order to lift people out of poverty. And then you have the third category: countries that most need conventional economic growth to lift them out of misery. Now, if you don't recognize this palette of diversity, you will always fall in the wrong basket when you discuss economic growth. It is much more about finding this magical pathway of good economic development within sustainability criteria.

If we argue that the only way to save the planet is to destroy the economy, we are wrong and bound to fail.

Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

If we argue that the only way to save the planet is to destroy the economy, we are wrong and bound to fail. Then we can almost guarantee that environmentalism will remain a marginal environmental movement. But we all want sustainability to become mainstream. We desperately need sustainability to be the way of building the economy, not a kind of side activity that you do when you get a bit rich and can afford to protect the environment. No, you want this to be the very strategy to generate jobs. And the moment that Daimler sells more trucks thanks to the fact that you work according to a circular zero carbon strategy, that's when we succeed. That will be the breakthrough moment.

Which technologies are you most optimistic about when it comes to decarbonization?

Well, this is reason why I really don't envy those who sit in the chairs of Ola Källenius and others heading the transport industry in the world. It is an incredibly challenging moment in time for this industry because there is no one who can answer your question with one exact answer. Should the bets be put on battery-electric drivetrains or on fuel cells? Should they be put on a whole palette of different technologies? Or do we need to focus? There is no right or wrong answer here. At least not so far. If you assess the situation today I think it's fair to say that electrification is coming in a very big way and is likely to be one of the major paths, certainly for private transport. What happens with the heavy trucks sector is still an open question. Maybe the combination of electrification and fuel cells will play a very important role.

What about e-fuels? Should there be some room left for them as they would theoretically have the potential to make the existing global fleet of more than a billion ICE-powered cars carbon-neutral?

I cannot deny that I have a certain bias coming from a very bio-fuel rich country like Sweden. But I am convinced that sustainable bio fuels, bio gas and residues from forest industry and ethanol will continue to play an important role. The transition is slow and our roads are and will continue to be dominated by combustion engines. We have so many diesel engines, particularly in the heavy truck sector that can easily be converted to different forms of bio fuels. I think this is a very pragmatic transition phase. However, energy from biomass will clearly not solve the climate problem. Land-use change for bioenergy production is a serious threat for ecosystems that are important parts of our Earth system – and consequently are part of our very own life-support systems.

"Environment makes sense for business"

A few months ago, the US-writer Jonathan Franzen published an article in the New Yorker titled "What if we stopped pretending?" He argued that it might make more sense to prepare for the inescapable consequences of climate change rather than continuing to hope we might avert it. How do you feel about this? How should we divide our resources between preventing climate change and preparing for it?

I disagree with Franzen in that analysis. Having catastrophic risk assessments is even more justification for accelerating the prevention path. So we should not use it as a way to prepare for disaster – resignating means driving up the risks. And I say this because I think industry in general has one role, and that is to prevent: to show citizens and political leaders that we have high performing engineers, good tech development and research departments. That we can find solutions that are attractive for consumers and for society and for the planet. I don't see companies like Daimler spending billions on preparing for Armageddon.

Many scientists are warning that there are other risks than climate change, far less talked about but equally dangerous: the loss of biodiversity, the overexploitation of seas and soils, the pollution of air and water. What's your view of this? Assuming that human awareness and energy are limited, which challenges should we turn to first?

You are actually right, land and water and biodiversity are equally important as the climate. We also have conclusive scientific evidence to show that we will actually fail on stabilizing the climate if we only get rid of fossil fuels.

We cannot say: Now we do climate for twenty years and then we sort out biodiversity afterwards.

Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Because if we destroy the carbon sinks in land, water, in ecosystems, then we will push the climate in the wrong direction anyway. And if we’d only focus on nature conservation, unabated climate change would undo this. It's all interconnected. It really worries me that we're not recognizing that all the planetary boundaries are equally important. We cannot say: Now we do climate for twenty years and then we sort out biodiversity afterwards. No.

In 2009, a group of about 30 international scientists around Johan Rockström published the article "A safe operating space for humanity" and formulated "planetary limits" for nine central natural systems and processes. According to this article, climate change is part of a whole series of risky changes in the Earth system that are linked by interactions and thus does not represent the only serious global environmental change. Source: "Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet"; Steffen et al., 2015

June 5 is “World Environment Day”. What does a day like that mean to you?

To start with, I think all of these types of global manifestations for the environment of the planet are actually quite important. It might sound as if they are not but they’re a way of reminding everyone that this is a central agenda point in the international political arena. So, “World Environment Day” does matter in that sense - just like “Earth Hour” does. The most important thing for a company like Daimler on a day like that is to communicate some very simple sentences: “For Daimler, environment makes sense for our business. It’s not something we do just to be morally responsible. We do it because we see this as a benefit for our company. Without safeguarding the environment, we will not survive as a producer.” You can't imagine how powerful you are as a communicator of that message. We as scientists can say it a hundred times. But if you say it once, it carries it in a way which is so convincing because you reach a completely different audience. If I say it, I come across as just another professor of environmental-climate-stuff, who will of course say things like that.

"Private mobility will continue to be a very important"

Talking about Daimler and the industry of car- and truckmakers: How do you see the role of individual mobility in the future, say 2030, especially in big cities? How will it differ from today, aside from different powertrains?

Of course I foresee that we will be moving very rapidly towards decarbonization. I think we will continue underestimating the pace of that change. We are at the beginning of the end of fossil fuel era, no doubt about that. Secondly, I think we will start seeing increasingly changed behavioral patterns on mobility. It’s not like we will stop having private cars, but I think we'll see more shared-type mobility in urban environments.

We are at the beginning of the end of fossil fuel era.

Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

I think we will – hopefully – see a better combination of public transport and private mobility so there's a more effective access through a mixture of public-private transport systems. But the key point is that we continue the innovation pathway towards zero carbon mobility.

Do you own a car in your family?

Actually right now: no. We have an electric car, but it's a rented car because our bio gas car unfortunately came to the retirement age. But I'm one of these year-round-cyclists. So we try to use as many alternatives as possible. Again, I'm not in any way against privately owned vehicles. I'm actually trying to get my wife to agree that we need to buy a new electric car to our household.

So maybe you’d consider a Mercedes as your next car?

Absolutely! As long as it’s zero greenhouse-gas emissions.

"So private mobility will continue to be a very important part of a modern lifestyle."

Do you think your family will need a car in 2030? Among climate activists, there are a lot of people who are critical of individual mobility as such.

I don't think it's desirable to get rid of individual mobility. But the question remains: How shall we find workable solutions for densely populated urban areas? We cannot just increase the congestion of urban space with vehicles, even if they are electric. So some urban solutions will have to occur. I live both in the Berlin and the Stockholm region, but I live a bit on the countryside there and I'm definitely among those who would argue strongly that without private mobility access I have difficulty in operating. So private mobility will continue to be a very important part of a modern lifestyle. Coming back to what I said before, as long as we continue arguing that the only way to be environmentally friendly is to stop doing things, we’re going to fail. We need to find innovative sustainable solutions to succeed.

CCS and the Paris Climate Convention

Your home country Sweden is sometimes described as the most sustainable country in the world. And actually, Sweden’s CO2-emissions per capita are only half of that of Germany’s. What can we learn from you guys?

One important lesson in the Swedish context is that forceful political decisions were taken. They were enabled by some open dialogues between policy, business and science at a very early stage. And of course, they were also debated and criticized very much at the beginning. But once they were implemented, industry and economy at large quite rapidly accepted them. The most classic example is the CO2 price in Sweden. The Swedish carbon price was introduced in 1990: 100 Euros per ton CO2 emission. Even today, many would argue that that’s a way of just killing the economy. But it didn’t. It did not harm economic growth. So this is one lesson. The other one is that Sweden has spent tremendous resources on awareness creation and education. It is a country that has environmental education at a high priority right through society, it’s almost a cultural DNA. And that has not come automatically, it has come very much through national campaigns that they ran year after year after year.

What about the role of nuclear power?

That’s a delicate question, of course. The fact that Sweden decided to keep nuclear power – which provides roughly 30 percent of the electricity in the country – has made it much easier for Sweden to avoid other fossil fuel based electricity production systems. There is no economic reason to invest into nuclear power today because it is so expensive. And it is expensive because security is such a big issue here, any failure can result in catastrophe. On the other hand, it is a fossil fuel free stable energy source. Germany has not made life easy for itself by closing down nuclear and instead signing contracts on natural gas and then becoming even more dependent on fossil fuel source.

In order to achieve the 2-degree target of the Paris Climate Agreement, the global economy must be CO2-neutral in 26 years at the latest. Source: Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (2019).

When Greta Thunberg suggested at one point that nuclear power might have a role in decarbonization she faced harsh criticism from German environmentalists – and quickly withdrew the thought. Why do you think are Germans so much more fearful when it comes to nuclear power than people in other countries?

To be honest, this is something I have asked myself. I think there is some psychological factor that plays in here. In Sweden we feel that there is a responsible handling of nuclear power in the country and people are not so concerned about the security risks. There must have been so much debate in Germany in which the arguments of the security risks have been so central that they have left a bit of scare in Germany over nuclear power – which we have not seen in the Nordic countries. It could well be that you in Germany have come further in your general awareness of risks related to nuclear power. It could also be that Swedes make, on reasonable ground, a different risk assessment. Irrespective, one fact is on the table for all to see, namely that Nuclear power is more expensive than renewable energy.

Could this fear also become an issue when it comes to Carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems? Some people are quite optimistic about these technologies. What’s your view?

I share this careful optimism. Not only that. I would also say that scientifically my conclusion is that we have no choice but to use CCS. Without CCS we will fail in delivering on the Paris Agreement in the long term. Because the transition towards a decarbonized world economy in 30 years time is very difficult and almost impossible to achieve. Even if we succeed in consequent reduction we still need negative emissions to stay well below 2. So whether you like it or not, CCS will be a necessity. This technology should hence be further explored scientifically. While I understand the concerns of citizens, I have to say that storing gas underground is nothing new. Yet in Germany it has to some extent been hijacked by fear-based arguments.

Which question that we haven’t asked would you still like to answer?

Perhaps the question whether there is a little kind of sustainability argument now in the midst of this health crisis. And I would say the answer is “yes”. There is a very strong case for sustainability because the pandemic was predicted. We have seen an increasing frequency of this kind of zoonotic virus spillovers from nature to humans over the last 20 years. And this is the outcome of our unsustainable management of a globalized world with the destruction of ecosystems and wild life penetrating more urban landscapes. So, there is a need to think of sustainability not only as a job-creator and economy developer. It’s also about building resilience to deal with future crises. In doing so as Daimler you can have a win-win-situation.

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