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Cooperation for a better environment

News: Sep 27, 2016

Sverker Jagers, the director of the Centre for Collective Action Reserarch. Photo: Johan Wingborg.

"Environmental problems are basically a question of a lack of collaboration," maintains Sverker Jagers. He is the director of the newly inaugurated Centre for Collective Action Research (CeCAR). The aims of this body include investigating how environmental issues can be better handled. The solution? Perhaps it is a question of things as disparate as ground elder, fuel cells and trains all the way to China.

CeCAR is one of six environments granted funds in the University of Gothenburg’s major UGOT Challenges initiative. CeCAR’s director, Sverker Jagers, relates that the centre is a dream come true.

“For at least 15 years, we in political science, economics and environmental psychology have made joint research applications and run joint courses. However, the UGOT initiative has coaxed out an entirely new dialogue. This has led us to formulate the issues that are really important to society. The centre will also be collaborating with researchers in several other fields.”

Collective active research revolves around things as diverse as corruption, democracy, health care, psychology and technology. Nonetheless, in the beginning, CeCAR will focus primarily on environmental and other resource issues.

“It is usually easy enough to gain support for sacrifices that are of immediate benefit. Increasing taxes to pay for schools, medical care or roads is an example. Yet, environmental issues are particularly tricky. They are often about having to give up things now. What is more, the giving up has to be on a global scale. It is also often to prevent catastrophes elsewhere in the world or decades into the future.”

Success often requires international agreements. Sverker Jagers feel that, with its provisions on, amongst other things, holding global warming to below two degrees Celsius (compared with pre-industrial levels), last year’s Paris Agreement gives hope.

“The agreement has been criticised for not setting out what each state must do. It allows each country to itself decide how it is going to reach the target. However, I feel that this can be the key to success. Of course, it remains to be demonstrated.”

Which environmental measures work can indeed depend on, for example, culture and history. In Sweden, for instance, it has not been particularly problematic to introduce a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. This is because the citizens have great confidence in the people in power. There is also little corruption.

“In countries such as the United Kingdom and the USA where, for historical and cultural reasons, there is relatively little faith in the people in power, emission rights trading may work better, even if it has much in common with an environmental tax.”

Fairness is also part of environmental issues. For example, should poor countries be prevented from developing simply because the affluent world has caused so many problems?

“I strongly sympathise with the idea that people in all countries should have better lives. However, this cannot be achieved free of conditions. For example, India subsidising fossil fuels ought to be unacceptable. If they turned things round and, instead, introduced a fuel tax, this would generate new revenues for the state. These could go towards, for example, public transport. The turn would also provide an incentive for technical developments in the field of energy.”

The environment is, of course, also a technology issue. Sverker Jagers refers to the major advances made in the efficiency of the standard internal combustion engine over the past 20 years.

“Nonetheless, fuel cell engines, which can run on almost any energy-rich substance, were invented as early as 1839. When I was at the 1998 climate conference in Buenos Aires, Mercedes presented a car that used fuel cells. Admittedly, it cost a fortune, but the technology itself worked. Thus, we can wonder where we would be today if, instead of combustion engines for cars, we had used fuel cells that only emit a little steam.”

Pointing out that environment-friendly technology becomes cheaper as more people invest in it, Sverker Jagers comments: “Many countries in eastern Asia are investing heavily. For example, China has plans to build a railway all the way to Germany, a sort of contemporary Silk Road. South Korea is also putting a great deal of money into environment-friendly technology.”

Clearly enough, the environment is also a question of what we expect from life. For example, for a holiday to be regarded as a success, is it really necessary to fly to Thailand?

“On TV’s cookery programmes, there is nearly always a chef stating that we simply must use the root of some exotic water plant flown here from a distant land. Imagine if, instead, the chef suggested a wander round the garden to pick dainties such as thistles, ground elder and wild garlic.”

CeCAR will also be collaborating with researchers in other fields, e.g. from UGOT’s Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research.

“It’s usually the other way round, with social scientists being included as experts in a natural sciences project,” explains Sverker Jagers. “Here, it is the societal perspective that provides the basis. The role of the natural scientist is very much to help us understand, for example, the problems of ocean acidification, overfishing or toxic emissions.”

Interdisciplinarity is often held out as necessary for solving today’s complicated global problems. However, science across the boundaries of disciplines can be rather difficult.

“We have to learn how to formulate complex issues in way that functions interdisciplinarily. Within CeCAR, for example, we see politics as something that is essentially about collaboration. This opens the way for many different approaches. Earlier, when I was a professor at Luleå University of Technology, I thought I had the world’s coolest job. Yet, being part of building up this centre is hard to beat. I don’t think it can be topped!”

In brief: The Centre for Collective Action Research at the University of Gothenburg is part of UGOT Challenges. The latter is the University of Gothenburg’s major initiative on global societal challenges. CeCAR’s goal is to strengthen and carry out interdisciplinary research with the long-term aim of being able to contribute to the development of a theory that can successfully explain collective action. Sverker Jagers, professor of political science, is CeCAR’s director. More information at www.cecar.gu.se.

This article was published in GU Journalen no. 4-2016.


Page Manager: Webbredaktionen|Last update: 10/18/2016

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