Is this a wake-up call? Stockholm experts on coronavirus and climate change

Coronavirus has raised big questions not only about public health but about how billions of people can co-exist. But will history view humankind’s response to the pandemic as a forerunner of an even bigger collective challenge?

Published: Wed 26 Aug 2020 08:32 CEST
Is this a wake-up call? Stockholm experts on coronavirus and climate change
Photo: Getty Images

The Local spoke with two of Stockholm’s leading scientists about how the current crisis will influence our actions on climate change. We look at five key areas – attitudes, food, energy, work and travel – to consider today’s problems and what hope they see for tomorrow.

The art of changing attitudes

“We’ve been experts in the negative storyline and the pessimistic message,” says Johan Kuylenstierna, Vice Chair of the Swedish Climate Policy Council. He wants scientists and policymakers to emphasise the benefits of tackling climate change – not the consequences of failing.

The challenge may be stark. But Kuylenstierna is “much more optimistic” on climate and sustainability now than five years ago. Why?

“Because the climate debate has shifted from the political sphere to the private sector,” he says. Businesses now view the transition as inevitable. “Even more interestingly, they see it as an opportunity,” he adds. “And coronavirus has highlighted that it needs to move even faster.”

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Broad behavioural changes are constant in any case, says Kuylenstierna. “Think of smartphones or the internet,” he says. “Just say this is part of societal change: we changed from horses and carriages to cars and now we’re changing to electric cars. It’s not a big deal.

“This year helps us make an even stronger case for the only way forward, which is systems transformations. Pushing that forward as individuals is our biggest responsibility as citizens in a democracy.” 

Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is less optimistic. But she agrees that how we respond to the challenges of the pandemic is crucial. 

“In many places in the world, I think it does awaken us on climate,” she says. “We need to rethink our relationship with nature and reflect on how we can live a better and fairer life.”

She believes we still need stronger global climate change targets and is concerned that things could become “even worse” amid pressure to turn things around economically.

But Gordon says a certain Stockholm schoolgirl has proved our power to influence each other’s attitudes. “Greta Thunberg was one person sitting down for a climate strike,” she says. “But she mobilised so many people and then they became a force for change.”

Line Gordon and Johan Kuylenstierna. Photos: Stockholm Resilience Centre/Mats Linde

The future of food

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? According to research co-ordinated by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, it is possible to feed 10 billion people within our planetary boundaries by 2050. But it will require huge changes in three areas: food waste, diet and food production. 

A third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, according to the United Nations. Households, supermarkets and transportation can all play a part in reducing that number. 

Gordon recommends a holistic approach to food to address both personal and planetary well-being. “The way we consume food is the largest driver for poor health,” she says. “How can we find healthy food that is also sustainable? In general, especially for Sweden, we’d have to eat less meat and more plant-based foods and nuts and pulses.”

With food production, she highlights that 70 percent of the freshwater we withdraw globally is used for agriculture “so we need to make it really efficient”. Precision agriculture – using big data, satellites, drones and so on – is already making farming more efficient in some areas.

A number of Stockholm-based start-ups have made important contributions – such as Ignitia, the world's first tropical weather forecasting company. It provides "hyperlocal" forecasts to help farmers in West Africa avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Kuylenstierna, an adjunct professor at Stockholm University's Department of Physical Geography, says food supply chains have coped well with the challenges of the pandemic so far. But he believes greater awareness of their potential vulnerability should be welcomed.

“Trying to deal with that and develop resilience will make you more resilient to potential challenges due to climate change as well,” he explains.

Read also: Why ‘urban villages’ are the future in Stockholm

The cold facts for clean energy

With energy, like food, Kuylenstierna says he is encouraged by signs of governments rethinking the status quo. Renewable energy should be supported for offering security of supply, as well as due to climate change, he says.

“The coronavirus crisis has helped highlight our extreme dependence on very few countries so long as we depend on fossil fuels,” he says. “In Sweden, we joke that when Americans come here and meet someone who doesn’t speak English, they just talk louder. 

“It’s been a little like that in trying to convince some people on climate change. But tell them we can have energy security and not be dependent on Saudi Arabia or Russia, how we can create new business – then you can win them over.” 

Photo: Getty Images

One factor everyone understands is much more favourable now than following the last financial crisis in 2008: price. The climate, geopolitics and pure financial logic all therefore support the case for greater investment in renewables, says Kuylenstierna.

“It was high on the agenda 10 or 12 years ago but solar and wind were very expensive,” Kuylenstierna says. “Today, they are not and they’re competitive even without subsidies.”

Return to work – or remain remote?

Before the pandemic, just 2.9 percent of employees globally were estimated to work exclusively or mainly from home. That figure has surged by an almost unimaginable degree.

When Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell asked “whether we will ever go back to work in exactly the same way as before", he gave voice to a question on the minds of businesses and workers around the world.

“Suddenly, tens or even hundreds of millions of people have started to go online remotely and I’m surprised how well it has worked,” says Kuylenstierna. 

The advantages and disadvantages of working from home more regularly are now the topic of healthy debate for both businesses and individuals. But a mass reduction in commuting clearly has benefits in terms of cutting carbon emissions.

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Kuylenstierna admits he did a “tremendous” amount of international travel in his time as head of the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Now, we could really push digitalisation forward in terms of meetings,” he says.

Importantly, he believes developing countries could take a leap forward – and help restrict global warming – by rapidly adopting new technology for remote working.

Travel and transport: to fly or not to fly? 

Passenger demand for air travel has fallen almost 60 percent in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Around 7.5 million flights were cancelled between January and July and IATA says demand may not reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024. 

While this marks a radical change for a globalised world, what should we expect in the long-term? Gordon and Kuylenstierna both expect international travel to remain part of our lives.

“My husband is Canadian,” says Gordon. “He lives in Stockholm and needs to travel to see his family. We need more sustainable travel using alternative energy sources, to travel shorter distances by train and so on – then you can afford some long distance travel.” 

Kuylenstierna says he and his wife have come to love staycations – or ‘hemesters’ as the Swedes now say – but he agrees. “If people don’t care, that’s a bigger risk than if they now and then take a vacation to Thailand,” he says.

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