A new professor of climate change leadership takes office

7 September 2016

At the end of August, Kevin Anderson arrived in Uppsala by train. The trip from Manchester took 51 hours including transfers and stay-overs, but it was worth it. As the new professor of climate leadership argues, it is important to demonstrate how a busy academic life is possible without contributing to unnecessary carbon dioxide emissions.

Kevin Anderson has an engineering background and previously designed and commissioned offshore oil platforms before establishing an academic career at the University of Manchester. He is now professor of energy and climate change and deputy director of the internationally renowned Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Portrait of Kevin Anderson
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

He is known for his persistent efforts to frame climate change in terms of carbon dioxide budgets and calculating how to meet acceptable emission levels, regularly engaging with British policy makers, business leaders and wider civil society. He has now moved to Uppsala to become the Zennström professor of climate leadership at the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development.

What are you planning to do here at Uppsala University?
‘Amongst a range of activities I will be engaging with student groups. Not so much with formal lectures, but rather in interplay with the students. When it comes to climate change, people of my generation with no hair or grey hair have broadly failed to address issues of climate change. So we need to demonstrate humility when lecturing students. What we can explain is how not to do things and how and why we have failed. There are lessons to be learned both ways.’

What are your research interests?
‘I want to explore new ways to deal with climate change and clearly there are key cultural distinctions between Sweden and the UK. I don’t want to exaggerate these, but importantly Sweden remains a much more egalitarian society than the UK and this opens up different possibilities in terms of social and economic policies.’

‘I intend to interpret the Paris agreement in relation to Sweden, asking what reductions in carbon emissions does it imply for Sweden and what are the implications for action and leadership within Uppsala university. Building on this I want to engage with policymakers from the municipal level through to the national government.’

What is most important to change to reach the climate goals from Paris?
‘We have to focus on all sectors, from car transport and aviation through to industry, housing and the consumer goods we buy. It is really important to take account of the emissions and sustainability issues associated with what we import and export. A lot of wealthier Western countries have been reluctant to take such a ‘consumption-based’ approach. But if we are serious about climate change, we must take a complete and comprehensive view of our impacts.’

You have worked close to policy makers in the UK, and put a lot of effort into communicating. Is that important?
‘Yes, I and Tyndall Centre colleagues spend a lot of time engaging with the UK government, local councils and the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland. We try to ensure that whenever we write an academic paper we also write an accompanying version in a language that non-experts can understand. Unless academics are prepared to take the expertise we develop, and communicate it in a language that is more understandable, we cannot complain when government takes little notice of our research.’

The Paris climate deal – to stay below an increase of 2 and preferably below 1.5 degrees – is quite a big challenge for society. Do we have to change a lot to live up to it?
‘Yes, profound change is necessary for those of us who are the high emitters. Globally, 50 per cent of carbon emissions arise from just 10 per cent of the population. The Paris obligations relate to a certain carbon dioxide budget range – the total amount of emissions we can release. At the moment the lion’s share of the budget is being spent by people like me and other high emitters. We fly a lot, drive large cars, live in big houses and buy lots of consumer goods. Put simply, every tonne of carbon we emit is a tonne a poor person cannot emit.’

You come from an engineering background. Can new technology solve some of the climate change problems?
‘There are real and important opportunities for engineering and technology to help society transition to a zero-carbon energy system. But though such technologies are essential, they are insufficient to meet the Paris commitments. We have to listen to lessons emerging from the social sciences on how we can make changes to those high carbon habits, routines and behaviours that we have come to regard as normal. This is a huge challenge. We need to make urgent and fundamental changes to our lifestyles; and continue with such change until the transition to a zero carbon energy system is complete.’