Keen to see more applied environmental policy research
1 February 2023
“I would like to see a great deal more applied environmental research in social sciences,” says Sverker C. Jagers, the newly appointed Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University. Professor Jagers studies how it can be made easier for politicians to pass uncomfortable legislation that may save the climate, such as carbon taxes.
Although Jagers took up his guest professorship at the Department of Earth Sciences in the autumn, when we meet in his office the bookshelves are still bare. As yet, he has not had time to install himself properly. During 2023, he will be in Uppsala for one week each month and working one week remotely from Gothenburg, where he is director of the Centre for Collective Action Research, which among other things assists politicians in making “evidence-based policy decisions”.
“This is not a matter of promoting policies but of finding out what policymakers need in order to make better decisions. And of asking ourselves as researchers how we can prepare the necessary basis for doing so.”
During his tenure at Uppsala University, Jagers will encourage more social scientists to not only analyse social problems but also to involve themselves in solutions-oriented research. One example might be experimental research concerning how politicians can design climate policy instruments so that they enjoy the highest possible level of public acceptance.
“Most social scientists are interested in things such as understanding the difficulties of sustainable development, or developing theories that explain why negotiations fail, for example. I would like to see more applied research that takes a scientific approach to exploring the various routes available to navigate past all the problems and challenges that we social scientists are so good at finding.”
Putting Uppsala on the world map
Jagers is keen to observe Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt’s sustainability initiative at Uppsala University.
“I believe that the type of research I am calling for would be an excellent fit for this sustainability investment. If we had a solutions-oriented grant, this investment could be globally unique and place Uppsala on the world map.”
Sustainability issues are often terribly complex. According to Jagers, not only is it difficult to make policy decisions, but it is also difficult to know how best to explain and sell them to people.
“It is difficult to explain to the public in a pedagogical manner why carbon taxes and the reduction pledge are necessary and why they are better than the alternatives.This is a matter of both how best to design policy instruments in order to gain acceptance and explaining and justifying them once adopted.”
Combining policy decisions
It is precisely this that Jagers’ research addresses: how can we combine one policy decision with another to sway opponents? An environmental tax is often viewed as unjust but it can be combined with some form of compensation for those who are hardest hit.
“There is some evidence to suggest that this type of policy combination actually works. For example, Canada succeeded in introducing a carbon tax in all provinces by ingeniously combining taxation with paying back the all the money raised. People only suffer financially in the very short term at the fuel pump. Everyone can also take a tax deduction, including those who don’t own a car, which has probably also increased acceptance.”
Research shows that fairness, or the lack thereof, is a fundamental factor in the acceptance of such decisions; perhaps those who earn least are struck hardest by the tax, or those who live in rural areas have more limited choices than those who live in cities.
“In order to know what to combine with the original policy instrument, such as a tax, you must find out why people would be unwilling to accept it in the current situation. If you can find this key, it is easier to think constructively about how to compensate for the perceived injustice.”
In an article about to published in a scientific journal, Sverker Jagers and his colleagues have studied how politicians can remove subsidies from fossil fuels. Such subsidies are common and few politicians would dare to even suggest their removal. Meanwhile, this is a prerequisite for other measures, such as carbon tax, to have the desired effect.
“We conducted an experiment in five countries around the world that have very high subsidies on fossil fuels. In one case, almost 20 per cent of the country’s GDP is spent on subsidising fossil fuels.”
While this is the first study of its kind, Jagers is hopeful that it will be followed by many more. One problem is the resistance to this type of applied research within many disciplines. It can also be difficult to get the research results published in reputable academic journals.
“I have enjoyed a somewhat unique opportunity as I once had a very openminded professor, Lennart J Lundkvist from Uppsala University. He encouraged me to work with these types of issues and was willing to back me up.”
A strong focus on interdisciplinary research
Sverker Jagers’ doctoral thesis was published in 2003. Although it dealt with sustainable development, it was vey much theoretical. Since then, he has spent a great deal of time on interdisciplinary research in order to capture different aspects of sustainable development. In addition to science and technology, this has included economics and behavioural science.
“Obviously, the more oriented you are towards identifying solutions to a problem, the more you need to supplement your knowledge with additional expertise.”
He is looking forward to making new contacts at Uppsala University, where he is already acquainted with researchers in social sciences and environmental law, but few others. Hopefully, it will prove possible to unite his activities in Gothenburg and Uppsala.
“While it probably won’t be possible to do so in one year, we will at least have time to sow some seeds. I love building things and I have a feeling that I will enjoy the challenge of contributing to an environment more oriented towards applied research.”
Facts: Sverker Jagers
Currently: The newly appointed Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University.
Earlier career: Defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Gothenburg in 2003, appointed docent in Gothenburg in 2008 and professor at Luleå University of Technology in 2010 and the University of Gothenburg in 2013. Director of the Centre for Collective Action Research at the University of Gothenburg since 2016.
Leisure activities: Spending time with family and friends. I’ve always loved skiing and skateboarding and I love to hike and pick mushrooms. I try to get out into the forest as much as possible.
Current reading: I’m reading both Häng City [Hang-out City] by Mikael Yvesand – a wonderful book – and February 1933 by Uwe Wittstock, about the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany. It’s incredibly interesting, topical and frightening.
Hidden talent: I guess that many of my friends think I’m fairly good at cooking, but that’s not really hidden.
Where I get my best ideas: Talking to other people. When I hear how others think about things, ideas are usually born. I often recall a conversation I’ve had, it’s stored somewhere and it leads me to start reading things.
Motivation as a researcher: Building something new. I’m very restless and always searching for something new, but I can be extremely focused when something new comes along. Then I lose interest when it begins to work.
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