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Exclusively online: Series "12 Questions to ..."

GAIA 4/2018: 12 Fragen an Renate Schubert

Renate Schubert, professor of economics at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

1990 to 1991professor for economics at the University of Regensburg and 1991 to 1992 at the University of Tübingen. Between 1993 and 2006 head of the Center for Economic Research at ETH Zurich. In 2006 foundation of the interdisciplinary Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED), ETH Zurich, head of until 2014. Since 2008, Gender Delegate of ETH Zurich’s President and in this function, Associate Vice President of ETH Zurich.

1. From your point of view, what are today's most pressing environmental problems?

The most pressing problem is global climate change. Eventhough we have the "Paris Agreement", it will be very challenging forus to be able to keep the global temperature increase from exceeding 1.5° C. In order to prevent more excessive global warming, it seems inevitable that we'll need to make use of negative emission technologies (NET) or even solar radiation management technologies (SRM) along with general greenhouse gas mitigation measures. While NET has high investment costs and does not prevent new emissions, SRMis characterised by totally unknown new risks. One key topic is that precipitation distribution will change in unknown ways – and that this will most likely bring along additional distributional inequities.

2. When looking at potential improvements in our environment, what gives you hope?

I think that a lot of people around the world are aware of the scarcity of natural resources and the problems brought about by global climate change. So a lot of people are willing "in principle" to behave in a more environmentally friendly manner. In many countries, you'll see that younger people are really trying to save energy, to recycle waste, to avoid wasting food, etc. Children often try to educate their parents and encourage them, for instance, to take shorter showers. In the end, though, many people shy away from changing their behaviour – some because they don't know what to do, some because they find it too expensive, and some because they don't want to give up "modern" habits like flying to foreign destinations for weekend trips or vacation or using plastic bottles.

3. Is there a particular environmental policy reform you admire the most?

The problem with environmental policies is that they typically look nice on paper but aren't really implemented. In this sense, environmental nudging activities seem to be more promising. Singapore, for instance, nudges consumers to reduce their consumption of water and electricity by disclosing the respective consumption level of their neighbours on the monthly bills.

4. Which trend in environmental policy and politics do you consider an aberration?

It doesn't make much sense to tax environmentally unfriendly behaviour, like CO2 emissions, that is combined with a great deal of exemptions, in order to make the tax acceptable from a political point of view.

5. Why environmental research?

There are three key arguments: 1. We still don't know enough about the ecological consequences of different types of environmental damages and problems. 2. We still don't know enough about technologies for fighting environmental damages and problems, or about their respective ecological and socio-economic impacts.3. We still don't know enough about how we can bring about changes in environmental policies on the global and national levels and changes in individuals' behaviour when it comes to the environment. Further progress in all these areas is necessary and also cost-benefit analyses should be considered.

6. What has your experience been when it comes to transferring scientific insights into practice?

This transfer is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately, not all scientists are able to communicate the most important insights from their research in a way that's understandable for non-scientists. What's more important, not all politicians are willing to listen to scientists and accept their research results as relevant. Which means we need fora to enable an institutionalised exchange between scientists and political decision-makers to take place. The WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change) in Germany or the OcCC (Organe Consultatif sur les Changements Climatiques) in Swit zerland – to which I'm honoured to belong – arev ery positive examples in that sense. An example of direct transferis the electricity contract changeover offered by a Swiss electricity provider, based on insights from a study we did on the effects of default electricity contracts.

7. Besides the one you're working in, which field of research in the environmental sciences do you find most exciting?

For me, the most exciting research right now is on new technologies for saving energy or water in private households or for making mobility more sustainable – especially research that relies heavily on the digital facilities which people normally use in their daily lives.

8. Can you name any person or event that has had a particular influence on your commitment to environmental issues?

I was strongly influenced by a project that brought improved stoves to African countries. It taught me just how dependent we are on the natural environment and how simple strategies, applied in a sensitive way, may help to improve sustainability.

9. What knowledge about the environment would you like to pass on to young people?

I think they should know – and most of them do know – that we only have one earth to live on and to live with. Young people should know that even small contributions matter when it comes to using our natural environment more sustainably. They matter as an example for others and they matter as part of a global movement. And finally, of course, I would like them to know what exactly can be done to reduce the consumption of energy or water, to reduce food waste, to improve recycling, etc. Schools and networks of young people play a crucial role in this context.

10. As a scientist concerned with sustainability, what contradictions do you face in your everyday life?

The key contradiction I see is the gap that exists between what people say matters to them and what they do. Many people around the world declare that they care about sustainability and that they are willing to pay for it. Yet, the facts behind their behaviour tell a different story.

11. What are you reading at the moment?

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahnemann. This book helps us understand under which conditions our decisions and behaviours are guided more by emotions or by rational arguments.

12. Apart from the ones we've raised here, what is themost important question of our day?

I see two: one relates to the role of science. Given the increasing scepticism and uncertainty about the relevance and validity of scientific results, we must initiate a far better and more trustful relationship between scientists, decision-makers and the general public. This would help us find solutions for important problems based on evidence and insights from science. The second question I see relates to agreements between various nations to solve inequities in the global distribution of benefits and costs. The current migration topic in Europe is an example which shows just how difficult it is to reach sensible and accepted agreements. Yet, such agreements are necessary to prevent or reduce conflict and violence.

GAIA-Jahrestreffen 2019
"Der gesellschaftliche Impact transformativer Forschung" 29./30. März 2019, Wuppertal
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