Sweden.se meets celebrity climate professor Christian Azar. Unlike many of the environmentalists of today, Azar is surprisingly upbeat about our planet’s prospects. “We can win the climate battle,” he says.
When Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt needs to be updated on the latest international climate reports, he calls Christian Azar, Professor of Energy and the Environment at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. Azar, 39, sits on several international research groups and committees, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For Azar, solving the climate problem is first and foremost a political issue.
Skipping your planned trip to Thailand for environmental reasons or eating less meat, which accounts for a large portion of carbon emissions, is not enough.
Christian Azar is the most talked about climate scientist in Sweden. Photo: J-O Yxell
Paying the price
“Of course it’s a good idea to do something about your own consumption, but I think most people are doing what they can,” he says. “As an individual, I think the most important contribution you can make is to help mobilize support for carbon taxes and emissions trading. We must put a price on our carbon. Emissions trading is a step in the right direction but the current system doesn’t cover households, trucks or cars. You need heavier carbon taxes and a proper ceiling on emissions trading.”
Azar compares today’s struggle against oil and coal dependency to the 18th-century’s fight against slavery. “At that time, the slave trade was an integral part of the economy and considered impossible to abolish. Just as the plantation owners were members of the British parliament, the oil men hold power in the US,” he says.
Eventually, of course, the slave trade was abolished. And with Barack Obama at the helm in the US, Azar is more optimistic about the future of our planet. He says it is vital that the biggest carbon nation is part of the international decision-making process. The US never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which has determined the course of climate action over the past decade.
“Obama is going to make a big difference,” Azar says. “We may get a ‘Green New Deal.’ But he’s going to have to convince the Senate, too.”
So what progress is Sweden making in the climate sphere?
“Our carbon emissions per head are relatively low compared with other industrialized countries,” he says. “This is because we have so much hydroelectric power, nuclear power and bioenergy, as well as high carbon taxes. But if you compare our emissions with those of many developing countries, they’re way too high. A Swede releases five times as much carbon into the atmosphere as the average Indian, for instance. And we’re releasing five times as much carbon as we can reasonably expect to do in the middle of this century if we want to avoid severe climate change.”
In typical Azar fashion, though, there are two sides to every question. Bioenergy is a case in point: great in some cases (ethanol from sugar cane, for instance) but hopelessly ineffective in others.
“It’s the most complex type of energy we have,” he says. “It comes in so many different forms.”
Solar energy and wind power are two alternative energy sources championed by Azar. Photo: Thomas Carlgren och Berne Lundqvist
Used properly, however, bioenergy is one of many “technical fixes” that can help us meet the climate challenge. The others are solar energy (“increasing at a rate of 70 percent a year”), wind power and carbon dioxide capture and storage, which involves separating the carbon dioxide generated in electricity generation, for example, and storing it underground.
“Perhaps most important of all, though, is energy conservation — improving energy efficiency. That could give us as much as all of these actions put together,” says Azar, who points to hybrid cars and smart buildings as prime examples of more efficient energy use.
Fueling the climate debate
Last fall, Azar’s book Power over the Climate (Makten över klimatet) sought to widen the climate debate — not to sound the alarm, but to examine the options available to us.
“The idea was to present the issue from different angles, not to adopt a moral position,” he says.
- Christian Azar is Professor of Energy and the Environment at Chalmers University of Technology, where he is heading research into sustainable energy systems.
- He is on the editorial board of several international scientific journals, including Climatic Change, and was a lead author on the IPCC Third Assessment Report.
- He is a member of the Swedish government’s Scientific Council on Climate Issues and Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s Commission on Sustainable Development.
- He advised Margot Wallström, Vice President of the European Commission, in her former capacity as EU Environment Commissioner.
- He has given hundreds of lectures to policymakers, business leaders, environmental organizations, and the general public on energy, sustainability, and climate change.
www.chalmers.se — Christian Azar profile, Chalmers University of Technology
www.miljomal.nu — Environmental Objectives Portal
www.sweden.gov.se — Environment, energy and climate
Energy: Generating power for a sustainable future — Fact sheet
Environment: Clear goals shape Swedish environmental policy — Fact sheet
Facing the future — Publication
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Hammarby Sjöstad — living green in central Stockholm — Article
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Johan Wickström is an editor and writer at Intellecta Publicisterna. He enjoys a hot bath now and then, but cycles to work and buys low-energy light bulbs.
Translation: Stephen Croall
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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