Sustainable Tuesday: 4 questions for environmental scientist Ranran Wang
On Sustainable Tuesday, two weeks before Dutch Budget Day, the Dutch cabinet receives a suitcase full of sustainable ideas and initiatives. The initiators' aim: to make the government plans for the upcoming year a little more sustainable. At the Leiden Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), assistant professor Ranran Wang researches sustainability from an innovative angle. We asked her four questions about her research.
What inspired you to choose for sustainability research?
When I was eighteen, I choose to major in environmental sciences. Looking back, environmental sciences appealed to me because it is not as 'dry' as the more exact sciences, such as physics or mathematics. It is linked to management science, law, history and so on. It is a field in which all sorts of science meet, that’s what makes it so interesting.
The more I delved into the subject, the more I became interested in the interface between the environment and the economy. In most countries, the economy still determines a large part of the policy. And that is often at the expense of the environment and climate. I am curious to find out whether this can also be done differently. This motivates me to focus my current research on unravelling the complex relationship between the environment and the economy. In a recent study, my colleagues and I further expanded the linkages, revealing the role of culture in achieving economic, social and environmental sustainability.
In an upcoming paper, you highlight the relationship between CO2 emissions and economic growth. Can you already give us a hint?
Reducing CO2 emissions does not necessarily have to come at the expense of the economy.
We were curious to know whether economic growth must necessarily go hand in hand with higher CO2 emissions. And that appears not to be the case. With additional measures, such as renewable energy and efficient production, it is possible to have both economic growth and emission reduction. A few European countries, such as Sweden, have already succeeded in this. That is positive news. Unfortunately, even Sweden's efforts are not yet enough to achieve our set climate targets. We will therefore have to reduce our emissions even further.
Which topics should not be missing in the Sustainable Tuesday suitcase, according to you?
Ranran laughs. ‘As a non-Dutch person, I'm on thin ice right now. But for you, I looked for some answers in the data. I checked how the Netherlands scores on the different UN Sustainability Goals. The Netherlands is doing quite well on many points! What surprised me the most is that the Netherlands does not score well on the share of renewable energy in final energy consumption. That share is only about 7%. Neighbouring country Germany does better, with 14-15%. Worldwide, the average is even 20% - although the high shares in many developing countries come from conventional bioenergy. The government has ambitious goals, but will have to invest more in sustainable technologies to achieve them.
The Netherlands also does not score well on the so-called spill over score. This new indicator calculates our economic, social, and environmental impacts in other countries. For instance, by trading, we are displacing our CO2 emissions from industry, water for growing crops and greenhouse gas emissions to exporting countries. In its own territory, the Netherlands is doing well, ranking 11th out of 193 countries. But across the border, the Netherlands has a high impact, ranking 159th.
We should do something about the environmental degradation we cause beyond national borders
More Western countries are dangling at the bottom. Something must be done about this. Researchers at the CML contribute to quantifying various forms of environmental degradation beyond national borders and devising sound and equitable mechanisms for countries to pay for the damage or emissions they cause elsewhere.
And what do you do yourself to contribute?
Since I have lived in the Netherlands, I have switched to 100 per cent wind electricity. I have hesitated to get solar panels. But,’ jokes Wang, ‘Holland is not known for its sunny weather. A lot of critical materials go into making solar panels. I was afraid the benefits would not outweigh the harm. The production of wind energy is on a larger scale, and therefore a lot more efficient. Although I didn't make the switch in the end, I wonder if this anecdote may instigate an interesting thesis project...
I am curious about the rest of the ideas, and of course what the Dutch government will do with them. The CML is happy to help!
Wang is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences Leiden. She is part of the Industrial Ecology department. This department investigates how we can make the whole system of production and consumption more sustainable. Wang: 'That system approach is very important. We look at the industrial scale and economywide and integrate socioeconomical, environmental and technological factors. That way, you can spot when a solution to one problem has unintended consequences for something else. Industrial ecology offers a unique approach that I haven't seen anywhere else.’