Science alone will not save our planet. Long before the phrase “sustainability” was commonplace, researchers in Gothenburg applied a holistic approach to environmental problems. The collaborative work of the city’s two universities, the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology, has helped put Sweden’s sustainable reputation on the map.
David Huertas has recently returned from the 2008 Youth Encounter for Sustainability (YES) project in Switzerland. The 30-year old from Colombia is studying a master’s degree program in Management and Economics of Innovation at Chalmers.
Study in Switzerland? David Huertas in the the Swiss Alps — a picturesque backdrop to discuss the world's future with his global peers. Photo: Natalia Duque
“For me, innovation is the key if developing countries want to achieve sustainable growth,” he says. “Technology is the solution, but what kind of technology? What is the best way to utilize innovation and what are the consequences? Sweden has been looking into this perspective for many years.”
Huertas had the opportunity to share these thoughts with other students from around the world at the YES congress. The trip was sponsored by Chalmers and is part of the established Alliance for Global Sustainability — a network of international universities committed to joint research in the field.
Students from Chalmers are sponsored to attend the annual YES project - run by the Alliance for Global Sustainability. Photo: Natalia Duque
“Chalmers is committed to the topic of sustainability,” Huertas says. “It is widely discussed and several projects in all departments account for achieving a more sustainable world.”
The Gothenburg network
Indeed, back in the late 1980s, when activists were bringing the plight of the ozone layer to the fore, scientists in Gothenburg were digging into the hole of environmental issues that little bit deeper.
Chalmers and the University of Gothenburg joined forces and the School of Environmental Sciences was formed. It evolved into the Center for Environment and Sustainability (GMV- Göteborgs Miljövetenskapliga Centrum).
“The aim is to encourage an inter-disciplinary connection and collaboration with industry, academia and government,” says Oliver Lindqvist, dean of GMV and professor in organic environmental chemistry.
GMV now houses the largest network of environmental researchers in Sweden, covering numerous projects on a local, national and international level. “It’s necessary to work within society and introduce environmental concepts to more courses,” Lindqvist adds. “When it comes to questions of sustainability we need science and technology to make change, but we also need economics and social science to tell us how to.”
Economics used to be seen as a contradiction to environmental issues, yet interest in the subject is growing on a global scale. Professor Thomas Sterner set up the Environmental Economics Unit (EEU) at the University of Gothenburg in 1991. “It began with just me and one student,” he says. “Back in the early 1990s the application of economic method for environmental problems was seen as a rather novel idea. But we have seen an explosion of interest from students, particularly from developing countries, in recent years.”
The department now offers a complete set of higher education courses from undergraduate through masters and PhD programs and works closely with SIDA, the Swedish International Development Agency. In a recent collaborative project, six “Environment for Development” centers were set up in Africa, China and Central America. These centers specialize in both research and policy advice.
Economics and the environment go hand-in-hand for Swedish student Ida Hellmark. Photo: Niklas Bernstone
Ida Hellmark’s master’s thesis was based on research she undertook at the center in Costa Rica. The economics student from Örebro in Sweden chose to specialize in environmental economics at the University of Gothenburg, and completed her studies in 2007.
“It’s a great platform to undertake research that can really make a difference,” she says. Not only did the field trip give Hellmark the opportunity to put theory into practice but also exchange knowledge with local peers.
“And, by using economic tools to show what can be efficient for both the environment and the economy in developing countries, policy makers will listen in a different way,” Hellmark adds.
Students have their say
International students in Gothenburg are indeed spreading the word. Chalmers Students for Sustainability (CSS) encourages students to discuss and engage in activities and the majority of members come from developing countries.
“It’s important for us to share ideas, motivation and enthusiasm,” says Claudia Umanzor Zelaya from Honduras, who is currently studying a masters in Design for Sustainable Development.
Claudia Umanzor Zelaya says Sweden has opened her eyes to what is possible in a sustainable world. Photo: David Andersson
“Sweden is very open to new research on sustainability and that is one of the great things about studying here,” she says. “It is also clear that Swedish society is very environmentally conscious — in Honduras, for example, we don’t even have recycling.”
Umanzor Zelaya intends to take her experiences back home. “I’m learning all I can and my dream is to return to Honduras and implement some of the positive things I’ve been exposed to in Sweden.”
Not before a special CSS gathering — a “zero-waste party” is planned for the autumn, where everyone brings their own cutlery and plates and takes their rubbish home with them. What better way than an environmentally friendly celebration to cheer the sustainable efforts ongoing in the city of Gothenburg.
www.sustainability.ethz.ch — Youth Encounter on Sustainability
www.chalmers.se/gmv — Centre for Environment and Sustainability
www.global-sustainability.org — The Alliance for Global Sustainability
www.handels.gu.se/econ/EEU — University of Gothenburg, Environmental Economics Unit
www.efdinitiative.org/ — The Environment for Development initiative
css.chs.chalmers.se — Chalmers Students for Sustainability
www.sida.se — SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency)
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Hammarby Sjöstad — living green in central Stockholm — Article on Sweden.se
Sweden’s green approach to air travel — Article on Sweden.se
Christine Demsteader is a freelance writer from England who has been living in Stockholm for the past six years. In that time, Sweden has taught her a thing or two about the environment. She has slowly got to grips with the word “sustainability” and has embraced the Swedes' inherent love of nature and the outdoors.