Sustainability after Covid-19: Interview with Henrik Nordborg

By Richard Bousfield
Professor Henrik Nordborg

On June 25th, Greenbuzz Berlin, Bern, Geneva and Zurich join forces to discuss the topic of Sustainability after Covid-19. We caught up with Henrik Nordborg, Professor of Physics and Programme Director for Renewable Energy and Environmental Technology at HSR Höchschule für Technik at Rapperswil, to discuss some of the important topics ahead of the event

What motivates you to speak out against climate change?

I believe my mission statement on the website answers this question quite nicely: giving our children a reason not to hate us. It is obvious that we are letting the next generation down. Climate change might be the most obvious of the challenges our children will have to cope with, but it is by no means the only one. We are currently transgressing many planetary boundaries. 

What really motivates me is the realization that our problems can be solved but that nobody seems interesting in doing so. We prefer to hide behind smoke screens such as the Paris agreement or the SDGs. Even if all countries in the world were on track to meet their Paris commitments – which they are not – this would lead to global warming of at least +3°C and the end of civilization as we know it. Similarly, the SDGs were formulated in a time when people still believed sustainable growth to be possible.

I believe we have passed the “political point of no return”. Scientifically, we know that we need to cut CO2 emissions by at least 50% during the next 10 years. There have been 25 COP-meetings so far during the last three decades and the emissions are still rising. Does anyone seriously believe that the UN-lead process will solve the problem? To save humanity, we will have to sidestep the political process and be very creative. This is exciting. 

How does your background of working in academia help you define problems and seek solutions?

My advantage is that I do not think of myself as a scientist, because I have spent 10 years of my life working in the private sector and many summers during my childhood doing farm labor in Sweden. The job of a scientist is to understand the world by digging deeper and deeper. This can lead to paralysis by analysis. We already know more than enough about climate change and renewable energy and the challenge is to act on this information. 

When Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest in 1633 for telling the truth about the motion of the planets, he made the same mistake as the climate scientists today. He tried to convince the Catholic Church with facts. What Galileo did not understand was that the Pope did not care about the facts but only wanted to protect his business model, which depended on the Church having a monopoly on the Truth. We know today that the oil companies knew everything about climate change in the 70s, just as the tobacco companies were aware of the dangers of smoking. It is not about science but about power and money.

Being a scientist allows me to analyze data and to think critically about statements from other scientists and politicians. Leadership, on the other hand, is the ability to take decisions based on incomplete information. 

What should we be focused on in a post Covid-19 world to see the positive change we need?

The Corona crisis made two things clear: 1) we cannot fool nature, and 2) drastic action is possible. The problem with our response to climate change in the past was that we always prioritized economic growth. We needed a business model for saving the planet and none could be found. 

In a way, both the Corona and the Climate crises are results of one-dimensional thinking. For far too long, we believed it was sufficient to optimize society for economic growth as measured by GDP. We ignored all other dimensions, such as health, environment, resilience, stability, equality, etc. This must change. 

I think it was Trevor Noah who gave a good example, pointing out that a fire station does not make much sense to a neoliberal, because the firefighters are just sitting around most of the time, which is not efficient! However, there comes a time when you are glad to have enough firefighters, doctors, nurses, and hospital beds. There is a classical design conflict between efficiency and resilience, as resilience requires redundancy. Likewise, the choice between economic growth and environmental protection represents another design conflict. 

How do you keep positive when you see the data that is in front of us relating to climate change?

I keep positive because I have to. I interact with young people every day, as a parent, as a teacher, and as a climate activist. There is no way I am going to let them down. I am also firmly convinced that the problem can still be solved, but that we are rapidly running out of time. 

To be successful, we need to stop barking up the wrong tree. The problems we have are related to power and money rather than technology and science. There is a great picture on Wikipedia, showing US Fighter planes flying over burning oil wells. 

US Air Force / Public Domain

Sending kerosene-powered warplanes to blow up oil wells does not make sense economically or ecologically. It is all about power. And I do not care whether the warplanes are powered by renewable fuel or not. Stopping climate change requires closing all gas and oil wells and all coal mines worldwide. It is as simple as that. The problem is only that our geopolitical world order depends on fossil fuel.

Whether we like it or not, the world will look completely different 30 years from now. Things can get a lot better or a lot worse. To avoid a disaster, we need to stop “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” and focus on what is important. The question is only if enough of us have the courage to do so. 

For more information on the event, please visit: