Austrian Edgar Hertwich is NTNU’s new International Chair and expert in industrial ecology. He is also the man behind the newspaper opinion piece titled “Science cannot stop climate change”.

You are from Austria, with MSc and PhD degrees from the US, and you now come to NTNU from a tenured professorship at Yale University. Why is NTNU your preferred place to work?

– NTNU is quite strong in its research in sustainability and energy, and thanks to the EU, research collaboration and funding opportunities are better here than in the US. The most important reason for us was we found that Norway is the better place for our kids to grow up and for us to become older.

What can NTNU learn from how Yale operates, and what are the most important things for NTNU to do when striving for excellence?

– Two things: the risk to take on new questions, and the quality of recruitment. Universities like Yale, or Berkeley, where I got my PhD, encourage scientists to tackle new questions and explore areas in which they do not have a proven track record. One is not afraid to fail, and if the PhD takes a year or two longer than the 5 years that are normal, then that is OK. There is little acceptance for research that provides only small, incremental improvements. The second, Yale is highly selective in its recruitment of faculty and students. NTNU has room to improve both the quality assurance for the individuals it recruits and the development of those individuals.

– The sustainability challenges are global

During the recent years, you have been an active member of the UN International Resource Panel and the President of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. What are the three main messages you take home from this, regarding sustainability and resource use challenges that NTNU should focus more in its research?

  1. We provide support based on evidence collected by scientists working in the global North, yet sustainability challenges are as large in the global South. We have such an incredible knowledge advantage compared to developing countries and emerging economies. We cannot achieve global sustainability without developing countries, and we lack mechanisms to involve and support their participation in the global science assessment and policy support activities. ISIE has been out early in supporting the development of Industrial Ecology in China, with Yale in the lead, and has been very successful in the process. Similar activities are needed targeting key countries such as India, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa. NTNU could develop key partnerships with a few (and not too many) institutions in these countries.
  2. There is a large need for developing a computer-based international knowledge infrastructure, that could help organizations like the Resource Panel. They already use NTNU knowledge products, like the EXIOBASE database co-produced by Professor Richard Wood and his team, but there is a lack of systematic accumulation, storage, retrieval, and quality assurance of data relevant for global sustainability.
  3. Achieving sustainability requires solving fundamental challenges. Too often, researchers accept taboos, rather than questioning them, and is shaped by what funding agencies and political institutions see as solutions. More in-depth inquiry is needed.

Screenshot from the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.no. In English: “Science cannot stop climate change”.

In October last year you wrote a newspaper opinion piece titled “Science cannot stop climate change”(read English version here). Still, you are a scientist, and NTNU works to strengthen research related to climate change. Is this a dilemma, and how should NTNU shape its research focus for more impact on society transitions?

– Rather than thinking for ourselves, acting as individuals, we must form groups. In the past, churches, trade unions, social clubs, and political organizations provided platforms to contemplate and organize, but my generation never joined those organizations. Now, that we have much more rapid changes, our only means to organize and response collectively is through elections. That is not good enough. We need to be honest, say, ‘Hey, there is a crucial piece missing. A university can develop new technologies and assess consequences of potential developments, but society needs ways to develop political responses to these fundamental challenges.’

Your professorship at NTNU is in the field of industrial ecology. How is industrial ecology critical in providing knowledge for sustainability transitions in the coming decade?

– Industrial ecology has made excellent contributions to understanding how human activities require resources and produce pollution and other environmental pressures. We have developed tools that can assess the contribution of specific technologies or projects to reducing pollution. The whole sustainability science field still lacks a credible, granular description of a potential road towards sustainability, and it will be a fundamental challenge for IE to conduct the forward-looking work on mapping potential courses that can bring us there.

Contact information Edgar Hertwich, International Chair at NTNU from 1 July 2019