Green cities grow from the roots

Royal climate change researcher Harriet Bulkeley doesn’t believe that directives from above cause us to change our behaviour. On the other hand, she believes in the creative and fumbling environmental experiments that she has seen popping up in cities around the world. Now she is going to study climate-friendly initiatives in Sweden.

Harriet Bulkeley och kungen

Harriet Bulkeley at the royal lunch following her lecture. Photo: Gunnar Menander

LUM meets Harriet Bulkeley at Café Athen a few days after she gave a lecture to an audience that included the King. Her professorship is in his name – she is the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science. The lecture was about the role of cities in the fight against climate change.

“Since 70 per cent of the world’s emissions come from cities, their environmental measures are extremely important”, says Harriet Bulkeley.

While she is in Lund, she will work with a research group to study Lunds energi’s district heating system and climate-friendly projects in Malmö and Stockholm. They may also have time to look at Copenhagen, which has recently distinguished itself as the world’s most bike-friendly city.
Harriet Bulkeley is no stranger to Lund. She knows several of Lund’s climate researchers, and the attractions for her included Lund’s environmental science, which has a large interdisciplinary breadth. However, this is the first time she has come for an extended period, and the first time she has brought her husband and two young children.
“It was easy to find accommodation in Lund and to get the children into the international school”, she says. Unfortunately, the children cannot be out of school in England longer than until April, so after that the family will have to do a lot of travelling back and forth. It is not always easy being a parent and an international researcher, she admits.

Harriet Bulkeley began to take an interest in the role of cities in the fight against climate change when she was writing her PhD thesis in Australia in the 1990s. In a country that is known for being reluctant to sign any international climate change agreements, she came into contact with local politicians who were much more forward-thinking than the Government. She mentions the example of Newcastle, a small mining city north of Sydney. They established links with environmentally friendly cities around the world, experimented with renewable energy sources and also managed to lower residents’ energy costs.

“Contrary to what one might believe, the size or economic standing of a city is not what determines how committed they are to measures to improve the climate”, says Harriet Bulkeley. “What it takes are ‘political champions’, visionaries with the ability to build wide networks and implement major changes.”

She gives the example of São Paulo, where private landlords and the city’s energy authority have joined forces to supply entire districts with solar panels, thereby significantly reducing the use of fossil fuels. Another example is Bangalore in India, where construction companies market themselves as environmentally friendly by building homes without baths, with small freezers and with space for cultivation. A third is Philadelphia in the USA, where they are experimenting with painting all the roofs white so that buildings are cooler in the summer. This has reduced use of air conditioning.

Harriet Bulkeley says that directives from above that urge us to be more environmentally friendly appear to have little effect on behaviour. However, she believes that successful climate friendly experiments catch on quickly – experiments such as car pools or couchsurfing.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to control climate change by measuring it or change people’s behaviour through directives”, she says. “Of course, we have to work on multiple fronts, but I think we need to spend less time on different ways of measuring and more on finding low-carbon solutions. We have to bear in mind what motivates people to care and to want to use a certain initiative.”

Ulrika Oredsson

About the professorship: 

On the King’s 50th birthday in 1996, a professorship in environmental science was established in the King’s name. The chair, which is financed by a number of research foundations, academies and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, goes to an outstanding international researcher who can help to provide new perspectives to environmental science in Sweden. The field of environmental science is interpreted broadly when awarding the visiting chair, encompassing engineering, science, social sciences or humanities. Lund University is the highest ranked Swedish university for environmental science, at number 32 in the world in the QS ranking, and this is not the first time the chair has been awarded to Lund.