The concept of green economy is closely linked to research sector and its results; after all, the whole concept was born among environmental economists in the 1980s. The GRUDE project therefore also explored the research community’s views on the green transition and the opportunities it offers, as well as the relationship between research and the green transition. During the spring and summer of 2022, the GRUDE project interviewed two researchers from different fields to get a researcher’s perspective on the green transition: what is the role of research in the green transition and where do researchers see future’s green solutions.
The interviews made it clear that the green transition needs to take into account not only technological innovation but also people and society. While research is creating technological innovations that can accelerate the green transition and the business world is quick to embrace new ideas and technologies, social structures and attitudes are slow to change. Both interviewees stressed the importance of multidisciplinarity and the need to look at the big picture in the transition. Multidisciplinarity allows for a more holistic view, which is needed to make the transition genuinely greener, fairer and faster.
Energy policy at the heart of the green transition
Ulla Lassi, Professor of Applied Chemistry at the University of Oulu, has seen a change in attitudes towards carbon dioxide in environmental matters throughout her career. Since her PhD research on exhaust catalysts in 2003, she has seen the change related to carbon dioxide during her career. When Lassi was still working on her PhD on catalytic converters, the overall aim was complete combustion, burning hydrocarbon components and carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. In the early 2000s, carbon dioxide was not seen as a problematic end product and carbon sequestration and carbon sinks were not discussed as they are today. The green transition has arrived and progressed quickly, says Lassi.
Basic research can focus on very small entities and get down to understanding the details. In the green transition, the big picture is often complex, and Lassi says that individual researchers could take a broader view of where their research fits in the bigger picture, and of the whole life cycle of what they are doing. According to Lassi, wider understanding is important to avoid creating difficulties in another area, such as biodiversity, when tackling new challenges of the green transition.
Energy policy plays a key role in the green transition and Lassi stresses the importance of both energy and material balances when considering the environmental sustainability of new products. Looking at the bigger picture at the societal level, for example in terms of carbon emissions, it would be good to look globally, especially towards big companies, and support their efforts to find ways to reduce emissions. Lassi also wonders whether Finland, as an agricultural and sparsely populated country, should think more broadly about energy solutions for transport rather than just electric cars.
However, putting research-led innovations into practice often encounters challenges due to complex legislation and lengthy and slow authorisation processes. In addition to the slowness and complexity of the legislation, the lack of risk funding for green transition related research slows down the process. Timing is also important in translating research results into practice: innovations brought to market too early may not be understood.
For Lassi, research ideas come from her own previous research, in interaction with other researchers or directly from industry. In her research area, Lassi sees green opportunities in replacement of materials of the fossil economy, such as how to replace products from the petrochemical and plastics industries with products made from biomass, which materials could be used to replace fossil-based activated carbon filters, or how to use wood-based materials such as lignin in the battery industry.
Research knowledge will contribute to the acceptance of the green transition
Rauno Sairinen, Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Eastern Finland, stresses that the green transition requires a joint effort from different actors in society. The green transition will affect many actors in society, and therefore fairness should be ensured. The benefits and drawbacks of the transition should be evenly distributed so that the changes are accepted. The transition to a carbon-neutral society that uses natural resources sustainably is understood to be necessary, yet some means, the transition to wind power, for example, is characterised by conflict. However, according to Sairinen, tensions between different sectors of society on sustainability transition issues have diminished over the last decade.
Sairinen emphasizes the importance of the science for the society; scientific knowledge must be brought to decision-makers to support decision-making, but also to the general public. Multidisciplinarity has become a more central approach in sustainability transition research and this is particularly emphasised in the knowledge needed to support decision-making. The way forward should be with solutions and knowledge. However, science based approach in decision making may distance citizens from the offered solutions. Experts should therefore be as open and communicative as possible, so that their reasoning and information on the solutions for the green transition become understandable to the general public.
Social sciences can help to find solutions to the problems of promoting the green transition, such as why some solutions are resisted, and thus find ways forward and create workable policies. Sairinen has been involved not only in putting research knowledge into practice through projects to train public sector actors, but also in bringing a social science perspective to the circular economy, such as how to assess social impacts.
In the sustainability transition, the role of researchers is not only to provide solutions, but also to train new experts in society who are needed to make the transition happen. Sairinen sees teaching becoming increasingly important in his research career. Diversity in study opportunities available will help to train new experts across disciplines. In addition to undergraduate degrees, there is a need for continuing education and virtual courses open to all.
As a social scientist, Sairinen knows that things develop slowly – and holds true for the green transition. People’s attitudes are challenging to change and politics depend on public acceptance. As a result, structures change slowly and lag the change that the economy is capable of. However, according to Sairinen, global crises can increase the agility to provide quick solutions at societal level. In addition, crisis awareness, and with it an understanding of the importance of self-sufficiency and survival at the local level, will increase the motivation of citizens to work towards a green transition. For both researchers and the general public, the key to the green transition is to see the importance of their own actions and to take an active role.
Johanna Leppälä, Senior Scientist, Finnish Natural Resources Institute