Industrial Ecology – Reflexions

The entire team of PhD students, PostDocs and professors on the steps of the main building, 17 October 2014

The entire team of PhD students, PostDocs and professors on the steps of the main building, 17 October 2014

In 2003, I moved to Trondheim to become Director of the Industrial Ecology Programme (IndEcol) of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). In 2015, I have moved on to head the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University, following Tom Graedel, the founding president of our society.  This transition provides an occasion to reflect on NTNU’s contribution  to the field and on opportunities for future development.

Industrial Ecology as a scientific field coalesced in the 1990s going  back to beginnings in the 1960s and 1970. As an interdisciplinary  activity strongly influenced by industry, industrial ecology was  simultaneously

  1. built on an explicit systems approach, borrowing both from biology and engineering;
  2. an analogy between nutrient cycles in nature and material cycles in  industry, analyzing “industrial ecologies” (specific arrangements of  material cascading and looping), with a normative implication that  circular material flows in the economy were more sustainable;
  3. a pro-active environmental attitude by industry. Rare among academic  fields dealing with the environment, industrial ecology accords  industry agency in solving environmental problems and sees it not just a  cause of problem and responding to government regulations.

At NTNU, the Industrial Ecology programme was initiated on the request of industry, with Norwegian Hydro’s Vice President Rolf Mastrander in the leadership. Mastrander became the first industry-sponsored  Adjunct Professor of Industrial Ecology in the second half of the 1990s,  a position later held by Kjell Øren, also from Hydro and the World  Business Council on Sustainable Development. An international evaluation  of IndEcol after its initial five years praised the work of founding  director Professor Helge Brattebø and his team of co-conspirators and stated that NTNU, offering the  first organized educational program, was a true pioneer in the field.

For me, the position at NTNU offered an opportunity to realize  research ideas of consumption-based accounting for environmental  pressures and of evaluating the potential contributions of emerging  technologies to reducing these environmental pressures. It also offered  an opportunity to expand on and permanently establish the original  project organization, and I initially did not realize how much time I  would dedicate to this. Fortunately, NTNU’s engineering deans took a  positive attitude towards our field, creating new professorships and  financing PhD students. In return, they were awarded with a highly  productive and internationally well-recognized unit.

In a research assessment conducted for the Research Council of Norway (RCN), IndEcol was ranked  third out of 64 research groups in engineering, beaten only by two  well-funded heavyweights. In particular, the assessment emphasized the  synergy achieved among different topics and projects and praised our  societal impact, evidenced by the contributions to the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the creation of spin-offs. In  preparation for the research assessment, the RCN also commissioned a bibliometric study of scientific papers published by Norwegian engineers in the  peer-reviewed literature, which identified IndEcol as the most cited  group in terms of total citations. It listed the Carbon Footprint of  Nations as the single most cited study published in the considered time  period 2009-2013. The analysis also showed that work published by the  group was on average cited 2.5 times as much as other papers appearing  in the same journals, an indicator of the impact that our work has in  the scientific community.

NTNU is well placed to continue making substantial contributions.

  • IndEcol has a substantial pool of talent. As the research assessment  emphasized, IndEcol researchers “have very good overall performance  with some excellent individuals”. IndEcol researchers will continue to  provide leadership in scientific societies and journals, an IEA task  force, and the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative.
  • IndEcol has an excellent educational program. Its International MSc  program in industrial ecology provides a very solid training especially  in the quantitative analysis approaches characteristic of the field.  IndEcol also educates engineering Master students and receives a  substantial number of visiting students from other European  universities. These MSc students contribute to ongoing research and  provide access to talent.
  • Environmental issues will continue to be a serious concern and  industrial ecology approaches are increasingly recognized as being  essential to addressing these problems.

Industrial ecology has seen the start of a convergence of  traditionally separate methods and approaches. IndEcol has contributed  to this trend; yet I am convinced that the potential for further  synergies is large. We have developed scenario approaches based on  either material cycle dynamics or energy scenario models, yet a  combination of those two would provide a real breakthrough. IndEcol  scientists have produced models of the global economy resolved also to  specify und understand emissions and resource use at the national level  while others have worked on spatially explicit impact assessment  especially on ecosystems, but not yet combined those approaches to model  the environmental impacts arising from specific value chains and  product baskets. IndEcol researchers have studied different climate  impact mechanisms of biomass utilization but not yet connected these to  broader scenarios of energy and material consumption.

All this research would help us to answer research questions  important either for policy decisions or for individual companies and  authorities. What opportunities does a circular economy hold for climate  change mitigation? How do specific action options of specific  industries affect future resource access? We demonstrated pollution  benefits of shifting to a low-carbon electricity supply, yet do such  benefits also occur from other climate change mitigation strategies? The  world economy is continuing a tectonic shift in the utilization of  resources, so what are the implications of this shift for resource  owners, like Africa, and regions dependent on resource imports, like  Europe?

Research activities need to reach a certain scale to be able to  tackle such questions, as they require a systematic build-up of research  infrastructure in terms of databases and software and a combination of  skills that are usually not held by a single individual. To take  advantage of these research opportunities and the potential synergies  that lie in the complementary competences of IndEcol staff, the new  IndEcol leadership will have to find funding for larger projects  involving multiple PIs. Unfortunately, I have not been able to generate  such funding. Our proposal for a Centre of Excellence received good  scores but was not funded. Since twice rejecting proposals to fund the  work that lead to the Carbon Footprint of Nations, the Research Council  of Norway has consistently failed to support larger projects in our  domain. Others may be more capable of maneuvering the politics of  research funding that invariable affects small countries.

I have enjoyed many aspects of living in Trondheim. It has great  outdoors, 100s of km of hiking trails and ski tracks, good but expensive  food and decent cultural offerings. I really should have spent more  time in the mountains! Norway is a well-run and extremely cohesive  society where family life is important and many are active in volunteer  activities; a country with a high social capital. Like Berkeley, Vienna,  Zurich, a great place to live, and I still manage to move on. Other  places have other attractions. All of us are visitors on this beautiful  planet, and we may as well visit a few places to see what it is like.

I would like to thank my former colleagues  for their excellent collaboration and wish them good luck with their further path.