Ministry of imagination
Memories of the transition
Memories of the transition is fictive. However, it is knowledge-based speculation. Much of the story is inspired by existing proposals, emerging innovations, or research on the transformations needed to meet our climate targets. We have collected some of these imaginative seeds below so that you can understand and construct your own vision of a post-fossil society.
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"Emporia is nineteen thousand square meters, Mom! Barbie dolls and sun loungers and disposable grills and camping mattresses! Even if all that plastic was fossil-free, there’s no way we could ship all that stuff here and dispose of it without exceeding 800 kilos of emissions per capita!"
In the story, a mall is occupied by activists—and the location is no coincidence. Contemporary malls are sites of mass consumption and are often only accessible by car, further exacerbating their impact on the environment. With that said, it is not impossible for the already constructed malls to be part of the fossil-free society—in essence, they are large buildings where many services are gathered at one location. So, what if we imagine alternative directions for the mall? It might become a circular center—collecting, reconstructing, and repairing goods. It might be filled with design collectives, 3D printers, and recyclers, simply bring your old stuff and leave with new stuff.
"We were celebrating achieving net-zero emissions by 2030–something we’d been working hard on all through the 20s. (...)We bought emission rights, invested in renewable energy, and, most importantly, we planted trees that were supposed to bind as much carbon dioxide as we emitted.The problem was just that it didn’t work."
In the story, we hear an executive reflect on their company's achievement of its net-zero pledge through large amounts of offsets. The net indicates that an equal amount of emissions are sequestered by nature or technology as is being emitted by the company. Most targets set today are net targets. This type of goal-setting has been criticized by the research community, as it allows for the continued emission of greenhouse gasses so long as they are offset by emission reductions elsewhere—the tricky thing being that the emissions are certain, while the extent of the reductions is quite uncertain. How much a particular tree plantation, in a particular place draws down is difficult to calculate—there might be a drought, the tree might die, get chopped, or burnt down. In that scenario, we have emitted but, in reality, not offset.
Read a critique of net-zero from a team of scientists through this link.
"In the 20s, there was so much talk about emissions–a thousand tons here, and a thousand tons there–but there was no hard data covering what you actually consumed, just estimates. OK, you’re a teenager in Sweden, so… Boom! you probably consume two tons just from the stuff you buy."
The protagonists of the story try to create a global, exhaustive database containing all products and services and their associated emissions. The idea of life-cycle analysis—mapping the impact of the production, use and disposal of a product—is well established and widely used. However, they are often estimations—employing generalized figures and hypothetical scenarios. Mostly, these measurements act more as guides for companies and consumers—but if the ideas of carbon budgets and individual carbon accounts gain ground, it is vital to consider how we can accurately calculate these. Because how, what and where we measure is important for climate change, but also for our democracy.
Read a recent critique of Life Cycle Assessments by clicking this link by clicking this link.
"Each citizen is allotted a climate budget, which they have to stick to"
Budgets and footprints are mentioned throughout the story. A carbon budget is an attempt to estimate the maximum amount we can emit while still having a reasonable chance of staying below a certain average global temperature, most often 1.5C. It's a complicated process with much uncertainty, but it does give nations and municipalities a certain ceiling which, in theory, they should not exceed. They are used by several Swedish municipalities, but mostly as guidance—not as a non-negotiable limit.
The ecological footprint is the prototypical environmental measurement. Depening on an individuals lifestyle, habits and consupmtion—online calculators estimate how much resources they consume. Depending on which calculator you use, more or less is included. For instance, we have certain emissions that are commonly owned through public investments and assets—those emissions end up on our scorecard whether we like it or not, but are not always visible in footprint caculators. And the choice of what to include and what to exclude matter—calculations of the average Swedish carbon footprint range from 8 to 15 tons per year. To achieve the goals set out by the Paris Agreements, emissions need to be reduced to below 1 ton per person, but given Swedens historical climate debt, we need to go even further—thus the activists in the story settle on 800 kilo per person as their goal.
The recent decades have put the individual at the centre of climate action—we, as indiviudals, have been cast both as culprit and change agent. A recent study has shown that this narrative was strenghtened and ampilified by fossil fuel interests. In our story, several activists discover that it's very hard, almost impossible, to reduce your own footprint to 800 kilo if most of what you would do causes high-emissions. But through collective action and advocacy, as exemplified by the occupation and the demands put forth, it's possible to make a low-emission life easy and enjoyable.
Read more about the study and the history of individual reponsibility in this essay.
"There are four hundred people on the roof now. It’s been sealed off with big banners, but the stores are still open, and nobody is stopping people from shopping. The urban gardeners in Holma bring vegetables and supplies for the occupants, who hoist them up to the rooftop at night."
Civil disobedience, when individuals or groups choose not to abide by certain laws or rules to highlight a problem, is one of the majour themes of the story. It is a common tactic among today's climate movements—they occupy coal mines, chain themselves to trees or block motorways to direct attention to issues that would otherwise go unquestioned. This has also been a key tactic historically—the right to strike, universal suffrage and minority rights are results av different acts of civil disobedience. It is central to the approach to remain non-violent, hence the uproar that demonstrators have taken up arms at other malls in the story.
"First we had the dry years, when it was difficult just to feed the cattle. And then, my son Kevin went and became one of the leaders of that damned occupation. The haulage work began to dry up when people stopped buying Christmas tree stands, and when they introduced the new consumption tax, I lost everything. Nobody wanted to hire me, because I drove a diesel truck. There I was, without a job and with only 50 cows left on the milker, and that kid had the nerve to come over to my place to “register my carbon dioxide emissions.” In something he called the Record. And where did that get us? The farm went under too, that’s where!"
A transition that is adequate for the Paris-agreement inevitably means that rapid changes to some sectors of society will occur. Some industries will need to be shrunk och dissappear entirely—such as coal mining—while others need to expand rapidly—such as renewable energy. When that happens, many people risk losing their livelihoods, purpose and culture. That's why many argue that the transition needs to be just—the people who get the worse end of the transition needs to be looked after and employed elsewhere. However, it is also important to consider who gains from the transition. Here justice might concern where wind mills are constructed and who benefits from its property taxes or which houses are insulated and at what cost to the tenants. The aim is for the transition not to increase inequalities, but decrease them—so that we share the burdens and benefits equally.
SEI has a useful portal on just transition that is accesible here.
"They claim to be addressing climate change, but they keep encouraging continued growth and consumerism at the same time."
Economic growth means that the value of the products and services a country produces increases under a given time span, usually a year. The relationship between growth and climate change is a hotly debated topic. Some argue that growth can be decoupled from environmental impact, that through technological development and efficiency gains it is possible to achieve "green growth". Others argue that growth is a key driver of environmental destruction and that rich countries have to strive for "degrowth", a planned reduction of our production and consumption. There are also those who argue that growth should not be actively addressed but that the focus instead should be on the ends and means of our economy—they are agnostic to growth.
In the story, we mostly feature efforts to pursue degrowth and a-growth. The green universal basic income, the green tax reform, and the emission rations serve to limit certain forms of consumption, making certain products more expensive and lessening the importance of wage labor—allowing citizens to spend more of their time in their communities. This ought to degrow the economy at large while growing certain sectors such as agriculture, repair/recycling, and services. At the same time, the story features new financial solutions such as the carbon coin, which might lead to an increase in growth since new emission-reducing projects are made possible.
Which of the perspectives do you find most convincing? Click here for the EU-perspective on green growth and Click here for an analysis of green growth from a degrowth perspective
"Tariq founded the co-op here in Holma, and because people could only buy local goods with the citizen’s credit, he was finally able to make some money from his crops."
Universal basic income is a reoccurring proposal and has been experimented with on a smaller scale around the world. The idea is to give all citizens an unconditional base income, in most proposals this sum is enough to provide the basics of daily life. It is argued to be more efficient, as many targeted welfare payments, such as social security, that have to be managed and approved would be replaced, thus reducing the administrative burden. The basic income would allow citizens to spend more of their time on other activities than wage labor, arguably making their lives better. A green basic income would limit the payments to goods and services that fulfill certain environmental demands, food might have to be local or low-emissions. This does somewhat go against the more liberal approach to basic incomes but would create a secure and long-term demand for low-emission goods and services.
Sociologist Guy Standing gives a short argument for universal basic income in this article, and Mark Maslin & Simon Lewis gives a short introduction to UBI as a climate change intervention in this opinion piece.
Also, a well-established reform, which is not always easy to implement. The idea is to increase taxation on resource use, for instance by a high tax on emissions, and at the same time lower the taxation on work. Production that requires little resources would be cheaper than high-impact products, allowing repairs and new technologies to compete.
"Those years, we saved on everything, and we were able to sell a lot of our emission rights, which gave us some financial security. "
These are more radical and untested ideas. Rationing would mean that the carbon budget for a country is fairly divided among the population. If you don't spend your entire budget, you can sell the rest—rewarding the emission frugal. It's not clear how an intervention such as this would be implemented in practice, most likely it would be limited to certain sectors at first that are more easily regulated: electricity, heating, mobility. The key argument is that it puts a hard cap on emissions, whereas taxation can only make emissions more expensive—which does not ensure that they don't occur.
"They introduced Carbon Coins, a special currency minted by the Riksbank, which was used to pay for activities that reduced emissions and left coal, oil, and gas untouched in the ground."
New currencies have been proposed and in some cases launched to pursue a number of goals. Local currencies, which only work in one neighborhood or city, are common and aim to support local businesses and can also have environmental benefits. Cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, were created to ensure privacy and independence from the financial system. The idea for Carbon Coins comes from the sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson. He imagines that the world's central banks, who have the power and muscle to print money, create a currency that is directly connected to certified emissions reductions through a blockchain system. Interventions that lower emissions, such as wetland restoration or electrification of transport, are rewarded with a set amount of coins corresponding to their emission reduction. The idea is that this would help accelerate the transition and make emission reduction the most economically viable strategy for businesses globally—putting a price on emission reductions, not just emissions.
To read more about Carbon Coins, click this link.
"Can you see that building across the street? That’s a local service workshop, operated by one of the largest tech companies in the world. They were among the first to stop selling their products. Instead, they lease their computers out, and build them to last forever. "
The current economic model is usually referred to as a 'linear' one—resources are extracted, refined into goods that are then thrown away, usually at a landfill. But most resources are finite, such as minerals and metals, or associated with extensive environmental impacts, such as modern forestry or agriculture. The core idea of a circular economy is to 'close the loop'—instead of disposing of a product, it is repaired, repurposed, or recycled. The idea has become increasingly popular among companies and governments as it promises a continuation of current production and consumption patterns, relying on technological and behavior interventions to direct the "trash" back into the supply chain.
In our story, the resource exchange symbolizes this new circular economy. As taxation and scarcity increase the price of raw materials, demand for recyclables rises. That means that there is a strong financial incentive to take that old cell phone or defunct microwave out of the cellar and onto the market. That way we make better use of the resources already extracted.
In addition to circular, the economy of the future is also shared—we own fewer things privately but borrow, rent, or co-own more. In the story, electronics are the main examples. Instead of owning one, and having it be outdated quickly, customers hire them which puts pressure on the company to make it last as long as possible. The same principles can be applied to other products that we use less often; a community might co-own a lawn-mover, you might rent or borrow power tools from the local tool library and a neighborhood might co-invest in a solar park.
"The first thing we did here was to plan for the bees. No toxins, open spaces, a good variety of species, some dead trees, and some sandy patches for them to nest in. Just listen! It’s buzzing all over, I promise."
As cities grew, nature was removed in favor of roads and buildings. Recently, the value of urban nature has been rediscovered as climate change and biodiversity loss rise on the agenda. Nature-based solutions, whether they be trees, parks, ponds or wetlands, are key to thriving cities. They provide a habitat for wildlife, absorb emissions and air pollution, lower temperatures, and provide shade to hide in during especially hot periods. They are also enjoyable, beautiful and increase citizens' health. Many cities are already working towards more nature. Many examples and knowledge can be found at the Naturvation-projects website, here.
"Right here, on the street, is a stop on the streetcar line that heads out to Ribban and on to Västra Hamnen. The whole inner city is more or less car-free now. Wide city streets. Lots of bicycles. And streetcars and electric busses."
The role of cars in cities is an oft debated subject. In our story, cars don't play a big role in urban mobility—instead public transport, bikes or other light vehicles and walking are the main modes of transport. There are, of course, many more high-tech visions for mobility futures: selfdriving cars, hyperloops and jetbacks to name a few—and perhaps these will play a major role, the future is uncertain. But this we do know: humans need exercise to be healthy, and walking and cycling are good ways of moving around while still exercising. We also know that cities have limited and valuable space—cars are spatially inefficient, both due to the infrastructure they require (parking, roads, gas stations) but also in themselves. So, even if all cars transition to zero-emission technology, they are inpractical in an urban setting. Our future is not car-free, but they live outside the city and transport citizens between towns.
"We have money now, and there’s talk of long-distance electric flight becoming a thing in a few years, so we hope that we’ll be able to travel to Iraq again soon. Meanwhile, I’m happy to sit here and think of how grateful I am for everything else that I call my own."
In the story, aviation becomes an example of the uncertainty connected to technological development. We often hear that a technology is "only a few years away"—but it is impossible to know what barriers still might remain. Aviation faces challenges, electrification is difficult as long-distance flights require very large batteries which increases the weight and decreases the space on the plane and bio-fuels are low in supply and high in demand. Perhaps the future will prove us wrong, and emissions free aviation really is around the corner—if so, great! But aviation, as we've known it might also change entirely—perhaps slow travel, by train, several short distance flights, boat or airship becomes the norm? What we know is that today's levels of aviation is not sustainable.
"Serbia, Romania, and Hungary suffer the worst floods in twenty years. Crops all over the Middle East are destroyed by heavy rains. In East Africa, temperatures stay well over 35 degrees, and lots of people die in the humidity."
It is a fact that already at current emission levels, we are locked into a scenario with increased risk and intensity of extreme weather events. The faster we decrease emissions, the better are odds are. But on current trajectories, some regions will be mostly uninhabitable, and before that, much of its populations will have trouble surviving. Some catastrophies are slow, such as pro-longed drought, sea level rise or decreasing fish stocks, while others are rapid and brutal, such as orcanos and deadly heat waves. The severity of these catastrophies are partly dependent on whether we invest in climate adaption—but, mostly likely, many people will have to flee from their homes.
"Can you see the railway? In 2029, border control is intensified in Hyllie, to keep the environmental refugees out."
In the story, the border between Denmark and Sweden is closed for several years. We chose to include this to highlight that addressing climate change does not necessarily mean that other problems are dealt with. Xenophobia and fear of large migration might still be the dominant view in society. But there are also an infinite number of other trajectories—perhaps early acknowledgement and global cooperation leads to a planned relocation of those whose homes will be lost?
Get in touch
Johannes Stripple, Department of Political Science
johannes [dot] stripple [at] svet [dot] lu [dot] se
Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson, Department of Political Science
ludwig [dot] bengtsson_sonesson [at] svet [dot] lu [dot] se
Fredrik Pålsson, Umami Produktion/Hi-Story
fredrik [at] umamiproduktion [dot] se