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.