Time for corporate biosphere stewardship?

recent article in Nature, Ecology and Evolution identifies a handful of transnational corporations that disproportionately influence the planet’s climate and ecosystem. This concentration of power comes with a great deal of responsibility and opportunity. Although voluntary corporate responsibility so far has proven ineffective, market concentration could be turned into a positive force for sustainability, the authors claim, and identify seeds of change that could be scaled up.

Link to article

Tracing back emissions to 100 companies

The author team, lead by Carl Folke, first review some of the evidence behind this statement. For example, they refer to other studies which show that more than 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to 100 companies. Similarly, a handful of transnational companies dominate agriculture, forestry and fisheries, which are major drivers of environmental change and biodiversity loss.

Examples include the four companies that control 84% of the agricultural pesticides market, and the five companies which account for 48% of global farmed Atlantic salmon (see infographic).

“Transnational corporations in agriculture, forestry, seafood, cement, minerals, and fossil energy cause environmental impacts and possess the ability to influence critical functions of the planet’s climate and biosphere,” the authors say.



Roadblocks or role models?

The authors emphasise that, so far, voluntary corporate social and environmental responsibility has been too ineffective. They also dwell on the risk for market concentration and corporate power to act as roadblocks due to prioritising economic profit over non-market values. In addition, some transnational companies have used their power to lobby regulators to weaken environmental and social standards.

“In the face of insufficient environmental agreements and regulations, dominance poses a threat to sustainability. For instance, companies able to set barriers to entry in a sector can stifle sustainable practices and technological innovation in general,” they write.

Consequently, corporate leadership in itself is unlikely to be sufficient, the authors say. The global-scale corporate biosphere stewardship they suggest will only be possible if governments around the world also provide “a regulatory context that safeguards non-market ecological and social values”.

“If combined with effective public policies and improved governmental regulations, actions by transnational corporations, could substantially accelerate sustainability efforts”, says Beijer Institute director Carl Folke

Six positive signs to build upon

So, what needs to happen to ensure that these big corporations live up to their potential as sustainability leaders on a global scale? To answer this question, the authors identify six observed positive signs of change towards ‘Corporate Biosphere Stewardship’, which they believe could and should be scaled up:

1) “Alignment of vision” – new norms are emerging among some of the largest brands, broadening the vision from profit only to responsibility, ethics, and purpose

2) “Mainstreaming sustainability” – in 2017 more than 70% of global companies mentioned the Sustainable Development Goals in their corporate reporting and 27% included them in their business strategy

3) “License to operate” – governments increasingly create legal requirement for large companies to identify and prevent abuses on human rights and the environment along global supply chains

4) “Financing transformations” – major pension funds and other institutional investors are slowly starting to redirect capital away from unsustainable practices and towards biosphere stewardship

5) “Radical transparency” – novel technologies, like smart algorithms that track movement of fishing vessels, are enhancing transparency along transnational corporations’ supply chains

6) “Evidence-based knowledge for action” – science-business collaboration is becoming increasingly common and important to ensure that companies’ sustainability agendas are framed by science rather than the private sector alone.

The foundation for this article was laid at the Beijer Institute's annual Askö meeting 2015.  The Askö meetings are informal workshops for internationally leading ecologists and economists. 

Folke, C., H. Österblom, J.-B. Jouffray, E. Lambin, M. Scheffer, B.I. Crona, M. Nyström, 2019. Transnational Corporations and the Challenge of Biosphere Stewardship Nature, Ecology and Evolution 3:1396–1403 



Swedish-US initiative on artificial intelligence and sustainability

On 15 October 2019 representatives from U.S. and Swedish academia, Swedish government, Google, Ericsson, USAID and UN agencies UNDP and UN Global Pulse, met to explore how applications of artificial intelligence can helpus reach targets related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The event marked the beginning of a new initiative coordinated by the Beijer Institute, Princeton University (Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies), and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

The intensive fires in the Amazon, the rapid melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and continued loss of biodiversity all illustrate that our planet is changing at a dangerous pace. At the same time, we are entering a period of unprecedented technological change.

Artificial intelligence in combination with accelerated progress in sensor technology and robotics, are likely to change the way we all perceive and respond to social and environmental changes. How can we ensure that applications of artificial intelligence help us address these urgent challenges?

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the world not only needs responsible AI, but planetary responsible AI”, said one of the founders of the initiative, Victor Galaz, programme director at Beijer Institute and deputy director at Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Time for a serious discussion

Galaz believes there is a need to have a serious discussion across academia, civil society, policy and business about how AI can help expand our planetary support systems – climate stability, biodiversity, and living oceans. Otherwise, he warns, these technologies may well lead to accelerated climate and ecological disruption.

“In a world as complex and interconnected as ours, the black box of AI represents a governance challenge. How can we make use of the opportunities provided by AI, while also making sure that we have the constraints and control needed? The potential for applications of AI for agricultural production are tremendous, but we need to make sure these do not create new unexpected risks”, said Miguel Centeno, professor at Princeton University and vice-dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

"Sweden is at the forefront of research and development in artificial intelligence, but it is only through strong partnerships between business, academia and government that we can unleash AI's full potential and realize the social and economic benefits we hope to achieve", concluded Annika Rembe, Consul General of Sweden in New York.

Click here for more information about the collaboration

New framework to incorporate nature's impact on mental health into city plans

Getting some fresh air surrounded by greenery can do more than just clearing your head, it might just keep you sane. A number of scientific studies have shown that nature experiences may benefit people’s psychological well-being and cognitive function. But it has been difficult to find ways to quantify these benefits in a useful manner.

Now, an international research team, consisting of more than 20 leading experts from the natural, social and health sciences, has created a framework for how city planners around the world can start to quantify and account for the mental health benefits of nature and incorporate those into urban planning decisions. The study is published in Science Advances and co-authored by Carl Folke and Therese Lindahl (also affiliated with Stockholm Resilience Centre).

Link to article

Why city people need nature

The article provides a summary of evidence that demonstrates the positive correlation between mental health benefits and nature experiences. For instance, studies have shown how spending time in nature, either individually, or in groups, enhances the performance of cognitive functions, memory and attention while also offering other psychological benefits such as increased social activity and feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life. On similar lines, many studies have shown that nature experiences have helped reduce risk factors and disease burden for some types of mental illnesses such as depression.

Sadly, there is also a growing amount of evidence that modern lifestyles have led people to spend less time in nature especially as more humans now live in cities where the opportunities for experiencing nature are limited. This makes it more important for city planners to know the value of benefits nature offers; this is why the authors feel quantifying such benefits might aid effective decision-making when it comes to urban planning and design.

 “Many governments already consider benefits that nature provide in cities with regard to other aspects of human health. For example, trees are planted in cities to improve air quality or reduce urban heat island effects, and parks are built in specific neighbourhoods to encourage physical activity. But these actions typically do not factor in the mental health benefits that trees or a restored park might provide,” says Carl Folke,Beijer Institute director and Science director for Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC).

Four steps for informed decisions

The framework includes four steps for planners to consider: elements of nature included in a project, say at a school or across the whole city; the amount of contact people will have with nature; how people interact with nature; and how people may benefit from those interactions, based on the latest scientific evidence.

The researchers hope this tool will be especially useful in considering the possible mental health repercussions of adding — or taking away — nature in underserved communities.

The authors conclude by highlighting that although there appear to be multiple limitations when trying to quantify psychological well-being, these are new and important research frontiers experts can explore.

Therese Lindahl (also affiliated with SRC) explains: “Given rising mental health burdens and the costs they impose on society, despite the limitations, the framework is a useful tool to know what kind of green infrastructures can best serve city residents.”

Read more

Bratman, G.N., Anderson, C.B., Berman, M..G., Cochran, B. 2019. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances 24 Jul 2019: Vol. 5, no. 7, eaax0903. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903


Exhibition: Welcome to the Biosphere

Beijer Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) researchers contribute to biosphere exhibition at Stockholm interior design store Svenskt Tenn.

The exhibition, called Welcome to the Biosphere, is a collection of artistic interpretations of issues regarding our relationship to the Biosphere, the thin layer around the Earth where we live, which supports human existence. It deals with the complex relationship between climate change, norms, ethics and economics. All of this is interpreted and visualised by artists Lars Arrhenius and Eric Ericson in collaboration with Svenskt Tenn’s curator, Karin Södergren.

Several researchers from the Beijer Institute and SRC provided the artists with scientific input and knowledge support.

Svenskt Tenn is owned by the Kjell and Märta Beijer Foundation and through the foundation the store’s entire profit is given to research, education and cultural projects . The Beijer Institute is one The Kjell and Märta Beijer Foundation's main recipients.

The exhibition opened at 23 August and will be shown until 27 October 2019.

See and read more of the exhibition here



In memory of “Buzz” Holling 1930-2019

“Buzz” Holling, the father of resilience research and long time colleague and friend of the Beijer Institute, passed away on 16 August 2019, aged 88

Pioneers break new grounds and leave an empty space when they move on. Crawford Stanley”Buzz”  Holling is considered the father of resilience research and a pivotal figure in the development of the Beijer Institute, the Resilience Alliance and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

He was a pioneer in efforts to understand complex systems, inspired by thinkers emerging at that time. Holling strongly emphasized that understanding, not knowledge in a narrow sense, is navigating the dynamic, connected, and evolving challenges of our rich, unequal, and beautiful world. His encouragement of creative, fun, experimental research that bridges science, practice and art which has inspired the research culture at the Beijer Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Photo: Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media Relations

From insects to adaptive management

Buzz Holling was born in 1930, and grew up in the forests of Northern Ontario where he developed a deep interest in the living world. An early interest in forest insects lead him to study insects, first at the University of Toronto and then the University of British Colombia. During his PhD (1957) he developed the first mathematical theory of predation. These concepts are now widely used to analyze predator-prey interactions.

In the sixties and seventies Holling extended his work using systems to understand diverse types of interactions among people and nature. He began to collaborate with experts outside of universities and research labs to understand land development, forest management, and pest management. It was from these experiences that Holling first began to formulate his ideas about resilience. This work continued in Vienna where Holling, first visited and then became director of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). There, he led and managed interdisciplinary teams that developed learning based approaches to understand interactions between people and nature.

Holling highlighted the importance of considering surprise, system reorganization, and learning when trying to understand social-ecological dynamics. These efforts lead to new dynamic ideas about the dynamic nature of resilience and the co-development of Adaptive Environmental Management and Assessment, a learning based approach to the management of complex environmental problems.

The origin of social-ecological systems thinking

In the 1990s, Holling moved from the University of British Colombia to the University of Florida in the United States. This marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration with Stockholm based researchers, initially through the Beijier Institute and then with researchers at Stockholm University.

In the 1990s these collaborations were organized into the MacArthur Foundation funded Resilience Network. The success of that project lead Holling to initiate the Resilience Alliance in 1999. The Resilience Alliance was established as an international partnership of interdisciplinary researchers focused on understanding transformations in human and natural systems.

The researchers behind the partnership published a number of influential papers and books in the 2000s, exploring the dynamics of resilience and transformation as well as the concept of social-ecological systems.

Holling trained many scientists that went on to make major impacts in behavioural ecology, forest management, fisheries, ecology, and sustainability science. He was passionate about developing cross-disciplinary, international networks among younger scientists, and made sure that this was a central and continuing part of resilience science activities.

His contributions to the board of the Beijer Institute in Sweden and Santa Fe Institute in the USA, advanced complexity science and suitability research.

A true scientific giant

Buzz Holling received many honours for his contribution to science and society. He received the Mercer Award and the Eminent Ecologist Award from the Ecological Society of America. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, as well as a foreign Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He received the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, and he became an Officer of the Order of Canada "for his pioneering contributions to the field of ecology, notably for his work on ecosystem dynamics, resilience theory and ecological economics".

He was awarded the Volvo Environmental Prize in 2008 that stated Holling was “one of the most creative and influential ecologists of our times".

Buzz Holling leaves behind his beloved family consisting of his wife Ilse, and his three children Jamie, Nancy and Chris, as well as four grandchildren.

He will be greatly missed by many dear friends and colleagues at the Beijer Institute and around the world. Buzz Holling was a true scientific giant. His fundamental contributions to our understanding of the world will continue to deeply influence and inspire us, and his warmth and curiosity will continue to inspire our research culture as we strive to create a world in which people and nature can thrive together.



What a difference a label makes

ASC certified fish farms appear to perform better environmentally than non-certified, but further stringency in standards are needed to fully tackle the challenges with aquaculture. This is shown in a recent study published in Marine Policy.

Salmon industry faces common problems

In the light of overfished oceans and conventional land food systems that use too much water and nutrient resources, farmed fish can be a promising alternative. Aquaculture has grown exponentially and salmon is one of the most economically valuable farmed species.

Today, 90 percent of global salmon production is farmed compared to the 1970s when salmon was a wild capture industry only. But the booming fish farming industry has caused a range of social and environmental problems. Private certification initiatives try to tackle these challenges and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is one of the most well-known.

The authors, Beijer reserchers Malin Jonell and Max Troell, also affiliated with Stockholm Resilience Centre together with former Beijer staff Ola Luthman from Södertörn University in Sweden asked: what does the ASC standard add to conventional governance policies and to what sustainability dimensions does it contribute most?

Scanning available literature, the researchers identified specific challenges facing salmon aquaculture: feed, interaction with wildlife, fish health, and farm waste.

Read more

ASC is better but not good enough

National efforts to mitigate the bad and realize the good with aquaculture has been criticised for being too slack. As mentioned previously, private certification initiatives try to fill the gaps and the ASC has to date certified over 320 salmon farms.

The researchers compared the ASC production standards with the national regulations of the four largest salmon producing countries: Norway, Chile, Scotland (UK), and British Colombia (Canada). Across all four categories of challenges, the researchers found the ASC standards to be more stringent than the national regulations.

The biggest difference was found in Chile while the Norwegian regulations were close to the ASC level. The most important contributions of ASC certification proved to be (1) an allowed maximum of escaped fish per production cycle, (2) a requirement to the extent possible use certified sustainable-sourced fish meal and oil, (3) the prohibition to use critical antibiotics, and (4) tougher requirements on monitoring of waste levels.

Room for improvement

The ASC should not, however, be thought of as the panacea that will ‘fix’ fish farming. The authors point out that the standards perform comparatively better in sharpening the environmental performance of fish farms but there is still room for improvement.

The ASC still allows the use of non-certified fish ingredients in feed and recent changes in the standards provide additional leeway for producers to use terrestrial feed that is not sustainably sourced. The standard is, however, under development. The open characteristics of sea-based net pens used for salmon farming constitutes the basis for problems with escapes, waste, and the spread of disease and chemical compounds.

Link to publication

Reference:Luthman, O., M. Jonell, and M. Troell. Governing the salmon farming industry: comparison between national regulations and the ASC salmon standard. 2019. Marine Policy 106: 103534.



Adding realism to risks

Climate change increases the risk of catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems. Such large, abrupt and persistent changes tend to have substantial impacts on nature's production of services. But how do we best assess the risk of them to happen? Are the standard economic models of catastrophic risks realistic enough? Can they handle delayed impacts?

To answer these questions  an article in The Scandinavian Jounal of Economics introduces “inertia risk”, a new way to model catastrophic risk, which the authors show is more appropriate for many real-world situations where the impacts of a risky event can occur long after the event itself.

The article is written by Beijer Institute deputy director  Anne-Sophie Crépin, (also affiliated with Stockholm Resilience Centre), together with Eric Nævdal, Senior Research Fellow at The Frisch Center in Oslo, Norway.

Link to open access article

With inertia risk, the authors introduce a more realistic probability model of how economic activity affects the likelihood of catastrophes. The decisions you face in any given circumstance can be limited by the decisions you made in the past and there are delays between cause and effect. By incorporating these aspects, their model includes more of the complexities and uncertainties that real natural and social systems tend to display.

Decision makers’ role

Crépin and Nævdal illustrate their approach with a model of climate change , in which changes in temperature cause the accumulation of environmental stress which may trigger catastrophes even after temperature has been stabilized. The model gives guidance to decision makers’ on how they should respond to the risk of a catastrophe occurring.

“Such risk structures are particularly relevant when studying problems of pollution release and resource exploitation, where human activities, besides producing welfare, may also affect the risk of the system making a critical transition to an alternate regime,” they write.

While Crépin and Nævdal focus on climate change in the new article, they also underline that the model they use could be applied to many different pollution problems with a risk of regime shift. For example, it could be used to analyse the impacts of carbon dioxide on ocean acidification, emission of gases affecting the ozone layer or the effect of nutrient pollution on a lake.

More time to react

However, the authors also acknowledge that there are problems for which it is less appropriate and discuss in detail to what extent the approach can be generalised. For example the limitations of their approach when it comes to really complicated resource management problems with many interacting factors that influence the risk of regime shifts to happen, but also suggest ways to solve this.

Nonetheless, by introducing inertia risk in their model Crépin and Nævdal add a more realistic and precautionary approach to analysing climate-related risks. Hence, managers who include this kind of an approach in their work might avoid taking more risk than necessary. It can also give them more time to react before a catastrophe occurs and even enable them to avert it.

Read more

Reference: Crépin, A-S., Nævdal, E. 2019. Inertia Risk: Improving Economic Models of Catastrophes. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics doi: 10.1111/sjoe.12381

New partnership with Sweden’s Artificial Intelligence innovation network

The Beijer Institute , along with Stockholm Resilience Centre, has become a partner of AI Innovation of Sweden. Founded in February 2019, AI Innovation of Sweden is a national initiative designed to “serve as an engine in the Swedish AI ecosystem”. Based in Gothenburg, the initiative will provide resources, knowledge and data to accelerate applied AI research and innovation. It will link businesses to academia and the public sector.

“These technologies are phenomenally powerful. They will increasingly shape our world – and our planet. It is really important that artificial intelligence is cognizant of the state of the planet,” says Victor Galaz, programme director for the programme “Governance, Technology and Complexity”, and deputy director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC).

“This means those developing the algorithms should be aware of this new power and responsibility,” he added. “The Beijer Institute together with SRC, is ramping up its research in how innovative technology like AI might both support and undermine transformations to sustainability.”

AI Innovation of Sweden’s objectives include accelerating applied AI research and innovation through collaboration and cross-industry sharing, developing methods and infrastructure for managing and using large quantities of data with strong focus on security, i.e. doing this in a controlled and reliable way and promoting responsible use of AI and the development of unbiased tools.

The purpose of the new partnership (effective as of June 11th) is to explore the broad biosphere sustainability dimensions of the rapid progress and applications of artificial intelligence in society. By linking to leading AI thinkers and doers in Sweden, the Beijer Institute together with SRC, aims to develop a new research agenda and collaborations in this rapidly developing issue.

“We are delighted to be able to continue to develop the thinking and science formulated by us in 2015 in the “Biosphere Code” . Such principles for the deployment of new forms of artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly important as these technologies evolve.”


Dancing on the vulcano

Humanity is at a crossroads. We need to understand the underlying drivers of human behaviour to avoid collapse of the biosphere and our global civilization

Radical recent developments such as Brexit, the rise of extreme nationalism in Europe, polarizing leaders, the Arab Spring, and fundamentalist movements are indications of societal discontent with the status quo. Other societal phenomena such as gender fluidity, veganism, and bartering are also associated with a perceived need to change. Such a broad set of developments may be interpreted in the light of new insights from theory of complex systems about what happens as resilience of the current pathway (societal organization as we know it) decreases.

In an article in Ecology&Society, Beijer Director Carl Folke, together with Beijer Fellows Stephen Carpenter, Marten Scheffer and Frances Westley reflect on global changes that may contribute to social destabilization, such as rising wealth concentration and environmental degradation. They continue by asking how people’s responses may be understood from a social-psychological perspective, such as the need for group identity and managing their fear of death.

Read the article

We better start doing it right

Alluding to a 70’s rock song by Genesis. “Dancing on a Volcano”, the researchers compare the lyrics to the current state of the world, where humans increasingly shape the Earth and risk pushing the planet’s climate and ecosystems over the edge. In this current human-dominated era, called the Anthropocene, variability in the political, cultural, and economic spheres seems to have increased.

“As fluctuations grow and instabilities appear there are increasing possibilities for major systemic transformations, not all of which are desirable,” the authors write.

Looking back or forward?

Many now hope that social experimentation and innovation can change the world fast enough to increase the possibilities for a sustainable future but at the same time others seem to seek an escape from the mounting complexity of our time into the felt certainty of the past.

“In a phase of turbulent experimentation, there are dangers and opportunity. Dangers include looking to the past to solve novel future problems or embracing a shiny new idea before it is tested adequately in safe-fail experiments,” they add.

Not the end of the world

The team also identify a number of trends that are forward-looking, like the “Green New Deal” in the U.S., carbon-neutral movements around the world, and various social movements. These trends range from changes in individual behaviour to broad international social movements, and as the researchers conclude, we need more of this kind of forward-looking social experimentation. For this to happen, humanity needs to avoid a kind of collective gut reaction that is common when threats to our life and way of life feel very real. In such times, we have a tendency as humans to shut down our capacities for exploration, resorting to “group thinking,” whether reactionary or escapist. This can provide an illusory sense of safety and protection, but will be a bad strategy in the long run when dancing on the edge of the metaphorical global volcano which the researchers depict.

“The plateau of change and uncertainty is not the end of the world as we know it, it is the beginning of shared work toward a better planet than we now have. Progress toward a better planet begins with open conversation about how we will share the planet with each other and all of life on earth,” they conclude.

Carpenter, S. R., C. Folke, M. Scheffer, and F. R. Westley. 2019. Dancing on the volcano: social exploration in times of discontent. Ecology and Society 24(1):23.

If a city is resilient, is it also sustainable?

Use of concepts like sustainability, resilience and transformation has skyrocketed in recent years, not least in when it comes to urban development, but discussions are plagued by confusion and vagueness on what the concepts mean. The big question is this: is a resilient city a sustainable one?

A study published in Nature Sustainability, led by Thomas Elmqvist, Stockholm Resilience Centre and with Beijer Institute director Carl Folke in the writing team, presents a new framework to resolve this.

Related but not identical concepts

The crux of the issue is that urban resilience and urban sustainability, though related, mean different things, yet the concepts are often positively correlated. The authors point out that cities have proven to be remarkably resilient complex systems, many cities have existed for thousands of years and have grown stronger even after major turmoil. . However, almost no city is truly sustainable – it’s resource use, including energy use, is extremely damaging to the long-term regenerative capacity of the Earth system to remain in a relatively stable state.

“In the next decade, $95 trillion dollars will be spent on new infrastructure to support an expanding urban development. Understanding trade-offs and synergies between resilience and sustainability is key in turning the largest and fastest infrastructure investment in the history of this planet into an opportunity”, says co-author Timon McPhearson, The New School University, New York.

Strengthen a specific pathway

Sustainable cities often focus on designing for maximum efficiency, the researchers argue in the paper. This ignores a key characteristic of resilient systems: redundancy, and this ignorance may lead to increased vulnerability.

For example, high-density housing is very efficient, but if a natural disaster strikes more people can be harmed. Or, take a city’s transport system and road network. Designing for efficiency can lead to gridlock if just one or two junctions or roads are blocked. Designing for resilience is less efficient but the system still functions after a shock.

The paper offers a view on how the three concepts  relate to each other in a way that could support policy and practice and also be suitable for addressing new and pressing challenges. With this view, any given city will have many different ways it could develop in future from “business as usual” to radical transformations and resilience is understood as the capacity to adhere to, or simply strengthen, a specific pathway. For example, resilience must be reduced to allow for breaking free from lock-ins of undesired resilience such as urban poverty, while in other situations, strengthening (social) innovations to take hold of desired resilience.

Read more

Link to article

Reference: Elmqvist, T., E. Andersson, N. Frantzeskaki, T. McPhearson. P. Olsson, O.Gaffney, K. Takeuchi and C. Folke..2019. Sustainability and resilience for transformation in the urban century. Nature Sustainability  2: 267–273