“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – Introducing Ecological Economist Klaus Hubacek

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad
By Magdalena Pierer

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Climate change is one of the most pressing environmental challenges we face today. In order to deal with its complexity, we need to better understand the intertwining between production and consumption of food and commodities, and the use of resources such as energy, water, and land. These areas must be examined from different angles and academic disciplines, and at different levels of scale and geography. Interdisciplinary research can facilitate this process, reducing the risk of becoming fixated on just one perspective or just one tool to analyze a complex challenge like climate change.

Klaus HubacekKlaus Hubacek, an Austrian-born ecological economist, compares the complexity of climate change research to the many different tasks involved in building a house: “Each question, or task, asks for a different approach or set of tools to do a proper job. When building a house, you will quickly realize that the hammer that worked so well to put the nails into the wooden frame won’t do you much good when working on the glass windows – you better use a different set of tools for the window task. In climate change research, the interdisciplinary approach theoretically equips scientists with such different tools, which are the different methodologies to address specific research questions. However, the risk (climate) researchers – who are often only trained in a single discipline – face, is that once they get used to a certain hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.”

Having worked on a variety of issues using a whole toolbox of methods, such as quantitative economic modeling (e.g., integrated input-output models, or the IPAT framework mentioned below), and more qualitative approaches like stakeholder analysis or social network analysis, Hubacek knows what he is talking about. Originally from Burgenland, he studied business administration in the 1980’s at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), focusing on group behavior and psychology. Later, he turned towards development studies and environmental economics, and became the first assistant at the WU Interdisciplinary Institute for Environmental Economics and Management, which was founded in a time of rising awareness about environmental challenges. He participated in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, as a member of the Austrian delegation; and when, in 1996, a visiting Fulbright professor at WU offered him the opportunity to pursue his Ph.D. in ecological economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, Hubacek accepted and continued his research abroad. After stints at the University of Leeds and IIASA in Austria, Hubacek has been in the Department of Geography at the University of Maryland (UMD) since 2010, endeavoring to raise awareness of the challenges of sustainable development and to contribute to their improvement.

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As an ecological economist, Hubacek is working on “Human dimensions of global change,” including issues of land use, resources, ecosystem services, and poverty, as well as sustainable consumption and production. Within these broad fields, he is involved in diverse projects and interdisciplinary cooperation. Asked what he is currently working on, Hubacek replies that he is “always” working on China. As part of an incremental, ongoing research process over the past few years, he has published a range of articles on land use, water, energy, and emission issues in China.

The Case of China
The Case of ChinaSince China’s opening and undertaking reforms towards a market-based economy in the late 1970s (“open door policy” as of 1978), it has been developing rapidly, as was reported, for instance, by the World Bank. With an average annual GDP growth of 9.7 percent over the last three decades, China has become the world’s second largest economy after the US. The country’s population of well over 1.338 billion people benefits from higher incomes and reduced poverty. But increasing urbanization, improved living standards and technologies, modernization, and lifestyle changes also bring challenges, such as increased energy and resource consumption, and emissions with related environmental problems. By now, China has even surpassed the US in terms of absolute CO2 emission levels, turning it into the world’s infamous largest emitter of CO2 (per capita emissions, however, are still three times higher in the US than in China). Although the Communist Party leaders have signaled concern and willingness to take action by participating in international negotiations, and by including goals in the current 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) regarding lower energy intensity, lower carbon emissions, and a better environment, actual outcomes remain to be seen.
In any case, the success of international efforts to deal with global environmental challenges and climate change depends heavily on the involvement and commitment of China. That is one of the reasons why scientists like Klaus Hubacek are particularly interested in China, striving to analyze the situation and to offer suggestions and policy recommendations. 
In a recent article examining changing lifestyles and consumption patterns and their effects on CO2 emissions in China, Hubacek applied the “IPAT framework.” This framework was first introduced in the early 1970s by Barry Commoner, Paul R. Ehrlich, and John P. Holdren, who now serves as President Obama’s senior advisor on science and technology issues.
As Hubacek points out, many countries, including China, preferred to focus on technology, i.e., improved energy efficiency, to tackle the problem of increasing CO2 emissions at international negotiations such as the recent climate conference in Durban (South Africa) in 2011. Whereas efficiency improvements are politically rather uncontroversial – no adverse effects on GDP are linked to them – higher efficiency does not necessarily mean lower absolute pollution. In reality, increased energy efficiency leads to lower overall costs for energy and might ultimately result in an increase in the rate of energy consumption. Such a “rebound effect”, generally applicable to all kinds of resources, was first noticed by William Jevons in 1865 in the context of coal-use in England – and is thus also referred to as Jevons’ paradox. Whether rebound effects (especially related to energy) actually exist and can be observed from empirical data is being debated.

Pointing towards this age-old discussion on the rebound theory, Hubacek states that “it’s easy to focus on technology, because – you know – there is some sort of myth that there's always a technology that solves our problems, and this is consistent with our somewhat single-minded focus on growth.” He gives the example of how China’s increased efficiency, along with a construction boom, led to more cement production and thus higher absolute emission levels. Whereas this is confirmed by other sources, critics of Jevons’ paradox predict an ultimately declining trend in emissions after some years. What is certain, however, is that China’s economy at present is prospering, with growing trends in total CO2 emissions and energy consumption.

Although there are disparities between urban and rural areas, using e.g. the IPAT framework, Hubacek’s research group identified rapid growth in affluence (i.e., growth in final consumption and associated production processes) as the main driving force and major contributor to China’s CO2 emissions since the 1970s. Respectable carbon savings through improved efficiency could not outweigh this growth. However, domestic investment in machinery and infrastructure also largely serves export purposes; hence, foreign consumption and demand for cheap products can be considered main emission drivers as well.
This inevitably raises the question of whether national greenhouse gas inventories and prices/taxes on these gases should be based on the production side – currently the case in international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol – or on the consumption side in order to account for exports and imports. Deliberations of that kind also involve issues of fairness, justice, and responsibility, and open yet another field of crucial importance that deserves greater attention from both science and decision makers.

Regardless of whether inventories are based on production or consumption, they draw on statistical information that needs to be compiled in the first place. Giving insight into this sometimes-tricky business of data collection, Hubacek points out that networking does play an important role, even more so when collecting data from China. He says that a common practice for dealing with the challenges of getting reliable and current data is to invite Chinese scholars and students who bring their own data, which can afterwards be used for further research. But Hubacek benefits as well from contacts with governmental research organizations such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences or leading Universities such as Peking University or Beijing Normal University, which are helpful in obtaining data. Yet, as he points out, one still has to be constantly aware of the shortcomings and biases regarding the reliability of this information. Despite being official statistics, apparently there are major differences between single regional datasets and the overall data provided by the central statistical office, with a tendency to “over-report” to achieve ambitious production and environmental goals. According to Hubacek, this can lead to discrepancies on the same order of magnitude as all the CO2 emissions of Japan in a particular year.

Talk (about) the Walk
Hubacek SustainableUpland 150x200Doing research is not an end in itself. For science to have an impact on society, the results of research must not stay within the scientific community. Thus, communicating ideas and scientific findings to the wider public – in a way people are able to understand – is crucial. Hubacek tries to communicate his findings to a broad audience wherever and whenever possible, be it at conferences, talking to a variety of people, issuing press releases, in newspapers, or by scientific publications. Hubacek mentions the recently finished Sustainable Uplands Project in the UK as a perfect example, alas rare, in this context:  The research team got a follow-up grant, allowing them to produce a DVD and create an interactive Web site as well as a children’s book.


In the course of the Sustainable Uplands Project, an interdisciplinary team of researchers developed scenarios about what the future may hold for UK Uplands. The project, running over several years, drew on comprehensive stakeholder inclusion and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU).


The importance of communicating scientific findings (or rather, the effect of too little communication) to the broader public is illustrated by the example of Hubacek’s current home, the United States, which is also home to a striking number of climate-change skeptics. As NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 reveal, only about a third of Americans consider climate change a “very serious problem.” Thus, together with e.g., Russia and China, the United States is among the most climate change-skeptical countries. In the current US Republican primaries, even presidential candidates like Rick Santorum are publicly questioning the existence of human-induced climate change – something virtually unimaginable in other industrialized countries. Something went wrong here; and significantly more understandable, clear, and well-targeted information/communication from science to the public and policy makers may be needed to tackle this issue.

Nevertheless, Hubacek is cautiously optimistic regarding climate policy in the US. Generally speaking, he thinks some “good” things have happened under the Obama administration. For instance, as of 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, which he considers a huge step forward with enormous implications – if it’s done properly. Hubacek also argues for individual actions, such as starting to rethink and change one’s own daily routines and purchase decisions. But he is aware that this is not all the responsibility of the consumer, but requires “top-down” effective international agreements as well as “bottom-up” initiatives and behavioral changes by consumers.
Researchers like Klaus Hubacek play a crucial role in this endeavor, creating and communicating the knowledge we need to take informed action. But only rapid action on these multiple levels, engaging in both adaptation and mitigation efforts, will allow us to deal with today’s challenges and prevent them from becoming tragedies of the future.


The above article is based on an interview conducted by the author, Magdalena Pierer, with Klaus Hubacek, ecological economist in the Department of Geography, University of Maryland.

References & Further Reading

Hubacek, K., K. Feng, and B. Chen. “Changing Lifestyles Towards a Low Carbon Economy: An IPAT Analysis for China.” Energies 5 (2012): 22-31. <www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/5/1/22/>
Minx, J.C., G. Baiocchi, G.P. Peters, C.L. Weber, D. Guan, and K. Hubacek. “A ‘Carbonizing Dragon’: China’s Fast Growing CO2 Emissions Revisited.” Environmental Science & Technology 45, no. 21 (2011): 9144-53. 
Peters, G.P., C.L. Weber, D. Guan, and K. Hubacek. “China’s Growing CO2 Emissions. A Race between Increasing Consumption and Efficiency Gains.” Environmental Science & Technology 41, no. 17 (2007): 5939-44.
The World Bank. “China Overview. “
<http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview> (accessed March 13, 2012).

China – Cement industry
Hao, L.-X., F.-Q. Zhao, and P.-X. Zhao. “Measures to reduce carbon dioxide emission of China cement industry.” Advanced Materials Research 233-235 (2011): 412-15.
Lei, Y., Q. Zhang, C. Nielsen, and K. He. “An inventory of primary air pollutants and CO2
emissions from cement production in China, 1990-2020.” Atmospheric Environment 45, no. 1 (2011): 147-54. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231010008095>
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Production vs. Consumption
Kanemoto, K., M. Lenzen, G.P. Peters, D.D. Moran, and A. Geschke. “Frameworks for comparing emissions associated with production, consumption, and international trade.” Environmental Science and Technology 46, no. 1 (2012): 172-79.
Peters, G.P., and E.G. Hertwich. “Post-Kyoto greenhouse gas inventories: Production versus consumption.” Climatic Change 86, no. 1-2 (2008): 51-66.

Rebound effect & Jevons’ paradox
Alcott, B. (2005). “Jevons’ paradox.” Ecological Economics 54, no. 1 (2005): 9-21.
Berkhout, P.H.G. J.C. Muskens, and J.W. Velthuijsen. “Defining the rebound effect.” Energy Policy 28, no. 6-7 (2000): 425-32.
Polimeni, J.M. “Jevons’ paradox: A case study of China.” International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 2, no. 2 (2007): 383-94.  <http://iji.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.88/prod.226>
Schipper, L., and M. Grubb. “On the rebound? Feedback between energy intensities and energy uses in IEA countries.” Energy Policy 28, no. 6-7 (2000): 367-88.
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Presidential candidates on climate change
Ecopolitology. “Republican Presidential Candidates on Climate Change.”
<http://ecopolitology.org/2011/08/22/republican-presidential-candidates-on-climate-change/> (accessed March 13, 2012).
National Public Radio (NPR). “In Their Own Words: GOP Candidates And Science.”
<http://www.npr.org/2011/09/07/140071973/in-their-own-words-gop-candidates-and-science>  (accessed March 13, 2012).
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Commoner, B. “The Environmental Cost of Economic Growth.” In Population, Resources and the Environment, 339-63. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1972.
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Ehrlich, P.R. and J.P. Holdren. “Impact of Population Growth.” Science 171 (1971): 1212-17.
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Klaus Hubacek’s profile.
<http://www.terpconnect.umd.edu/~hubacek/>  and
<http://www.popcenter.umd.edu/mprc-associates/hubacek> (accessed March 13, 2012).
National Science Foundation (NSF). “Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Environment, Climate Change, and Energy Development.”
<http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/c7/c7s4.htm#s1> (accessed March 13, 2012).
Prell, C., K. Hubacek, M. Reed, C. Quinn, N. Jin, J. Holden, T. Burt, M. Kirby, and J. Sendzimir.
“If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail: traditional versus participatory model building.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 32, no. 3 (2007): 263-82.
Sustainable Uplands. <http://www.ouruplands.co.uk> (accessed March 13, 2012).
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act.”
<http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/endangerment.html> (accessed March 13, 2012).

World Resources Institute (WRI). “U.S. Climate & Energy Legislation.”
<http://www.wri.org/project/us-climate-action/us-climate-and-energy-legislation> (accessed March 13, 2012).


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