The road to a Nature Sustainability publication
Wondering how to go about your thesis? Or still orienting on what supervisor and what general topic to pick? That is how we all started. Here we go into the process of just another project to one of the most successful thesis written. Benedikt Bruckner published his first thesis in Nature Sustainability last February, but how did he get there? Read it all here!
What is your background?
I started studying chemistry and physics at the University of Vienna, but dropped chemistry and focussed on physics after the first semester. While finishing my bachelor in physics, I started studying philosophy, which I continued after finishing my physics degree. As part of my philosophy studies I did Erasmus at the University College Groningen, a faculty of RUG. Since I specialised in environmental physics and aerosol physics in my bachelor and I enjoyed living in Groningen, the EES Masters was the obvious choice for me.
What did you work on in your first research project?
My first research project (with Klaus Hubacek and Yuli Shan) consisted of two steps. First, I quantified global and national carbon inequality, i.e. the difference of consumption-based carbon footprints based on yearly expenditure, using a highly detailed global consumption dataset from the Worldbank (WBCD) together with an environmentally-extended multi-regional input-output (EEMRIO) analysis. While the WBCD offered insights into how much people across the globe spend on which items, the later allowed me to connect these purchases to the carbon emissions occurring along the supply chain in the production processes. Using this methodology, I computed consumption-based carbon footprints for 201 expenditure groups in 116 countries. The results confirmed extreme carbon inequality across the globe. While the consumption of the top 1% is linked to about 15% of global carbon emissions, the bottom consumption of the bottom 50% is associated with only 10% of global carbon emissions.
In a second step, we tried to answer whether poverty alleviation and tackling the climate crisis on a global level, two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the UN, are achievable at the same time. Therefore, I used the computed carbon footprints to make robust estimations on how poverty alleviation and eradication scenarios would affect national and global carbon emissions. Lifting people out of poverty, which effectively means increasing their expenditure, results in higher carbon emissions, because consuming more means emitting more carbon along the way. I constructed multiple counterfactual scenarios, based on SDG1, “Eradicating Poverty”, using international poverty lines and national poverty lines. In fact, reaching SDG 1, which means lifting everybody above the international extreme poverty line of $1.90 per day and reducing people the amount of people living below national poverty lines by 50%, would increase global carbon emissions only by about 1.6- 2.1%. Thus, we could show that both goals are achievable at the same time and that the main responsibility for mitigating emissions lies with the global rich.
How did you come up with the topic that you’re investigating?
I was looking at the advertised research topics on Nestor and found one on carbon inequality. Klaus Hubacek gave me some initial literature to dive into the topic. From there on I developed my research questions by looking at the gaps in the literature and available datasets. Soon it was clear, that we had an exceptionally detailed consumption dataset which allows to compute carbon footprints on a new level of detail. Using these unprecedentedly detailed carbon footprints, we could look at the issue of poverty alleviation including, for the first time ever, national poverty lines.
How have the EES courses helped you prepare for this research? Did you personally feel like there were any gaps?
The EES courses have definitely prepared me well for my research projects. I was using the input-output methodology, which I learned in Klaus Hunbacek’s and Yuli Shan’s course Conceptualising and Modeling Humen-Environmental Systems (which I can highly recommend) and analysed my data in R, using my knowledge from DASM. Being aware of limitations of modelling approaches, system boundaries etc, as taught in SIS and MEMS, was crucial for my research. The process of working on such a big research project was definitely new to me and there were a lot of surprises, however I am not sure I could have been prepared for that better. I assume this is “learning by doing”.
Has this research helped shape you towards a particular career path?
I really enjoy doing research itself, so I am considering staying in research/academia. Moreover, I found a multidisciplinary and multidimensional research field that I am highly interested in.
Was the publication process tiring to get to the nature publication?
The process of publishing my research project was definitely a lengthy one. First I needed to prepare a manuscript for submission to journals. This meant cutting my thesis to about one third of its length without scraping much of the content – a challenge as you can imagine. Additionally, a cover letter is needed, in which you advertise your research to editors and explain why you think they should publish your research in their journal. After submission (in my case in June 2021), you wait for the decision of the editors. Luckily, the editors of the first journal we submitted to liked our manuscript and forwarded it to reviewers. We received the first round of reviews in October. In our response we answered all the questions of our reviewers and corrected the manuscript. Another round of reviews came in December. After that, the reviewers were content and we submitted the final version of the manuscript including multiple figures based on the requirements of the journal, supplementary material and code. Two months later (February 2022) our paper was published (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-021-00842-z).
Finally: what type of responses did you receive after you published the piece?
We decided to ask for a press statement from the university and, unexpectedly, the response to our publication was quite big. We were invited to multiple interviews for media outlets in the UK, Canada and my home country Austria. Some of the articles were discussed widely on Twitter, with some tweets being retweeted more than 10,000 times, even by Greta :0. Considering that carbon inequality and the high responsibility of the global rich is a key topic to fight the climate crisis, I am extremely happy that the research reached such a wide audience.