Advanced ERC Grant for Helmut Haberl

Grants awarded by the European Research Council are among the most prestigious research prizes European researchers can hope to attract. Human Ecologist Helmut Haberl (Institute of Social Ecology) is the most recent recipient of an Advanced ERC Grant, valued at almost 2.5 million EURO over a period of five years. Together with his collaborators in the Institute of Social Ecology and at Humboldt University, Helmut Haberl will investigate the role of material stocks for the development towards a sustainable society.

“The transformation towards a more sustainable society is contingent upon fundamental changes in the use of biophysical resources such as energy, materials, or land”, Helmut Haberl explains. Current research on socioeconomic metabolism looks at how and in which quantities energy or materials are expended in the economy. Raw materials and energy are extracted from nature, converted in production and consumption processes and ultimately discharged into the environment as waste and emissions. Haberl elaborates: “The metabolism approach has yielded important scientific insights into eco-efficiency and long-term drivers of resource use. However, so far, the primary focus has been on the flows of material and energy, while the role of material stocks such as infrastructures, buildings, and machines for the conversion of raw materials into the services we actually need is so far poorly understood.” For instance, how much energy is required to provide comfortable and well-lit living space depends on the building and on the energy conversion systems required for heating and lighting.

With his MAT_STOCKS project, Haberl hopes to help closing this research gap. The aim is to develop a consistent typology of material stocks as well as indicators and appropriate databases to account for stocks and their services. “The results will allow us to identify crucial links between stocks, flows and services. Until now, our approaches have been limited to the analysis of the relations between resource use, emissions, population numbers and economic growth. The inclusion of material stocks will help forging innovative ways for reducing resource use without impairing the delivery of essential services. This will open new action spaces to move towards a sustainable society.” The Advanced ERC Grant offers Helmut Haberl the opportunity to adopt a comprehensive approach to empirically analysing and modelling these systemic interrelations.

Helmut Haberl, born in 1965, studied Biology and Mathematics at the Universities of Salzburg and Vienna. He earned his doctorate in Ecology in 1995 and completed his habilitation in Human Ecology at the University of Vienna in 2001. He joined the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Alpen-Adria-Universität in Vienna in 1991, working at the Department of Social Ecology (and its predecessor organisations), which he currently heads. Haberl is the author of numerous articles in highly-ranked journals and contributed to the “Global Energy Assessment” led by IIASA as well as to the 5th Progress Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His principal research areas are energy and the environment, climate change, integrated land systems research, bio-energy, sustainability and society-nature-interaction, long-term socio-ecological research (LTSER), and the human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP).

Helmut Haberl pursued a scientific career because this was his lifelong dream. So, how close is reality to his dreams? “In some areas my expectations were fulfilled, but there are also positive and negative divergences. I never dreamed that ideas on sustainability would be heard around the globe, which is the case now. At the same time, many aspirations were somewhat dimmed by idiosyncrasies resulting from way we do science today, with all its bureaucratic procedures.” In line with the intention of the European Research Council, the Advanced ERC Grant now provides solid foundations for conducting well-furnished, open and unbiased fundamental research. This aspect of openness is particularly important to Helmut Haberl: “Nowadays, it is rare to achieve a major success with lasting validity. Had he been active as a scientist today, as a newly appointed professor, Immanuel Kant would never have been able to spend years simply walking and thinking. But clearly he had dreamed up the ideas shaping his ground-breaking writings that came out a lot later. I can understand that society wants to see results, but I also think that open spaces without too much pressure for fast output are needed to allow researchers to come up with truly new ideas. This grant now opens up such a space. It is up to us to use it well.”

Helmut Haberl | Foto: Pilo Pichler

Helmut Haberl | Foto: Pilo Pichler