Charlie Wilson came to Oxford in January 2022, and is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Environmental Change Institute, one of three research institutes that sit within Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.
Since its founding in 1991, Oxford’s ECI has become renowned, especially for its taught Masters and MPhil programme in Environmental Change and Management.
The degree, which is famously interdisciplinary, attracts some of the highest number of applicants of any degree programme at Oxford, while the student body is typically 80-90% international.
Charlie retains an Honorary Professorship at the University of East Anglia where prior to coming to Oxford he was, alongside his professorial Chair, a Researcher for the globally renowned Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
Unusually for someone of Charlie’s research pedigree, his background also involves private sector experience in renewable energy finance, his original PhD at Canada’s University of British Columbia and subsequently a role at the London School of Economics.
His research interests span what could be broadly described as behavioural economics – why we as humans do what we do at a micro-level, as consumers, tech adopters and maybe environmentalists.
At the other end of the wedge, the macro level, he works with colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna who run gigantic global models that attempt to simulate whole society behaviour to understand how we can best reach climate and sustainability goals.
This so-called ‘systems level’ approach is not for the faint of heart.
Shortly before our discussion Professor Wilson supplied a journal article shortly to be published, titled ‘Digitalisation and the Anthropocene.’
With no fewer than 21 named authors, the paper spans a simply massive brief, no less than the shape of global society and the role digitalisation may have in the world going forwards, with special reference to climate change.
Perhaps the most obvious point made in the paper is that the ambitious UN-sponsored Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aren’t very well aligned to the broadly transformative impact of digital technology, whereas they need to be.
But the analysis itself is much bigger than this point of policy.
Digitalisation could help deliver 10-20% reductions in carbon emissions globally over the next decade, with much larger reductions to follow. Smart applications and control systems result in higher efficiencies.
Equally, however, this carrot is beset by sticks of doubt and warning, and in no way is the paper really to be read as shallow techno-optimism.
Rather, it rather starkly portrays the current unrestrained western capitalist model of hyper-consumption and a zillion batteries ending up in landfill; and then in a more authoritarian setting mass surveillance and population controls to force ‘green’ behaviour and resource constraint but at the price of individual agency.
The ideal ‘goal’, suggest the authors, is a democratic free society in which high levels of individual freedom are matched by good behaviour, or to quote the paper directly, ‘…a high level of human agency while also providing capacities to safeguard the Earth system.’
Some readers might consider this optimistic or even utopian, since the authors add that reducing environmental impact would require not only greater efficiencies brought by some digital technologies and, for example, smart grids of energy management, but ‘…reduced demand that would not stem from population control but from self-determination in a context of effective knowledge systems fostering among others empathy, accountability, and collaboration.’
We agree that this is not remotely the world we have right now, where every algorithm is primed to make you one-click shop another material good from the other side of the world destined soon for landfill, on a smart phone full of rare metals.
In fact, the authors go much further than that in spelling out the risks of unconstrained digitalisation, ranging from ‘fake news’ to stark inequalities, and ‘…rapid planetary wide environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and [the majority of people] instrumentalised as data objects subject to behavioural control.’
How does he maintain his spirits faced with this likely outcome?
Charlie laughs. ‘Like the data guru Hans Rosling, I think of myself not as an optimist but as a serious possibilist. Policy can be successful. Change can be directed and it can be intentional.’
Just as important is the technology itself, he says.
While the smart phone has a material footprint and other information risks, it also scores very highly on a co-efficient that measures its widespread availability. In other words it is very accessible globally compared to other technologies such as cars, TVs, or computers; if what it enables is positive then its effects could be seen as a powerful and positive tipping point, flattening hierarchies of knowledge and reducing inequalities, and so on.
Another example bleeds into the work of the School of Geography’s other two research groups, the Transport Studies Unit and The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – the disruptive role of small-scale electrification of transport through electric bicycles and scooters, which are upending transport hierarchies especially in cities.
Charlie also mentions off-shore wind energy as a striking example of a sector where costs have fallen so dramatically that it would give even the most hardened energy sceptic cause for hope.
Professor Wilson’s research will inform his leadership of the ECI’s Energy programme because our role as consumers, citizens, and technology adopters within forward-looking climate change mitigation transformation pathways are right at the centre of the 21st century we inhabit.