Sustainability Scientist

Dr. Lukas Fesenfeld

Research for Sustainability

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“As a researcher and father of two small children, I am dedicated to finding
solutions to the grand sustainability chal­lenges of the present and future generations.“

I am an environmental governance and political economy researcher at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research and Policy Analysis and Environmental Governance group at the University of Bern. I am also a lecturer at ETH Zurich. My policy-centered and interdisciplinary research primarily focuses on studying politically feasible and effective governance levers for socio technical transformations that are necessary for achieving the UN Sustainable Development and Paris climate targets. Currently, I am involved in and lead several international research projects that focus on the comparative political economy of climate mitigation and the identification of successful pathways for transforming our global food system towards greater sustainability.

In my research, I use a portfolio of methods for policy feasibility and impact evaluation, mixing survey and field experimental approaches with qualitative methods. I also employ advanced econometrics, social network analysis, and computational social science methods.

My scientific work is published in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature Food, Nature Climate Change, One Earth, and Environmental Research Letters.

The Governance of Global Food System Transformation

The food system causes up to 37 percent of all global greenhouse gases. The 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets are not achievable without transforming the food system, even if the emissions associated with all other sectors of the economy are completely reduced. However, thus far we still lack crucial knowledge about effective and politically feasible levers for accomplishing such transformation across different contexts. My research focuses on identifying and evaluating such levers. Achieving food system transformation requires the interplay of technological, behavioral, and policy innovations. Hence, I study how food policies can most effectively accelerate behavioral and technological changes, how policy-induced behavioral and technological innovations interact, and how this interplay feeds back into the political economy of food system transformation. Understanding such complex feedback dynamics is essential for accelerating systemic change. My most fundamental research motivation is thus to improve our understanding of how to trigger systemic rather than incremental change in food systems. In doing so, I take a global and comparative research perspective that combines insights from political economy, behavioral public policy, and transition studies.

In particular, animal products like red meat, and food waste contribute substantially to environmental problems and may preclude achieving the 2°C climate target, even if all other sectors are decarbonized. Yet, consumer habits, culture, and social norms play a determining role when it comes to food consumption and waste behavior. Policymakers tend to shy away from intervening in citizens’ personal lives because they fear political backlash. My research offers policy-relevant solutions to minimizing this trade-off between the effectiveness and political feasibility of food policies. For example, I study how differently designed packages of supply- and demand-side policies affect meat markets by inducing technological innovation in meat substitutes, altering the behaviors of actors across food supply chains (e.g., consumers, producers, investors), and feeding back into the political economy of food system transformation.

Currently, I am the principal investigator of the SNIS-funded project (2021-2023) „The political economy of meat system transformation“

In the SNIS project, I am coordinating a large transdisciplinary network of researchers (e.g., from ETH Zurich, Oeschger Centre, Princeton University, University of Bath, Exeter University, Cardiff University, Fudan University, NAHhaft Institute, University of Groningen) and decision-makers from international (e.g., FAO, OECD) and non-governmental organizations (e.g., SYSTEMIQ/FOLU coalition, Heinrich Böll foundation, WWF). Furthermore, as a principal member of the research project on the socio-ecological transformation of food systems funded by the German Environmental Agency, I co-authored several research reports about the political economy of different policies and transformation pathways for achieving climate mitigation in the food sector. I also contributed to a research project funded by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment on food waste policymaking.

As founding director of the non-profit NAHhaft Institute for Sustainable Food Strategies, I initiated and conducted several research, consultancy, and education projects on food system transformation at the urban, national, and international level.

In 2021, I was invited to chair the expert panel on Swiss Food System Transformation initiated by SDSN Switzerland.


The Political Economy of Climate Change Mitigation

Climate change is arguably the biggest threat to humankind and life on earth. In my research, I study the governance and political economy of climate change mitigation by linking different strands of literature in political science, economics, sociology, psychology, and computational social sciences. Using various quantitative and qualitative methods, I seek to understand the political and economic conditions for positive tipping dynamics in transforming complex socio-technical systems, such as the food and transport system, to achieve the Paris climate targets.

Since the beginning of my academic career, I have conducted research on the transformation of complex socio-technical systems, with a special focus on climate mitigation in the food and transport sector. In my dissertation, entitled „The Political Feasibility of Transformative Climate Policy – Public Opinion about Transforming Food and Transport Systems“ (SNIS award, summa cum laude), I investigated the potential trade-off between the political feasibility and effectiveness of ambitious climate policies with visible implications for citizens’ everyday lives. Specifically, I investigated to what extent citizens and consumers in distinct socio-political contexts (namely, China, Germany, and the United States) accept measures aimed at reducing the use of fossil-fueled cars and the consumption of meat. In my PhD, I led comparative qualitative interviews, field- and survey experiments with more than 25,000 respondents in China, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.

During my research activities at the Wuppertal Institute, Mercator Institute, Hertie School, ETH Zurich, and the University of Bern/EAWAG, I have been involved in various research projects related to the political economy and governance of climate change mitigation.

For example, at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research and Policy Analysis and Environmental Governance group at the University of Bern/EAWAG, I am currently co-leading a work package in the SNF-funded project on “Multiplex networks in Swiss and German Climate Mitigation Policy.” In this project, we employ elite actor surveys, discourse network analysis, and computational social science methods to study changes in actor coalitions and narratives in climate change policymaking.