The Sustainable Energy Researcher #S02
I am very honored that I got the chance to talk to Georgia Savvidou. She is (and we are proud to say) a Cypriot researcher in the sustainable energy sector. With a background in Mathematics and Statistics, Energy and Environmental science, Georgia started in 2016 as a Research Associate in Stockholm Environment Institute working with energy modelling, climate finance, and the interactions between climate action and sustainable development.
After 5 years of work at the Stockholm Environment Institute, Georgia is now a Researcher at the Chalmers University of Technology, focusing on energy transition. She is a lead author in the Adaptation Gap Report of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and a contributing author in the forthcoming IPCC Working Group II report of the UN. She led the development of science communication tools such as the NDC-SDG Connections and Aid Atlas. Her work includes more than 12 scientific publications and it is featured by outlets including Bloomberg Opinion, Thomson Reuters, The Conversation, and The Lancet Planetary Health Research Digest. Besides being a scientist, she is a member of the New Wave-VOLT Cyprus social movement for which she composed the climate crisis policy document. She is also a member of the Governing Board of WISER which we will discuss later on so keep reading!
So Georgia, what motivates you to work on climate change and sustainable energy?
I have two amazing nieces and I want them to have the same opportunities I had growing up. I want them to have a life on a thriving – not a dying – planet. I dream of the three of us exploring a living ocean together, I want them to have a future with job security, breathing clean air, living in a clean environment, and having dreams and ambitions in their lives.
Unfortunately, this life I dream of them is threatened by climate change.
We spoke with Georgia on Zoom for climate change and we thought it was important to share a few tangible examples of the effects of climate change that directly affect Cyprus and each one of us and what the science tells us about climate change.
Climate change is the biggest challenge our generation is facing. And we don’t have to go to some place far away from Cyprus to sense the impacts of climate change. My dad loves growing fruits and vegetables in our backyard. Every year he produces olive oil, which I always take with me in Sweden😊. A couple of years ago we had particularly high temperatures in Cyprus during May, when olive trees blossom. That meant that the oil production for my dad – and for all Cyprus – that year decreased significantly. That in turn had economic losses for many oil producers and our island’s economy. And this is just one example.
Just a few days ago agricultural producers were lobbying for state aid to help mitigate the cost of damage to their crops from the frost and extreme weather of recent weeks.
For those of us who are coffee or wine lovers, the news is not that good either. But beyond agricultural commodities, we have seen extreme events such as fires this past summer in Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, floods in Germany and several neighboring European countries that cost peoples’ lives.
Climate change has many faces; heatwaves, droughts, heavy rainfall, floods, tornadoes…
What science tells us is that, while those events occur naturally (we have observed those events since scientists started tracking weather data), their severity and their frequency are increasing due to human-caused climate change. In the Mediterranean, if global temperature increases by 2 degrees, there will be a 62% increase in the area burnt by wildfires in an average summer. With current policies in place worldwide we are set to have about 2.7 degrees increase. That is alarming.
Current and previous generations created the planet’s global warming by burning fossil fuels. Our generation has the choice to deliver a planet to the next generation in a manageable condition. We can do this! We have the time if we all act now.
You mentioned that we can all act, what can each one of us do?
So according to research there are 5 roles each one of us has through which we can contribute to a better planet:
- We need to reduce our overconsumption. For example by eating less meat and eating local food as much as possible. By how we transport ourselves, consider purchasing an electric car, if possible, doing carpooling, using bikes (the government now is offering some incentives for bikes), and avoiding flying if we can. We need to give some thought to how much energy we use at home. If we have the possibility, we can retrofit our households or add solar panels (the government publishes incentives here). By what we buy in our daily lives: by reflecting how much we actually need something before buying it and choosing experiences over material things for us and for our loved ones.
- Did you know that your bank and funds can be investing in fossil fuels and deforestation? We need to move our pensions, savings, and investments away from fossil fuels. I know the options are potentially limited in Cyprus, but in this case, we can demand our bank and financial institutions to be transparent over their portfolio, and demand that they invest in sustainable practices.
- More important than individual changes are the systemic changes. Therefore, we can become role models. When becoming aware of climate change impacts and making changes in our lifestyle that are beneficial to our planet, we can talk about them and in doing so, motivate people around us. It can be anything from a chat with a family member or a friend, to posting on social media (for the active ones), to writing articles and organizing events. We don’t need to be perfect, we just need to start with something small.
- What better place to have some positive impact than our workplaces? After all, we spend about 8 hours per day there. This can be suggestions on improving how waste is being handled in our office, adding solar panels on the roof, and or inviting a guest to talk about ways an organization can become more sustainable.
- We can be active citizens – from voting to getting involved in social movements and volunteering. Let’s add more people to the list of Cypriots who already spend time and energy for the common good. In exchange, you get happiness, laughter, friendship, experience, and knowledge!
If you are reading this, I encourage you to pick one of the five and start doing something about it this week. Also, have you seen the movie “Don’t look up”? They have an action platform, check it out!
We read that Sweden reached a 1GW solar capacity milestone in mid-April, 2021, according to data released by Svensk Solenergi and the Swedish Energy Agency whereas Cyprus is still far behind in solar energy performance. Why do you think we see this? and what can Cyprus learn from Sweden’s strategy?*
Sweden and Cyprus are two very different countries in so many ways. When it comes to renewables, Sweden has 66% of renewables in its electricity mix. Cyprus has only 13%. But it’s not fair to compare the two countries as they are in different situations; Sweden has a great advantage: hydro power.Sun is shining during the day but not during night, the wind is blowing sometimes while other times it doesn’t. To integrate solar and wind power in a system, there must be something balancing all these variations from the solar and wind production. This can be, for example, storage.
In Sweden, when the sun isn’t shining (ehem, that’s quite often 🙃) and the wind isn’t blowing, they let the water flow from the dams to produce hydro-power while when there is a lot of wind, they stop the water from flowing allowing therefore the wind to produce energy. This technique is called variation management and it is needed to be able to increase the penetration of variable renewable energies such as wind and solar.
In addition, Sweden can trade electricity with neighboring countries so when wind is producing too much, they export additional electricity while when the wind is not blowing, they can import electricity.
Cyprus on the other hand is still an isolated system, so we don’t have the possibility to trade electricity yet, and we don’t have hydro-power which would help with increasing variable renewables in the electricity mix. Therefore, we need to make investments in storage capacity which comes at a cost.
That said, there are solutions. Last month the EU approved funding of €657 million for the electrical interconnection between Israel-Cyprus-Greece-Europe. This will be a great milestone for the Cypriot energy transition. Many scientists in Cyprus has been showcasing technological solutions including smart grids, battery storage, electric vehicles as distributed storage and so on. But I believe that we are missing the strategic policies in place that would allow these technological changes to happen, and drive the increase of renewables in our mix in the required pace to comply with our EU targets and align with the European Green Deal. Climate change and its impacts is unfortunately not high on the political agenda.
Paris Agreement for climate action. Do you think that Member States are fulfilling their obligations and if not how does the role of researchers come into play?
It’s one thing to have set a target and a whole different thing to make the required changes in policy to reach the target. So, the answer to your question is unfortunately no. While the member states have plans to net-zero, they have not yet aligned their policies with the Paris agreement. There is no country in the world right now that has climate policy that is in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
As to what academia can offer, I believe that we as scientists in sustainability need to step up. Scientists have tried really hard to get the message out about the impacts of climate change. Scientists also showed what it will take to stop it (which is stopping burning fossil fuels and switching to sustainable energy and agriculture system). But the truth is we’re so far behind in reducing emissions. So, the channels scientists have been using to communicate so far do not get us far.
I believe that we don’t have the option to stand on the side-lines and passively watch all the climate targets blow-by and oops we have triggered all of these tipping points now because we’re too busy trying to publish a paper. I think scientists could be better at finding the right audiences to convey that message. Especially when climate change is not high in the political agenda and not a mainstream topic in the media.
Climate change is an emergency, and we need to treat it as such.
Why is gender perspective relevant in research for sustainable energy?
It is relevant when we consider that women, as well as other societal groups such as the elderly people, can have special energy needs. In low-income countries, solar and biofuel energy has had a positive effect on women’s empowerment in rural villages by decreasing women’s workloads such as cooking and collecting firewood. This allows them to use the daylight hours for other activities, such as engaging with local communities and other forms of employment.
An example closer to Cyprus’ society is energy poverty . Women and gender diverse people are at a greater risk of energy poverty than men. EmpowerMed is a project trying to bridge this data gap for the Mediterranean region. Unfortunately, in Cyprus we have a gender data gap when it comes to energy poverty; data on energy poverty is not collected by sex. What we do know, however, is that in Cyprus women have a higher risk of poverty or social exclusion than men in Cyprus.
Do you think the academic sector lacks gender diversity, and if so, does it impact research outcomes?
Across all academic subjects in Europe, women account for 53% of undergraduate degrees, but their share declines with every step up the career ladder: women make up 48% of PhD graduates, 47% of postdoctoral researchers, 40% of junior and 26% of senior faculty positions .
A more equal representation in research has proven to have multiple benefits to the research outcomes. And research outcomes influence policies about health, city planning, economy, work environment, and so on, and therefore, our lives. Research has shown that seat-belted female drivers had a 47% higher chance of serious injuries in car crashes than belted male drivers and this number went up to 71% for moderate injuries. This is because traditionally only male dummies were used to collect data when testing for crash impact and therefore, cars have been designed based on data of the average male body. So despite injury statistics showing men and women are not equally protected in crashes, males still represent most of the adult population in vehicle safety assessments, as acknowledged by the automotive industry.
Research has also shown that women academics are more likely, compared to men, to include gender and sex analysis in their studies, reducing, therefore, the risk that research results are applicable only to men. This is a tangible example of how a more equal representation of women in academia can benefit society.
There are many examples in which sex and gender analysis improves science and ultimately saves lives and money. 
Do you think that women face the same challenges as their peers in academia?
In the EU, having a child under 6 years of age reduces women’s employment rates by 14.3%, while it increases men’s employment rates by 9.6%. This is on average across all employment fields.
Focusing on academia, there are several examples of challenges that women face as opposed to men. Married women with young children are 35% less likely to get a permanent academic position compared to married men with children. As a result, the data of permanent academic staff show that 70% of men are married with children as opposed to only 44% of women.
Career development in academia depends to a great extent on the number of peer-reviewed journal publications. Research has shown that there are higher chances for women’s articles to get accepted when there is a double-blind process. That is when neither the author nor the reviewer knows who the other person is. Despite this, most journals still haven’t adopted this practice.
The age limit for hiring staff in universities also acts against women, as women are more likely to have some breaks in their careers for family reasons and therefore higher age when applying for academic positions.
What do you suggest in order to work towards or even achieve gender equality in science?
I think it is important to acknowledge that I am not a gender expert, so I don’t have specific recommendations through my research. But I am lucky to be in academia in a country in which gender equality is a rather mainstream topic in discussions and high on the agenda. That is not to say that in Sweden gender equality has been achieved in academia, or in society in general. But there are active efforts in that direction. Chalmers University funded an initiative for gender equality. In the initiative’s website one can find useful recommendations on what measures a university can introduce for gender equality.
But more than anything, my hope for everyone reading this interview would be to read and become more aware on gender equality aspects and then share what we learn with friends and family. I find that these topics are not discussed as much as they ought to in our society. And if we don’t talk about a problem, we cannot solve it.
Are you aware whether there is a gender pay gap between female / male University researchers?
As far as I know the PhD salaries are regulated and standardized, at least in Sweden. So the salary between female and male PhD researchers is the same. That said, there is a gender pay gap once you look higher up in the academic ladder in Sweden. In Chalmers University where I am currently, the gender pay gap is at 8.8%. As far as I know, salaries in academic positions in public universities in Cyprus are also regulated. But looking at the gender pay gap in general, not focusing on academia only, in Cyprus we observe a significant difference.
The desire to project an image of social responsibility is encouraging companies as well large public bodies to initiate change themselves (aka Corporate Social Responsibility). Are you aware if Universities for example in Sweden integrate social responsibility initiatives in their administrative policies and management procedures particularly for matters of gender equality and work-life balance?
I have two concrete examples of initiatives taken by Swedish universities for gender equality. The first one is introduced by KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. The university decided to integrate gender equality and diversity as a compulsory part in all its educational programs, from undergraduate up to doctoral level. The second one comes from the Chalmers University of Technology where I work at. Chalmers acknowledged the low proportion of female faculty and the obstacles that hamper women’s careers along with the negative costs that this causes to the university and decided to invest €30 million in an initiative over a 10 year period to change this.
You have been living in Sweden the past 6 years. We are aware, from personal experience, that Sweden has gender equality very high on its political, social and economic agenda. Can you give us a simple yet captivating example of how gender equality looks like in Sweden and compare such an example to Cyprus?
I still remember when I visited for the first time two Swedish friends. They are a couple, and they have a four-year-old son. When I entered the house, I noticed they had a corner with all the toys of Oliver, their son.
Among puzzles, horses, building tools, trains, and cars there were a kitchenette with food and pans, a baby doll and a broom-mop set. I must have looked surprised cause they asked me why I was staring at the toys. When I said that I was not used to see some of the toys for boys as well, they couldn’t understand why. For the kitchenette they said: “Well what if we are raising the next master chef?”. When I asked about the doll, they said they hope he will become a caring father at some point and that maybe he chooses to become a teacher. For the cleaning kit they said they want to teach their son to be clean and tidy from an early age.
The truth is that both boys and girls can become chefs, scientists, engineers, teachers and parents. There is nothing inherently male or female in any of the above.
Later that year I wanted to buy some presents for my nieces. I was surprised to see that the toy shop I found in Cyprus had – and still has – different sections for boys and girls. The girls’ section was full of pink toys and typically had dolls and toys for make-up and nail polish. The boys’ section dominated by blue and green coloured toys had very exciting toys such as “the little scientist”, “the little engineer”, “the little doctor”, toys to build or repair houses etc.
I believe we need to become aware what messages we give to our kids and what that means for their future.
You recently became a member of the Governing Board of WISER * Women & Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research. Tell us more about this interesting and important network.
WISER is a global network of women and non-binary academics in the field of sustainable energy research. We aim to connect women researching clean energy (PhD Candidates, Post Docs and Professors) and to address implicit biases in this field.
Being part of WISER’s steering committee is definitely an empowering and inspiring experience. Beyond networking possibilities, we try to empower our members through several events, including training on media skills, how to navigate academia, time management and so on. We also try to provide a safe space for our members to share personal experiences. Now we are discussing the possibility of starting a mentoring program.
Personally, I’m constantly learning and growing through my involvement with WISER and the events we organize, and we speak to. This past year I was thrilled to get the chance to interview one of my role models, prof Kimberly Nicholas, through a WISER event.
Ι encourage women and non-binaries in the field of sustainable energy in academia to join us, it’s free and fun!
*We should point out that our Ministry of Energy, Commerce and Industry has already cooperated with Sweden (KTH Royal Institute of Sweden) in conducting research as to the penetration of renewable energy in Cyprus in 2017.
A person who encounters in his/her/their accommodation particular difficulties to have enough energy supply to satisfy his/her/their elementary needs. This being due to the inadequacy of resources or housing conditions.
Caroline Crialdo Perez provides a series of such patterns in her recent book Invisible Women. Also, Stanford University has a project on Gendered Innovations with case studies in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering and Environment.