press release, 04. October 2021

Achieving more sustainability with new narratives

Political and social scientist Prof. Dr Sina Leipold heads the UFZ Department of Environmental Politics

Every meaningful narrative needs a clear outlook with plausible directives - that’s what makes a good narrative. The clearer such a narrative is, the more people will be convinced. For example, to support political measures for more climate protection. Political and social scientist Prof. Dr Sina Leipold has set out to determine which narratives politics, business, and society use to initiate a transformation towards smarter and more sustainable resource management. She has headed the Department of Environmental Politics at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) since September and was appointed jointly with the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena.

Prof. Dr Sina Leipold Photo: André Künzelmann / UFZ
Prof. Dr Sina Leipold
Photo: André Künzelmann / UFZ

Sina Leipold dedicated herself to sustainability narratives at the University of Freiburg, where she was a junior professor between 2017 and summer 2021 and led the junior research group "Circulus: Opportunities and Challenges of Transformation towards a Sustainable Circular Economy" funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The research aimed to develop a comprehensive understanding of the emergence and potential pathways of a circular economy. The results provide insights on how to support new narratives and design monitoring and steering tools in order to develop a sustainable circular economy. "The original narrative of the circular economy - that we should use technical solutions to increase efficiency - was effective", says Sina Leipold, who examined this using the example of the German Packaging Act, which came into force in 2019. However, many stakeholders in the circular economy were not satisfied because there had been no considerable changes. "There is not only one efficiency narrative but rather also a new one - namely that a fundamental system change is needed", she says. This provides quite different directives than increasing efficiency. For example, reducing the use of materials, repairing or reusing them instead of throwing them away, and developing a stronger culture of sharing goods.

At the UFZ, Leipold wants to expand her inter- and transdisciplinary research on political narratives. "I aim to identify successful strategies for changing narratives", she says. To this end, she wants to collect existing findings on environmental narratives and test them empirically. Leipold also wants to find out how models, scenarios, and indicators can help to support narratives for sustainability transformation. "It would be interesting to examine what concepts - such as the ecological footprint - really achieve and what alternatives of narrative and political impact mechanisms are possible in order to change the consumption of food or packaging", she says. There are still many political instruments based on theoretical assumptions about environmental impact but which have not yet been fully tested and may not produce the effects that were actually hoped for. 

For Leipold, the practical relevance of her research is important. For example, her Freiburg team compared the environmental impacts of a PET punnet and a corrugated cardboard punnet with transparent film. The results show that the carbon footprint could be reduced by up to 34% if all punnets sold in Germany were made of corrugated cardboard. But because cardboard and paper must be produced, transported, and recycled for this purpose, the savings potential quickly diminishes if overall consumption is not reduced. "This is a real rebound effect. Things are recycled more efficiently, more material is available, and consumption is increased. The bottom line is that the amount of waste grows every year", she says. Their research should be application-oriented so that politics, business, and society can also implement the results. "We want to show alternatives and discuss problems of the environmental impacts of various narratives". Communicating results - for example, on the Packaging Act - to the broader public as she did for example in the TV programme "Planet Wissen" or in an online discussion round with the Federal Minister of Education is also an important concern for her. "I feel that there is currently a strong interest in environmental policy, especially among the younger generations. We need to address this".

On 15 November, Leipold will be awarded the Albert Bürklin Prize 2021 for her outstanding research, which is particularly relevant to policy and practice. This was announced by the board of trustees of the Scientific Society of Freiburg in a press release on 4 October 2021. 

Sina Leipold, born in Sonneberg, Thuringia, in 1985, studied political science, history, and social sciences at the Ruhr University Bochum, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the University of Freiburg, and Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Buenos Aires. In 2016, she completed her PhD on the influence of interest groups on narratives of international forest policy at the University of Freiburg. Between 2017 and 2021, she was a junior professor at the University of Freiburg and led the junior research group on the "Circular Bio-Economy", which was funded by the BMBF with €2 million. Leipold was a visiting scholar at Yale University, the University of Technology Sydney, the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. On 1 September 2021, she was jointly appointed by the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena and the UFZ to the professorship of Environmental Politics. At the UFZ, she heads the department of the same name.

Further information

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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