When Florian Humpenöder turned down a job thanks to his dislike of wearing a suit, he had no idea that his decision would eventually lead him to publish a high-impact article in Nature. He told the story of his career and his research as part of the Springer Nature Storytellers programme.
“There are absolute environmental limits that define a safe operating space for humanity,” said Florian Humpenöder, a Senior Researcher at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “These are the planetary boundaries.”
Florian specialises in how land use impacts our climate. His research into the projected environmental benefits of replacing beef with microbial protein was published in Nature in May 2022 and he has also published on the impact of protecting and restoring peatlands.
Florian told the story of how he came to publish on these topics as part of the Springer Nature Storytellers programme which harnesses the power of storytelling to help expand authors’ influence beyond their scholarly circles.
As part of our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our recent focus for the programme has been on the food–energy–water nexus, hearing stories about related research from authors who’ve published with Springer Nature.
Florian opened his talk with an unexpected story about his dislike for wearing suits as a teenager. A dislike which would eventually lead him to turn down a place on a dual study programme in Business Informatics at Deutsche Bahn, the National Railway Company of Germany – much to the dismay of his parents. But Deutsche Bahn’s loss proved to be climate research’s gain, as Florian went on to explain in his story.
After studying economics at Freie Universität Berlin Florian went on to a master's programme in sustainable economics at the University of Kassel. And it was here that he found his passion.
“The people I met in Kassel were very passionate about what they were doing,” he explained. “My new student friends were much more interested in the subject. I really liked that and some of the passion finally rubbed off.”
It was also in Kassel that Florian found out how to combine his interest in computing with his passion for sustainability.
“I learned how to use the computer for something useful,” he said. “I learned to transform environmental problems into equations that can be solved by the computer. Luckily, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, where I still work today, was looking for a PhD student in the field of language modelling, just when I had finished my master's thesis. So I moved [there].”
In Potsdam, Florian was able to connect with people working on sustainable solutions for the climate crisis. With the help of modelling tools, they develop transformation pathways for different sectors of the economy, such as energy, transport, buildings, and land use. The latter, land use, became his core area of expertise and is closely related to several SDGs, not least SDG 15 – Life on Land.
Sometimes inspiration for research can come from unexpected places and this proved the case for Florian as he continued his studies in Potsdam.
“Four years ago, I received an infographic magazine at Christmas that showed two numbers on the title: CO2 emissions from aviation and CO2 emissions from drained peatlands,” he explained.
“The drained peatland figure was about double the size of the aviation figure. That was surprising to me because – although working in a group on land use management – peatlands just did not play a role in my work until then.
“So I started to think about ways I could include peatlands into our global land use modelling framework. It took a while, but in the end, I developed a paper with a very clear message that the reversing of draining peatlands is of key importance for climate change mitigation.”
Florian went on to explain that while it took time for him to have the research published, the work “paid off”.
“I was invited as a peatland expert at the COP26 Peatland Pavilion in Glasgow,” he said. “This was the first time that I had the feeling that my research was not only excellent, from a scientific perspective, but also highly relevant for solving the climate problem. In other words, I had the feeling that my research could have a real impact.”
Florian’s next piece of research was triggered by a report about how cultivated meat could disrupt the US livestock sector by 2030. After some research, he decided to focus on microbial protein rather than cultivated meat, as it’s already available in supermarkets.
“Using our land use modelling framework, I was able to show that if 20% of the global per capita ruminant meat consumption was replaced with microbial protein by 2050, global deforestation and related CO2 emissions could be halved,” he explained. “[This is] compared to a business-as-usual scenario without such replacements.”
The study was published in Nature and garnered immediate media interest.
“For my career as a scientist, this was a real game changer,” said Florian. “Suddenly, I got interview requests from international media outlets, such as Washington Post, The Guardian, Wired Magazine, and Forbes. For me, as a scientist, this is really nice because the public interest confirms that my work is relevant for solving real-world problems.”
Florian concluded his story by reviewing how his experiences and choices have led him to this point. His conclusion?
“My aversion to wearing a suit and dress shoes was crucial for my career. If I had taken the job offered by Deutsche Bahn, I would not be standing here today as a scientist. So what does this tell us about life? Don't listen too much to your parents and follow your own path.”
You can watch Florian’s full story below: