Review article about futures thinking in the African context

I wonder how many review articles that have been written since the Covid-19 pandemic started? Since my new postdoc project started about the same time as the pandemic, it “forced” me to stay at home and browse the field of research that has been conducted in the context I am interested in. So, instead of just waiting to go to Tanzania, I did two things: I wrote a review article about “Participatory futures thinking in the African context of sustainability challenges and socio-environmental change“, and I tried the futures thinking method to develop and visualize just and sustainable futures in the Swedish context of carbon farming (more about this in a future post once the study is published).

Futures thinking is a key competency in sustainability studies, and the field is currently experiencing a strong surge in participatory scenario development and visioning approaches. Sub-Saharan Africa has a particularly long history of participatory approaches to development; however, the same participatory approaches have often faced critique for lacking the potential to stimulate empowerment and social change. To explore these contradictions, I systematically reviewed the use of participatory scenario development and visioning in sustainability and socio-environmental change research in the region between 2011 and 2021.

The analysis of the review article is structured around three key questions: Who participates, in what, and for whose benefit? Of the 23 reviewed studies, most focused on exploratory scenarios and aimed to understand trade-offs and future risks to identify sustainable pathways to alternative futures. Fewer scenarios were normative and aimed to imagine futures beyond current societal structures and values, and thereby radically challenge the status quo (e.g., business as usual, current socioeconomic systems) by including solutions to power imbalances and injustice. Most scenario development processes engaged a wide range of participants (in terms of power and agency) because this strategy was meant to facilitate knowledge co-production and understanding between (sometimes) conflicting stakeholders. In the end, most scenario development processes strived for consensus and compromise regarding which futures were wanted and which futures were to be avoided.

The figure below summarizes what types of participation was offered in the futures thinking and scenario development process of the reviewed articles.

Figure 2 in Johansson (2021). Assigned participation typologies for each reviewed paper based on typology features provided by Pretty (1995) and White (1996). Colors indicate the geographical location of the study in sub-Saharan Africa, and labels are based on the first author’s name. Dashed lines on specific points indicate that those studies are categorized in two typologies (e.g., Lemenih used both consultational and functional participation, but not participation for material incentives). The dashed circle encloses a cluster of studies that are all classified as interactive and representative.

Based on this review, I challenge what is often considered “best practice” in sustainability discussions by raising some limitations of mixing a wide range of stakeholders in the futures thinking process. Although such mixing is considered to enhance mutual understanding and conflict resolution, it might also limit the potential to stimulate radically different futures that would benefit the vulnerable and marginalized through challenging the status quo. My findings provide guidance for researchers and other actors who intend to use or develop methods for exploring innovative solutions for more just and sustainable futures in different areas and contexts of sustainable development.

For a closer look, read the article here (fully accessible and free of charge for everyone)

Virtual carbon exports from Cambodia

I just published a paper entitled “Foreign demands for agricultural commodities drive virtual carbonexports from Cambodia” in Environmental Research Letters, together with my colleagues Stefan Olin and Jonathan Seaquist. The paper is published under Open Access license, so it’s available for everyone who wants to read and learn about the topic (which I think is crucial for science, and in particular sustainability science if we want to create awareness and spurr societal change towards sustainability).

During the last year I’ve been working on a short (1 year) research project in Cambodia. It’s a very interesting country from a historical, geo-political, and socio-environmetal perspective. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, also with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Much forest has been cut down for the purpose of establishing large-scale rubber plantations, but there are also large areas with cassava and sugarce. The research we did was mainly an attempt to quantify how much carbon (stored in vegetation) that has been lost over the past 30 years, and we quantified this with land cover classifications (from annual satellite images) and modelling of carbon pools. The maps of annual carbon pools could then be used to see trends over time, and also what type of land cover changes that have contributed with losses or gains in carbon. We used spatial data of protected areas (nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, etc) and land grabs (or economic land concessions as they are called in the Cambodian context) to see the changes in carbon in these specific areas (sometimes protected and exploited areas are overlapping). We found that areas with economic land concessions have higher carbon loss rates than other areas in Cambodia.

The image shows clear-cuts for large-scale rubber plantations within Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary. Image taken during fieldwork November 2018.

Here is the abstract for an overview of the paper:

Rapid deforestation is a major sustainability challenge, partly as the loss of carbon sinks exacerbates global climate change. In Cambodia, more than 13% of the total land area has been contracted out to foreign and domestic agribusinesses in the form of economic land concessions, causing rapid large-scale land use change and deforestation. Additionally, the distant drivers of local and global environmental change often remain invisible. Here, we identify hotspots of carbon loss between 1987-2017 using the dynamic global vegetation model LPJ-GUESS and bycomparing past and present land use and land cover. We also link global consumption and production patterns to their environmental effects in Cambodia by mapping the countries to which land-use embedded carbon are exported. We find that natural forests have decreased from 54 to 21% between 1987 and 2017, mainly for the expansion of farmland and orchards, translating into 300 million tons of carbon lost, with loss rates over twice as high within economic land concessions. China is the largest importer of embedded carbon, mainly for rubber and sugarcane from Chinese agribusinesses. Cambodian investors have also negatively affected carbon pools through export-oriented products like rubber. The combined understanding of environmental change and trade flows makes it possible to identify distant drivers of deforestation, which is important for crafting more environmentally and socially responsible policies on national and transnational scales.

Cassava plantations, and rubber plantations in the distance. Picture from Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary 2018.
Newly cleared area, only a few high trees have been left from the – previously dense – evergreen forest. Picture from Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary, 2018.

Lecture about art and science at Nässjö Konsthall

The 5th of February I will hold a lecture at Nässjö Konsthall, which will be about how to integrate climate science and art in order to communicate science.

Föreläsningen handlar om hur vi integrerar klimatvetenskap och konst och hur vi når ut till de samhällen som är mest utsatta

Hur mår invånare i byar i Tanzania som blivit utsatta för land grabbing, det vill säga när inhemska eller multinationella företag köper upp stora marker, oftast illegalt. Naturgeografen Emma-Li Johansson använde konsten i sin forskning för att komma närmre människors tankar, oro och framtidsdrömmar. Hur skulle de visualisera fenomenet? Vilka berättelser skulle de inkludera? Under kvällens föreläsning berättar Emma om hur hon gick tillväga för att använda konst i sin forskning, och vilka utmaningar och möjligheter hon upplevt.

Onsdagsforum är en föreläsningsserie i Nässjö konsthall, våren 2020 är temat konst och klimat.

Come and listen!

New paper out in Ambio mixing art and remote sensing

A paper I have been working on for a while with Hakim Abdi was recently published in Ambio under open access license. It compares what we can learn from linking participatory art and local experiences of land use change with remote sensing and land change detection. The paper is linked to fieldwork I did in Tanzania in 2015 and 2016 and is called “Mapping and quantifying perceptions of environmental change in Kilombero Valley, Tanzania”.

Comparing paintings of the past and the present with land change detection through remote sensing. Narratives and corresponding observations of environmental change are marked and highlighted in different colours. Green circles show the mountain forest as visualised in the paintings, and the corresponding area of the satellite image, mainly showing no change (white) and rainfed agriculture to forest (brown). Blue circles show forest loss in the valley as described in the paintings, and corresponding areas in the land cover classification (forest to rainfed, and forest to wetland). Pink circles show changes from wetland and rainfed farmland to irrigated farmland. Yellow circles show agricultural and pastoral activities expanding over the wetland area, which are seen as wetland to rainfed in the land change detection.

Virtual talk about land grabbing at Almedalsveckan

I will be having a virtual presentation at Almedalsveckan tomorrow, 4th of July. If you are there, I think it will be a very interesting session!

Sustainable Land Use? Synergies, Conflicts, and Solutions for Sweden and Beyond

Tid: 11:15 – 12:15
Plats: Hästgatan 13


  • Genevieve Metson, Assistant Professor, Theoretical Biology IFM and Center for Climate Science and Policy Research, Linköping University
  • Emma Li Johansson, Researcher, Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University
  • Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies

How does Swedish farming and food consumption affect ecosystem services here and around the world? What role does agriculture in the EU, particularly the CAP, play in driving Agenda 2030? How can we sustain food, energy, biofuels, climate regulation, and thriving nature with limited land resources?

Chapter in telecoupling book

Me and Jonathan Seaquist just published a chapter in the book “Telecoupling: Exploring Land-Use Change in a Globalised World“. The chapter is entitled “Toolbox: Operationalising Telecoupling with Network Analysis” and demonstrates how network analysis can be used to clarify understandings about the effects of globalisation on land system change.

A simple network representation consisting of nodes (labelled A to E) and links (lines connecting the nodes). Nodes can represent people, institutions, states, or governance structures, whilst links depict connections between the nodes in terms of material, people, energy, or information.

Large-scale land acquisition affects farmers’ ability to produce their own food in Africa

“In order to avoid water conflicts and to stimulate food production in sub-Saharan Africa, large-scale land acquisition must be regulated and focus on food production. These are the conclusions of a new doctoral thesis from PhD Emma Johansson.”

Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) writes a nice piece about my thesis, and also made a nice video illustration about some key points.



Freelancing as science illustrator

Do you need a compelling and clear figure for your grant proposal? Or do you need a better-looking figure for your publication?

I have a particular interest of visualizing science as graphs, maps, paintings, and even stop-motion movies (see some examples here). If I could choose, I would only make figures all day. A nice illustration is such a good and efficient way to catch someone’s attention and communicate your scientific results. 

I am currently part time freelancing as a science illustrator,  so if you need help with tables, charts, figures, maps, or other visualizations, don’t hesitate to contact me (

Conceptual model of networks and network analysis