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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law

In the lead up to the sold out Brexit debate at the University of Bristol on Friday 29 April 2016, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
The EU plays a fundamental role in shaping the environmental law regimes of its Member States and that of the UK is no exception. A significant proportion of current domestic environmental law derives from EU Regulations (that automatically become part of English law) and EU Directives (that are implemented through national legislation).

Nature conservation law, i.e. the legal regime used to protect environmentally significant habitats and species, is a case in point and the focus of this blog. Conserving nature is key not only from a purely biodiversity standpoint but also from an ‘ecosystem services’ perspective. Ecosystem services are the benefits nature brings to the environment and to people, including supporting services (e.g. nutrient cycling), provisioning services (e.g. food), regulating services (e.g. carbon capture) and cultural services (e.g. recreation)

Site designation and management is a favoured technique of nature conservation law. The well-known Natura 2000 network, would not be there if it were not for EU Directives, namely the Habitats (92/43/EEC) and Wild Birds Directives (2009/147/EC), implemented in the UK by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. Under Article 3 of the Habitats Directive, Member States are indeed required to set up the Natura network composed of Special Areas of Conservation (sites hosting the natural habitat types listed in Annex I and habitats of the species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive) and Special Protection Areas (sites for the protection of rare and vulnerable birds as listed in Annex I of the Wild Birds Directive and for regularly occurring migratory species). 
Greenfinch by Mschulenburg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
In the UK, there are a substantial number of European protected sites: 652 Special Areas of Conservation (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation[1] and Sites of Community Importance[2]) and 270 Special Protection Areas, covering a total of 8,013,467 ha (JNCC statistics as of 28 January 2016).

Has the establishment of Natura 2000 made a difference to biodiversity protection? 

As part of its Smart Regulation Policy, the Commission has initiated a fitness check of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives to evaluate their effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and added value. Though the final Commission report on the results of the fitness check will be available only later this year, the draft emerging findings prepared by a consortium of experts do suggest that the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives have substantially contributed to the conservation of nature and to meeting the EU’s biodiversity target.

It is fair to note that, prior to the EU Directives on nature conservation, the UK did have its own system for habitat protection, most notably based on the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Introduced in the post-war period by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the law governing SSSIs has been strengthened over the decades by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended by Schedule 9 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. However, the management measures in place for SSSIs are not as stringent as those for the protection of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. 
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were introduced in the post-war period in the UK to help manage habitat protection.
It is also fair to note that in the marine environment, the UK has taken important steps domestically: the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 in England and Wales (and similar Acts in the devolved administrations) has brought in new domestic marine conservation zones that contribute to the establishment of an ecologically coherent network in UK waters. But the building of such a network is not so disentangled from EU law, considering Art 13(4) of the EU Marine Strategic Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) requires the formation of marine protected areas’ networks in the marine environments of Member States.

Clearly therefore, EU law has contributed much to the development of nature conservation in the UK. Moreover, being part of the EU means that the Commission can exercise its power to bring infringement proceedings against Member States for incomplete or ineffective implementation of EU law, thereby exercising an external check on implementation (for nature conservation, see Commission v UK, Case C-06/04 [2005]  ECR I-9017).

What would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law?

What is unknown however is what would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law in the UK because much depends on the type of post-Brexit EU-UK relationship and the agreement that will be negotiated. However, it could be argued that compared to other environmental sectors (such as waste and water) nature conservation may be more at risk.  

Indeed, even in the not-too-radical scenario in which the UK chooses to stay within the EEA, the future of nature conservation law will depend on whether there is political willingness to continue to abide by existing commitments, rather than legal obligations stemming from the EEA agreement. This is because, though the EEA agreement does contain many environmental provisions, nature conservation is excluded (Annex XX of the EEA agreement excludes the Habitats and Wild Birds Directive). Consequently, the future of nature conservation law is very uncertain in a post-Brexit world, even in the event of EEA membership.

[1] Candidate Special Areas of Conservation are sites that have been submitted to the European Commission, but not yet formally adopted.
[2] Sites of Community Importance are sites that have been adopted by the European Commission but not yet formally designated by the government of each country.
This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Dr Margherita Pieraccini, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol. 
Margherita Pieraccini

How ancient warm periods can help predict future climate change

Several more decades of increased carbon dioxide emissions could lead to melting ice sheets, mass extinctions and extreme weather becoming the norm. We can’t yet be certain of the exact impacts, but we can look to the past to predict the future.

We could start with the last time Earth experienced CO2 levels comparable to those expected in the near future, a period 56m to 34m years ago known as the Eocene.

The Eocene began as a period of extreme warmth around 10m years after the final dinosaurs died. Alligators lived in the Canadian Arctic while palm trees grew along the East Antarctic coastline. Over time, the planet gradually cooled, until the Eocene was brought to a close with the formation of a large ice sheet on Antarctica.

During the Eocene, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere were much higher than today, with estimates usually ranging between 700 and 1,400 parts per million (ppm). As these values are similar to those anticipated by the end of this century (420 to 935ppm), scientists are increasingly using the Eocene to help predict future climate change.

We’re particularly interested in the link between carbon dioxide levels and global temperature, often referred to as “equilibrium climate sensitivity” – the temperature change that results from a doubling of atmospheric CO2, once fast climate feedbacks (such as water vapour, clouds and sea ice) have had time to act.

To investigate climate sensitivity during the Eocene we generated new estimates of CO2 throughout the period. Our study, written with colleagues from the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Southampton, is published in Nature.

Reconstruction of the 40m year old planktonic foraminifer Acarinina mcgowrani. Richard Bizley ( and Paul Pearson, Cardiff University, CC BY

As we can’t directly measure the Eocene’s carbon dioxide levels, we have to use “proxies” preserved within sedimentary rocks. Our study utilises planktonic foraminifera, tiny marine organisms which record the chemical composition of seawater in their shells. From these fossils we can figure out the acidity level of the ocean they lived in, which is in turn affected by the concentration of atmospheric CO2.

We found that CO2 levels approximately halved during the Eocene, from around 1,400ppm to roughly 770ppm, which explains most of the sea surface cooling that occurred during the period. This supports previously unsubstantiated theories that carbon dioxide was responsible for the extreme warmth of the early Eocene and that its decline was responsible for the subsequent cooling.

We then estimated global mean temperatures during the Eocene (again from proxies such as fossilised leaves or marine microfossils) and accounted for changes in vegetation, the position of the continents, and the lack of ice sheets. This yields a climate sensitivity value of 2.1°C to 4.6°C per doubling of CO2. This is similar to that predicted for our own warm future (1.5 to 4.5°C per doubling of CO2).
Our work reinforces previous findings which looked at sensitivity in more recent time intervals. It also gives us confidence that our Eocene-like future is well mapped out by current climate models.

Fossil foraminifera from Tanzania – their intricate shells capture details of the ocean 33-50m years ago. Paul Pearson, Cardiff University, CC BY

Rich Pancost, a paleoclimate expert and co-author on both studies, explains: “Most importantly, the collective research into Earth history reveals that the climate can and has changed. And consequently, there is little doubt from our history that transforming fossil carbon underground into carbon dioxide in the air – as we are doing today – will significantly affect the climate we experience for the foreseeable future.”

Our work also has implications for other elements of the climate system. Specifically, what is the impact of higher CO2 and a warmer climate upon the water cycle? A recent study investigating environmental change during the early Eocene – the warmest interval of the past 65m years – found an increase in global precipitation and evaporation rates and an increase in heat transport from the equator to the poles. The latter is consistent with leaf fossil evidence from the Arctic which suggests that high precipitation rates were common.

However, changes in the water cycle are likely to vary between regions. For example, low to mid latitudes likely became drier overall, but with more intense, seasonal rainfall events. Although very few studies have investigated the water cycle of the Eocene, understanding how this operates during past warm climates could provide insights into the mechanisms which will govern future changes.
The Conversation
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Gordon Inglis, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Organic Geochemistry, University of Bristol and Eleni Anagnostou, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Real world risks and extremes

Few locations in London are more appropriate to discuss risk and extremes than the Shard in London. The daring skyscraper, completed in 2012, was among the first high-rise buildings to be designed in the aftermath of 9/11 - terrorism risk mitigation has been a major challenge for the structural engineers working on the project.
The Shard, London
On the 8 April 2016, the Mathematics Institute of the University of Warwick, in partnership with the London Mathematical Laboratory and the Institute of Physics, held the Real World Risks and Extremes meeting at the WBS campus at the Shard.

The invited speakers included Dr Gordon Woo (Risk Management Solutions), Professor Willy Aspinall (University of Bristol Cabot Institute and Aspinall & Associates), Professor Jean-Philippe Bouchaud (École Polytechnique and Capital Fund Management) and Professor Giulia Iori (City University London), as well as the writer Mark Buchanan (author and columnist for Nature and Bloomberg), who chaired the final panel discussion. The objective of the meeting was to foster interdisciplinary discussion on the methodology of extreme risk assessment and management, and this common theme was tackled in the talks from very different angles. 
From the left: Professor Aspinall, Dr Woo, Professor Bouchaud and Professor Iori.
The day started with a thought-provoking speech by Dr Woo, who called for a new approach in the treatment of historical extreme events: rather than treating them as the only source of data, we ought to be performing some counterfactual analysis as well. Besides what we have experienced, what could have happened? Asking these type of questions, according to Dr Woo, would improve the robustness of risk assessments, after all, what happened was just one of many possible outcomes. Thinking about what could have been would help us to better prepare for the future.

Professor Aspinall followed with a talk about the use of expert judgement to quantify the uncertainty in mathematical models of natural processes. This is especially important when policy decisions are being taken based on these models, as in the case of climate change. The methodology was used to evaluate the uncertainty in the correlations between the different drivers of sea-level rise, discovering that its extreme values could be higher than previously predicted.

The talks by Professor Bouchaud and Professor Iori focused on the use of statistical mechanics-based and agent-based models to understand complex systems such as economics at a country scale or the global banking system. In particular, they both focused on the possibility of identifying the set of variables which govern crises in these systems. This is especially important for high-dimensional systems, as while there are many variables at play, generally only few of them can shift the system state from stable to unstable. 

The Cabot Institute’s Dr Max Werner (Lecturer in Natural Hazards and Risks in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol) was one of the organisers of the event: 
“Our main objective for the meeting was to stimulate cross-disciplinary discussion about how to improve uncertainty assessments of risks to society, especially given complex interactions and correlations among the many components of a natural or socio-economic system. The speakers represented such different fields of the risk sciences and industries, and yet their common ground became very clear during the panel discussion chaired by Mark Buchanan: don’t place your trust blindly in quantitative models or in past observations – use expert judgement of what might happen, supported by insights from qualitative models of complex systems and an analysis of near-misses. For most scientists, including myself, that are engaged in quantitative modelling of past and future observations, this consensus was an important lesson in how our science should contribute to policy and decision making.”
What I found most interesting about the meeting was the diversity of the point of views of the speakers and the participants. From mathematics to philosophy, and from engineering to finance, all the way through natural and actuarial sciences, there is a lot of exciting research being done on the risk posed by extreme events and complex systems. How to assess these risks, how to communicate them in an effective way, how to manage them and how to turn them into opportunities are challenges that we as academics need to explore, if we want to help our societies to thrive and flourish. 

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Giulio Galvan from the School of Engineering at the University of Bristol.  Giulio's research looks at the vulnerability and resilience of infrastructure networks.
Giulio Galvan

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Kyoto-Bristol-Heidelberg workshop: Novel frontiers in botany

Botany is an ancient field of science and often has an (incorrect!) reputation for being outdated. The recent plant sciences workshop ‘Novel Frontiers in Botany’ shook off that image by bringing together researchers from Kyoto University, Heidelberg University and the University of Bristol to discuss their cutting edge research and form exciting new collaborations.

The workshop, held in March at Kyoto University, was part of an ongoing strategic partnership between the three Universities and their botanic gardens. It built on previous plant science meetings of the partner institutions, which have already led to ongoing international research collaborations. The plant biology research interests of the three universities, whilst overlapping, incorporate different techniques and ideas, so by working together we can synergistically accelerate plant sciences research across the partnership.

Student-led success

One of the highlights of the meeting was its student-led focus. A team of graduate student organisers, led by PhD student Yumiko Sakai, Kyoto University, designed a programme of primarily short (15 minute) talks given by graduate students and post-docs, which was key to ensuring a wide range of subject areas could be included, from molecules to ecosystems, cell biology to phylogenetics.

I think the student-led aspect encouraged more discussion too; instead of a complete story presented by professors, the speakers typically presented unfinished work, which meant attendees of the workshop gave feedback and suggested potential future directions. Graduate students and post-docs perform most of the experiments that underpin academic research, as well as being the future of plant science research, so it was great to learn new techniques and ideas from each other, as well as building our professional networks and the international research profiles of the three universities. Daily poster sessions and a number of excursions certainly helped to get the group communicating, although I’m not sure how much science was discussed at our trip to a local karaoke bar!
Several potential new collaborations have already come out of the workshop, which highlights its success. PhD student organiser Yumiko Sakai summed up the meeting, “Making new friends in our research field was a wonderful experience! Developing this student-led workshop will unite the young people that undertake frontier research”.

This meeting was supported by funding from the Kyoto University’s Supporting Program for Interaction-based Initiative Team Studies (SPIRITS) and from the University of Bristol’s Lady Emily Smyth Agricultural Research Station (LESARS).

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Sarah Jose

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

How accurate are the media on climate change and extreme weather events?

I've always appreciated the environment, but had previously taken on the role of spectator. I credit this magnificent city of ours with inspiring me to change my passive respect of nature to taking an active role in trying to preserve it. The strong sense of community in Bristol and the green-mindedness of its residents is infectious, and is evident in the number of fantastic projects we have which are led by the people and by our local government.

I craved more information about our environment so started attending lectures and events that are regularly held by the Cabot Institute and various departments across the university. As my insight to the issues we face grew, I realised I needed to increase my understanding and hopefully align my career in a way in which I could have a positive impact. I decided to enrol in a masters in Climate Change Science and Policy so I could appreciate the scientific intricacies rather than relying on what I heard, and what I read in the media.  

My course enabled me to learn about climate modelling and the difficulties of implementing environmental policies, not just logistically but in terms of ethics and opinion. It is one thing to be passionate about science and research, it is quite another to communicate that to a non-specialist in a way that the magnitude and seriousness of climate change is realised. A warming climate will affect the entire globe and all sectors within it. Bridging the gap in knowledge between climate scientists and policy makers/society is therefore paramount. People often rely on the media as their main source of information and indeed it can successfully act as an education broker between scientists and the public. The seemingly omnipotent power of the media to mould opinion can be beneficial, but do we really know if what we’re reading is the truth?

I was offered the opportunity to explore this question, and it was the Environment Agency (EA) that requested the answers. Specifically, I conducted my dissertation on the accuracy of the UK media in reporting of extreme weather events. It may seem a rather unusual project to be proposed by the EA, so I shall explain. Within the organisation is a climate change branch, a part of which is the ‘Climate Ready Support Service’. Their objective is to provide advice and support to businesses in order to prevent and mitigate the effects of extreme weather events and climate change. The Environment Agency uses recent extreme weather events to exemplify realistic scenarios that could befall a vulnerable business.

The speed, scope and accessibility of the media makes it a valuable tool, during and immediately after a weather event. The fast-paced nature of modern reporting and social media necessitates that to some extent the EA relies on information from news organisations. Additionally, there are vastly more journalists than there are staff in the ‘Climate Ready Support Service’ therefore media reliance is essential. When the EA republishes this information it must be relevant, accurate and consistent, and it was my mission to quantify the reliability of UK media and to assess the confidence that the EA can have in it.

I was not able to analyse all UK media so I studied a selected sample from the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Mirror. I chose them because they contain a mix of broadsheet/tabloid, political affiliations and demographics. I analysed sixty two articles across three extreme weather events: ex-Hurricane Bertha (2014), the spring floods (2012) and the Birmingham tornado (2005). This provided a range of recent short, high impact events and longer-lasting cumulative ones. I conducted content analysis on each article, breaking the text up into study units that could be verified by official sources such as government documentation, academic journals and weather data. Media accuracy is not as straightforward as being right or wrong, not just the objective facts. Subjective inaccuracies also play a part, and can fundamentally alter the final message or mislead the reader from the truth. I categorised these as omission of information, exaggeration/under-exaggeration, personalisation, sensationalism and general confusion.

The results suggest that overall the UK media is 77.9% accurate. The Guardian achieved the highest overall accuracy (83.8%), followed by the Telegraph (76.2%) and the Mirror obtained the lowest accuracy rate (72.5%). Of more consequence to the EA is objective (factual) accuracy as opposed to subjective accuracy, and, the Guardian is the most reliable of the three publications in this respect (94.3%). Even though it is a broadsheet, the Telegraph was less objectively accurate than the Mirror with 85.8% and 87.3% accuracy respectively. Across all three publications, factual inaccuracies such as measurements, geolocations, timings, names etc. were most prevalent with 30%. This was followed by omission/addition as the next most common error (27%). Exaggeration was also significantly evident in the press accounting for 17% of the total inaccuracies.

What does this mean for the EA? This research hopefully clarifies which publications are worth relying on most heavily when obtaining their information. I would still recommend the agency continue to conduct their own internal fact checks because evidently there are still errors. Additionally, it was a one person study, with only one perspective and a limited sample size. As with any research, there’s always more that can be done to validate the findings and as this was the first study to investigate media accuracy of extreme weather events, more is warranted before sweeping conclusions can be made.

What I found interesting was that of the sixty two articles analysed only four of them mentioned climate change within the content. It is the EAs aim to embed climate change messages within all aspects of their organisation, and with the projected increase of such events I would have expected more linkage in the media. After interviewing some journalists a lot of them agreed that climate change should be associated with not just extreme weather stories, but all topics such as education, health and finance. There are practical limitations in achieving this but perhaps in the future, climate change will always be considered in all aspects of our global society. For now we should remain hopeful that we make some significant steps forward after the United Nations Climate Summit in December, and that Bristol continues its European Green Capital ethos into 2016 and beyond.

It was a great experience knowing that my work might have a real world impact and my contacts in the Environment Agency were really helpful throughout the process. I am now working within the Sustainability Department here at the University of Bristol with the aim of reducing our environmental impact by implementing the S-Labs Initiative (Safe, Secure, Sustainable Labs).

This blog is written by Anna Lewis who recently graduated from the Climate Change Science and Policy MSc at the University of Bristol.  As part of her course she undertook a Cabot Institute pilot project called Community Based Learning which connects postgraduate students with organisations in order to help them solve a real-world problem.  If your organisation would like to get involved in Community Based Learning with the University, please contact
Anna Lewis

Anna now works at the University implementing sustainable laboratories throughout the institution.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Nikki Project: Designing a rainwater harvesting system for an African health centre

Last summer three Engineers Without Borders (EWB) members conducted a six week recce on water supply in Nikki, Benin, last summer. After building contacts with local engineers, schools and hospitals, sourcing handwritten archived data, and finding many interesting answers to our questions, we are now working hard on designs for a rainwater harvesting system and planning this summer’s work. This blog is about our project, why it’s important and how we’re going about it.
Main high street in Nikki, northern Benin.
The Nikki Project aims to address water supply problems in the small district of Nikki, Benin. A big layer of granite near to the ground surface means there is only a seasonal water table. This means the Benin government’s method of borehole water supply, which works for the rest of the country, does not work here. Citizens are given a few hours of water supply per day (at the best of times). This water is cut until 2 am and rarely lasts past 5 am; certainly not ideal for schools and hospitals that need water for treatment during the day. Instead, citizens turn to private boreholes, wells and at the worst times, an untreated lake outside the city.
Map showing Benin at the bottom of the image.
Engineers Without Borders Bristol are partnered with a Spanish charity, OAN International, who identified this problem two years ago and asked EWB Bristol to help tackle Nikki’s water supply issues. Last summer our aim was to build a partnership with a local service, who we trusted to maintain the system in our absence and who we thought would be a good working partner to trial our designs.

Back in the UK about 25 of us meet every week to work on this project. Our main task this year has been the design of a rainwater harvesting system for a small health clinic. This clinic was established by two male nurses, funded from the money they earned working for the Benin national health service. They run the clinic by working 12 hours shifts each, with dedication and fantastic vision. Like all health services in Benin the centre charges for their services, but unlike the hospitals makes no profit from the sale of medicines. The hygiene measures taken were extraordinary for Benin; to paraphrase a Spanish medic volunteer, this was 'the first time [he] has seen a Benin child being told to wash their hands’. The clinic deals, amongst other things, with malaria and pregnancy: the two biggest causes of death in the area.
The health clinic that EWB are working with to provide a rainharvesting water supply.
The EWB Bristol team surveying the health centre site in Benin.
Our rainwater harvesting solution will consist of a large 90,000 litre storage tank, a water treatment system, and a small water tower to gravity feed the water into existing taps in the clinic. The tank will collect water during the rainy season and store it safely until the dry period when no water is available from the government supply.

This type of system has become very successful and widespread elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, and if successful this type of system could be expanded to suit more clinics or schools in the region. We chose to work with this health centre because of the nurses’ incredible dedication to their cause; before we had finished explaining the concept, they had already started discussing how they would start saving up for it. While contributing to the materials is certainly something we are discussing as the cost of materials and labour is not high in Benin, a sense of ownership is key to the system being maintained properly and thus being a success.
An example of pipes not properly attached and fallen down in the wind leading to an abandoned RWH tank. This tank was built 2005. The current staff have no recollection of it ever functioning.
We are still exploring design options for our rainwater harvesting system:
  • Should the pump be manual or electric (practical in everyday or with a higher risk/cost of replacement)?
  • Should the water be chlorinated in the tank or after the tank or both? Is it worth the money if it will be chlorinated again anyway?
  • Would someone prefer a monthly job or a daily job in maintaining the water treatment system? If we use a Bernoulli chlorinator will it make chemical concentrations easier or more difficult to control? Possibly easier if they understand and potentially disastrous if they do not?
  • What construction materials are best? This needs to be considered with respect to practicality, local skill availability, durability and what is culturally accepted.
We are affiliated by Engineers Without Borders UK who are there for advice, provide pre-departure training for volunteers and offer insurance while out there. We have gratefully received £2,000 from the university Alumni Foundation and £11,000 from the Queen’s School of Engineering to support the project and the lab testing we’re planning before the trip this summer. We will be blogging and updating our website as the project progresses.

For more information about this project, photos, travel reports and journal entries can be found on our website:

This blog is written by Daniela Rossade, a 2nd year mechanical engineering student at the University of Bristol and is running this project as part of Engineers Without Borders Bristol.
Daniela Rossade

EWB Bristol is always looking for advice and people who have experience with rainwater harvesting and international development to learn from. We also value feedback on our ideas. If you are interested your help would be gratefully appreciated.  Please contact Daniela at

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Hydrogen and fuel cells: Innovative solutions for low carbon heat

On 29 February 2016, I attended a meeting in Westminster that was jointly organised by the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (UKFCA) and Carbon Connect with the aim of discussing current challenges in the decarbonisation of heat generation in the UK. The panel included David Joffe (Committee on Climate Change), Dr. Marcus Newborough (ITM Power), Ian Chisholm (Doosan Babcock), Klaus Ullrich (Fuel Cell Energy Solutions), Phil Caldwell (Ceres Power) and was chaired by Dr Alan Whitehead MP and Shadow Energy Minister. The attendees included a number of key players in the field of hydrogen production, fuel cell and renewable energy industries, as well as organisations such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
Image source: Policy Connect.
To set the scene, I would like to quote some facts and figures from the 2015 Carbon Connect report on the Future of Heat (part II).

  1. The 2025 carbon reduction target is 404.4 MtCO2e (million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent), but the reduction levels as of 2014 have only been 288.9 MtCO2e. The current Government’s low carbon policy framework is woefully inadequate to bridge this gap.
  2. The government introduced the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2011, with the ambition of increasing the contribution of renewable energy source to 12% of the heat demand by 2020. Some of the initiatives include biomass, “energy from waste” and geothermal. However, clear policies and financial incentives are nowhere to be seen.
  3. What is the current situation of renewable heat and how good is the 12% target? The good news is that there is a slight increase in the renewable share from 2004. The really bad news is that the contribution as of 2013 is just 2.6%. The UK is further behind any other EU state with regards to its renewable heat target. Sweden has a whopping 67.2% contribution and Finland 50.9%.

Towards a decarbonised energy sector, two important networks should be considered, electrical and gas. Electrification of heat is very well suited for low carbon heat generation, however, the electricity demands at peak time could be extremely costly. The UK’s gas network is a major infrastructure which is vital for providing gas during peak heat demand. However, it needs to be re-purposed in order to carry low carbon gas such as bio-methane, hydrogen or synthetic natural gas.

It was clear from the debate that hydrogen can play an important role in decreasing carbon emissions even within the current gas network. The introduction of up to 10% of hydrogen into gas feed can still be compatible with current gas networks and modern appliances, while generating a significant carbon emission reduction. However, where is the hydrogen coming from? For heat production at the national scale, steam reforming is the only player. However, with the government pulling away from carbon capture and storage (CCS), this option cannot provide a significant reduction in carbon emissions.  Capital costs associated with electrolysers would not be able to deliver the amount of hydrogen required at peak demands. The frustration in this community with regards to the future of CCS was palpable during the networking session.

We need hydrogen, generated from renewable energy sources… but the question is how?
David Fermin (left) in the lab with some of the Electrochemistry research group at the University of Bristol.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member David J. Fermin, Professor of Electrochemistry in the University of Bristol's School of Chemistry.  His research group are currently looking at the direct conversion of solar energy to chemical fuels, in particular hydrogen; the conversion of CO2 to fuels; and electrocatalysts for energy vectors (e.g. what you put in fuel cells and electrolysers).

David Fermin
David will be giving a free talk on the challenges of solar energy conversion and storage on Tuesday 12 April 2016 at 6.15 pm at the University of Bristol.  To find out more and to book your ticket, visit the University of Bristol's Public and Ceremonial Events web page.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Community volcano monitoring: The first weeks at Volcan de Fuego

Volcan de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) is an active volcano close to the Guatemalan city of Antigua. The volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in central America with a lively history of life-threatening eruptions.  It is thought that around 60,000 people are currently at risk from the volcano.

Monitoring the volcano is challenging with a limited availability of resources in the developing country. Bristol volcanology PhD student Emma Liu and colleagues are currently in Guatemala implementing a novel program to monitor ash fall from the volcano using community involvement. Volcanic ash is a hazard to human health, as well as to aviation. Additionally it holds vital clues into the activity of the volcano that can help us to understand past eruptions and predict what it may do in the future.  Once ash falls to the ground it is easily blown or washed away meaning lots of valuable information is lost in the hours and days after an eruption. Collecting ash as it falls can be challenging over a large area so Emma is roping in the local population to help.

Her cleverly designed ‘ashmeters’ are made almost entirely from recycled plastic bottles and are being installed in the gardens of local schools and houses around the volcano.  The components are easily replaceable and can be found locally. The ash falls into the meters and can be then collected and bagged by the residents. So far the meters have been installed in nine locations all around the volcano allowing Emma and her team to sample ash from almost any possible type of eruption.  As well as being indispensible from a scientific perspective, Emma hopes the scheme will help to improve the relationship between scientists and the volcano’s residents as she explains; ‘By engaging local communities directly in volcano monitoring, we hope to improve the two-way dialogue between scientists and residents, thereby increasing resilience to ash hazards’.
The scheme so far has been a great success, with the ashmeters being welcomed into people’s homes and attached to roofs and fencepost. Within a week of the ashmeters being deployed, they were tested by a large eruption on the 1 March 2016. Three ashmeters were installed during this eruption, all of which successfully collected ash. The Bristol volcanologists have now been able collect the ash which will be brought back to the University of Bristol for analysis.  The Bristol group will remain out in Guatemala for another few weeks in the hope they will able to distribute more ashmeters and gather more vital information for the management of volcanic hazard in the area. Emma received funding from the Bristol Cabot Institute Innovation Fund to set up this project.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Monday, 7 March 2016

Is benchmarking the best route to water efficiency in the UK’s irrigated agriculture?

Irrigation pump. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.
From August 2015 to January 2016, I was lucky enough to enjoy an ESRC-funded placement at the Environment Agency. Located within the Water Resources Team, my time here was spent writing a number of independent reports on behalf of the agency. This blog is a short personal reflection of one of these reports, which you can find here. All views within this work are my own and do not represent any views, plans or policies of the Environment Agency. 

Approximately 71% of UK land (17.4 million hectares) is used for agriculture - with 9.3 million hectares (70%) of land in England used for such operations. The benefits of this land use are well-known - providing close to 50% of the UK’s food consumption.  Irrigated agriculture forms an important fulcrum within this sector, as well as contributing extensively to the rural economy. In eastern England alone, it is estimated that 50,000 jobs depend upon irrigated agriculture – with the sector reported to contribute close to £3 billion annually to the region’s economy.

It is estimated that only 1-2% of the water abstracted from rivers and groundwater in England is consumed by irrigation. When compared to the figures from other nations, this use of water by agriculture is relatively low.  In the USA, agricultural operations account for approximately 80-90% of national consumptive water use. In Australia, water usage by irrigation over 2013/14 totalled 10,730 gigalitres (Gl) – 92% of the total agricultural water usage in that period (11,561 Gl).

However, the median prediction of nine forecasts of future demand in the UK’s agricultural sector has projected a 101% increase in demand between today and 2050. In this country, irrigation’s water usage is often concentrated during the driest periods and in the catchments where resources are at their most constrained. Agriculture uses the most water in the regions where water stress is most obvious: such as East Anglia. The result is that, in some dry summers, agricultural irrigation may become the largest abstractor of water in these vulnerable catchments.

With climate change creating a degree of uncertainty surrounding future water availability across the country, it has become a necessity for policy and research to explore which routes can provide the greatest efficiency gains for agricultural resilience. A 2015 survey by the National Farmers Union  found that many farmers lack confidence in securing long term access to water for production - with only a third of those surveyed feeling confident about water availability in five years’ time. In light of this decreasing availability, the need to reduce water demand within this sector has never been more apparent.

Evidence from research and the agricultural practice across the globe provides us with a number of possible routes. Improved on-farm management practice, the use of trickle irrigation, the use of treated wastewater for irrigation and the building of reservoirs point to a potential reduction in water usage.

Yet, something stands in the way of the implementation of these schemes and policies that support them: People. The adoption of new practices tends to be determined by a number of social factors – depending on the farm and the farmer. As farmers are the agents within this change, it is important to understand the characteristics that often guide their decision-making process and actions in a socio-ecological context.

Let’s remember, there is no such thing as your ‘average farmer’. Homogeneity is not a word that British agriculture is particularly aware of. As a result, efforts to increase water use efficiency need to understand how certain characteristics influence the potential for action. Wheeler et al. have found a number of characteristics that can influence adaptation strategies. For example, a farmer with a greater belief in the presence of climate change is more likely to adopt mitigating or adaptive measures. Importantly, this can also be linked to more-demographic factors. As Islam et al. have argued, risk scepticism can be the result of a number of factors (such as: age, economic status, education, environmental and economic values) and that these can be linked to the birth cohort effect.

This is not to say that all farmers of a certain age are climate-sceptics but it does point to an important understanding of demography as a factor in the adoption of innovative measures. Wheeler et al. went on to cite variables of environment values, commercial orientation, perceptions of risk and the presence of an identified farm successor as potentially directing change in practice . Research by Stephenson has shown that farmers who adopt new technologies tend to be younger and more educated, have higher incomes, larger farm operations and are more engaged with primary sources of information.

Yet, there is one social pressure that future policy must take into account – friendly, neighbourly competition. Keeping up with the Joneses. Not wanting Farmer Giles down the lane knowing that you overuse water in an increasingly water-scarce future. This can be harnessed within a system of benchmarking. Benchmarking involves the publication of individual farm’s water use, irrigation characteristics and efficiency and farming practice. Although data is supplied anonymously, individual farmers will be able to see how they measure up against their neighbours, competitors and others elsewhere.

Benchmarking is used in other agricultural sub-sectors. A 2010 survey found that 24% of farmers from different sectors used benchmarking in their management processes. This is particularly evident in the dairy sector, where both commercial and public organisations use the methods as a way to understand individual farm performance – an important example of this would be DairyCo’s Milkbench+ initiative. In 2004, over 950,000 hectares of irrigated land in Australia, 385,000 hectares in China and 330, 000 hectares in Mexico were subjected to benchmarking processes as a mean to gauge their environmental, operational and financial characteristics.

The result is that irrigators would have the means to compare how they are performing relative to other growers – allowing the answering of important questions of ‘How well am I doing?’ ‘How much better could I do?’ and ‘How do I do it?’ Furthermore, this route can be perceived as limiting the potential for ‘free-riding’ behaviour within a catchment as well emphasise the communal nature of these vulnerable resources. We’ve all seen ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ result in increased consumption – benchmarking provides us with an important route to use this socialised nudging for good.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins

Resilience and urban design

In this article, inspired by the movement of open spaces in cities across the world and resilience theory [1], Shima Beigi argues that city and human resilience are tightly interlinked and it is possible to positively influence both through utilising the transformative power of open spaces in novel ways.

Human resilience makes cities more resilient

Future cities provide a fertile ground to integrate and synthesise different properties of space and help us realise our abilities to become more resilient. Rapid urbanisation brings with it a need to develop cohesive and resilient communities, so it is crucial to discuss how we can better design our cities. In the future, urban design must harness the transformative function of open spaces to help people explore new sociocultural possibilities and increase our resilience: resilient people help form the responsible citizenry that is necessary for the emergence of more resilient urban systems.

Cities are complex adaptive systems

Cities are complex adaptive systems which consist of many interacting parts with different degrees of flexibility, and open urban spaces hold the potential for embedding flexible platforms into future urban design; they invoke the possibility of adopting a different set of values and behaviours related to our cities, such as flexible structures designed to change how we imagine the collective social space or intersubjective space.

Transportation grids are for functional movement and coordination in cities, but open spaces can be seen as avenues for personal growth and development, social activities, learning, collective play and gaming (figure 1). They help us adjust and align our perception of reality in real-time and for free. All we need is our willingness to let go of the old and allow the new to guide us toward evolution, transcendence and resilience.

Figure 1: Boulevard Anspach, Belgium, Brussels. Images credit Shima Beigi

Open spaces also encourage another important process: the emergence of a fluid sense of one’s self as an integral part of a city’s design. Urban design can help citizens feel invited to explore and unearth parts of the internal landscape.

Mindfulness engineering and the practice of resiliencing

Drawing on my research on resilience of people, places, critical infrastructure systems and socio-ecological systems, I have collected 152 different ways of defining resilience and here I propose an urban friendly view of resilience:
"resilience is about mastering change and is a continuous process of becoming and expanding one’s radius of comfort zone until the whole world becomes mapped into one’s awareness".
In this view, our continuous exposure to new conditions helps us align with a new tempo of change. Resilience is naturally embedded in all of us and we need to find those key principles and pathways through which we can practise our natural potential for resilience and adaptability to change on a daily basis. This is what I call 'mindfulness engineering' and the practice of 'resiliencing'. There is no secret to resilience; Ann S. Masten even calls it an 'ordinary magic'.

Building resilient and sustainable cities

Future cities provide us with the opportunity to increase our resilience. There is no fixed human essence and we are always in the state of dynamic unfolding. So the paradox for the future is this: the only thing fixed about the future is a constant state of change. As existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “the only thing repeated is the impossibility of repetition.” It is only through this shift of perspective to becoming in tune with one’s adaptation and resilience style that we can change our mental models and become better at handling change.


[1] The movement of resilience as the capacity to withstand setbacks and continue to grow started in early 70s. Today, the concept of resilience has transformed to a platform for global conversation on the future of human development across the world.

This blog is by Cabot Institute member Dr Shima Beigi from the University of Bristol's Faculty of Engineering.  Shima's research looks at the Resilience and Sustainability of Complex Systems.

Shima Beigi
This blog has been republished with kind permission from the Government Office for Science's Future of Cities blog.  View the original blog.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Why is the UK interested in volcanoes? We don’t have any of our own!

Eruption column from the explosive phase of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption drifting over a farm  - image by Bristol volcanologist Susanna Jenkins
The University of Bristol’s volcanology group has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its contribution to research excellenceThe Queens Anniversary Prize is the most prestigious form of national recognition an institution can receive. When I tell members of the public that, not only am I a volcanologist, but that I am part of the one of the largest and most successful volcanology groups in the world, the first reaction is always surprise: ‘Why is the UK interested in volcanoes? We don’t have any of our own!’

They are right of course, the Bristol volcanology group spends its time travelling all over the world to address volcanic risk in many countries, from the first to the third world. When one looks back on volcanic eruptions in recent history, especially the big, memorable ones like Mount St Helens, Eyjafjallajokull and Montserrat one realises that Bristol volcanologists were there at every stage.

There are, of course, many layers to handling a volcanic crisis. First there’s initial monitoring; will this volcano erupt at all? Often this involves going to volcanoes that have been little studied in remote places, or monitoring them from satellites: something which Bristol volcanology has taken in its stride, by trailblazing projects on understudied African volcanism
InSAR image showing volcanic uplift in the Great Rift Valley as part of research by Bristol volcanologist Juliet Biggs
Then there’s handling eruptions as they happen. Who will be affected? What are the primary risks? How should we respond to the media? Bristol has a glowing history of aiding in volcanic crisis by supplying the information when the world needs it. During the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull ash and aviation crisis, Bristol led the way in supplying expert opinion on managing the situation.

Still there is no rest for our volcanologists. Afterwards there’s the post-eruption work: Working out what made the volcano erupt and understanding the physical processes surrounding an event. How does it fit into the wider setting? Are the volcanoes linked? These questions have been asked and answered by our volcanologists who have also reached out to form a global database with other institutions. This has resulted in more cohesion in the community, and a greater understanding of how volcanoes interact.

A wealth of different specialities have populated the group since it was started by Professor Steve Sparks  including petrologists, geophysicists and geochemists. It is a result of this diverse environment that Bristol has been able to excel in so many areas. With natural hazards occurring on a near-daily basis, it's safe to say the group has played its part in reducing the uncertainty of volcanic hazard across the globe.  The Queen’s Anniversary Prize is an amazing recognition of the work that has been done over the years and a well-deserved reward for the hard work of the Bristol volcanologists.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Why is there a difficult absence of water demand forecasting in the UK?

Image credit: Ralf Roletschek, permission from - Marcela auf Commons.
From August 2015 to January 2016, I was lucky enough to enjoy an ESRC-funded placement at the Environment Agency. Located within the Water Resources Team, my time here was spent writing a number of independent reports on the behalf of the agency. This blog is a short personal reflection of one of these reports, which you can find here. All views within this work are my own and do not represent any views, plans or policies of the Environment Agency.

In a world away from Melanie Phillips and David Bellamy, it is widely accepted that the twinned-spectres of climate change and population growth will likely affect levels of water availability in England and Wales, whilst also exposing the geographic imbalance of water supply-demand dynamics within the country. The Environment Agency has utilised a number of socioeconomic scenarios to predict total demand to change at some point between 15% decrease (if the nation undergoes a transition towards sustainability) to a 35% increase (in a scenario of continued and uncontrolled demand for the resource).

It is within this context that the need to understand future patterns of water demand has become essential for the future resilience of the nation’s water. The Labour government’s Future Water strategy (signed-off by Hilary Benn) 2008 set a national target of reducing household water consumption by 13%. This plan was further incentivised by Ofwat’s scheme to reward companies that reduce annual household demand by one litre of water per property, per day in the period 2010/11-2014/15.

What does our future household water use look like? Whilst per capita consumption will decrease, the number of people using the water grid will increase: resulting in a growth of overall demand. 22 predictions related to public water supply projected a median change of +0.89%. However there are additional complexities: as certain uses of water will decrease, others will increase; as appliances become more water efficient, they will be more likely to be used; and as one business closes, another may join the grid. It is this complexity that creates a great deal of uncertainty in gauging the future water demand of the sector.
Image credit: Nicole-Koehler
But, there exists a problem. Whilst the legally-mandated water management plans of the public water suppliers provide us with a wealth of forecasts of the future water usage within our homes, there exists a lack of available information on the current use of water within many other sectors and how such usage may shift and transform in the years between today and 2050.

This report lays out an extensive review of available literature on the current and future demand of a number of sectors within the UK. It found nine studies of the agricultural sector – with a median projection of 101% increase in water usage. Three studies of the energy sector projected a median decrease of 2% on a 2015 baseline. But, it also found some gaps that restrict our understandings of future water demand.

Want to find out how much water is used in the construction sector? Tough, no chance. The mining and quarrying sector – ready your Freedom of Information request. Want to calculate the future water footprints of our food and drink – prepare to meet that brick wall. If such information is available, it is not in the public domain. Without having a publicly-available baseline, how can we even dream of predicting what our future demand may be?
Crop irrigation.  Image credit: Rennett Stowe.
Water is not just turning on the shower in the morning or boiling the kettle at the commercial break. It is present in our food, our energy and our infrastructure. As a result, it is of the utmost importance that we look to gauge the water use of sectors. Yet, in this regard, we are blind. Although there do exist academic studies and research into the future water demand of the agricultural and energy sectors, this has proved limited and relatively inconclusive, due to the nature of the studies. Furthermore, there is an absence of any such work conducted across the manufacturing and industrial sectors (with the exception of the food and drink industry). This limitation of information makes providing a confident summary of what the water demands of many of these sectors will look like in 2050 highly difficult.

Yes, the key areas of missing research identified in this document do not necessarily equal a lack of information within these sectors – just that such information is either not publicly available or is very difficult to find. It would be unwise to believe that the sectors in question have no understanding of what the future may hold, regarding their water demand. But, in a world of the interdependencies of the food, energy and manufacturing sectors with water usage – it is important for research to know how this nation’s water is used, where it is used and how this demand can be met and/or decreased in an increasingly uncertain future. The food and drink sector is heavily linked to the agricultural sector; the power industry is linked to decisions made within the extractive industries (such as those surrounding fracking); and all are linked to mains water supply and direct abstraction.

These interdependencies and lack of information provide future water demand with even greater uncertainty. Whilst carbon emissions are monitored and water quality is policed, there continues to be a lack of transparency of how certain sectors are using this nation’s water. If this continues in a world that will increasingly be formed of policy and environmental trade-offs, there is a realistic danger that any potential water crisis may be much worse than we expect. 
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins
Read part two of this blog series Is benchmarking the best route to water efficiency in the UK’s irrigated agriculture?