Cabot Institute blog

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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Saving Species

Last night the Cabot Institute hosted a recording of the BBC Radio 4 programme Saving Species from the Great Hall here at the University of Bristol. The panel comprised the philosopher and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency Professor Jacequeline McGlade, Professor Aubery Manning of the University of Edinburgh and the Cabot Institute's own Dr. Jon Bridle, who is a Senior Lecturer in Bristol's School of Biological Sciences. As Cabot's Director I was delighted to welcome such an eminent panel to the University and to run an event with the very dynamic Julian Hector from the BBC Natural History Unit which is based here in Bristol. The topic of the show was "Saving species: sustaining life" which the panel debated in response to audience questions. The idea was to explore the extent to which an increasing human population can be made compatible with efforts to preserve the natural world.

The thing that amazed me is how effortless every involved in the production, both the BBC crew and the major events people here at the University, made it look. I've rarely been to such a large event that has been pulled together so quickly and yet which seemed so serene. I wandered along a hour before the event to help with last minute panics and found myself very surplus to requirements. In the end I really could just stroll around meeting and greeting which was great. The other pleasing thing was that even on a wet and cold Monday evening in November the city of Bristol still turned out an audience of over 700 to watch the recording. I don't know many other cities where this would happen and where the audience questions would be so perceptive and challenging.

I guess the crux of the programme was the extent to which one adopts an essentially neo-Malthusian stance and argues that there are finite limits to population growth that can only met through population control, or whether one argues that it is not only how many people there are but how those people actually live that matters. The paradox seems to be that the things that lead populations to naturally restrict their growth (female education and emancipation, access to better healthcare and contraception, growing economic opportunities etc) have also historically led to significant increases in resource consumption: the development of aspirational middle classes in the developed world has significantly increased the total amount of the Earth's resources that we use. How we construct a future development path for the planet that doesn't lead to the resource depletion associated with the current western world economic model is a tough question to answer. There were some quite radically different views on this expressed by the panel, but instead of spoiling the plot I'll let you listen to the broadcast to find out.

For me the event was excellent, and hopefully the audience enjoyed things too. If you'd like to listen to the programme it will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 8.00pm on Friday 23rd December.

Professor Paul Bates is Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol and undertakes research into flood risk and uncertainty.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Renewable Futures and Green Energy Awards

This year’s Renewable Futures conference, hosted as always by Regen South West (RegenSW) didn’t have an official theme; but if it did, that theme would be change. Indeed, if anybody has felt the winds of change this year, it would be RegenSW.
As a result of government funding cuts, RegenSW has recently had to turn towards the private sector instead, financing itself using a subscription-based model. This has meant big changes for RegenSW, who have had to find new ways to make their way in the world. It isn’t yet clear whether they will succeed, but I certainly hope they do; it would be heartening to see that the sustainability sector in the UK today might actually be large enough to maintain a support organisation like RegenSW. The Renewable Futures conference, held at the Assembly Rooms in Bath on November 9th, was a major event in their calendar; judging by its success this year, it seems a good portent for their future.
Headline speakers this year came mostly from the DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) and banks, as interest mounts over proposed changes to energy subsidy mechanisms in the UK. The existing scheme, known as Renewable Obligations (RO), was represented at the conference by the civil servant in charge of it, Richard Vianello. Under current plans, RO will remain open to new applications up till 2017, and won’t be shut down completely until 2027. It’s successor scheme hasn’t yet been finalised, but will take the form of a Feed-in Tariff (FiT). The man leading consultation on FiTs, Alasdair Grainger of the DECC, used his speech to try to convince delegates of the benefits of the new scheme; a tough task, judging by the reaction of his audience and fellow speakers. The handling of the new scheme, scheduled to be introduced by 2014, has come under intense criticism recently from both electricity suppliers and investors. This criticism was voiced by the following speakers, Juliet Davenport of Good Energy, and Richard Simon-Lewis, head of utilities and energy project finance at Lloyds TSB. Juliet Davenport, in particular, called on the government to build in “Transparency, Longevity and Certainty” to whatever scheme they wish to put in place- adding that “a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss”. Questions to the panel gave the impression that delegates weren’t keen to scrap a subsidy scheme that they (and their investors) had gotten used to, and the government will face an uphill battle to gain their support over the next few years.
Another major talking point at the conference was the recent Panorama programme ‘What's Fuelling Your Energy Bill?’.  This documentary certainly didn’t go down well with delegates, as it asserted that renewable energy subsidies were the chief reason for electricity price rises in recent years. Whatever the real story might be, what interested me most was the reaction of the renewable energy industry; they clearly place value on good publicity. I get the impression that of all the changes that the next few years might bring, a change in public opinion might be what the industry fears most.
My pick of the displays this year would have to be the stand from PML Applications Ltd. This company, a subsidiary of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, has been working on a way of preventing bacterial damage to underwater structures. This will be of great interest to wave and tidal power device designers, as it could potentially reduce the maintenance costs of their machinery significantly. Bacterial colonies can build up on the external surfaces of underwater structures, speeding up their decay; PML hope to break up these colonies by disrupting the signals between bacteria. In a simplistic sense, this can potentially ‘confuse the bacteria to death’. As a young researcher, I can certainly sympathise with that fate!
Also worth mentioning was the display from the Environmental iNet, an organisation partnered with both the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute. The Environmental iNet forms an essential link in the chain of technology innovation, helping to transform ideas into working businesses. Do look out for their director, Professor Martin Bigg, who will be speaking at the Bristol Technologies for the Environment seminar series on February 9th 2012.
Neeraj Oak is a PhD Student at the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences (BCCS), working in the area of renewable energy economics. Contact: Neeraj.Oak@Bristol.ac.uk

Friday, 11 November 2011

First 2 months as a Cabot KE Fellow

My name is Steve Simpson and I am a marine biologist in the School of Biological Sciences. My focus for some time has been on how global environmental change influences fish, fisheries and marine ecosystems. At the moment my work in Bristol focuses on the effects of warming on European fisheries and the impacts of anthropogenic noise on marine ecosystems. The first two months of my NERC/Cabot Knowledge Exchange fellowship, which builds on these themes, has presented some fantastic opportunities to explore how my research, and that of all my collaborators in Bristol and beyond, can feed into UK policy and industry.


I was lucky that our study on the effects of warming over the last 30 years on the European fish assemblage came out just as I was starting. This meant I was able to spend a day with the Guardian at Brixham fishing port in Devon talking to trawlermen, wholesalers, fishmongers and restaurateurs about how their catches have been changing. After 3 years of staring at records of over 100 million fish on a computer screen, it was great to hear that their experiences matched up with our analysis. This experience was quickly followed by a week with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) assimilating all the current evidence on influences of climate change on fisheries. I am now developing ideas for a documentary that looks at the science behind changing fisheries and showcases some of the exciting fish we will be eating in abundance in the future. Get ready for John dory and chips…


The week I started my fellowship I was at a meeting at UNESCO in Paris, making plans for an International Year of Ocean Acoustics and discussing ideas for some global experiments on effects of anthropogenic noise in the marine environment. The seas have become much more noisy in the past few decades, due to shipping, oil/gas extraction, windfarm construction and naval activities, and we have to get it right in terms of managing noise without unnecessarily hampering marine industries. The issue of noise has raised some very interesting questions about the precautionary principle, mitigation vs. compensation, and extrapolating findings from small-scale experiments to population-level predictions. I have spent the past few weeks planning a workshop, to be held in Bristol in March next year, where representatives from academia, industry, policy and management will work together to plan the science needed to ensure an environmentally and economically sustainable future for UK waters.


The first 2 months have been hugely exciting and shown me how valuable the Cabot community is for encouraging thinking outside the box, drawing on experience from other groups (e.g. flood risk management informing our future fisheries predictions), and building strong links with the research-end users (aka the real world!). The NERC KE team are doing a fantastic job of building Knowledge Exchange, making the science they fund really deliver, and with Cabot and the RED team in Bristol we’ll be giving training and advice at a KE workshop in January. Watch this space…

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Meeting the Minister

I met my first Minister today. One of the fun things about becoming Director of the Cabot Institute has been the range of people I've been able to meet; some senior and some not so senior. The Minister in question was Charles Hendry MP, the Minister of State for Energy who was in Bristol today to be at the launch of the joint Bristol and Oxford Nuclear Research Centre. However, I actually met him at a meeting about the future of renewable energy being organised by Regen SW. I wasn't sure what to expect, but was half anticipating someone being tightly managed by protective civil servants. In fact he spent a lot of time talking and listening to representatives from the renewables sector, and seemed to be well on top of the brief.

The interesting part of the discussion for me was the feeling among the renewables sector that sections of the press currently paint these forms of energy as expensive compared to the alternatives. Last night's Panorama programme is a case in point. Whilst its not my personal field of research, I suspect the devil is in the detail with regard to the accounting assumptions that you make: subtle (and likely unstated) choices can probably make a big difference to whether a particular energy source seems economic or not. There's a case to be made here for rationality and a robust look at the evidence, although as an academic you'd probably expect me to say this!

Launching the Cabot Institute blog

Blogs are about ideas and conversations - sharing ideas and starting conversations with interested, and interesting, people.

Cabot is about the same things; we want to help find new ways to address some of the biggest challenges we face as a society - how we live with environmental uncertainty - and we want to bring together the broadest possible group of people to do that.  So although we're based at the University of Bristol, and students and researchers here are our primary constituency, we also feel very strongly about engaging beyond the institution, with business, industry, third sector, public sector and community organisations, as well as interested individuals.  We'd be delighted if you wanted to join the conversation.

The blog is a space to freely discuss ideas - nascent research ideas, ideas provoked by current affairs, events, other people's writing.  You're welcome to comment on anything, or if you want to post to the blog then let me know and I will add you.  If you are interested in staying abreast of events and opportunities, then our mailing lists are the place to go.  For the time being (until it's fully automated), send an email to cabot[hyphen]enquiries@bristol.ac.uk telling us whether you want research news and events (weekly; for researchers and collaborators, within and outside the University), or public events (monthly).  All public events are also featured in the research news.

I hope we can encourage you to be part of Cabot.

Philippa (Cabot Institute Manager)