Cabot Institute blog

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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Making decisions in an environmentally uncertain world

Improved decision making in the face of environmental uncertainty is at the heart of the Cabot Institute. Although individuals, businesses and society aspire to make logical decisions, informed by evidence and wisdom, we are also influenced by a complex mixture of emotions, ethics, political opportunism and personal beliefs.  These murky waters become even more challenging to navigate when dealing with the inherent uncertainty in the basic evidence.  And it becomes almost impossible when pre-conceived beliefs and opinions replace evidence.  In such scenarios, uncertainty can be manipulated as a tool to undermine evidence and justify flawed decisions.  This is the particular challenge of decision making in the context of complex environmental, economic and ecological issues.

To a scientist confronted with evidence that human activity is changing our environment at unprecedented rates, it is apparent that environmental uncertainty is rarely appropriately deployed in policy making.  Most perniciously, it is commonly argued that the risk of an action (i.e. loss of biodiversity or increasing CO2 emissions) could be at the low end of the probability distribution – ‘the temperature might not warm that much’, ‘we might not get more hurricanes’.  That is not proper governance; that is hiding behind uncertainty and hoping for the best.  Nor is it appropriate to govern based on the worst-case scenario.  But nor can we govern by solely considering the most likely outcome.  We must recognise the range of possibilities and plan within it – strategically, flexibly, resiliently.  In other words, the uncertainty brought about by ongoing environmental change is itself a profound cause for concern and a challenge for governance.

However, environmental uncertainty is not an opaque label for things ‘we do not understand’ and by an extension it is not a cause for inaction.

Rich Pancost's old farm, US Midwest
I grew up on a farm in the US Midwest and so environmental uncertainty to me mainly concerns our food and the people who provide it.   Anyone who has ever been involved in farming understands how uncertain our environment can be. And they understand how undermining and economically challenging that uncertainty is, especially with respect to the weather (weather is not the same as climate, but it makes for a useful environmental analogy).

We had about 30 head of cattle on our small Ohio dairy farm , and my brother, parents and I needed to put aside 4000 bales of hay every summer. I loved that job – I remember the smell of drying hay and the fat bumble bees buzzing in the clover. I remember being with my family, the satisfaction of completed work and the closeness that came from achieving things together. But it was hard and uncertain work, my father cutting the grass, raking it and baling it, quickly over successive hot days so that it would dry before a summer rain shower could strip away the nutrients. Or worse: before an extended few days of rain saturated the mowed hay on the ground, causing it to become fungus-ridden and rotting it away in the field.  We could work with a prediction of rain and we could work with a prediction of no rain or even drought.  But we could not work with an overly uncertain prediction.  Even worse were wrong (i.e. overly certain) predictions.  We navigated the probabilistic terrain of the daily weather forecasts somewhat by instinct, but the stakes were high, and just three or four bad decisions in a summer would have been financially catastrophic.  The farm is long gone but my Mom is still addicted to the weather reports.

The barn
But uncertainty does not mean paralysis; it means risk management.  We mitigated the risk of wasted crop by renting and working fields that could yield 4500 bales rather than 4000.  And those 4000 bales of hay were themselves, risk management, exceeding our likely needs.  Gathering the bales and storing them in our barn’s loft was hard, sticky, hot and gritty work.  The hay was delivered to the loft by a metal elevator – metal plates carried by metal chains up a metal chute, all powered by our forty-year old International Harvester tractor’s power take-off shaft.  I loved doing this work on the farm – its physicality and the stimulus of all of your senses – but I do not miss that tremendous rattling, clanging noise!  The loft itself could reach temperatures of 110°F and was filled with clouds of dust and darting, irritated wasps.  Our necks would burn and our forearms would be filled with tiny splinters of hay.

We worked hard and put away 4000 bales each summer even though we would probably only need 3500, because we had to err on the side of caution in case there was an early winter. Or a long winter.

That is environmental uncertainty – and risk management – to me.  Cutting the hay when the forecast predicts a 35% chance of rain and watching 400 bales of alfalfa rot in the field.  Renting more land than we would likely need. Working 20% harder than necessary – just in case.

All of us understand this, whether it be maintaining the garden, managing the allotment or planning a holiday. This is part of human history: sound, profitable, secure decision-making has always required a confrontation with environmental uncertainty; consequently, almost all societies have strived to mitigate risks by understanding the environment, managing essential resources, and building up our own resilience.

From IPCC 2013, Working Group 1
What is disturbing and unique about the 21st century is that we are no longing mitigating environmental uncertainty but instead, we are very rapidly increasing it. We are changing our planet and where and how we live upon it.  Increasing carbon dioxide emissions might warm the planet by 1.5°C.  Or 3°C.  Or 5°C.   Such warming will probably cause the Southwest of England to have wetter summers and the great food-supplying regions of the American Midwest to become drier.  But there is a probability that the opposite will happen.  How does the small farmer plan?  For that matter, how does the huge international agritech firm plan? I would argue that the greatest challenge posed by our changing environment is not how much the Earth warms but the uncertainty in how much it will warm and the uncertainty associated with the consequences of that warming. Planning for our future – perhaps for the first time in human history – is actually becoming more uncertain every year.

But we are also learning much more about ourselves and our environment, and this perhaps makes the future a bit more certain than it might otherwise be.  Currently the Met Office is improving our prediction tools and tailoring specific advice to farmers; engineers are learning how we might mitigate or even adapt to this uncertainty; and we are developing methods to limit our dependence on fossil fuel and thus the associated climate change.  And we are learning how to make sound decisions in the face of it. To achieve these objectives, the Cabot Institute and similar entities are bringing together a wide variety of scientists, social scientists, managers and engineers, all of whom share expertise with the community and industry.  That expertise includes those who deal specifically with quantifying uncertainty, the underlying psychology and sociology of decision making, and the clash of ethical and pragmatic ideas that inform policy making.  The world’s population is growing and with it our basic food, water and energy needs; to provide for those needs, we must make our future more certain but also more resilient and adaptable.

This blog was written by Professor Rich PancostCabot Institute Director, University of Bristol
Prof Rich Pancost

Who is responsible for communicating environmental science?

On the evening of 28 October journalists, broadcasters, scientists and NGO’s came together in the House of Commons with the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG) to discuss a report launched by the International Broadcasting trust entitled “The environment on TV: Are broadcasters meeting the challenge”.  The report aimed to investigate how well environmental issues and in particular climate change is communicated to the public.  The research combined quantitative analysis of current television material and qualitative analysis of interviews with range of broadcasters and producers. The report examines non-news television with an environmental theme broadcasted over a 12 month period between June 2012 and May 2013 across the mainstream TV channels (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky). A total of 394 hours of new environmental programming was shown over the studied period and 84% of this was broadcast at peak times (between 18.30 and 22.30). Natural history was shown to be a firm favourite, making up 160 hours however, climate change coverage did not even get one hour, why?

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and his Fish Fight
The report highlights that the main challenge is that the environment is perceived as a difficult theme for audiences to engage with, especially climate change. It is extremely difficult to present the problems facing the planet under climate change as a ‘local’ problem and as a result it is perceived as doom and gloom and something that you or I have no control over and therefore cannot influence. With this in mind, it is not the content which broadcasters are lacking, but the format for communicating the information to reluctant audiences. The key element to designing a TV programme is to get the narrative and story-telling to work, for example Hugh’s Fish Fight (Channel 4) successfully tackled the rather dry topic of EU fishing directives. Given the correct format, the audience engaged and 850,000 people signed up online to the ‘Fish Fight’ campaign and 42,000 tweets were sent over a 24-hour period to the country’s biggest supermarkets. So perhaps with the correct format audiences will engage with the topic of climate change?

The meeting saw a panel come together to give their reactions to the report findings, including Chris Rapley (Professor of Climate Science, University College London), Ralph Lee (Head of Factual, Channel 4), Bill Lyons (Executive Editor, Countryfile, BBC), Leo Hickman (Chief Advisor, Climate Change, WWF-UK and formerly at The Guardian), and Caroline Haydon (author of the report).

Chris Rapley
Chris Rapley provided a scientist’s prospective on the problem and stated that there can be a lack of connections between scientists and the media, making it difficult for scientist to gain an avenue toward public engagement through TV. In addition to this, scientists come to the job for the joy of discovering new things about how the world works but that does not mean that they are inherently good communicators to a non-science audience or can be creative and design a great TV format for their work. Therefore support is needed from producers and broadcasters to provide this link to the general public.

Audiences prefer soaps to documentaries.
Panel members representing the broadcasters had a slightly different view on the problem, with Bill Lyons suggesting that it was not part of a broadcaster’s remit to make sure that climate science is communicated to the public, and that to a certain extent it is the problem of the scientist to get their message heard. It was also highlighted that given the right format broadcasters would be happy to communicate climate science, but it has to be packaged in an appealing way for audiences. Ralph Lee suggested that a documentary focussed on climate change would not hold audience’s attention and that a new idea was needed to tackle the subject of climate change. In surveys of what people like to watch on TV, documentaries are always high on the wish-list, however viewing figures do not reflect this in reality, people like to watch TV for escapism and therefore the highest ratings go to reality TV and soap operas rather than hard-hitting documentaries! Perhaps we need a talent show contestant to stand up and sing a song about climate change or a soap character to get a sudden interest in recycling in order to make a widespread impact!!

In summary, the meeting showed that all were in general agreement that environmental issues and climate change were important subjects to communicate to the public, but much thinking is needed regarding the best way forward to achieve these aims. It seems that in order to engage the general public the issues need to be made local so that they feel that they are directly affected at that we are facing these issues now and not in 10 years time. I feel, given the debate that it should be seen as a joint responsibility between scientists and broadcasters to solve this problem. As a scientist I can provide data and other factual information, I can perhaps also provide a narrative, but links with broadcasters are key if the information is ever going to get directly into millions of people’s homes. I do believe that if we engage together then it is possible to find a mechanism to inspire ordinary people to act on difficult, intangible and sometimes unpopular issues such as climate change.

This blog has been written by Dr Charlotte Lloyd, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.
Dr Charlotte Lloyd

Friday, 11 October 2013

The opportunities for and limits of green growth in cities

Andrew Gouldson
Prof Andrew Gouldson of the University of Leeds ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics & Policy, came to visit the Cabot Institute on 10 October 2013 and gave a talk entitled Towards low carbon, climate resilent cities? The opportunities for and limits of green growth. Here I outline some of the key points made by Andrew and whether green growth is a viable way to grow the economies of cities whilst undertaking decarbonisation initiatives, using facts and figures taken from Andrew’s talk.

The emergence of green growth
There has been a rapid emergence of green growth over the last few years but there has also been a big debate around whether green growth is a valuable way to tackle climate change.  Andrew himself said that responses to climate change should be scientifically justified, socially supported, technologically possible, economically viable and politically acceptable.  It could be said that green growth really emerged from the publication of the infamous Stern Review which changed the political landscape on climate change.  The Stern Review, published in 2006, is the most widely known publication properly costing the impacts of climate change on the global economy.

Andrew pointed out that Stern’s work looked at the global scale whereas his research looks at the economic impact of climate change on the local or ‘city’ scale.   Andrew asked himself is there a similarly compelling economic rationale for action on climate change in cities?

Why cities?
Economics of low carbon cities report.
Image from Low Carbon Futures
There are several good reasons why we should be looking at economic impacts of climate change on cities.  Cities are home to over half of the world’s population, they are rapidly growing and 70% of GDP is generated in these big urban spaces.  Cities are also major growth poles and drivers for economic growth.  Any climate change impacts are going to be felt hard by the vast populations that live there.
With this in mind and the fact that cities account for 70% of global energy consumption, cities seemed a good place for Andrew and his team at Leeds to conduct a ‘mini Stern review’ resulting in the publication of a report called The economics of low carbon cities.  The city of Leeds was looked at as a starting point, but this initial report led to looking at other UK cities and now other cities around the globe including Kolkata in India. 

The economics of low carbon cities report has built a baseline that develops scenarios based on the continuation of current trends, for example, water use in the city. Realistic data is collected on costs, benefits and scope for the deployment of each carbon saving measure in a city.  For example, how many south facing roofs are there in the city which can be fitted with solar PV panels? How much would it cost to install the panels? What are the benefits and how much could be saved on energy bills?  This valuable information can be collected and presented to city councils to show them how they could decarbonise their city, and how householders could save on energy bills in the long run.

Case study: Birmingham
Birmingham city, image from Business Desk
In Birmingham, Andrew suggested that approximately £5.1 billion left the city economy in 2011 just from the payment of the energy bill.  If Birmingham invested £3.6 billion into green growth, this would cut energy bills by £950 million a year and would pay back investments in only four years.  This could potentially cut carbon by almost 11% (read the Birmingham report for more information).  Obviously much bigger carbon savings are to be had with more investment and by tackling the decarbonisation of the National Grid, increasing energy prices and utilising further cost-effective and cost-neutral measures within the city. 

Looking at energy use in the UK, it has actually decreased by 15% in the last 4 -5 years.  Two reasons could be the recession and rising energy costs.  Recently there have been announcements by energy companies to increase their energy bills even further, some by over 8%, and it is estimated that this increase could lead to a 22% cut in energy usage.  This is all good for decarbonisation targets but not good for energy justice.  This is why it is imperative that green growth receives investment in all UK cities so that having ways to save energy and produce your own energy are embedded into the structure of cities and people’s households.  This makes households more resilient to rises in energy prices.

Can we decarbonise cities in the next 10 – 20 years?
Future proofed city? Image from Dornob
There is definitely potential for green growth in cities however this will not happen unless institutions innovate and unlock the potential for decarbonisation and there is governance right from the start of early stage transitions.  It would be sensible to realise that green growth may only lead to partially decarbonised and mildly carbon resilient development in cities due to our current political and economic resources.  Andrew suggested the sobering conclusion that the benefits of green growth are likely to be eroded by continued growth and by on-going climate change and this is the crux of the limits to green growth.


Eventually as we transition our cities towards decarbonised goals, cities will have to be future proofed.  As Andrew pointed out, this means drastically changing their structure, function and efficiency.  It is up to us to create the future of cities by embracing decarbonisation and encouraging our local governments to invest in decarbonisation projects such as retrofitting and changing people’s behaviour.  As Andrew concluded, it’s no good having an A-rated home if there is an F-rated person living in it!


This blog was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute Administrator, University of Bristol.
Follow @Enviro_Mand
Amanda Woodman-Hardy


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Bristol Green Doors: Measuring the impact of retrofitting

Energy has recently dominated the news, with headlines proclaiming that household costs (as well as company profits) are on the increase.  Overshadowed in this discussion are the environmental impacts:  over a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions come from a domestic context, primarily through energy use.  Over the past decade, the field of HCI (human-computer interaction) has become increasingly concerned with issues of sustainability, and a number of researchers have chosen to focus on energy reduction strategies.  Many of these efforts have resulted in technology that aims to persuade the user to use less gas and electricity by providing them with personalised information, whether in the form of facts and figures (e.g. home energy portals) or through ambient displays like the Power Aware cord.

However, there is one method of reducing home energy use that has received little attention: retrofitting.  Installing measures such as double glazing, wall insulation, or a more efficient boiler can not only reduce carbon emissions, it can also reduce a household’s energy bills and make it more comfortable to live in.  Yet unlike the incremental behavioural changes tackled by persuasive technology, retrofitting is a one-time intervention in which the focus of energy saving shifts from an individual’s behaviour to the physical fabric of the building itself.  As a result, it sits at the curious intersection of sustainability through product consumption, requiring present expenditure for future monetary savings, and trades current disruption and inconvenience for the hope of future thermal comfort.  Retrofitting is further complicated by its very nature: there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Enter the community initiative Bristol Green Doors.  Founded in 2010, the organisation runs an eco-homes open house event approximately every 18 months.  Householders who have already installed retrofitting measures open their opens to the public to share their experience, the pros and cons of different measures, the benefits that the retrofitting has brought, or what they wish they had done differently.  This allows those who are interested in retrofitting to see the measures in action and learn more from trusted sources: their own neighbours.

Yet measuring the impact of such an event is difficult.  Anecdotally, there were indications that visitors would be inspired by the open weekend to contact local companies who provided retrofitting services, but no easy way of directly tracking activity back to the event.  Without this quantitative data, it is difficult for Bristol Green Doors to secure additional sponsors and become self supporting.  Dr. Chris Preist’s involvement as a Bristol Green Doors householder helped him identify that technology could play a role in bridging this gap, and a successful funding application allowed the Digital Green Doors project to proceed.

A series of brainstorming sessions were held with key stakeholders to determine what features would be most useful to both Bristol Green Doors visitors and to the organisation itself.  A number of intriguing ideas were put forward, with several chosen to be made into a smartphone application.  The Greendoors app was developed by researcher Daniel Schien around a basic mapping application that shows the location of the participating Bristol Green Doors houses.  Users can then delve further into the houses to learn what features each has installed, take notes on the individual houses, and some householders have agreed to be contacted by email after the event.  This allows visitors to get questions answered beyond the weekend itself.  Other features include being able to filter houses by measure and save houses to a shortlist, e.g. showing just the houses that the user plans to visit.

The final feature of the app is a QR code scanner, which the Digital Green Doors team has chosen to deploy in an unusual way.  QR codes are the square barcodes that have proliferated on advertisements and products.  QR typically stands for Quick Response, with a user scanning a code and their smartphone immediately linking to a website or displaying the encoded information.  However, in this case it’s a matter of “delayed response”.  A specific QR code was produced for each retrofitting measure in each Bristol Green Door house, and when scanned by the app it is saved to the user’s account.  This is then used to produce a personalised report of information about the measures the user is interested in, grouped by measure type to allow for easy comparison.  The report is in emailed to the user after the event.  In addition to providing a numeric view of each measure (i.e. the cost and the level of disruption as rated by the householder), the householders also share a few words of advice, such as this blurb about loft insulation:

“This measure is cheap yet effective.  Do spend the extra and use environmentally friendly insulation such as sheeps wool. Double up rafters to board out afterwards. We have topped this up further ourselves -- very simple so long as you follow the guidelines about leaving ventilation space at the eaves.”

The suppliers, products, and general sites of interest contained within the report are all hyperlinked.  The purpose of this is two-fold.  First, it intends to assist the user by giving them the information they want in one place, making it easier for them to conduct research about the measures they wish to install.  It is hoped that this will help turn intention to retrofit into action.  Second, by allowing basic tracking to occur via click throughs, it allows the initial goal of the project to be fulfilled by directly measuring interest that has occurred as a result of the event.  While it cannot yet determine whether a user has gone ahead with the purchase of a retrofitting measure, it is a step towards helping Bristol Green Doors become self supporting.  For the Digital Green Doors team, it allows research to be carried out on a novel way of using QR codes, and also allows retrofitting to be introduced to within the discipline of HCI by showing how it is possible to move beyond persuasion and behaviour change.


IKEA solar panels. Image from Witchdoctor.co.nz
It is too early to report on the effect of the app and the reports, but the initial responses have been positive.  This is encouraging news as it will allow the Greendoors app to be used at other eco-homes events in the future, with the possibility of a nationwide rollout.  With IKEA selling solar panels and now an app designed around retrofitting, it is hoped that the process of retrofitting, and its associated carbon reduction, will become more mainstream.

This blog is written by Dr Elaine Massung, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering, University of Bristol.
Dr Elaine Massung