Cabot Institute blog

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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The planet in our hands: Bristol talks climate change with Sir Mark Walport

Sir Mark Walport
Source:Wikimedia Commons
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a round table discussion at At-Bristol with Sir Mark Walport, the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser.  It was part of his tour of UK Science and Discovery Centres, during which he has been summarising our understanding of climate change science: The Planet in Our Hands – Responding to Climate Change.

The round table that preceded his talk was initiated and chaired by Dr Penny Fidler, CEO of the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres.  It was an invigorating conversation about what Bristol is doing to transition to a greener, more resilient and sustainable economy.   I have lived in Bristol for thirteen years but my research leans toward the global and it is easy to lose sight of the bold initiatives and grass roots campaigning occurring in our city.  We live in a city that thrives on a cocktail of technological innovation, thriving digital and creative industries, artistic multiculturalism and political radicalism. It produces interesting tensions and opportunities, such as the Bristol Solar City, with an ambition to install 1 GigaWatt of solar PV by 2020.

These are the reasons why Bristol has been named the European Green Capital for 2015  – the first and currently only UK Green Capital – an honour that should make us feel proud but also an obligation to act and to lead. Consequently, Sir Mark devoted additional time for his Bristol visit to learn about our ambitions and ask questions about how we will achieve them.  For example, we discussed the role of the Cabot Institute in Bristol European Green Capital 2015, our efforts to inform and catalyse change, and the mechanisms by which we can better engage with our City.

It was also a fantastic opportunity to learn from Bristol’s civic and community leaders who were also in the room. Alex Minshull (Sustainable City Manager of Bristol City Council) spoke of the successes they have had in community energy and home insulation.  He and Darren Hall (Director of Big Green Week and now the Partnerships and Legacy Manager for Bristol 2015) also spoke about the limits to that approach – how we have led the UK in the uptake of loft and cavity wall insulation but now face the steep challenge of installing solid wall insulation.  This could transform our homes, but it does cost a bit more money and causes a bit more disruption.  What role does the Cabot Institute have in identifying the social, economic and personal barriers and catalysing the step change required?

Left to right: Kris Donaldson and George Ferguson.
Source: Bristol City Council
Kris Donaldson, the recently appointed Director of Bristol 2015, charged with delivering Bristol European Green Capital 2015, spoke about his plans.  Kris and I had yet to meet and I was deeply impressed by his enthusiasm for the project.  He understood the cultural aspects of the project, and given his previous role as leader of the Liverpool Culture Capital 2008 Company it is no surprise that he was enthusiastic about that.  However, we shared an ambition that Bristol 2015 must also encompass political and social change, if we are to make the best of this opportunity and transform the city.

Kris is also keen that Bristol serves as an exemplar to Europe and the rest of the world. This is particularly timely because 2015 will end with climate negotiations in Paris to determine the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This is an area ripe for collaboration with the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute, as we work with the City of Bristol to share knowledge of climate change and forge solutions. Prof Colin Taylor, leading our Future Cities and Communities activity, has proposed a new framework for exploring and learning from the continuous and ongoing ‘experiments’ occurring in a city as dynamic as Bristol: The Collaboratory.  It is a way to energise societal transformation – and to learn from it.

Dr Philippa Bayley, Cabot Institute
Manager and co-Chair of Bristol
Green Capital Partnership
Also present was Claire Craig, who leads the Government Office for Science and has recently joined the Cabot Institute’s External Advisory Board (itself chaired by Sir Mark’s predecessor, Sir John Beddington).  Others in attendance included the Cabot Institute Manager, Dr Philippa Bayley, there in her additional and new role as co-Chair of the Green Capital Partnership; Martin Bigg (Director of the Environmental Technologies Innovation Network (iNet), University of the West of England); Phil Winfield (CEO of At-Bristol); and Chris Dunford (Informal Learning and Sustainability Manager of At-Bristol).  It was a dynamic discussion, spanning a range of policy, education and engagement issues.  But it was all too brief, and I am looking forward to continuing conversations with everyone who was there.

The talk itself was excellent, clearly and firmly reprising our current understanding of climate change.  Appropriately, it largely arose from the IPCC report and briefings from the Met Office.  Being familiar with the science, I found the discussion, chaired by Professor Alice Roberts (Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, and Patron of ASDC), to be more illuminating.  As you might expect from a Bristol audience, Sir Mark was repeatedly challenged about specific government policies, such as subsidies for shale gas extraction, that will likely exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change.  It showcased the challenges and opportunities of advising government.  Sir Mark obviously values the opportunity he has to inform and influence policy decisions, but he also clearly defined his role as an advisor and not an advocate.

And inevitably, of course, that led the discussion back to the rest of us.  Experts advise; the public votes.  And we must decide as voters how to treat politicians who ignore or disrespect their own experts.   Within that frame, the Cabot Institute sits in a unique position.  We can and should comment on the consequences of specific political decisions. We have an obligation not only to serve as another expert working behind the scenes but as a partner with the media and public to develop and share knowledge.  In Bristol, the lead-up to 2015 and beyond will be an exhilarating time to do so.

Watch Mark Walport's talk at Bristol.

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute.
Prof Rich Pancost



Thursday, 20 February 2014

The fraud factor: Why a changing environment might mean more food scandals in the future

Horse meat in burgers, melamine in milk and shark labelled as swordfish…as our urban lifestyle brings us further from our food sources, there are more opportunities for dishonesty along each link of the food production chain. Whether it’s a matter of making a good quality oil stretch a little further by adding cheaper oil or labeling something falsely to appeal to current consumer trends – it’s all fraud and it costs the global food industry an estimated US$10-15 billion each year [1].

While there is evidence that the incidences of food fraud are on the rise [2], consumers have been swindled by food producers since…well, since there have been food producers. Indeed food fraud in the 18th and early 19th century was so widespread and involved such toxic substances that it’s surprising that the citizens of industrialised nations managed to survive to their next meal [3]. Pickles were turned an alluring bright blue-green through the use of copper sulfate, children’s sweets were colored with lead and copper, and chalk and lime (calcium oxide, not the fruit) were common additives to bread. By comparison, one might argue that a little horsemeat in one’s burger might seem rather tame.

Unlike previous generations, however, our food supply systems have become incredibly complex. Food passes through many hands and travels around the world at such astonishing speeds that the threat of food fraud now has a global reach. Add to this a changing environment with implications for agriculture, food and energy security, and transportation and we may very well be creating the ideal conditions for culinary crimes: incentive and opportunity.

Factors contributing to food fraud


Milk, olive oil, honey and spices are among
the most commonly adulterated foods.
Image by Nicola Temple.
Unlike food safety issues, which generally stem from neglect, food fraud is a deliberate act, usually for financial gain. Behind every scandal are people who make decisions to be dishonest, but what is it that motivates these behaviours?

Some of the factors that are thought to have contributed to recent food fraud scandals, such as horsemeat in the UK and fox meat in China, include: the financial crisis, rising food prices, a demand for cheap food, complex food supply chains, a lack of strong penalties, and low risk of detection [4].

Climate change may trigger more criminal behaviour in the future


If we now look at these crime contributing factors in the context of climate change, we might expect to see even more food scandals hitting headlines in the future. More extreme weather events – such as droughts and floods – will affect agriculture, as will increased prevalence of disease and parasites that have longer life cycles in a warmer climate (e.g. blowfly strike). These conditions can force food producers into a state of desperation.

For example, in the late 1800s a tiny root-feeding aphid (Phylloxera) sucked the sap out of nearly 2.5 million hectares of grapes in France. The vineyard owners began to import raisins from other countries, desperate to fill demands for wine. They even fabricated wines entirely from chemicals, sugar and water [5].

The costs of food transportation may also increase as changes in weather patterns and extreme weather events cause infrastructure disruptions and the price of fossil fuels (upon which our food transportation systems are so dependent) increases.

The combination of farmers thwarted by environmental conditions and increased transportation costs alone could potentially increase the costs associated with food production. All the while, an ever growing global population continues to demand cheap food. It is indeed a situation that could very well force otherwise honest people into shady territory.

While food fraud has been discussed thoroughly in terms of globalisation, and even in the context of security and acts of terrorism, to my knowledge there has yet to be much discussion on food fraud in the context of climate change and an uncertain environment.

Fighting food fraud


In a proactive approach to preventing food fraud there are two approaches: reducing the motivation behind the crime and reducing the opportunities to commit the crime [6]. Governments around the world are moving food fraud further up the agenda, considering action plans to crack down on fraudsters with more funding for testing, increased penalties and a more cooperative approach to gathering and sharing information on types of food fraud.

At the same time, researchers are doing their best to help build resilient agriculture through the development of disease and drought resistant crops, increased yields, disease prevention and welfare in livestock and more sustainable farming practices.

Other researchers are spearheading new technologies and methods that can detect food adulteration. This not only increases the risk of fraudsters getting caught, it forces the fraudsters to become more sophisticated in their techniques and eventually the cost of adulterating the food becomes so high it is no longer worthwhile.

As always, we as consumers are not helpless. Our behaviours and choices can make us less vulnerable to food fraud. If we reduce the number of steps between the producers and ourselves, this alone will reduce our chances of being swindled.

Over the last three years I have worked on several projects with the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute. With every interaction I have with the researchers involved with Cabot, I find myself making new connections between the realities of daily life and how these may be altered in an uncertain and changing climate. I have spent considerable time thinking and writing about ocean acidification, warming temperatures, sea-ice melt, extreme weather events and food security and yet I have not given enough consideration to the impacts on things like education, finances, and security.
Any one of these topics on their own are overwhelming and so by necessity we need to break the issues down into tangible components. However, I’m grateful that there are groups like the Cabot Institute out there who are helping to hold the bigger picture – connecting a web and giving an occasional tug on the silk lines to see how the whole thing shakes.

Sources/notes
[1] Johnson R. (2014) Food Fraud and ‘Economically Motivated Adulteration’ of Food and Food Ingredients. Congressional Research Service Report (7-5700), Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43358.pdf
[2] Holpuch A. (23 January 2013) Food fraud report reveals rise in manufacturers’ cost-cutting measures. The Guardian < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/23/food-fraud-report-cost-cutting>
[3] For a thorough and captivating history of food fraud, I highly recommend the book Swindled by Bee Wilson and published by Princeton University Press.
[4] Avery J. (16/01/2014) Fighting food fraud, European Parliamentary Research Service < http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2014/130679/LDM_BRI(2014)130679_REV1_EN.pdf
[5] Wilson B. (2008) Swindled. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (Pg. 60)
[6] Spink J, Moyer DC. (2011) Defining the public health threat of food fraud. Journal of Food Science, 76 (9):R157-R163. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02417.x/full

This blog is written by Nicola Temple, Independent Science Writer and editor of the Cabot Institute Magazine.  This blog was taken from Nicola's blog with kind permission.
Nicola Temple

Monday, 17 February 2014

Enabling the future we want: A manifesto on Education for Sustainable Development in the UK


What is the future we want, and what role does education have to play in its development?  

The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC) has gone some way toward answering these questions by way of a Manifesto for dialogue, collaboration and action Post Rio+20.  Following its UK-wide consultation held between November 2012 and May 2013, the EAUC has released a Manifesto in response to the Rio+20 outcome document, ‘The Future We Want’.  The Manifesto serves as a call to action across the UK, seeking cross-sectoral collaboration for the strengthening of education within sustainable development.

The Manifesto suggests seven mechanisms for government and civil society by which they can strengthen UK delivery of educational commitments towards The Future We Want.  These are proposed within four areas:  governmental responsibilities, formal learning, informal learning, and emphasising the connection between ESD and the economy. Most focus on improved dialogue, collaboration and coordination between government, NGOs, educational institutions, community groups and businesses.

Manifesto’s 7 mechanisms for government and civil society
 Governmental responsibilities
  • Better coordination of efforts and collaboration between governments and across government departments on formal and informal learning for sustainable development
  • Improvement of dialogue between the education sector, civil society and government departments
  • Enabling education sectors to develop an appropriate curriculum to meet current and future sustainability challenges through a realignment of funding with The Future We Want in mind
Formal learning (education and training sectors)
  • Six curriculum change recommendations including: teacher training, incentives from education quality enhancement bodies, national curricula objectives, Natural Environment White Paper implementation, student involvement in curriculum design and interdisciplinary learning opportunities
  • Three institutional change recommendations including: institutional leadership in SD, strengthened links between education institutions and local communities, support for young people not engaged in formal further education
 Informal learning
  • Increased collaboration between NGOs and formal education providers
  • ESD and Economy Connections
  • Increased collaboration between governments, NGOs, business and education sectors to ensure young people are sufficiently prepared for the opportunities and challenges of a Green and Fair Economy

At the launch on 17 December, 2013 at the House of Commons, more than 80 people from these different sectors, and representing all forms of education, gathered for an event hosted by Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee.  Speakers included the Shadow Schools Minister, Kevin Brennan MP, and a number of individuals providing ‘witness accounts’ of ways that education can support sustainable development.  These ranged from primary school pupils and NGO representatives to university youth ambassadors and a Director from HEFCE. During this portion of the launch, the University of Bristol’s Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Coordinator Aisling Tierney  gave a presentation.  Aisling presented ways in which the ESD unit helps support University lecturers and professors to incorporate aspects of ESD into their teaching.  Following the witness accounts, all attendees participated in a round table discussion about how and why they can commit to taking the agenda forward.

Cabot Institute at Big Green Week
educating the public about overfishing
and climate change
The Cabot Institute can do its part in the fulfilment of the Manifesto through the Informal Learning route, which calls upon Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to support community learning about sustainable development.  Cabot pursues continued engagement with the public to share the university’s latest research on risks and uncertainty in a changing environment. Examples include Cabot’s participation the Festival of Nature and planned activities surrounding Bristol’s position as the 2015 European Green Capital.  Such initiatives continue to help to raise awareness within the wider Bristol area on topics including climate change, natural hazards, food and energy security and human impacts on the environment.

Read the ManifestoLearn more about ESD at the University of Bristol

This blog was written by Terra Sprague, Research Fellow, Graduate School of Education.

Terra Sprague

Climate lessons from the past: Are we already committed to a warmer and wetter planet?

Last September, the Cabot Institute and the University of Bristol hosted the 2nd International Workshop on Pliocene Climate.   Following on from that, we have just  released a short video describing what the Pliocene is and its relevance for understanding climate change.



The Pliocene is a geological time interval that occurred from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago.  This interval of Earth history is interesting for many reasons, but one of the most profound is that the Earth’s atmosphere apparently contained elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide – in fact, our best estimates suggest concentrations were about 300 to 400  ppm, which is much higher than concentrations of 100 years ago but lower than those of today after a century of intensive fossil fuel combustion.

Image by NASA
Consequently, the Pliocene could provide valuable insight into the type of planet we are creating via global warming.  Our video release happens to coincide with pronounced flooding across the UK and focussed attention on our weather and climate.  There is little doubt that increased carbon dioxide concentrations will cause global warming; instead, the key questions are: how much warming will there be and what are the consequences of that warming? One way to study that is to examine previous intervals of Earth history also characterised by high carbon dioxide concentrations. The comparisons are not perfect, of course; for example, during the Pliocene the continents were in roughly but not exactly the same positions that they are in today.  But it can serve as another piece of the puzzle in predicting future climate.

One of the key lessons from Earth history is climate sensitivity.  Climate sensitivity can be expressed in various ways, but in its simplest sense it is a measure of how much warmer the Earth becomes for a given doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.  This is well known for the Pleistocene, and especially the past 800,000 years of Earth history, an interval with detailed temperature reconstructions and carbon dioxide records from ice core gas bubbles.  During that time, and through multiple ice ages, climate sensitivity was about 2.5 to 3°C warming for a doubling of carbon dioxide, which is in the middle of the model-based range of predictions.

Ice core sampling.
Image by NASA ICE (Ice Core Vitals) [CC-BY-2.0]
Wikimedia Commons
Ice core records, however, extend back no more than a million years, and this time period is generally characterised by colder climates than those of today.  If we want to explore climate sensitivity on a warmer planet, we must look further back into Earth history, to times such as the Pliocene.  Reconstructing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the absence of ice cores is admittedly more challenging.  Instead of directly measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in gas bubbles, we must rely on indirect records – proxies.  For example, carbon dioxide concentration influences the number of stomata on plant leaves, and this can be measured on ancient leaf fossils. Alternatively, there are a number of geochemical tools based on how carbon dioxide impacts the pH of seawater or how algae assimilate carbon dioxide during photosynthesis; these are recorded by the chemical composition of ancient fossils.

These estimates come with larger error bars, but they provide key insights into climate sensitivity on a warmer Earth.  Recent research indicates a convergence of Pliocene carbon dioxide estimates from these various proxies and gives us more confidence in deriving climate sensitivity estimates.  In particular, it appears that an increase of carbon dioxide from about 280 parts per million (the modern value before the industrial revolution) to about 400 parts per million in the Pliocene results in a 2°C warmer Earth. Accounting for other controls, this suggests a climate sensitivity of about 3°C, which confirms both the Pleistocene and model-based estimates.

It also suggests that we have yet to experience the full consequences of the greenhouse gases already added to the atmosphere.

So then, what was this much warmer world like?  First of all, it was not an inhospitable planet – plants and animals thrived.  This should not be a surprise; in fact, the Earth was much warmer even deeper into the past. The climate change we are inducing is a problem for humans and society, not our planet.

However, the Pliocene was a rather different world.  For example – and importantly, given current events in the UK –  these higher global temperatures were associated with a climate that was also wetter* than present.  That provides important corroborating evidence for models that predict a warmer and wetter future.

 Image by w:en:User:Ivan and licensed as GFDL
Perhaps most striking, sea level appears to have been between 10 to 40 metres  higher than today, indicating that both the Greenland Ice Sheet and  Antarctic Ice Sheet were markedly smaller.  To put that into context, the Met Office has already commented on how flooding in the UK has been and will be exacerbated by sea level rise of 12 centimetres over the last 100 years and a further 5 to 7 centimetres by 2030.

We must be careful in how we extract climate lessons from the geological record, and that is particularly true when we consider ice sheet behaviour.  One widely discussed concept is ice sheet hysteresis.  This is a fancy way of saying that due to feedback mechanisms, it could be easier to build an ice sheet on Greenland or Antarctica than it is to melt one.  If such hysteresis does stabilise our current ice sheets, then we should not assume a planet with 400 ppm of carbon dioxide will necessarily have sea level 20 metres higher than that of today. But if hysteresis is rather weak, then the question is not whether we will see massive sea level change but rather how long it will take (Note: It is likely to take centuries or millennia!).

Most importantly, the collective research into Earth history, including the Pliocene, reveals that Earth’s climate can change.  It also reveals that climate does not just change randomly: it changes when forced in relatively well understood ways.  One of these is the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. And consequently, there is little doubt from Earth history that transforming fossil carbon into carbon dioxide – as we are doing today – will significantly impact the Earth’s climate system.

* See Brigham-Grette, J., Melles, M., Minyuk, P., Andreev, A., Tarasov, P., DeConto, R., Koenig, S., et al., 2013. Pliocene Warmth, Polar Amplification, and Stepped Pleistocene Cooling Recorded in NE Arctic Russia. Science 340 (6139), 1421-1427. doi: 10.1126/science.1233137 and Salzmann, U., Haywood, A.M., Lunt, D.J., 2009. The past is a guide to the future? Comparing Middle Pliocene vegetation with predicted biome distributions for the twenty-first century. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 367 (1886), 189-204.

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute.  Rich will be giving a public lecture on how biogeochemical cycles have regulated the global climate system throughout Earth's history on 25 February in Bristol.  The event is free and open to all, do come along to learn more.

To learn more about the Pliocene - and palaeoclimate research, in general - you can watch Professor Gerald Haug's public lecture, Climate and Societies, recorded at the Cabot Institute as part of the 2nd International Workshop on Pliocene Climate.
Prof Rich Pancost



Tuesday, 11 February 2014

AGU 2013: The importance of 400 ppm CO2

AGU 2013
On 1 June 2012, a concentration of 400 ppm carbon dioxide was measured in air samples in the Arctic.  On 9 May 2013, Mauna Loa, the longest recording station, measured a daily average of 400 ppm carbon dioxide. Next year we may see the global average concentration reach 400 ppm and the year after that 400 ppm could be measured at the South Pole. The 400 ppm number is arbitrary, but it is a symbol of the anthropogenic climate change that scientists have been talking about for many years.

Here at the University of Bristol, the upcoming 400 ppm epoch prompted the question of what do we know about 400 ppm CO2 climates and how  could it be used to galvanize action on climate change?  But 400 ppm and climate change is a bigger issue than one University can take on, so we took our idea to the American Geosciences Union Fall conference.  With more than 24,000 attendees each year, AGU is the perfect place to talk about what 400 ppm CO2 means in a scientific sense and what we as scientists should do about communicating it.

Two sessions were proposed: one looking at the science of 400 ppm CO2 climates, co-convened with Kerim Nisanciouglu of the University of Bergen, Norway, the other at communicating 400 ppm co-convened with Kent Peacock of University of Lethbridge and Casey Brown of UMass Amherst.

Naomi Oreskes (pictured) asked why scientists
don't allow themselves to sound alarmed when reporting alarming conclusions from their
research.
The communication session looked at how climate science could be communicated effectively.  First to speak was Naomi Oreskes, who asked why scientists don’t allow ourselves to sound alarmed when we’re reporting alarming conclusions. Citing from neuroscience research, Oreskes argued that when scientists conform to the ‘unemotional scientist’ paradigm they actually risk being less rational and sounding inauthentic.  It was clear that Oreskes’ points struck the audience, as many of them queued up to ask questions.

Myles Allen made a compelling case for sequestered adequate fraction of extracted (SAFE) carbon – i.e. compulsory carbon capture and storage. Allen pointed out that people will always pay to burn carbon and argued that a carbon price is just a way to ‘cook the planet slower’.  Robert Lempert took a less controversial stand and explained how uncertainty can be managed in robust decision making.  Using hydrological examples, Lempert suggested that by starting with the desired outcome and working backwards, uncertainty can be dealt with.  The session finished with James Hansen, talking about the right message, and how the things that people care about needs to be communicated by the best communicators.  Criticising the pursuit of unconventional fossil fuels, Hansen argued the need for a carbon tax which was redistributed back to people.  A lively question and answer session followed, with all the speakers engaging in a strong discussion and the audience contributing pointed questions. No problems with talking without emotion in this session!

The 400 ppm physical science session started by focussing on what information we could draw from climates in the past where CO2 is believed to have been ~400 ppm. The first speaker was Alan Haywood who summarised the work of the PlioMIP project which tries to understand the climate of the Pliocene (~3 million years ago) – what it was like and why.  The Pliocene is the most recent time period in the past when atmospheric CO2 concentrations could have been as high as they are today.  Two more Pliocene presentations followed.  First, Natalie Burls (standing in for Chris Brierley) explained that even with CO2 set to 400 ppm in their climate model simulations they could not match the warm temperatures reconstructed by Pliocene data – suggesting that either the climate models are not sensitive enough to CO2 or that there are other dynamical processes that we do not fully understand yet.  Thomas Chalk gave a comparison between different methods for reconstructing CO2 in the past, and concluded that the Pliocene concentration was indeed at around 400 ppm. The final talk in the palaeoclimate part of the session was given by Dana Royer who presented the most compelling evidence for very different climates in the past with polar forests at 80°N indicating annual mean temperatures in the Arctic that were 30°C warmer than they are today!  Dana presented new CO2 reconstructions demonstrating that the CO2 concentration at the time of the polar forests could have been around 400 ppm, again suggesting that our climate models may not be sensitive enough to CO2.

The next part of the session looked at current CO2 levels with a presentation by Steven Davis about the amount of CO2 that we have already committed to putting into the atmosphere. The energy infrastructure that we have already built amounts to future CO2 emissions of 318Gt, and new global commitments are still increasing. Vaughan Pratt followed with a talk about the reasons for the recent pause in the global warming trend, separating out natural causes and anthropogenic causes using mathematical and statistical analyses. He concludes that the recent pause is of natural origin.

The final part of the session peered through the looking glass into the future.  Andrew Friedman investigates the causes of the temperature asymmetry between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere and how that asymmetry may alter under the future climate emission scenarios.  He concluded that the asymmetry is set to increase into the next century, with the northern hemisphere warming faster than the southern hemisphere and projects that the tropical rainbelt will shift northwards as a result.

Kirsten Zickfield has found that warming in the next
millenium might amount to 1 degree globally,
concentrated at the Poles.  Sea levels are projected to
rise by 0.8m.
The final talk of the session was given by Kirsten Zickfeld who examined the climate changes we might already be committed to as a result of the CO2 emissions we have already released (under the assumption that atmospheric CO2 stays at 400 ppm). She used a climate model with biogeochemical components to identify how long it would take for the climate to reach equilibrium with the present CO2 concentration of 400 ppm, what the climatic impacts of that equilibrium might be and whether it might be possible to return to CO2 levels below 400 ppm on human timescales by using negative emissions (carbon capture/storage schemes). She found that the already committed warming into the next millennium might amount to 1°C globally, concentrated at the poles. Sea levels are projected to rise by 0.8m due to thermal expansion alone and further increases of 10m due to ice melt are possible over much longer timescales. Committed changes for the ‘other CO2 problem’ - ocean acidification - are relatively small, with a pH drop of only 0.01 projected. She concludes that even if CO2 levels could drop below 400 ppm in the future, whilst air temperatures may stabilise, sea level may continue to rise due to thermal expansion alone.

Both of the sessions were recorded for access after the event and provoked a lot of debate, during the sessions and online.  We hope that in some small way these sessions have helped scientists think differently about what 400 ppm means and what we can do about it.

This blog was written by T Davies-Barnard and Catherine Bradshaw, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.
T Davies-Barnard
Catherine Bradshaw

Saturday, 8 February 2014

How the UK government is tackling climate change – a good plan or on course for disaster?

Steve Smith, CCC
Steve Smith, a researcher working for the government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), came to visit the Cabot Institute on 7 February 2014.  His talk was about whether the UK is on course for tackling climate change, or rather, the UK is on course for meeting its 2050 target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions.  It was a real eye opener.  Here I summarise the talk and the main points made by Steve.  All figures taken from Steve’s talk.

Background

The CCC consists of several high profile board members, including Lord Deben, Sir Brian Hoskins, and Lord Krebs amongst others.  As a group, their role on the mitigation side is to independently advise the government on UK emission targets.  The UK is legally bound to meet the 2050 target of 80% reduction of CO2 emissions below 1990 levels.  Being legally bound to this commitment means the government has to meet this target.  Steve wasn’t quite sure what the implications would be if the UK government broke the law by not meeting the emissions target by 2050. [Update: the EU has now agreed to a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030].

Extreme weather events will become
more common
The current risk of impacts from climate change are set out in the latest IPCC reports.  It is agreed that 2 degrees of warming will exacerbate current climate-related impacts such as increased risk of floods, drought, food insecurity, human displacement, plant and animal disease, etc but that technological advances and human resilience should be able to live with this. Beyond 4 degrees rise many systems will just not be able to adapt – a blunt warning if there ever was one.

The current 2050 target of 80% reduction of emissions keeps it in line with a 2 degree warming scenario. This equates to approximately 20 - 24 GT CO2 Kyoto emissions by 2050, which itself implies that each person living on the planet in 2050 will only contribute 2 tonnes of CO2 per year.  This is a similar figure to 6000 miles in your car (an easy annual commuting amount).  Steve pointed out that the total emissions from electricity in 2010 were almost the same amount as total emissions that will be allowed in 2050.  This is not a joke, we will have to meet these targets and we will have to severely cut our carbon emissions.  So what I want to know is what’s the plan?

What is the government doing?

It seems the government does have a plan and it has had a plan for a few years now.  A long and winding road sort of plan (it stretches 40 years and Steve also admitted that the plan is likely to change over that time period), but it’s a plan nonetheless with a hopeful outcome. Currently the government looks at reducing CO2 emissions by implementing cost effective measures across the economy.  Examples include increased implementation of electrification and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) within industry, and district heating and air source heat pumps for buildings.

Nuclear power could
help decarbonise the UK
Looking at one of these key measures in more detail, electrification, it is vitally important to not only increase reliance on electricity as a power source (rather than gas or oil) but also to decarbonise electricity production, producing a win-win situation.  The government aims to do this in steps.  The first step is the decarbonisation of base load electricity production into the 2020s.  Base load electricity is the minimum amount of power made to meet minimum demands from users.  Increasing nuclear power could play a big part in this transition.  From the 2020s onwards, the government will aim to decarbonise peak electricity, the stuff that’s needed on-demand like when we switch on our kettles during an ad-break.  The timescales do seem quite long but it takes around 9 years to build a nuclear power station, so put it in perspective the timings aren’t actually that long.  However it is questionable whether we can actually wait until 2050 to become decarbonised for fear of hitting that 4 degree global temperature rise in the meantime. 

Decarbonising electricity is one of the most useful things the government can do especially as most fossil fuel driven machines can be electrified – including our cars.  Steve admitted there was one area that was proving difficult to decarbonise – the aviation and shipping sector.  The CCC are still working out how to make this area more efficient as it is a really difficult sector to change.

What are the costs to the UK economy?

The CCC estimates that the resource cost of reducing CO2 from all sectors would amount to 0.5% GDP.  If there was a scenario in the future of high fuel prices, this cost would drop to 0.1% GDP, but if fuel prices came down we would pay more - around 0.8% GDP. Rather interestingly, 0.6% of costs of reducing CO2 fall in the power sector. So should the government put up the cost of fuel to reduce the resource cost to the UK as a whole?  It’s not as clear cut as that.  Fuel poverty and economic competitiveness are huge issues which need to be carefully considered before any price hikes.

The CCC is confident that all government projections will be wrong by 2050. To counter this the CCC have come up with some bottom up scenarios – Max (decarbonise everything), Stretch (optimistic carbon reduction but not ideal), Barrier (the most likely scenario but the worst for CO2 savings).  By mixing and matching these scenarios across all sectors as appropriate, multiple scenarios have been created and it is from these multiple scenarios that the CCC can keep resource cost below 1% GDP for the UK.  

How are we doing so far?

We're doing well to decarbonise our cars.
Image by Danrok, Wikimedia Commons
From the first period 2008 – 2012, the first carbon budget was met. Greenhouse gas emissions were reduced.  However, the main cause of this has been attributed to the recession and only 1% of emission reduction was from low carbon energy measures

The good news is that the UK is ahead of schedule on the decarbonisation of cars. However we are falling behind on non-traded emissions such as cavity insulation. We are looking like we will be on target for the second budget (2013 – 2017) but not budgets 3 (2018 – 2022) or 4 (2023 – 2027).  If the UK is to meet these targets then the government needs to improve future policies and speed up the rate of change to a decarbonised society.

Shale gas – a game changer?

The USA has kicked heavy emission coal off the system by investing heavily in shale gas (aka fracking) and in doing so has radically (and unwittingly) changed its climate policy.  Steve questioned whether shale gas could be a game changer in the UK.  Rather interestingly, it seems that not much extra gas will be produced in the UK by 2035 if shale gas was put into the mix.  UK gas demand turns out to be significantly higher than what the UK can actually produce (including that from shale). Questions then arise, for example, if you are offsetting imports of gas where are those imports coming from? How are they being transported?  What amount of CO2 is being released in the process of transportation? 

Methane leakage from shale gas is also a problem.  The CCC have found that methane leakage from shale gas would be more beneficial to decarbonisation due to the overall emissions from shale gas being less than the amount of emissions from current transportation of Liquified Natural Gas (which has a much smaller amount of methane leakage and larger amount of emissions overall). Any reduction is better than no reduction and the government thinks that a well regulated shale gas industry could help the UK reach those decarbonisation targets.

A healthy low carbon diet

Image by Richard Croft, Wikimedia Commons
Decarbonising the UK is going to be tough but there are net benefits from doing so.  One of these net benefits is health.  Although it is difficult to quantify the health impact of all CO2 emission reducing methods, we can quantify those such as reducing congestion, improving air quality, and getting people on their bikes doing more exercise.

A question was asked of Steve at the end of the talk...why are we not efficient in all of these sectors already?  Steve responded that people don’t act entirely rationally, that decarbonisation takes time to filter into people’s mindsets and that subsidies for the wrong sorts of fuels does not help.

So should the government do more to embed a low carbon mindset into its people and industry? Or should we be educating ourselves and personally reducing our own carbon emissions (the non-traded emissions)?  Should we just demand more of our government, put the pressure on the policy makers and inspire current and future generations to do more and be more in a low carbon world? The CCC and the government doesn’t have all the answers.  It’s up to research institutions, like the Cabot Institute, to put their collective heads together to develop solutions to help decarbonise society and to engineer new low carbon technologies, with support from government and industry.   

The UK has become a lot more efficient since the 2050 targets were introduced, the government is legally bound to meet these targets so it is serious about the job in hand, and as a result its policies have been changing to reduce emissions.  The government just has to ensure it continues to act on the CCC’s recommendations.   

View the slides from Steve's talk.

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