Cabot Institute blog

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Friday, 29 May 2015

Troubled waters

Water seems like the simplest of molecules, but its complexities have enabled all life on Earth. Its high specific heat capacity allowed early aquatic life to survive extreme temperature fluctuations, its ability to dissolve a wide range of compounds means it is used as a solvent for cellular compounds, and its powerful cohesive properties allow tree sap and blood to move upwards, against the flow of gravity.



ITV science correspondent Alok Jha discussed the incredible properties of water this week as part of a Cabot Institute and Festival of Ideas talk at The Watershed, Bristol.  This was part of a promotional tour for his new book, The Water Book. He amazed the audience with where our oceans came from (ice-covered rocks pelting the Earth during the Late Heavy Bombardment), the strange properties of ice (a bizarre solid that floats on its liquid), and the possibility of water and life on other planets.

Alok Jha
It was really the universal importance of water that struck me though. As Alok discussed, water is absolutely essential not just for life, but also to enable every aspect of our lives. Its unique properties make it a critical component of almost everything we make and do. In addition to household uses like showers and toilets, the UK uses a lot of water in manufacturing, agriculture and mining, amongst other things. One report suggested that the average person’s life requires 3400 litres of water a day in the UK, with a total global requirement of four trillion litres a year.

Water is scarce


Around 2.7 billion people are affected by water scarcity worldwide. Rivers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use, climate change is altering patterns of weather around the world and mismanagement of precious sources of fresh water has led to the prediction that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages.

Image credit: Hasin Hayder.
Image used under: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
You only have to read the news to see the warning signs.

Agriculture is a huge business in California, using 80% of the freshwater to raise livestock and grow two thirds of the USA’s fruits and nuts. California’s climate makes it ideal for growing a range of crops, assuming they can be irrigated. A recent NY Times article revealed that it takes 15.3 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds, 1.4 gallons of water for two olives, and a whopping 42.5 gallons of water to grow three mandarin oranges. As Alok commented, the state is literally shipping its freshwater to the rest of the world as food. California is currently in its fourth year of drought, and strict laws banning water wasting have been put into place.

Last week, Californian farmers in the deltas of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers volunteered to use 25% less water, in a bid to avoid even harsher restrictions being imposed by the state government. These reductions came after uproar from Californian citizens, for whom water wastage was already illegal.

Water conflict


Image credit: Katie Tegtmeyer. Image used under:CC BY 2.0
In Brazil, São Paulo has been suffering through the worst drought in more than 80 years. The water supply has been restricted to just six hours per day, but millions of citizens have also had several days without running water. Tensions are beginning to rise, with protests, looting and outbreaks of violence in the city of Itu. The Guardian reported one resident as saying: “We spent four days without water, and we saw what it was like. We saw people behave like animals in our building, so imagine 20 million people”.

Imagine billions.

Crown Prince General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi has declared water is now more important for his people than oil. Egypt has vowed to stop Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Nile at “any cost”. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam look poised to suffer from China’s continued damming of the Mekong River. Water is predicted to be used as leverage, or as the target of terrorist attacks in the future. Paul Reig, Word Resources Institute, stated,
“Water is likely to cause the most conflict in areas where new demands for energy and food production will compete with the water required for basic domestic needs of a rapidly growing population”.
What can we do about this? It’s a problem almost as complex as the molecule itself, and I certainly don’t have the knowledge or expertise required to answer. Alok suggested that the value of water could be added into the final price of our products and services, to make people aware of how much they are consuming and to think twice before wasting it.

Whatever happens, we’re going to need massive global action on a range of issues. We need to use less water to grow our food and manufacture the items we use daily, we need to prevent shared resources being selfishly used, and we need better management systems in place to prevent further pollution or loss of freshwater. Only then will we be better prepared to face uncertainties of the future and ensure everyone has enough to drink.
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Sarah Jose

Why partnerships are so vital to the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute (part 1)

Launching VENTURE during Bristol 2015 


Nishan Canagarajah, PVC for Research at the University
of Bristol, launched VENTURE on 18 March 2015.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy
VENTURE is a new collaborative framework for the Cabot Institute and some of our key corporate partners. Building stronger partnerships with our City has been the major theme of our engagement with the European Green Capital year. VENTURE, then, represents the latest step (including Bristol is Open, the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities, and the launch of a new project on Re-Distributed Manufacturing and the Resilient, Sustainable City) in the progression of how we are engaging with Bristol and the South West Region.  This is the first of two blogs that explore the intrinsic value of partnership to the Cabot Institute, what we have achieved and our aspirations.

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On 18 March, the Cabot Institute and the University of Bristol PVC for Research launched VENTURE, a new initiative and network that will facilitate the partnership of Cabot Institute academics with key corporate partners.  The focus of VENTURE is on the risk, insurance, future cities and infrastructure sectors. Those areas do not represent the entirety of the Cabot Institute remit, but they are particularly central given the challenges of environmental change and the need for cities and society to become more sustainable and resilient. These needs are also central to our City and Region, exemplified by the Green Capital agenda but also a long history of social and technological innovation.

The first VENTURE workshop held at the
University of Bristol in May 2015. Image credit:
Amanda Woodman-Hardy
We are very excited about VENTURE – it is a chance for the Cabot Institute to build stronger links to our external partners and our City and it is will inspire exciting new ideas and solutions. Increasingly, our corporate, governmental and public partners have asked for a conduit to the more diverse, multidisciplinary and sector-appropriate communities that sprawl across multiple Schools or even Faculties.  That is one of the primary reasons that the Cabot Institute was founded, and as such VENTURE is the logical progression in supporting and nurturing those relationships.  

In a subsequent blog, I will discuss the history of our partnership and some of the other initiatives that excite us as part of the Green Capital year and its legacy.  Here, however, I’d like to discuss exactly why partnerships are so important to the University of Bristol and particularly the Cabot Institute. This may seem obvious: we work together to procure funding and to conduct research.  It is taken as read that Universities must be engaged and work closely with stakeholders, and this is enshrined in the University of Bristol’s engaged University vision and Engaged University Steering Group.  However, the rationale for specific partnerships vary and they bring different types of values and motivation.  Moreover, there are legitimate questions about engagement. Who should our partners be and who should Universities serve? There is a strong push that Universities provide value for the UK, but who determines ‘value’ and how do we avoid becoming overly focussed on one stakeholder at the expense of others? 

What does partnership mean to the Cabot Institute?  


The Cabot Institute’s main goals are to build a vibrant and new multidisciplinary community and stimulate new ideas; in turn, these will position us to conduct novel research that addresses 21st century challenges.  External partnerships are key to all of these aims.  They are part of that multidisciplinary community and they stimulate academics to collaborate in new configurations.  They ask those studying hazards to work with those studying risk perception, and they demand that engineers consider how infrastructure is occupied and navigated by people.  In doing this, they create the environment to generate fundamentally new ideas and forge new intellectual ground; these creative, occasionally disruptive, interventions and requests stimulate, challenge and inspire new directions of research. 

Bringing together experts from different disciplines to tackle
global environmental problems at the Cabot Institute.
Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy 
This is an aspect of collaboration and partnership that means a great deal to me, personally. I have used the challenge of working with other disciplines and with people with different skills (and more importantly different perspectives and preconceived notions) to invigorate and continually refresh my research. Those experiences have allowed me to work in teams that developed new approaches and made new breakthroughs. It is not my own special abilities but rather the cauldron of brilliant but often contradictory and occasionally tangential ideas that has led to the findings of which I am most proud. Partnership is good because collaboration is good – and not just because you need to collaborate to achieve your goals but because the very act of collaboration is intellectually invigorating.

Those new collaborations and ideas are helping us make a difference, addressing the global environmental challenges of the 21st century.  Clearly, if the Cabot Institute research aspires to solve societal challenges it has to be strongly connected to those who can make good use of it.  However, this requires more than translation; it requires close collaboration during inception and development of ideas, such that discoveries, inventions and conclusions are useful and relevant. Partnership is also crucial to ensuring the wider community co-owns an idea.  The world is facing difficult challenges that will require paradigm shifting ideas and difficult decisions. Acceptance of radical new proposals or difficult compromises requires an inclusive and engaged public – from the very beginning.  This is why we need VENTURE. 

For all the rewards of a vibrant partnership, we cannot pretend that it is easy. Different organisations have different priorities, stakeholders, responsibilities and interests.  In my experience, University – Stakeholder partnerships can too easily fall into one of two, equally unsatisfying scenarios.  At one extreme, academics ‘push’ our research out into industry or government, arguing for its relevance, hoping it is used and allowing us to claim a positive social or economic impact.  At the other, industry or government partners approach us with a project or consultancy, often with an unrealistic turnaround time and not inspiring our interest.  

Fostering a more creative partnership atmosphere is why the University created the Research Enterprise and Development division in 2000, and VENTURE will build on that legacy, ensuring more long-term, broader and deeper relationships.  It will develop genuine partnerships, in which we work together on challenges that represent both fundamental, intellectual advances but also have deep value to the partner. We will write grants, co-supervise students, publish, advise and share our findings together.  Specifically, VENTURE will fund and support the Cabot Institute to more effectively guide our partners to the specific knowledge, expertise and skills of our academic community. It will facilitate access to our resources, whether that be computer models, materials analysis or infrastructure resilience. It will create a network and enable a higher degree of partnership and mutual profile-sharing, as we not only work together but share common messages.

Crucially, VENTURE will be the nucleus of the wider portfolio of partnership required to face the environmental and sustainability challenges facing Bristol, the UK and our planet.  The corporate members of VENTURE will be integrated with our other partners: the civil organisations that want to govern their own energy futures or instigate new social movements; government agencies, like the Met Office or the Environment Agency, who have their own expertise; Bristol City Council but also the Bristol Green Capital Partnership with whom we are working to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for our city; and many others. VENTURE will focus on our key corporate partners but it will be part of a wider, University subsidised portfolio of civil and government partners in the city and region.  It will be a network whereby these corporate partners develop stronger relationships with Cabot but also the City and in which our community can challenge and champion interventions. 
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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost
Read part two of this blog.

For further information on VENTURE please email cabot-business@bristol.ac.uk

Friday, 15 May 2015

The benefits of investing in a community-owned solar array

On Saturday 9 May 2015, Low Carbon Gordano officially opened their Moorhouse Farm Solar Array, with the Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson conducting proceedings. The array, sited within the jurisdiction of Bristol on farmland between the M49 and M5, has a nameplate capacity of 1.875 MW and cost £2.2 million to install. The money was raised entirely by public share offer and community owned (and in very small part by me). Over the course of a year the array is expected to produce >1,700 MWh of electricity, which using the inevitable conversion, is enough to power 500 homes, and more importantly and relevantly for this blog, save around 850 tonnes of CO2 per annum compared to fossil fuels.

Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson officially opens the Moorhouse Array.
Image credit: Marcus Badger 
The Moorhouse Farm Array is one of a number of community owned solar arrays in the South West, an area whose large areas of farmland and (for the UK) relatively high solar irradiance makes it an ideal site for significant solar photovoltaic (PV) generation. In the UK, solar PV generation has doubled in the last year alone, from 2.4 Gw in February 2014 to 4.4 Gw in the same month this year. This “solar surge” has been almost entirely without direct government intervention, but with feed in tariffs and tax breaks for community owned projects like the Moorhouse Farm Array community groups and large scale developers are both cashing in, and making significant inroads into the UKs legally binding CO2 reduction targets. It’s not difficult to see why PV has started to surge; manufacturing cost for the PV panels themselves continues to come down, companies like Solarsense (who built the Moorhouse Array) are coming of age and have the expertise to bring projects to fruition. In the community-owned arena, raising funds through attractive share offers can be facilitated by marketplaces like Ethex and the experience of the more mature community groups (like Bath & West Community Energy) is being willingly shared to help smaller groups off the ground. Low Carbon Gordano started as a small community group, offering energy use advice and initially very small household and school energy generation projects, but now owns a multi-million pound array and has plans for more.

The fact that solar PV can nestle snugly behind farmers’ hedges also means that, inevitably, it has an easier time than onshore wind getting through the planning system. In fact in much of the South West, grid constraint (the capacity of the local and electricity grid see http://www.regensw.co.uk/our-work/onshore-electricity/tackling-grid-constraints/) is becoming the restricting factor in many places.

It’s not only grid carbon emissions that can benefit from solar arrays. Working with local wildlife trusts (like Avon Wildlife Trust for the Moorhouse Array), biodiversity around and between the panels can be managed and increased – turning a former sheepwreck into a biodiversity hotspot.

For Bristol much more Solar PV is on the way, with the council’s municipal energy company Bristol Energy set to fit solar PV to the City’s Council-owned buildings, and Low Carbon Gordano set to launch a second share offer for their next array in the next few weeks.

Part of the Moorhouse Array with the wind turbines of Bristol Dock in the
background, and water-vole rich drainage channel in the foreground.
Image credit: Marcus Badger
It’s essential for meeting our carbon reduction goals that the solar surge can continue – grid capacity, changes to feed in tariffs and the new Contract for Difference rules could all put the brakes on. We can only hope that the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change drives policies which can continue the solar surge in the South West and across the UK.

Part of the Moorhouse Array with the wind turbines of Bristol Dock in the background, and water-vole rich drainage channel in the foreground (photo by the author)
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Marcus Badger, a Research Associate in the Schools of Chemistry and Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. His research is focussed on reconstructing greenhouse gases on multi-million year timescales, using both fossil organic compounds and fully coupled three dimensional model approaches.

Marcus is a small investor in the Moorhouse Array and an LCG member.
Marcus Badger

Follow Marcus Badger @climate_badger.

Top 5 things to see at the University of Bristol tent at the Festival of Nature

Image credit: Bhagesh Sachania
When I was told I would be coordinating all the marketing materials for the University of Bristol stands at the Festival of Nature, I was quite excited. Being a nature lover, I knew the job would fit me well. What I wasn’t prepared for was all the amazing things that our researchers have been working on and will be showing off at this year’s festival. I am really pleased to be involved in helping them to showcase their nature-based research and I hope you all enjoy the experience when you come and visit us.

Here are my top five things to look out for when you visit the University of Bristol tent:

H1N1 flu virus

1. Explore how your genes might help you to fight the flu


Who knew that your genetics can determine how well you can fight off the flu? At this stall you will find some biologists and veterinary scientists who will be showing you how your immune system has to keep up with ever-evolving viruses in order to keep your body free from infection. Expect to get involved in a ‘war’ between the viruses and the immune system…who’s going to win?

2. Discover the underground world of roots


Roots. Those long straggly things attached to the bottom of plants. What are they good for? These small structures are actually very clever and extremely vital to life on earth. Visit our biologists at this stand to find out how extraordinary this plant part is and get up close to the root systems to see how they interact with the soil and help bind it together to prevent soil erosion.

3. Learn about Bristol’s hidden river history


Did you know that Bristol has a hidden river running right through the city centre? Nope, neither did I! The Frome River used to flow where the Hippodrome is now, but it became so polluted that we buried it! Join our environmental historians for a hands-on journey around Bristol’s rivers and discover why Bristol’s hidden river history is so important in shaping our lives.

An ammonite.  These would have been found in Bristol
under water when CO2 levels were at similar levels to
 today.  Image credit: Alex Lucas.

4. Have your say on our uncertain world


At the end of 2015, Paris will be hosting the COP21 – a huge international conference to try to agree a legally binding and universal agreement on climate. The aim will be to keep global warming below 2°C. At our Uncertain World stall, you will meet Cabot Institute scientists who study Earth’s past climate. They know from their research that sea level was much higher in the past when carbon dioxide levels were at similar levels as today. So what’s in store for our world and what are the uncertainties in our future? We will tell you what we know and what we don’t know and we would love to get you to write or draw your feelings and concerns on our uncertainty wall so that we can send a big Bristol message to Paris for the COP21.

5. Hear a family friendly story about climate change


If you do anything at the Festival of Nature this year, please do try and catch the Cabot Institute’s Dr James Norman who will be telling a story about climate change in the Talks Tent at 2.15 pm on the Saturday. This is not your average storyteller, this is a man who is passionate about what he talks about and will use his kids storybooks to ask – are we ever really going to change how we behave? James will take you through an amusing adventure via monsters, story books and kites stuck in trees to try and answer the question “if not now, when?”

The University of Bristol tent will be based in Millennium Square on Bristol Harbourside from Saturday 13 to Sunday 14 June. It’s free to attend our tent and talks. For more information about our tent and activities, visit our website here.

We look forward to seeing you soon!
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This blog has been reproduced with kind permission from the Festival of Nature news page.

This blog has been written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Communications Officer at the University of Bristol.  Follow @Enviro_Mand.
Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Floes, leads and CTD’s: The state of the ice at 83°

The air at 82° 23’ North is crisp and still, and the afternoon sun blazes down on the ice floe we hope to call home for the next three months. The gentle hum of the Research Vessel (R/V) Lance’s engine some 300 metres away, and the regular click of the winch deploying our oceanographic profilers below the ice sheet, breaks the all-consuming silence in this seemingly barren wilderness. A walkie-talkie crackles into life from my pocket; a message from the ship! Norwegian isn’t my strong point, but one word in particular causes my ears to prick up in concern: ‘Isbjørn’, or, ‘Polar Bear’. For those aboard the Lance, this is a prime opportunity to grab a camera and be the envy of all their friends back home. For those of us ambling about on the ice, away from the cosy confines of our floating laboratory, pulses quicken as we try to withdraw our equipment without compromising the all-important data…

Constructing hole for on-ice CTD (Image credit: Torbjørn Taskjelle, UiB)
The Norwegian Young Sea Ice Cruise (N-ICE2015) is a truly international effort, with researchers from over a dozen institutions coming together to gather data from the Arctic ice cap, as well as the surrounding atmospheric and oceanic currents. Initiated by the Norwegian Polar Institute, the R/V Lance plans to drift with the sea ice for six months, from January to June 2015. After a brief hiatus in Svalbard to change crew in March, I was able to join the ship as it steamed back into the ice, where it would get ‘refrozen’ for the remainder of the expedition.

It was never going to be plain sailing from Longyearbyen to our target latitude of 83° North. Battling against the wind, snow and pack ice in increasingly treacherous conditions had left those seeking warmer climes to put the ship’s impressive DVD collection to good use! That being said, efforts to measure this dynamic polar wilderness were already being undertaken from the offset.

Atmospheric scientists have been releasing weather balloons twice per day to profile the troposphere and stratosphere. Biologists collected water samples as we skimmed over the continental shelf off Svalbard, in order to divulge information on the bloom of primary producers found in shallower waters at this time of year. I managed to get better acquainted with my new friend for the month: the Conductivity-Temperature-Depth instrument, or CTD, which is deployed through the water to measure parameters such as salinity and temperature. With this information we can look at the width and depth of contrasting water masses, allowing us to track their progress at specific points.

As a member of the physical oceanography work package, I’m interested in how warm, salty Atlantic water, formed in the tropics off the eastern United States, travels north into the Arctic basin, and how its heat is distributed in the colder Arctic waters. By measuring the turbulence and temperature flux of this relatively shallow ‘tongue’ of Atlantic water (approximately 200m deep), I hope to glean information regarding how this may affect the melting of overlying sea ice.

Currently, the oceanographic models we have for the Arctic concern multi-year ice: that is, perennial ice that is built upon year after year. Now that this is being replaced by seasonal, or first-year ice, which is chemically and physically distinct to the longer-lived variety, the existing models are due for renewal. This cruise is particularly exciting, as data throughout the winter months are rare. Seeing how water masses affect, and respond to, a new first-year ice regime over this 6 month timescale is of paramount importance for the synthesis of more up-to-date heat exchange models.

Polar bear inspecting our (thoroughly displaced!) survey line.
(Image credit: Markus Kayser, AWI)
Working directly on the sea ice comes with its challenges. The Lance has been drifting in a predominantly southwestern direction towards Fram Strait, between Greenland and Svalbard where the majority of wind and ocean currents leave the Arctic. Accompanied by increasing temperatures, ice floe disintegration is a very real occupational hazard. It is a relief to gaze out the window every morning and see our little world still intact, though occasional cracks (or ‘leads’) through the ice threaten to tear our playground apart in a matter of minutes. Hundreds of metres of power cable have had to be hauled back onto the boat on more than one occasion, over where cracks spread, revealing the inky blue abyss of the ocean below.

Then we have the bears. Curious onlookers for the most part, we've managed to avoid any potential run-ins unscathed, thanks to our compulsory bear-guard system (pray that this continues!). Not all our equipment has been so lucky, with chewed cables and scuffed buoys occasionally appearing overnight. Though, with a chance to see these bumbling giants in their rapidly diminishing habitat, I’d still have jumped at the chance to work on the Lance even if it was as the dishwasher!

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This blog is written by Adam Cooper, recent Earth Sciences graduate at the University of Bristol.
Adam Cooper (right)

More information





Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Power, policy and piranhas: Martin Bigg on energy

"When it comes to energy solutions we
need to be like the piranha: Being
passive isn't working". Image
credit: Wikimedia Commons
When it comes to energy solutions, we need to be like Martin Bigg’s favourite fish; the piranha. Why do we need to be like a flesh-eating aquatic animal to get these solutions? Because being passive isn’t working.

Such was the closing message of Bigg’s talk at the Bristol Politics Café in the kitchen of The Station. Bigg’s talk entitled ‘Energy generation, use and denial’ was a well-integrated combination of academic analysis and challenging chit-chat about the UK’s energy enigmas.

While his concluding remark was engineered to influence our future actions, Bigg cleverly began with the UK’s energy past. He walked us through the history of UK energy supply, intertwining the physical processes of production with the bureaucracy and politics.

This technique highlighted how energy has been manipulated time and time again to fulfil regulations and financial expectations. Coal fired power stations built in the 1970’s are still producing today, requiring a string of expensive modifications in an attempt to meet the demands of the modern day.

Drax power station. Image credit:
Wikimedia Commons
Drax power station is the biggest energy producer in the UK and was used by Bigg as an example of the problems with current regulations. The old coal powered generators have been modified to run off imported wood chips in order to meet air quality objectives. The technology established on the plant is not optimised for this fuel, yet the station stays open.

In addition, the audience was introduced to facts and figures representing current energy demand. Two things struck me as disturbing. Firstly, how small our green energy contribution is, and secondly, how coal power stations are used to fulfil our energy needs.  Many coal stations are paid huge government subsidies to remain on standby to provide energy at peak times. What is absurd is that coal power stations are the least efficient to start and stop when compared to other forms of power generation, so why are we using them?

What was more interesting, was Bigg’s presentation of green energy supply. He showed the audience real bids for green energy. Solar was the cheapest, followed by onshore wind. Offshore wind was one of the most expensive but it is the scheme the government is investing most in. The utterly nonsensical nature of the process was brought on in part by environmentalists concerned about the impact of onshore wind farms on local wildlife, particularly bird life. In reality, Bigg pointed out, CO2 emission are far more damaging to bird populations through acidification of wetlands than through wind farms.

What was reassuring, however, was that the green energy, at peak production was able to compete economically with the products of hydrocarbon-guzzling plants. The main issue was what to do when the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down. Here, Bigg admitted, there is the need for further research and development into effective energy storage.

The event was meant to not only be a talk but a discussion, and the strength of opinions bounced around the room was evident. Much of the discontent was channelled into the up-coming elections, particularly that green policies are not playing a bigger role in the political football preceding 9 May 2015. Hopefully, discussion such as these can only help expand the dialogue amongst green-minded voters in the Bristol area in the hope that a less passive attitude may start to take effect in future green policy making.
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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