Centre for Environmental Strategy

The blog of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey.

Bioenergy, Biorefinery and Bioeconomy: Promoting innovation, multidisciplinary collaboration and sustainability

On the 30th May CES and the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia co-organised a 5-day Researcher Links workshop to bring together researchers in the field of biorefining. Attendee Dr Katie Chong gives her perspective on the meeting:

160616_ibest_medYou may not believe me, but I have good news about climate change! How can this be possible I hear you say, we usually only hear stories of doom and gloom? Well the good news is that I know of at least 50 people in the UK and Malaysia putting all of their passion, heart and intelligence behind the quest for a more sustainable future. How do I know this? I know because I was lucky enough to meet them all at the UK-Malaysia workshop on Bioenergy, Biorefinery and the Bioeconomy that took place 30 May to 3 June 2016 in Kuala Lumpur (funded by the British Council Newton Fund).

The workshop consisted of a mix of conference presentations, poster sessions, engagement sessions, industrial visits and the all-important social events. The topics covered in the workshop included technology, sustainability and policy, and industry from both the Malaysian and UK perspective. We learnt about the latest developments in technology for processing biomass into valuable products, how government policies can have a big impact on business development and what tools are available for us to analyse or optimise biorefinery processes. As well as presentations from scientists, there were sessions from organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, BiotechCorp Malaysia, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the WWF and The Star Malaysia – one of the major streams of local newspaper.

For attendees from the UK it was interesting to learn about Malaysian biomass and wastes such as rubber seed oil, sago and the waste streams from palm oil plantations. Attendees heard about the work that is going on to convert these streams into unique products such as particle board or fuel. For the Malaysian attendees it was interesting for them to hear about the latest technology developments within the UK for converting biomass and waste into valuable products and the tools that have been developed to aid researchers and policymakers. The presentations and posters sparked lively discussions and interesting ideas between the attendees about how to move forward with biorefinery development.

The visits during the week included a trip to the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) and the Havys palm oil plantation. For scientists from the UK it was eye-opening to see (and smell!) the scale of palm oil operations in Malaysia. And to hear more about the unique challenges that are faced in making the process more efficient and sustainable. A visit to the Royal Selangor pewter factory involved us being put to work with hammers to make our own pewter bowls. Other highlights included us being mugged by monkeys at the Batu Caves and a cultural dance show where a number of us ended up on stage!

The Café Scientifique engagement event raised some important issues about climate change and the importance of public perception. Can we save our world from climate change? Would you be willing to fly on a plane fuelled by biofuel to help? Or give up your far-flung foreign holidays? The session began with a presentation about the efforts – and the challenges – for us to come to an international agreement on how to stop or at least slow down climate change. We heard about the history of the climate change agreements and how they can be implemented. The current Paris agreement sets out definitive targets to help us prevent the temperature increasing by 2°C when compared to pre-industrial levels. But are these reasonable? The session included a debate about the key importance of consumers moving forward and opened our eyes to more of the non-scientific challenges such as: are we ready as consumers to make the kind of sacrifices that would be required?

The aim of the workshop was to bring together early career researchers, stakeholders and experts in bioenergy and biorefineries to interact, learn from each other and explore opportunities for long-lasting research collaborations. This was achieved with great success and the organising committee should be commended on putting together this hugely successful workshop. We were all very sad when it ended but are excited to build on the relationships and ideas generated during this event.

The blog is recreated from Dr Chong’s original.

More information about the workshop can be found on the CES news website.

More memories from the event can be found here: http://www.theibest.org/apps/photos/album?albumid=15993149

So is the Building sector interested in Sustainability? A day at Ecobuild 2016.

Erica Russell, Doctoral Practitioner, University of Surrey/Carillion plc

The first impression as you moved through the show was a constant booming of microphoned voices. From the Conference arena to the new multiple learning hubs, the fringe, the resource theatre to stands with their own mini conference seating there was an endless stream of information. Clients, designers, estate agents, contractors, government agencies and smaller companies all joining together to provide insight on nearly every aspect of sustainability and the built environment.

Shifting Public Thinking

CES Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability, Erica Russell, on the recent Sustainable Brands conference:

Over the last few weeks I have been fascinated by several thought provoking examples of how brand marketing is being used or developed to shift mass opinion. Sustainable Brands held a conference in November and in the spirit of trying to make sure that ideas were disseminated as widely as possible all the keynote presentations were streamed live and are now available free online. Just as I have found the experience of hearing guest speakers at CES talk about the industry perspective on a particular topic highly enlightening so two ‘stories’ really stood out for me and have me thinking further how to use elements of them in the work I am doing in supply chains and construction.

The first example comes from Alexis Haass, Director of Sustainability at Adidas. Yup, I know Adidas, big brand, more consumption, more waste, but as we know many of the major brand names are working to reduce their impacts and at the same time really pushing the boundaries to explore a brand’s potential to create ‘positive’ change. I’m not blind to the fact that this also means reputation enhancing and upping brand value too, but is that bad? In this case Adidas were approached by the organisation Parley for the Oceans who bring together academics, artists and designers to raise awareness of the state of oceans and work to reduce and reuse the plastic waste. They collaborated with Adidas on three areas, education, R&D and direct action. Together they linked product development with a powerful campaigning message and the story of illegal gill net fishing became embodied in a shoe: really embodied in a shoe as fibre from confiscated nets have been incorporated into the design. Through the reach of the brand the campaigning message was seen by millions. Has this made a difference? Well the work did support Parley with highly memorable messaging as they and Adidas lobbied the UN prior to COP21. Adidas have increased their R&D to use more ‘sea’ waste plastics in new clothing and footwear ranges. And for something that the Huffington Post described as “a shoe that is literally made out of trash” customer demand was so positive that Adidas are taking the prototype to full production early next year.   If you’d like to watch the talk and see ‘the shoe’ the video is here:


(the case study starts at about 8mins in).

The second talk was from Daniel Vennard, Global Sustainability Director for Brands at Mars and Fellow at the World Resources Institute. He focused on his work applying the communication knowledge within big brand marketing companies to support environmental action. The Institute has a campaigning goal of reducing meat consumption due to its immense impact on resources, deforestation and around 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Analysis of ‘food based’ campaigning material from around the world identified a pattern; it offered education, information or abstinence. As Daniel noted from a brand perspective this isn’t a great way to ‘sell an idea’. The Institute then carried out an in-depth analysis of 15 examples in the food sector where they felt major shifts in behaviour had happened. It became clear that there were four recognisable strategies that were deployed and from this the team have developed ‘the shift wheel’ to support effective communication planning. For the full talk:

http://www.sustainablebrands.com/digital_learning/event_video/business_models/tackling_systemic_problems_shifting_entire_product_cate .

A paper will be published by the World Resources Institute in January 2016.

Horsing Around: Why did Horsemeat hit the Headlines?

Centre for Environmetnal Strategy Research Fellow Dr Liz York discusses the horsemeat scandal and why it caused such a stir:

160105 LY Blog - Giorgio Galeotti - Peaceful Coexistence - CC BY 2.0

“Peaceful Coexistence” : Giorgio Galeotti Licence: CC BY 2.0

Food incidents occur on a regular basis – you need only to look at the UK’s Food Standards Agency food alert system or the US food bulletins to realise that consumers are under constant threat of ingesting harmful foodstuffs. So why did a harmless food item that is consumed in other countries cause such an upset in the UK?

The substitution of horsemeat for beef and pork was initially found in Dec 2012 by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, who on 15th January 2013, informed 5 UK retailers of the positive results. The media led with the story the very next day focusing on a test of a single ‘beef’ burger, which showed that it consisted of 29% equine DNA. The media stories ran from this point like a deluge, as consumers returned products due to the growing list of those incorrectly labelled. Some of the larger retailers, such as Morrisons and Waitrose, fared better than most others, as they quickly and efficiently proved that they knew the source of their products, and so were not affected. As people continued to boycott numerous beef products from unverified sources, the net slowly closed in on the source of the contamination, identifying those responsible.

“Now This is a Meat Counter” : Phil Denton Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

Current supply chains are complex multi-layered networks which interlink numerous products and companies. This made the tracing of the products difficult and longwinded as information needed to be gathered not only from within the UK and Ireland but also from Poland, France, Luxemburg, Cyprus, Netherlands and Romania.

Unfortunately for the food industry, a second wave of media reporting added health issues to the situation as there was a possibility that horsemeat contaminated by phenlybutazone could be entering the supply chain. The FSA immediately started testing for phenylbutazone and it was detected once in April 2013. However due to the low concentration, it did not constitute a health risk.

So why did the Horsemeat Scandal make such a splash in the headlines? The simple answer is ‘deception’. Consumers in the UK felt deceived. There are many things that human nature struggles to cope with and deception is the one of these, whether it be cancelling an engagement to meet someone else or unwittingly buying bootleg electronics. As a species we like to be given the truth, whilst knowing what we buy is genuine. This is especially important in the case of food which can, literally, be a matter of life or death. So the general public disliked the idea that what was stated on the labels did not match the product, whether horsemeat is safe to eat or not. While many consumers said they would not mind trying horse, they objected to eating horsemeat unknowingly.

“Breakfast x Brunch” : Jonathan Lin Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

I think one of the most worrying things about this scandal is the distance of consumers from their food and from the supply chain. Due to the lengthening of supply chains, imports and the wish for cheap food and ready meals, consumers are left open to manipulation. In years gone by a butcher would buy from a farmer, and sell to the consumer, creating a level of social responsibility, a face behind the meat. Nowadays you can buy from a supermarket and talk to no one, meat can pass through brokers who see no products, and move across borders with different regulations. During the horsemeat crisis local butchers experienced an upsurge in their businesses and though this has subsequently dropped, many still have increased trade.

Deception and adulteration of products does not always illicit this response. The horsemeat scandal also saw the substitution of beef and pork for each other: this produced a larger problem than horse for certain sectors of the community who hold religious beliefs or are unable to eat one of the products. However only later did the media publish this angle.

In February 2015 the UK was hit with the adulteration of paprika and cumin with almonds and peanuts. This had massive health implications for those with almond and peanut allergens. But it did not have the same impact or media coverage as the horsemeat substitution, even though the potential implications for vulnerable members of the community were severe.

Much of the time the cause of food adulteration is economy driven. For example, the cumin substitution was thought to be due to the bad harvest of cumin in the preceding months, causing the cost of cumin to skyrocket. Therefore to meet demand of low cost food, something needed to give – and honesty and consumer trust were the victims.

So what can be done to restore the reputation of the food industry and increase consumer confidence? The Government commissioned a review into the integrity and assurance of the food supply network, led by Professor Christopher Elliott. Prof Elliott worked with industry stakeholders to produce 8 recommendations, that, implemented in conjunction altogether, would create a more robust and resilient system. Many of the recommendations have already been implemented or are scheduled to be.

“Cow with no Body” : Steven Zolneczko Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

The food industry has had to evolve quickly to cope with this scandal and subsequent changes, but is it enough? What impact will these changes have on the food industry in the longer term? Will the new more linked, over-arching regulatory system serve its purpose? Will this new system stop adulteration of food?

The answer is no, never. The first food law, Assize of Bread, was created by King John of England in 1202 to stop the substitution of flour in bread. Criminals will always find a new way to take advantage of the system, with no thought to the harm they might cause. But now with a more secure, connected and traceable system, and the constant vigilance of those in the industry, we can hope their impact will become negligible.

The different meanings and scales of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Centre for Environmental Strategy Research Fellow Dr Alma López-Avilés discusses the challenges of scale with respect to research into the Water-Energy-Food Nexus:

In 2009, the UK’s previous Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, Professor Beddington[i], talked about a ‘perfect storm’ of problems around water, energy and food shortages. He pointed out that based on a number of studies, these shortages will lead to public unrest and international conflict in the near future, unless 50% more food, 50% more energy and 30% more freshwater are available by 2030. In his speech, Prof. Beddington highlighted the need to look jointly at water, energy and food while reducing global warming and adapting to climate change impacts.

Since then, a number of projects outlining the main problems of the Nexus of Water-Energy-Food and how to tackle them are developing in the UK and elsewhere. Some of the Nexus issues have been recognised in the past, but there are underlying difficulties with Nexus studies in that Nexus issues and their interdependencies are complex, vary in scale, and mean different things for different people depending on their circumstances and geographical settings.

Water and food are linked both in subsistence agriculture and agribusinesses: washing coffee beans in Yirgalem, Ethiopia. Coffee is an important crop for the Ethiopian economy. It is vastly consumed within the country, and is also Ethiopia’s main export.

For example, in developing countries water, food and energy resources are often insufficient to meet the needs of all sectors of the population, and it is predicted that the greatest impacts of climate change will be experienced in many of these already stressed regions (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa, flood-prone mega-deltas in Asia etc.).

Thus, work on the Nexus in these geographies has to be closely linked to development and infrastructure projects where the synergies between food, energy, water, health, education, social mobility, gender equality etc. must be brought together, often in the context of rising demands.

Cooking indoors with charcoal in a typical household in Ethiopia. Photos credit: A. Mulugetta-López

Within developing economies two broadly differentiated Nexus scales can be seen. For example in Brazil, the Nexus can be considered at the local scale among local communities reliant on fisheries and floodplain vegetable gardens, the dry and wet season flows of Amazonian rivers, and energy (diesel) for generators and transportation brought by boat from the big cities and ports located downstream. The Nexus can also be considered at the large (broadly national) and global scales in the Amazonian basin in relation to deforestation, growing bio-fuel crops for national-scale energy generation, large-scale food production of cash crops such soya and cattle-raising for export to global markets, and using Amazonian water-courses as waterways for transportation of natural resources and hydro-electricity generation via dams.

On the other hand, in developed economies Nexus studies are more concerned with reducing the vast amounts of energy, water and food waste produced in order to reduce the environmental burdens of delivering current levels of service. Thus, Nexus projects are emerging on improving the efficiency in the use of energy and water resources in large-scale food growing and food manufacturing processes, and also on the possibility of using alternative and synergetic ways of producing energy, water and food at both large and small scales.

The Blue Nile waterfalls near Tana, Ethiopia, in the dry season. The flow of the River Abay (Blue Nile) has been diverted to generate hydro-electricity. Climate resilience and green economy policies in Ethiopia are driving the development of large hydro-dams as well as other renewable energy sources in the country, but the proliferation of hydro-dams and agribusinesses is creating some conflicts among water-users with the vast majority of them living with only limited and unreliable access to water and energy sources (see plates 4 and 5). Photos credit: A. Mulugetta-López

In energy, one focus is on finding alternatives to the conventional centralised (often national) energy generation options that may help make use of local resources and maximise resource efficiency. For example using combined heat and power plants that use wood and other biomass as fuel; producing energy from waste; and generating hydro-electricity from small flowing streams are options that help to reduce waste and green-house gas emissions. Collecting, treating and re-using water locally for example in agro-industries is another way of cutting down on water and energy consumption. Renewable energy and water efficiency schemes associated with food production are progressively being considered and implemented at large factory scale and also at the local level because these technologies can help reduce bills and negative environmental impacts while helping to generate local jobs by decentralising processes.

Tomatoes grown in hydroponics system using a nutrient-rich water solution, rather than soil, under controlled conditions of light, temperature, and humidity in a greenhouse near Gloucester, UK. An example of efficiency in agro-industrial processes, heating systems similar to the ones we have in most homes, are used to keep greenhouses warm, and CO2 generated from the combustion in boilers is fed back into greenhouses via pipes (right photograph) in order to help the crops to ripe. Photos: A. López-Avilés

When talking about the Nexus in food manufacturing, and taking the example of bread, we can consider small scale as local manufacturing (e.g. craft bread making in Oxfordshire), and large scale as national manufacturing (e.g. supermarket sliced bread in the UK). However, for both we also need to consider the global context. This is because even for local-scale low-impact food manufacturing options (e.g. artisanal/ community-based high-quality foods), and even when there is or there could be some degree of decentralisation of energy and water generation processes, these often cannot be fully detangled from global supply chains and the centralised nature of some resources.

Globalisation means that even local manufacturing processes often depend on global markets, prices and supply chains, for example for the provision of diesel as a decentralised energy source for local fishing communities in the Amazon; or for the supply of wheat for locally crafted organic bread in the UK.

Therefore, we can talk about the respective sets of problems and opportunities for the small and large scales of the Nexus in at least two broad geographical settings: developing and developed economies. However, increasingly globalised supply chains bring together the interdependencies between developed and developing economies, and so the local scale is not always (or no longer) truly ‘local’.

The issue of scale and interdependencies can get further complicated by what ‘local’ and ‘small-scale’ mean to different people (e.g. does local refer to small scale? What if it is a small manufacturing business that employs local people and uses local materials sells nationally or internationally –i.e. products are not only consumed locally-? What if a local manufacturing facility that relies on the local workforce and local consumers uses materials brought in from other countries? Is it local then?). And when talking about ‘decentralised’ food manufacturing, things can get even more convoluted because there are degrees of decentralisation.

Given the complexities around the Nexus, it seems important to clearly define the scope and scale of any Nexus study or project for the benefit of participants and communities involved. Also, it seems advisable to outline the type of interdependencies to be studied, in other words, to describe the nexuses to be considered within the Nexus.

A lot can be achieved by finding local-level improvements and solutions to Nexus problems that may be scaled-up. However, it should not be forgotten that most times there are global scale dimensions associated with food, water and energy (e.g. in the supply of raw products with their embodied water and energy). Thus, for the success of local Nexus initiatives Nexus problems have to be addressed at the global scale in all countries.

This blog can also be downloaded as a PDF document: The different scales of the Nexus_Alma Lopez-Aviles


Dr. Alma López-Avilés is a research fellow at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey. Alma is working in a project funded by UK Research Councils on the Water- Energy-Food Nexus in relation to localised food manufacturing. This project, known as Local Nexus Network, is exploring among other things, the potential for decentralised energy and water supply in the UK’s food system.






[i] Beddington J. (2009) ‘Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?’ In Conference presentation given to the Sustainable Development UK Annual Conference, QEII Conference Centre, London, 19 March 2009. See http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/goscience/docs/p/perfect-storm-paper.pdf

Meat: the big omission from the talks on emissions

Dr Jonathan Chenoweth reflects on a COP21 side-event that considered the impact of food production on climate change.

Here at COP21 in Paris I went this afternoon to a session on the impact of food production on climate change. In this session it was argued by some of the presenter that the global community cannot deal with climate change without drastically cutting meat consumption. As the speaker from the Chatham House institute in London outlined, approximately 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the livestock sector. Essentially, it will probably be impossible to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees without a major shift in global meat and dairy consumption trends. If the developing world increasing adopts European levels of meat and dairy consumption, then keeping climate change below a 2 degrees increase becomes impossible no matter how far the energy sector decarbonises.
After the session I went away and had a play with The Global Calculator, a tool developed by an international team of researchers overseen by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. This online tool allows the user to play around with different climate change mitigation options. For each of climate impacts, such as life style, fuel supply, food and land use, users can select levels of mitigation, from minimal abatement, ambitious abatement, very ambitious abatement, and extremely ambitious abatement. According to the explanation notes, the very ambitious abatement level is considered to be very challenging but probably achievable, but the extremely ambitious abatement level is well beyond what most experts think is possible. For the global community to achieve the “very ambitious” abatement in nearly all impact areas would require a level of effort and cooperation which would be unprecedented compared to anything seen in the past.
According to this tool, it is nearly impossible to avoid extremely dangerous climate change without a major shift in diet. If the global population reaches 10.9 billion by 2050 and the level of abatement effort is set for all categories as “very ambitious” with the exception of the diet options which are set to the minimal abatement level, then a global mean temperature rise of approximately 5 degrees can be expected by 2100. Even with a lower global population – 9.6 billion by 2050 – temperatures will still rise by approximately 4 degrees by the end of the century.
The tools suggests that it is only when there is a significant change in diets is effective mitigation possible. The minimal abatement level for diet assumes that the average person the planet eats a typical European diet – 2,520 Calories a day of which 281 Calories come from meat. The very ambitious abatement level for diet assumes that the average person consumes just 2,195 Calories a day (the global average in 2011) and get 152 Calories a day from meat, the target suggested by the WHO for a healthy diet. The extremely ambitious abatement level assumes 2,100 Calories a day and just 14 Calories from meat, the level of meat consumption in India in 2011. With a global population of 10.9 billion by 2050 and very ambitious mitigation efforts across all categories, including diet, a temperature rise of just under 2 degrees by 2100 can be expected. With a population of 9.6 billion and extremely ambitious dietary change, a temperature rise of just under 1 degree by 2100 can be expected. Basically, without a change in diets, particularly in wealthy countries, catastrophic climate change becomes nearly inevitable.
So how easy will it be to change diets? A typical consumer may not really care too much whether their electricity is generated by a solar panel or a coal fired power station. So long as the lights, washing machine and internet all work, it ultimately doesn’t make any direct difference to daily life where the power came from. However, food goes to the heart of human cultures.
Here in France, meat and dairy are absolutely central to French society. Almost everything you can order in a restaurant is rich in both meat and dairy products. Most famous French dishes are based upon meat or diary. France prides itself on its huge diversity of cheeses. Even here at COP21, it is very difficult to find vegetarian food. Do people care enough about climate change to only eat meat on the rarest of occasions, and cheese only occasionally? Can national cuisines be radically transformed, as is so urgently needed? Maybe a Sunday roast in the UK needs to become a thing of the past, unless of course it is a nut roast.

Further information and some excellent reports on this issue can be found on the Chatham House website at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/it-s-time-put-meat-climate-negotiating-table

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