Centre for Environmental Strategy

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

Reasons for Optimism at COP21?

Professor Chris France is attending the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) on behalf of CES. He gives his impressions so far:

When new students join the Centre for Environmental Strategy I get them to consider whether they approach the implementation of sustainability with optimism or pessimism.

The more extreme “optimists” put great store by both technological advances and the ability of governments to take a long-term and ‘extra-territorial’ view of what their countries should do. At the other end of the spectrum the pessimists can’t see that technology (along with its financing and implementation) will be brought to use before irreversible change will have happened. They also consider that the tendency of powerful governments is to be parochial and too interested in maintaining the status quo.

If pressed, after a lecture and discussion that endeavours to explore some of the international agreements that could be marshalled to support views at either end of the spectrum, I sometimes share my (changing!) view with them.

I start from the thought that humankind already has sufficient technological knowledge and financial capacity to let, even an expanded, population live adequately (comfortably?) on the planet (if this were not so I am not sure that I could comfortably draw a salary as a Professor researching and teaching sustainability). Of course the world’s political systems are far from allowing that to happen.  Despite the political problems however, under the auspices of the UN, some significant progress has been made.  Perhaps the best example is that of the Montreal Protocol: the science showed that it was pretty much beyond doubt that human-made chemicals were creating an ozone hole. The chemicals were really rather good as refrigerants, at putting out fires, for fumigating agricultural land etc.  Replacing them took investment in research, in building plant, replacing infrastructures etc – in short it ‘cost’.  Yet, the world came together and largely took the chemicals out of use; the science shows that ozone depletion is reducing and humans living at high latitudes have improved health as a result.  This shows that it is possible for ‘world’ governance structures to work in making the planet more sustainable.  Contrast that with the rather slower progress on action over climate change……

I’m sitting at COP21 in Paris just now listening to the most intricate debate about the document that will form the basis of the overall agreement that will be signed at the end of next week.  It’s a 20 pages or so document that the 196 parties to the process will be invited to endorse. In 90mins a total of 6 paragraphs have been debated, 3 of them amended and agreed, the other 3 reached stalemate and will be discussed outside of the plenary session in the hope that the opposite views can be reconciled. At that pace it would be Christmas before any conclusion is reached: clearly the process will gather pace as the arrival of the political masters, who will engage in the final negotiations, approaches.

Setting side the fascinating diplomatic dynamics in the room and the elegant co-chairing, where would I put myself on the optimist-pessimist scale that give to my students?  Despite the arcane debate and distinct political camps I am more optimistic than I have been for some time.  What comes out will not likely be as much as we ‘should’ do but the fact that there will be an agreement that will change behaviour is a positive move which can be built upon in the future.

I would be less optimistic if I did not also see a gathering cast of non-governmental actors making change, most notably for me, multinational companies. I am hoping to see some representatives of those companies at COP with a view to CES working with them to address not only their move away from fossil carbon based supply chains but their wider sustainability challenges.

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“Stepping Up” Sustainability at the Water Energy Food Nexus

Cultural Landscape by Alexander Boden (license: CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Centre for Environmental Strategy Research Fellow James Suckling introduces the EPSRC funded new project “Stepping Up”:

We live in a rapidly changing world. Governments and industries are slowly waking up to the realisation that we are on an unsustainable course in to the future. Pollution from our energy systems is creating a global warming problem which we will struggle to curtail without drastic action. In some areas of the world, water is coming under increasing pressure as we try to grow crops to supply the worlds rapidly growing population. We face the ever more difficult task of growing greater quantities of food in an environment which is increasingly under stress to let us do so.

This is a problem which can be easily summed up in a few key figures. By 2050 we need to produce enough food to feed 9.7billion people. That is set against a backdrop of a system in which we lose 30-50% of food before it is consumed by humans. This is in a world where we already struggle to feed everybody effectively.

Classically we have sought to tackle the issue in one arena at a time, by investigating how to improve food, water or energy sustainability in isolated silos of research. In addition, they have tended to be treated as separate entities by governments when deciding on policy. However, in recent years the realisation that these three items cannot be dealt with in isolation has led to an interest in the point where they all meet: the Water-Energy-Food Nexus. The recognition of the WEF nexus is akin to the tenet that you cannot achieve true sustainability without addressing the issue from each of environmental, sociological and economic perspectives.

Terraced Rice Paddies, Ta Phin Valley, Sa Pa by Gavin White (license: CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

With that in mind, I recently joined Dr Angela Druckman on the EPSRC funded project Stepping-Up. It is a large multidisciplinary project involving numerous partners including Manchester, Cranfield, Exeter, Abertay, Loughborough and Glasgow Universities as well as HR Wallingford and the STFC. Together we hold expertise in sustainability, global warming, systems simulation, governance, water and soil environmental science.

The project is going to investigate niche innovations in sustainability that happen at the WEF nexus at a variety of scales, from household, through small business, council and regional, right up to national. It will then look at the effect of what would happen if those innovations were scaled up to become the dominant practice. We will be seeking case studies which exemplify innovations with the potential to achieve step change (or significant change at a greater rate than something incremental or gradual). This innovation can take any form and be applied at any stage in the life cycle of food, from when it is grown, through its harvest, transport, retail, consumption and disposal. Once we have identified the most exciting case studies to work with, we will collect data on what makes them truly innovative and incorporate that data into a model of the existing infrastructure. We can then investigate how these case studies could potentially revolutionise the sustainability of our food, water and energy systems. We will even be able to test the scale of the impact under different climate change conditions. It is an incredibly ambitious project in its scope!

The fantastic part is that innovation can occur absolutely anywhere in the UK and be done by anyone. It should be a fascinating exploration of what people do, sometimes without being aware of it. But that also comes with a significant challenge: How do we find and catalogue all of those potentially great case studies? We will have to become very good at digging out those innovators, many of whom may not have a presence on the web or in the usual academic publication haunts. A challenge, but hopefully one that will reap great reward!

Reflecting on a Different Summer

Paschalena Mavrou has recently begun the Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability program in CES. Here she reflects on her experience so far:

I am your typical engineer. For me every term has a single definition and every problem has a solution to which usually a single correct method will lead you. Well, at least that was how I thought before joining the first cohort of the Doctoral Practitioners for Sustainability programme of the Centre for Environmental Strategy in the University of Surrey. Now after a summer of learning about sustainability and its many definitions I try to keep an open mind.

First day in and I found everything overwhelming. The change of country, work environment, people and spoken language! Walking into the classroom that was going to be my home for the next two months I was initially disheartened by the small size of the group. Don’t get me started on the projects. Behaviour change, supply chains and people management. What was I doing among them and what kind of disciplines were those? At the time it appeared that I had nothing in common with the other students. All I kept thinking was that I was going to spend my much anticipated summer inside a classroom with some strangers learning from engineers that had strayed to the dark side: the environmental side. Who would have known that it would have been one of the most interesting summers of my life.

Next week the modules were due to begin. We started with life cycle thinking and the circular economy. A brand new world for me. We watched a lot of lectures that were part of the CES Master’s programme on Sustainable Development. But the lectures were not just from people in academia. Sustainability experts from international companies presented how they applied life cycle thinking in their day to day operations. That was interesting. So I wasn’t just being taught something theoretical, I was learning something that was actually being applied in the real world. But as the topic was completely new to me I obviously had questions. Usually I just shied away and asked nothing but here the intimate teaching environment, the encouragement from Dr. Jaqi Lee and Prof. Chris France who were running the modules and even the fact that my sustainability experienced fellow students had questions made me start asking questions myself. And I didn’t stop! Sometimes the answers we got triggered more questions or even lengthy discussions. Who would have known that one day I would be part of discussions about sustainability related topics!

After the end of the first module class was over for a little while. But that didn’t mean we stopped learning. We had the opportunity to attend the ISIE conference which this year was held in Surrey. We helped run the sessions as aides thus having the opportunity to watch interesting lectures from scientists in the field of industrial ecology. But apart from the academic there was a social aspect to the conference. We had the chance to spend time with the other students outside the classroom and the formalities thereof and we got to know one another better. Apart from ourselves we also got to know the other CES students and we slowly started becoming part of the CES family.

Some well-hidden poppies in the fields of the Weald and Downland museum.

Our time off lectures continued with the annual CES retreat. Until that day my idea of retreats was groups being stuck in a hotel setting strategic goals for the following year. But CES had a different approach to retreats as well. What we did was voluntary work for the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. For the first time in my life I was doing something that would benefit nobody I knew. It was tiring, dirty and I got scratches from brambles to prove my hard work but it was utterly fun. During the retreat I got to spend even more time with my fellow students and we also got to know the other academics comprising CES and heard all sorts of interesting stories (like how to get rid of slugs in your garden).

After the retreat it was back to class time for two more modules on sustainable development. These modules I found even more challenging. This time the learning materials included documentaries as well apart from the lectures. But with the support of Abeer, Erica and Patrick I managed to eventually start wrapping my head around the vastness of the topic (and to this day I still am!). This second month of class went by much quicker than expected with me enjoying the company of my new friends and learning more about why everyone in CES got so excited when I told them my Doctorate would be with Unilever (hint: sustainable living plan).

So this was my summer. I moved to a different country, I made new friends and I learned about things I formerly chose to ignore. I met people passionate about sustainability and their passion was contagious. So to conclude, had I made the right decision? Yes I had! Because always when people ask me why I wanted to do a Doctorate my answer is that I wanted to challenge myself. This programme forced me way out of my comfort zone as I had to work together with people from different disciplines and backgrounds. As the world is now faced with wicked problems interdiscplinary collaboration is the only way for us to try to solve them and CES is as interdisciplinary as it can get. So if you’re an engineer, a social scientist or a person that has been applying these concepts in the industry for years this programme will be the best fit for you. It will be both interesting and challenging. After all isn’t that why we do a Doctorate? To get out of our comfort zone, to go out there explore and learn!

Being a Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability: Abeer Abdalla’s Story

Abeer Abdalla has recently begun the Doctoral Practitioner in Sustainability program in CES. Here she reflects on her experience so far:

Hello Everyone! Thank you for venturing on to read my post. As a brief introduction, I have a civil engineering background, and before joining this PDS programme I have taken up many roles in the construction field; as a structural, material and finally office engineer in a major infrastructure project in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Across my studies and professional career I have not come head-to-head with sustainable development; though granted environmental considerations were there but not the overarching concept of sustainability. That being said, in recent years the United Arab Emirates has seen an increase in sustainability ‘consciousness’ in the forms of Estidama – which aims to regulate sustainable construction, Masdar City – “the world’s most sustainable eco-neighbourhood” and many other initiatives. This shift has ignited my interest in exploring the future and possibilities offered by sustainable development, and so et voilà– here I am!

I am very glad to be among the first students joining the Doctorate Practitioner Programme at the Centre for Environmental Strategy. Though being the first to go through it might sound daunting to some it was a very engaging few weeks I had before leaving for my placement at Rolls-Royce Plc, Derby.

Sustainability has become an important aspect in recent years. I have noticed the movement and had what I now perceive, as a shallow idea of the happenings. I do not believe I am very much mistaken in saying that most people associate sustainability with climate change; and now I know and can firmly say it is much more encompassing than that.

The modes of teaching on the PDS course were very variable; they included lectures, recorded lectures from staff and guest speakers, and documentaries. The documentaries were a first for me; as a civil engineer it is not one I can expect, but in this programme they were, in my opinion, a perfect fit and eye opening. Indeed, the ‘Foundations of Sustainable Development’ module offered us a breadth of content that was in the very least challenging and thought provoking. We were so engaged that my colleagues and I were able to take our discussions to lunch and coffee breaks.

The programme does not aim to simply instruct; it is designed to make us informed, to think, analyse and compose a tailored approach suiting the different paths my colleagues and I will have to take. That is another charm possessed by this programme; for those of us who face the dilemma of choosing between the knowledge and challenge proposed by a post-graduate degree and the experience and ‘industry-suave’ proposed by a stable job the Doctorate Practitioner Programme is for you. In addition to the education I was receiving, the industrial placement offered made my decision to join CES a ‘no-brainer’.

If you are an engineer and apprehensive of joining CES then please do go ahead and check the profiles of both staff and students; you are not alone. I have not been exposed to sustainable development in the context of my previous job experiences but having Paschalena, a fellow engineer, and Erica and Patrick, of previous exposure to sustainable development, around made it easy to blend in, and all the discussions we had together have made the study very rewarding.

What to expect should you join the Doctorate Practitioner programme at CES? Supportive staff you can talk to in every corner and office, and colleagues from various backgrounds. We believe that every member in our circles has something to bring to the table, that is what is expected of you and that is what you can expect of those around you.

We take it upon ourselves to prove that this programme is and will be structured to forge ties between academia and industry. Industry is set to gain from the advances of research and academia, and academia is set to benefit from bringing to the fore the discoveries and contributions of their staff and students through industry.

If after you read this blog I inspire to join the programme then I would be ecstatic! I would feel equally so if I manage to at least make you think. For Sustainable development is not the responsibility of environmentalists or ecologists; it is OUR shared responsibility towards OUR environment, OUR society, OUR economies. It is OUR responsibility towards fellow mankind, our forefathers, children and generations to come. It is OUR responsibility as people of this critical era.