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Week 2 Bristol in COP21 Paris: blogs from Cabot Institute

c21wep14cCabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost will be attending COP21 in Paris as part of the Bristol city-wide team, including the Mayor of Bristol, representatives from Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. He and other Cabot Institute members will be writing blogs during COP21, reflecting on what is happening in Paris, especially in the Paris and Bristol co-hosted Cities and Regions Pavilion, and also on the conclusion to Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital.  

Friday 11th December 2015: Can we limit global warming to 1.5C?

One of the most stunning developments in the climate negotiations of COP21 – perhaps of the entire 20 years of negotiations – has been the emergence of major push to raise the accord’s ambitions.

After years of watering down language and creating flexible and non-binding targets, many of us anticipated that the pressure of compromise would weaken the COP21 accord. It might still be weakened in many respects.  And yet, in the past 72 hours, a group of 100 nations, including the European Union, the United States and dozens of developing nations, has emerged to propose the nearly unimaginable: to reduce the acceptable limit to human-caused global warming from 2C to 1.5C.

This has, for lack of a better word, stunned the scientific community.  Here in Paris, these raised ambitions resulted in applause and celebration – especially when they remained in place in the second draft circulated Wednesday.  But those of us who study climate change wonder whether this is possible.  Already this year, global warming reached 1C, and several more decimal places of warming are already baked into the system due to the slow response of the climate system. In short, there is some chance that our current 400 ppm CO2 is already enough to push the globe past 1.5C.

Ensuring even a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5C will require urgent action – far more urgent than what nations have committed through their INDCs which will only limit warming to 2.7 to 3C.  In fact, it will almost certainly require achieving zero emissions, a complete cessation of all fossil fuel use, in the next several decades – and then negative emissions. We will have to capture and store carbon dioxide (CCS) either through biology or technology; and as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the UK has actually cancelled potential CCS projects.
It is laudable that countries want to push for a stronger global warming limit, but they must be honest about the distance between their ambitions and their policies.  By policies I mean not only the insufficient INDCs to which they are committing, but the actual policies back home to achieve them.  Many nations’ policies will help achieve 40% reductions – the low-hanging fruit – but are they really investing in the innovation and infrastructure to achieve a 100% reduction in any timeframe, let alone a timeframe to limit warming to 1.5C?  If 1.5C requires an almost complete decarbonisation with the next several decades, how can that be achieved when global shipping and aviation are not even in the current draft of the accord?

Consequently, many of my colleagues around the globe are as stunned and confused about the political agenda as I am.  Are the politicians idealistic and naïve?  Out of touch with the science? Grandstanding?

I am cautious about jumping to conclusions.

The underlying politics are complex. Maybe the leaders are caught up in the moment.  More likely, they are caught up in their needs; this initiative has been led by small island states – especially Tony de Brum, Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands – and these nations do face an existential threat from 2C warming, and some even from 1.5C warming.  They have been demanding this increased ambition for over a decade; they are living on the sharp end of climate uncertainty (as we learned when hosting many of them last summer) and they know what is coming.

It is surprising that others have joined them.

If I had to guess, I think this change is designed to strengthen post-COP21 policy both internationally and domestically.  It could be related to putting stronger pressure on the ratcheting up process of the accord, the mechanism by which nations will impose more demanding targets on themselves.  It could also be related to enshrining more robust compensation for those nations that will be most impacted by climate change. Or it could also be the confidence-building statement that investors and businesses have been demanding all week long. It is too soon to say.

Nonetheless, there is a large disconnection between these targets and our commitments and between our commitments and our policies. I’d be more comfortable about a step-up in our targets, if these gaps were being more openly discussed.

Thursday 10th December: Reflections from 9 December

One of the dominant themes of COP21 has been the crucial role of cities, from the Blue Zone to Paris City Hall to the Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF) at Le Stade de France.  In fact, on Tuesday at the SIF, Aron Cramer of BSR declared that ‘Cities have been the heroes of COP.’

The Compact of Mayors has grown larger and stronger.  The C40 group continues to set a more aggressive agenda than their respective nations.  And in the Green Zone, the Cities & Regions Pavilion, co-hosted by Bristol and Paris and facilitated by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability has showcased the ambitions of dozens of cities.  Repeatedly, city leaders have said to national leaders – “no matter what you commit to, we will deliver it; and in all likelihood, we will push further and faster.”

In the Pavilion, there has been a non-stop buzz of workshops, presentations and debates.  From a Bristol perspective, this has been stimulated by an inspiring and demanding year as the European Green Capital.  From the Paris perspective, it has been stimulated by its role as host. However, a particularly deep and long-lasting contribution to all of COP21 has come from ICLEI.

ICLEI has been leading the mobilisation of sub-national actors for 25 years and is distinguished because it works with a wide range of entities of all scale: small cities, large cities, and regions.  However, ICLEI did not simply come to Paris to represent those groups; it asked them to make and share their own commitments, ambitions and strategies.

These projects are part of the Transformative Action Program (TAP), managed by ICLEI, and in many ways they are the city and region companion to the INDCs.

Bristol committed to finding 1 billion euros of investment to retrofit a third of its houses, a proposition based in part on research conducted by University of Bristol Cabot Institute academics.  It also committed to the Bristol Brain, a city emulator that will empower citizens and leaders to make bolder but more informed planning decisions.  Not to be outdone, Copenhagen committed to carbon neutral energy provision by 2025.

Today was East Asia’s turn and they produced some of the boldest proposals, appropriate given the fact that the Mayor of Seoul, Won Soon Park, is also the President of ICLEI.  A recurring theme was the integration of food, water and energy sustainability and the coexistence with nature.  Kaohsiung City, for example, aimed to achieve, among other goals: ‘…Prosperity with Mountain and Ocean and a Liveable Homeland.’  Taichung proposed a TAP for the ‘City Food Forest’ and highlighted the importance of integrating the next generation of farmers into their future city thinking.  Throughout the past week and a half, a recurring theme has been the need for breaking free of silo-ed thinking in order to achieve system change; these Asian cities are doing that.

Comparing these plans to those of European nations illustrates the particular challenge of political boundaries.  Bristol is an urban area of >1 million people, but its Mayor and City Council only govern a ‘city’ of 500,000.   It must find a way to develop integrated sustainability policies that support and include those 1 million people but also the wider hinterland – the surrounding countryside that supports nature, agriculture and wind turbines.

This is why the TAPs can be so useful.  Many of the 120 publicly available on the ICLEI website are commitments but many are also mechanisms for policy change.  They allow us to compare and contrast, and therefore to learn and reflect. They are invitations to constructive criticism but also opportunities to share knowledge.

Wednesday 9th December 2015: The need for innovation (but do not call it innovation)

For the past two days, a delegation of us have been representing Bristol City Council and a group of Bristol businesses at the Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF) at Paris.  Our group included Bristol Mayor George Ferguson, who spoke on Tuesday; Amy Robinson, of Low Carbon Southwest and the driver behind the Go Green business initiative; Bristol City Council representatives Stephen Hillton and Mhairi Ambler; and Ben Wielgus of KPMG and Chris Hayes of Skanska, both Bristol Green Capital sponsors.

This was the COP21 ‘Business event’ and aspects of this have been rather sharply targeted by Paris activists. There is a legitimate question of whether corporate sponsors are engaging in greenwashing, but this was not my perception from inside Le Stade de France.  There were some major fossil fuel dependent or environmentally impactful companies in attendance, but they seemed genuinely committed to reducing their environmental impact.  Their actions must be transparent and assessed, and like all of us, they must be challenged to go further. This is why it was fantastic that Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, was speaking. Ceres is a true agent of change, bringing a huge variety of businesses into the conversation and working with them to continually raise ambitions.

The majority of these businesses, just like those that attended Bristol’s Business Summit in October, are clearly and objectively devoted to developing new technologies to address the world’s challenges,. Whether it be new solar tech that will underpin the PVC of 2050 or innovative new ways to deploy wind turbines cheaply and effectively in small African villages, it is no longer ‘business’ that is holding back climate action and in many cases they are leading it.

And we need them to do so.  We need them to develop new products and we need them to be supported by government and Universities.  We need them because we need new innovation, new technology and new infrastructure to meet our environmental challenges.

One of the major themes of the past two days has been leadership in innovation, an ambition to which the University of Bristol and the City of Bristol aspires – like any world-class university and city.  We have profound collective ambitions to be a Collaboratory for Change. These are exemplified by Bristol is Open, the Bristol Brain and the Bristol Billion, all endeavours of cooperation between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council and all celebrated by George Ferguson in his speech to the SIF attendees yesterday.

This need for at least some fundamentally new technology is why the Cabot Institute has launched VENTURE. It is why the University has invested so much in the award-winning incubator at the Engine Shed. It is why we have devoted so much resource to building world-leading expertise in materials and composites, especially in partnership with others in the region.

We do not need these innovations for deployment now – deployment of already existing technology will yield major reductions in our carbon emissions – but we need to start developing them now, so that we can achieve more difficult emissions reductions in 20 years.  Our future leaders must have an electrical grid that can support a renewable energy network. Our homes must have been prepared for the end of gas.

And we will need new technology to fully decarbonise.

We effectively have no way to make steel without burning coal to melt iron – we either need new tech in recycling steel, need to move to a post-steel world, need to completely redesign steel plants, or some combination of all three.

We will need new forms of low-energy shipping. Localising manufacturing and recycling could create energy savings in the global supply chain.  But we will always have a global supply chain and eventually it must be decarbonised.

Similarly, we will need to decarbonise our farm equipment.  At heart, I am still an Ohio farm boy, and so I was distracted from my cities-focus to discuss this with Carlo Lambro, Brand President of New Holland.  Their company has made some impressive efficiency gains in farm equipment, especially with respect to NOx emissions, but he conceded that a carbon neutral tractor is still far away – they require too much power, operating at near 100% capacity (cars are more like 20-30%).  He described their new methane-powered tractor, which could be joined up to biogas emissions from farm waste, but also explained that it can only operate for 1.5 hours.  There have been improvements… but there is still a long way to go. I appreciated his engagement and his candor about the challenges we face (but that did not keep me from encouraging him to go faster and further!).

Finally, if we really intend to limit warming to below 2C, then we will likely need to capture and store (CCS) some of the carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere. Moreover, some of the national negotiators are pushing for a laudable 1.5C limit, and this would certainly require CCS. In fact, the need for the widespread implementation of such technology by the middle of this century is explicitly embedded in the emissions scenarios of IPCC Working Group 3. That is why some of our best Earth Scientists are working on the latest CCS technology.

Unfortunately, CCS illustrates how challenging innovation can be – or more precisely, as articulated by Californian entrepreneur Tom Steyer, how challenging it can be to develop existing technology into useful products. The CCS technology exists but it is still nascent and economically unviable.  It must be developed.  Given this, the recent cancellation of UK CCS projects is disappointing and could prove devastating for the UK’s intellectual leadership in this area.  The consequences of this decision were discussed by Nicola Sturgeon in a panel on energy futures and she renewed Scotland’s firm commitment to it.
This issue exemplifies a wider topic of conversation at the SIF: social and technological innovation and development requires financing, but securing that financing requires safety.  Skittish investors do not seek innovation; they seek safe, secure and boring investment. And SIF wrapped up by talking about how to make that happen.

First, we must invest in the research that yields innovations. We must then invest in the development of those innovations to build public and investor confidence.  Crucial to both of those is public sector support. This includes Universities, although Universities will have to operate in somewhat new ways if we wish to contribute more to the development process. We are learning, however, which is why George Ferguson singled out the Engine Shed as the world’s leading higher education based incubator.

Second, and more directly relevant to the COP21 ambitions, businesses and their investors need their governments to provide confidence that they are committed to a new energy future.  It has been clear all week that businesses will no longer accept the blame for their governments’ climate inaction.

Instead, most businesses see the opportunity and are eager to seize it. As for the few businesses that cling to the past? Like all things that fail to evolve, the past is where they shall remain.  The new generation of entrepreneurs will see to that. Whether it be the new businesses with new ideas or the old businesses that are adapting, the new economy is not coming; it is already here.

Tuesday 8th December 2015: Will we trust governments on climate?

Whatever comes of the climate summit that kicked off Monday in Paris, the negotiations will be intense. Signatories of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change meet every year, but this year is exceptional. The stakes are high, with governments and their negotiators seeking to finalize a landmark treaty that will guide the world’s actions for many years to come with respect to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate change they cause.
Despite the heat that the negotiations in Paris will surely generate, though, in a sense dealing with climate change could actually be… surprisingly easy. The world’s leading climate economist thinks it would cost only about 2% of GDP to get the world on track to avoid the worst effects. That’s not a lot to pay to solve perhaps the most serious challenge confronting humanity.
Why then is it proving so hard for us to buy a climate-friendly economy?
Part of the problem is that public opinion is pretty hostile to the number one thing that could get us there: making polluters pay taxes if they want to pollute.
The logic is simple. People buy less of something when it gets more expensive. Raising the price of polluting activities is therefore the most effective, direct, and time-tested way of getting people to live–produce and consume–in ways that cause less damage to the environment.

In principle, there should be no reason for people not to like the idea. Governments can lower taxes on things that do no harm (income and labour) while raising them on things that do (emitting greenhouse gases, leaching waste into groundwater, driving a car on congested streets at rush hour). Tax shifts of this kind have no net effect on public finance, and at most a very small one on household budgets–but they can make a big dent in environmental degradation.
Take the case of Canada. In 2008, a right-of-centre government in the western province of British Columbia (BC) introduced a C$30/ton tax on carbon emissions. The rest of Canada did not. Over the course of the next several years, consumption of fossil fuels in British Columbia dropped significantly, while consumption elsewhere didn’t. Meanwhile, BC enjoyed faster economic growth than the average across the other provinces.

But cases like British Columbia’s are exceptional. In most places, public opinion has been too hostile to new taxes of any kind for governments to raise taxes even on pollution and the use of scarce resources. In 2013, for example, Australians voted out a government that had brought in a carbon tax much like British Columbia’s, and they voted in a government that repealed the tax. Earlier this year, the Swiss voted down new carbon taxes in a referendum.
Perhaps the biggest reason why people around the world don’t want green taxes is political distrust. Even though such taxes have a great track record, people simply don’t trust governments to make good use of taxes–of any kind. They worry that tax revenues disappear into the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats, never to be seen again. Some think it’s unfair to tax people for behaviours that are hard to avoid–like heating your home or catching a flight for the occasional family holiday. So they don’t like green taxes, and that’s true even though most people say they believe in the seriousness of climate change, and of environmental problems generally.
To illustrate the point, in an experiment I conducted in Britain last year, I randomly assigned survey respondents to different versions of a question about their willingness to pay higher taxes to protect the environment. People were much more open to the idea if they were told that other taxes they pay would be reduced to compensate. So it seems that revenue neutrality can win over a lot of people. But telling respondents that the offsetting cuts to other taxes were only a government “promise” reduced much of the positive impact of revenue-neutrality. Clearly, government promises don’t cut much weight, at least with Britons. (Experiments with other populations elsewhere are ongoing.)
Advocates for better environmental policy have typically focussed on getting the word out about the seriousness of the problems the policies are meant to address. But, in another recent study, I conducted a head-to-head test of the scope for expanding public acceptance of environmental taxes if only one of (a) concerns about environmental problems or (b) political trust were to increase. Because there is already a lot of concern about environmental problems, but not a lot of political trust, it turns out that the potential impact of the latter looks much greater in most countries.
For that reason, along with alerting people to all the ways in which people are doing serious harm to the environment globally and locally, it would also be good to get the word out about the many environmental policies that have been tremendously successful. Globally, we’ve built a regime to stop depleting the ozone layer; many countries have reduced acid rain dramatically; some formerly endangered species are no longer endangered. If more people thought about how much good past environmental policies have done, they might be more inclined to support efforts to do more.

This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Dr Malcolm Fairbrother, from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Policy Trajectories, the blog of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Comparative and Historical Sociology.

Monday 7th December 2015: While the politicians negotiate, the science does not stop

I am on the train from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington and then on to Paris. It seems appropriate leaving from a station that was built by Brunel, a symbol of the industrial revolution but also innovation. Tomorrow, I will be joining George Ferguson, Stephen Hilton of Bristol City Council, Amy Robinson of Low Carbon Southwest and others at the Sustainable Innovation Forum. I appreciate that addressing climate change means changing some aspects of how we live, but it also requires some fundamentally new technology; I am excited to see where the cutting edge thinking is.  Meanwhile, over a relatively calm weekend, the draft accord has been made public – there have been some significant advances but also a ways to go.  Negotiations will be continuing in earnest!  More on all of that tomorrow (I hope – it will be a long day).
Today, however, my attention is elsewhere as our postgrads, research fellows and academic staff make their final preparations for the Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).  The science goes on – as it must and will, regardless of the Paris negotiations. We still know far too little about the complexity of this magnificent planet, how to best live on it sustainably, and the imminent and the longer-term impacts of climate and wider environmental change.

In my own research group (the OGU), my colleagues will be talking about increases in extreme rainfall during a past global warming event that is potentially analogous to the warming of today (see Matthew Carmichael’s research); the latest reconstructions of how carbon dioxide concentrations have changed over the past 3 million years (see Marcus Badger’s research); and the long-term controls on the hydrological cycle of the Mediterranean region (see Jan Peter Mayser’s research). All of them are collaborating with climate modellers in BRIDGE. Others in BRIDGE will be discussing how to improve the next generation of Earth System models, how to forecast land use impacts on the atmosphere, and examining the biological consequences of past ocean acidification events.  Anita Ganesan and Matt Rigby are both presenting talks on methane cycling and monitoring – a reminder that CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas and that cars and cities are not the only cause of global warming.  Our glaciologists are exploring the future of the ice sheets and glaciers. Our civil engineers and geographers are presenting the latest research on all aspects of the hydrological cycle: improved models of catchments; better flood and drought forecasting; and better understanding how land use change has affected the chemistry of our rivers.
Through all of this, there is a persistent and recurring theme of constraining uncertainty as well as understanding uncertainty in the context of decision-making. Scientists, industry and leaders must develop better tools for navigating environmental uncertainty, a focus of the Cabot Institute in 2015 and for which the need has been aptly demonstrated by Storm Desmond’s impact on Cumbria.

It is a remarkable variety of research – and that is just a sample from the University of Bristol.

I’m never apologetic about promoting Bristol achievements and activity – it is what I know best, it is world-leading and it is my job!  Here, however, singling out these Bristol-centric contributions makes a stronger point; the above are just a few examples of the research conducted in just one institution.  Some 20,000 scientists will attend AGU!  There is profound and diverse effort devoted to understanding our planet and improving how we live upon it.
A fantastic example of some research being led by our colleagues will be on display in London on Monday as part of a Royal Society Discussion Meeting on the Biological and Climatic Impacts of Ocean Trace Element Chemistry. The event is co-convened by our Oxford friend, colleague and frequent collaborator, Gideon Henderson. Chatting to Gideon a few days ago, he emphasised the importance of the ocean in regulating our climate: ‘The oceans consume 27% of the carbon we emit, after all, and the ocean biosphere naturally consumes 11 Gtonnes of C per year.’ This is a huge issue. Currently, the ocean buffers the atmosphere against human action – but it is unclear how long this will continue.  Moreover, the ocean does so at a cost:

  • As the ocean absorbs energy, it warms.
  • As the ocean absorbs this carbon, its pH declines.
  • As marine phytoplankton assimilate this carbon and sink, they change the chemical state of the ocean, from top to bottom, creating oxygen dead zones and transforming the redox state of trace but biologically vital elements.

This research is an important reminder that the issues associated with rising greenhouse gas concentrations encompass more than just the weather – greenhouse gases are changing the chemistry, physics and biology of our planet, with unclear consequences.  Their full synergistic effects, through these complex biogeochemical systems, remain difficult to anticipate. Their consequences difficult to predict.

And so, as the negotiations continue, we continue our research.  On the oceans and the tropical rain forests; the deserts of the Sahara and the Arctic; the peatlands and permafrost; the soils and the bedrock beneath; the atmosphere and the cryosphere.  On the plants, animals and microorganisms that coexist with and co-regulate these ecosystems.  And of course, the people dependent on them.

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