Starting an MSc is a life-changing decision

By Helen Kennedy, who just got back from CAT’s postgraduate open weekend where she came to find out about our new MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. 

Helen Kennedy at Treffyn
Helen Kennedy at Treffyn

Having 22 years’ teaching experience, and not liking the way things have been going for some years, I decided to try somehow to make a difference both to my life and possibly the lives of many others by taking more practical skills and thinking back into the classroom. But how to do it? Budgets are tight and present government educational climate wrong to try to do it from the inside, so, having long been interested in the world of renewable energy, sustainable building methods and permaculture design, I have decided to get trained up and qualified, and try to deliver what I feel is crucial stuff back into the world of primary and secondary education from the outside.

And so I began to look into the possibilities. It didn’t take long to realize that the courses available at CAT offer something you cannot get anywhere else, in terms of the wealth of knowledge concentrated there, the immersive environment, the “what you see around you everywhere reflects what you learn” whole ethos of the site itself, the great reputation of CAT and its long-standing history. I visited CAT as an enthusiastic 7 year old, and remember the revolutionary half-flushing toilets and hand-made wind turbine. From tiny acorns, as the saying goes.

I arrived on Saturday morning feeling excited but rather apprehensive about the weekend, and as the funicular carriage heaved me up the steep slope, it was difficult not to feel seven again, with my weekend’s belongings stuffed in a bag and a thousand questions stuffed in my head.

The gathering of people in front of the WISE building reflected the sheer diversity of those interested and driven to make whatever differences they can to tackle the environmental changes happening to the world, and to learn more about it, or to pass on their expertise, and I was immediately made to feel welcome, and taken on an impromptu tour of some of the work undertaken by students during a week of trying out different wall building and rendering techniques, including home-made lime putty, pizza ovens and a potential sauna. CAT students obviously know how to have fun 😉

CAT students making lime putty last week

The weekend formally began with an introduction to CAT from Tim Coleridge, followed by a lecture about climate change and adaptation delivered at lightning speed by Ranyl Rhydwen, who could get his message across to a sack of spuds, so lively is his style and passionate is his conviction. Catching our breath (!) we were whisked off on tours of some of the AEES [course to be replaced by Sustainability and Adaptation in September] students’ projects, and very industrious stuff it is too. From investigations into the properties of different mixes of hemp shives and lime, to exterior render experiments, some even including flour in the mix, and various different building projects underway, it was all very interesting. Brain overload was avoided by discussing also the social side of things; the starlit sauna up the steep slope behind the WISE building, or a, dare I say it, drinking den down the Magical Mole Hole!

Following a well-earned break, an exemplification of course modules and a Q&A session we went off to find our rooms. The first thing to hit me was the aroma of wood oil, and then the sliding door onto the decking area with daisies and a PV array, courtesy of this year’s REBE students. I could have stayed in there for the rest of the evening, except for the promise of pizza baked in a clay oven, a cool cider, some great company and an unexpected stomp up the slope to see the site from the wind turbines and to get eaten alive by midges as the sun sank behind some lenticular clouds.

IMAG0411
Cooking pizza on Saturday night

A peaceful sleep, a renewable shower and a vegetarian CAT-special breakfast later, we were all gathered to listen to Tobi Kellner’s Zero Carbon Britain lecture. This was possibly one of the most powerful 40 minutes I have ever experienced, and one with a hugely positive message. I have since returning home, downloaded the pdf file of this lecture with its brilliantly clear and user-friendly info-graphics.

I had to leave early, to see if my wild-camping partner and dog had made it to Aberdovey in the heat of the weekend (which they had), but my head was left buzzing with all the activities and messages I had seen and heard, and the fabulous folk I met, and hope to meet again, as a student. Fingers crossed.

If you missed the open weekend but are interested in the MSc courses offered at CAT visit the Graduate School of the Environment webpages or contact us.

Analysis: Why we can’t choose fracking

So, we already know why we don’t need fracking, but there are very good reasons for saying we quite simply can’t have it.

“Shale gas is categorically not compatible with the UK’s obligation to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change – the maths on this are clear and unambiguous.”

–  We really can’t sum it up any better than this comment from Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester and ex-director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s leading academic climate change research organisation.

But others have said it too:

“The world should not be searching for new sources of fossil fuel. We can’t even burn all of what we already have. We need to keep the coal, oil and the gas in the ground” says Simon Bullock (of Friends of the Earth) on releasing a report on ‘unburnable carbon’ last year.

The Carbon Tracker initiative, looking at fossil fuel reserves already listed by the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies on the stock exchange, state that “just the listed proportion of reserves in the next 40 years is enough to take us beyond 2°C of global warming.” And that these are just 27% of known conventional fossil fuel reserves, not including those from most unconventional sources like fracking.

Economist Dieter Helm sums up the issue: “The problem is that we have too much fossil-fuel  resource, not too little – enough to fry the planet several times over.”

Budgeting our carbon

Kevin Anderson explains what the problem is, when commenting on the shale gas report released recently by the House of Lords: “Climate change is a cumulative issue – it is about the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The 2°C threshold between dangerous and acceptable climate change comes with a carbon budget; i.e. how much CO2 we can emit into the atmosphere.”

The global carbon budget is pretty well defined (here, in the most recent IPCC report see details on ‘cumulative carbon emissions’ (see page 27), and a useful explanation here). We can say what chance we have of avoiding that 2°C threshold given the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere in total – cumulatively. The less carbon we release, the higher our chances of avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change.

But how we share the global carbon budget out amongst countries is a little more tricky. One way to do it would be to say each person in the world gets the same share, starting now, which means a country’s allocation would just be based on its population. But this doesn’t take account of the fact that people in the UK have benefited from being a high emitter in the past . Since most emissions remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, a substantial amount of what is now in the atmosphere is ‘ours’. We can choose to divide the global carbon budget into countries’ shares from different dates – the earlier the date we divide it up, the more responsibility we take for emitting more than our fair share historically.

The chart shows some examples of this:

Figure 1: Comparison between UK’s share of the global carbon budget for different chances of avoiding a 2oC global average temperature rise (orange; red) and the emissions associated with burning various known fossil fuel reserves in the UK (grey, blue). Note: These figures are are calculated excluding emissions from international aviation and shipping, and are in gigatonnes carbon-dioxide (GtCO2), to make data comparable to those for fossil fuel reserves. They do not, for example, include methane (CH4) that may be released in extraction or distribution of gas. in Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future, conventionally we use gigatonnes carbon-dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e) which encompasses all greenhouse gases. For this reason, the budgets used here do not appear the same as those in the latest ZCB report.

The figure above shows exactly what the problem is for the UK – comparing various potential ‘carbon budgets’ to our remaining and potential fossil fuel reserves (both conventional and unconventional). We can see that with a decent (80%) chance of avoiding 2°C, and taking historical responsibility for our emissions back to just 2000 would mean that burning even those conventional fossil fuels projected by UK government would take us way over the 0.4 GtCO2 budget.

If we relax our morals and take almost no historical responsibility, we still can’t burn everything we plan to before blowing our larger budget of 3.4 GtCO2.

In fact, even with a 50/50 chance – which is no better than flipping a coin to see if we will avoid 2°C, and taking almost no responsibility for our actions in the past (bringing our budget to 8.2 GtCO2), we still can’t burn all of the potential conventional fossil fuel reserves in the UK. In fact, Carbon Tracker states in its report “London currently has 105.5 GtCO2 of fossil fuel reserves listed on its exchange”, and that “just one of the largest companies listed in London, such as Shell, BP or Xstrata, has enough reserves to use up the UK’s carbon budget to 2050”

And thats before we even start talking about carbon from unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas from fracking.

Friends of the Earth say “The UK plans on producing far more than a reasonable share of the world’s burnable carbon. Shale gas is just adding to a huge unburnable carbon problem.“

And they’re totally right – no carbon budget for the UK which holds any moral, or ethical sway stretches far enough to be able to start getting at unconventional fossil fuels like those from fracking.

The lesser of two evils?

But isn’t gas better than coal from a carbon perspective? Shouldn’t we be fracking for gas so we can get rid of coal power stations? What about gas as a ‘bridging’, or ‘transition’ fuel to a renewable future?

Professor David MacKay’s report on shale gas for the UK government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), reiterated in evidence he submitted to the Committee preparing the Lords’ report (see pages 353-4), states that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.”

Shale gas, like any other fossil fuel, emits carbon dioxide into the air when burnt to produce energy. As such, Anderson comments, “In that regard it is certainly not a transition fuel and if we are serious about our explicit climate change commitments the only appropriate place for shale gas remains deep underground.“

[Note: there are countless more detailed arguments against exploiting shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuels as a ‘bridging’ or ‘lower carbon’ fuel. Some can be found here, here and here.]

A better option

It simple: as Bullock states: “The UK should call a halt to new oil, gas and shale gas exploration, and invest in energy efficiency and renewable power instead.” We know this works, and we know we will, regardless of what carbon budget we stick to, have to transition to a zero-carbon and carbon-neutral energy system like that outlined in CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future. We show that we have all the technology we need already, and transforming our society in this way, without fracking for gas, gives us the best chance possible of avoiding that 2oC threshold.

CAT’s course in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment teaches the real solutions for eliminating greenhouse gases from our energy system. Apply now to start in September.

1974 Diary: Week One

2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the Centre for Alternative Technology. When the first volunteers arrived on-site they faced a huge challenge – turning an abandoned slate quarry into a renewable-energy-powered sustainable community. From their arrival on 2nd February 1974 through to December 22nd 1974 they kept a diary of their work. We’ll be publishing extracts from the diary on our Facebook Timeline daily throughout 2014. We will be posting weekly updates on the blog each week. You can read all the diary entries here

Front Page 2

2nd February

Weather: South West gale, rain.

Arrived at Machynlleth with Pat Keiller. Found the Centre very much as we had left it. A Douglas Fir had fallen across the top of the road, but all the structures are intact.

The evening at Lady White’s cottage, Pantperthog. Most comfortable.

3rd February

Weather: Warm, sunny and calm.

We installed a window frame into the East cottage, using existing timber, and ran guttering along the back. Pat took some photographs. bAt dusk we travelled to Aberystwyth to give an interview for “Good Morning Wales” (BBC Radio 4).

4th February

Weather: Rain early, then broken cloud with sunny intervals.

We cleared the debris from the upper rooms of the cottage, noting that much of the structure is very damp, due to holes in the roof. Repairs to the roof have begun, hopefully to be completed tomorrow. Most of the existing window frames will be retained, which will speed up the installation of windows, which has not been progressing as rapidly as I had hoped

The old quarrymens’ cottages in 1973.

5th February

Weather: Misty during the morning, then heavy rain.

Pat has repaired the largest leaks in the cottage roof. The upstairs narrow window has been framed. Our work was interrupted during the afternoon by the arrival of the two local press-men. The bathroom has been cleaned up, and it has been decided to run the drainage out of the back, having first excavated along the back of all three cottages. My car was overhauled by Jones the Garage, and seems to run much better.

6th February

Weather: Gale with sleet and rain early, abating as the day progressed.

We have completed the window framing and Pat has been working on the roof all day, in spite of the weather. The GPO telephone man arrived, saying it would be some weeks before the phone would be installed. We met Cliff Collins at the station, who is most impressed with the centre and its possibilities. I attempted to follow up Steve Boulter’s lead re digester tanks, but came to a full stop. Humphrey’s the iron-monger has neither glass nor beading in stock so it looks like a trip to Aberystwyth.

7th February

Weather: Clear, sunny and calm.

Pat spent the morning taking photographs and the afternoon on the roof. Cliff has commenced taking wind readings with his anemometer, a record of which will be kept separately. We now have glass and beading, and hope to start tomorrow. Tony and Viv arrived from London, have dined with us and are spending the weekend in the cells at Corris.* Tomorrow we join them. We have started to cut wood and stack it in the nearest shed. Pat saw what he believes is a peregrine falcon.

[*In the 1970s the old police station at Corris had been converted into a hostel.]

8th February

Weather: Heavy rain all day.

The rain has done some damage to the road, requiring two of us to ditch and fill. The front of the cottage has been glazed by Pat. It is not possible to floor the front room yet as no polystyrene is available in Machynlleth. Another 7 people have arrived, so we are now twelve, housed in the Corris Cells. John Beaumont seems worried about the question of tourism and I hastened to reassure him of how I feel. Audrey has 3 beds and mattresses for us. Cliff recorded a gust of 70kph today.

9th February

Weather: Rain early, clearing later.

Diana talked with John Beaumont this morning, to reassure him that we are not interested in making money from tourism. A busy day, logging and ditching. Pat has directed the spring at the back of the cottages into a slate tank at the west corner. The glazing has been completed. Cliff has made a slate culvert at the bottom of the road, but we are unable to discover where the water should ultimately come. John Sandiland called with the Asst. Head of Forest Hill School, and has promised 6 pupils tomorrow for path building. Diana kindly cleaned the cottage interior, separating the tools for the catering, which makes life much more tolerable.

New Skills in 2014: Timber Frame Building

We have a host of exciting short courses taking place at CAT in 2014, and up until the end of January there’s 10% off! One of our most popular courses is Timber Frame Building, a five day course from 31st March to the the 4th April 2014. 

This course is for anyone interested in sustainable construction, timber buildings and building your own home. This course particularly welcomes participants from NGOs working in development, self-builders, construction teachers, individuals looking to re-skill and architects. Over the five days students will gain unique hands-on experience, underpinned by talks on the process of planning and building timber structures.

The tutors on the Timber Frame Building course  are all experts in the field: Pat Borer is an architect with over 35 years experience in designing and constructing green buildings; Duncan Roberts is Programme Leader of CAT’s Part II in Architecture and Geoff Stow built his own home in Lewisham and is part of the Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB).

Timber Framers in 2013

The course attracts a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds such as Yotin, who came on the course with his neighbour last year to learn how to live off-grid. The two explained that “the lecturers are kick-ass, down to earth and informative” sharing their expertise with a “hands-on approach”.

At the end of the course participants understand timber frame design and are able initiate their own timber frame self-build projects.

For more information about the Timber Frame Building course visit our website.

On the 16th August there will be a new course closely linked to this one: Traditional Timber Frame Joints. The course will cover an overview of the tools and techniques used in marking and cutting joints in a series of hands-on workshop session.

Remember, we are offering a 10% on courses booked before the end of January. For terms and conditions please visit our website.

Low Carbon Living: Spiced Apple Cobbler

Using calculations being developed for Laura’s Larder, we’ve created a low-carbon Christmas feast. This week’s blog is the last of the three courses and features the low carbon dessert: Spiced Apple Cobbler. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading these blogs and have fun trying out the recipes. Look out for more Laura’s Larder/food related blogs in the New Year, but for now – Nadolig Llawen / Merry Christmas!

Spiced Apple Cobbler

Serves 8

Ingredients

1.5kg Apples
60g Sugar

2tsp Ginger

1tsp Allspice

For the topping:
210g self-raising wholemeal flour
70g margarine
35g sugar
Ice cream to serve

Method

Peel, core and chop the apples into small chunks and divide roughly into two. Place half of the apples in a pan with the sugar, spices and some water and heat until the apples begin to reduce down. Once the apples start to look a little bit like stewed apple, take them off the heat and add in the other half of the apples. Stir the mixture, making sure all of the chunks of apple are coated in the sauce. Add the mixture to your serving dish.

NB// The sugar and spices can be added in stages to suit taste preferences. (Those with a really sweet tooth may need to add more sugar!)

For the topping; add all of the ingredients into a bowl and rub in the margarine until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add just enough water to make into a dough. Divide the dough into 8 and roll each into a ball before squashing slightly and placing on top of the apples. The topping should expand slightly when baked in the oven so leave a bit of space between each ball. Once assembled, bake in a pre-heated oven at 200C for approximately 15-20 minutes.

In order to make this dish suitable for vegans we used a margarine that did not contain any dairy products when making the topping mixture. We then served it with vegan ice cream. For the non-vegan option we served it with dairy ice cream. For those of you who have never tried a non-dairy ice-cream I would highly recommend it – it was absolutely delicious!

Low-Carbon Notes

 

Emissions relating to Spiced Apple Cobbler served with dairy ice-cream
Emissions relating to Spice Apple Cobbler served with non-dairy ice cream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greenhouse gas emissions of the dessert

  • The scale of this bar chart is very small. These dishes have been designed to have very low greenhouse gas emissions scores
  • All of the emissions values used are based on commercially grown produce. This means growing your own or buying locally produced ingredients could reduce emissions further still.
  • High emitters:
    • The apples contribute the most to this dish as we have used so many. When comparing foods on a per kilogram basis, apples have low associated emissions.
    • Using the same amount of dairy ice cream as vegan ice cream makes the dairy option 2 ½ times worse from a GHG emissions perspective. The non-vegan dessert, however, still has very low associated emissions meaning that, if portion sizes are sensible, dairy products can be consumed as part of a low carbon diet. The downside to this is that when you look at scaling up these results for the whole of the UK population, rather than for one person and one dish – an emissions difference of 2 ½ times begins to make more of an impact.
    • Sugar is one of the lowest emitting foods available. I would advise restricting it where you can for health benefits rather than for emissions reductions.

 

New Skills in 2014 – Hedgelaying and Restoration

We have a host of exciting new short courses taking place at CAT in the new year, so if you fancy learning something new in 2014 then what about the traditional art of hedgelaying? Our weekend course on Hedgelaying and Restoration will run between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 2014. Why is this skill so important?

The course involves both theoretical and practical learning onsite at CAT with Rob Goodsell. Students will learn about different types of hedges, the ecosystems found in them and the traditional tools used to create them. Rob is an experienced woodsman with a hands-on approach to learning. He is been a long-time member of the CAT staff, working in water resources and woodland management. His teachings emphasise the importance of sustaining vibrant landscapes by using sustainable methods and techniques.

Tutor Rob Goodsell

Nowadays, hedges are often ‘flailed’; the tops are cut off using large automated machinery. This technique is not very sustainable. Rob explains that “flailing breaks down the hedgerows and will not promote new growth of the plants and will negatively impact on species, such as bats, that use these corridors to navigate. Flailing looks neat but it is not good for the countryside.”

Most hedges in the UK have been maltreated for over 30 years, so bringing them back to life is vital. Learning how to construct hedges in a more traditional way promotes habitat corridors, while allowing the local flora and fauna to flourish.

Find out more about this course on our website. Until 31/01/2014 we are offering 10% off this short course. 

 

Low Carbon Living: Root Vegetable Rösti with Parsley Pesto Hummous

Using calculations being developed for Laura’s Larder, we’ve created a low-carbon Christmas feast. Over the next three weeks we’ll be posting a starter (below), main course and dessert for you to enjoy.

Root Vegetable Rösti

Serves 8 as a starter

Ingredients

2 large potatoes
2 parsnips
2 small onions
1 sweet potato
2 beetroot (ours were chioggia, a beetroot variation with a very distinctive striped pattern)
150g gram (chickpea) flour
2 tbsp cumin seeds
½ tsp salt
Oil for frying

Method

Finely grate the potato and onion, sprinkle over the salt and mix well. Place in a sieve or colander and leave the water to drain whilst you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Grate the sweet potato, beetroot and parsnip. Add the potato and onion and mix well. Gradually add in the flour bit by bit until handfuls of mixture stick together.

Over a low heat gently warm the cumin seeds in a frying pan. After a few minutes add them to the root vegetables and mix well. Pour a generous amount of oil into the frying pan and turn up to a medium heat. Form small patties from the rösti mix, making sure that the mixture is tightly clumped together. Once the oil is hot, place the patties in the frying pan and flatten using a spatula. Once the underside has browned nicely flip them over. Make sure the hob isn’t too hot as they are easy to burn.

When both sides of the rösti are brown, remove them from the frying pan and place on a plate covered in kitchen paper to remove the excess oil. Transfer them to the oven to keep them warm as you make the rest.

Parsley Pesto Hummous

Ingredients

400g tin of chickpeas
4 tbsp tahini
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Lemon juice, to taste
Olive oil, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
A handful of chopped parsley
1 tbsp pesto

 

Method

In a bowl combine the chickpeas, tahini, garlic and a little bit of the chickpea water. Blend the mixture together until you have a thick paste. Gradually add the olive oil and lemon juice until you have a smooth mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the hummous into a bowl and drizzle over the pesto. Finish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley.

Low-Carbon Notes

Greenhouse gas emissions of the starter
  • The scale of this bar chart is very small. These dishes have been designed to have very low greenhouse gas emissions scores

  • All of the emissions values used are based on commercially grown produce. This means growing your own or buying locally produced ingredients could reduce emissions further still
  • High emitters:

    • Gram for gram we used the same amount of sweet potato and parsnip, but the emissions from sweet potato are almost 2 1/2 times higher.
    • Chickpeas contribute the most to the emission score of this dish. They are actually responsible for slightly lower emissions than sweet potatoes (per kilogram produced) but we are using more of them.
    • Of all the ingredients used for our starter, oil has one of the highest emission scores per kilogram. This means that the less oil you can use to make the rösti the better – using less oil makes them healthier too!

Laura’s Larder: thinking about the greenhouse gas emissions connected to our food


Nowadays, many people think about the impact their food has on the environment, as well as how healthy it is. This goes beyond transport to encompass what goes into growing, preparing and packaging – as well as shipping – the food. It’s great that we’re becoming more and more aware of these issues, but it does lead to all sorts of questions:

  • Can I eat more chicken if I don’t eat lamb?
  • If I want to keep eating sausages, can I give up something else instead?
  • Is it okay to have ‘real’ milk in my tea, if I don’t have a biscuit with it?

 

These questions reflect the fact that we all have different tastes and that we all have foods that we would potentially prefer to sacrifice over others when push comes to shove.

But, as individuals who clearly care very much about making good choices with respect to our food, what we need is more information to help us. So, what I am working on now is an application called ‘Laura’s Larder’. This application will allow anyone who is interested, to input a diet – whether an accurate reflection of their own or invented – to see what impact that this diet would have on greenhouse gas emissions and on health.

Designing an application that tailors the results to each individual means that we can begin to help answer the sorts of questions that come up when we start to think about the food choices we can make – such as those outlined above. This means that if you are interested in reducing your food related emissions, but don’t fancy an immediate switch to veganism, you can design your own approach and tailor your emissions reductions in line with your own tastes and preferences.

I hope very much that the Laura’s Larder application will provide a helpful way of showing the sorts of changes that we can start to make to our diets today and that seeing the significance that those changes can have on our emissions and on our health, and how achievable those changes can be, will encourage the first steps towards a low-carbon future, such as the one that we have laid out in the latest Zero Carbon Britain report: Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future.

The launch of Laura’s Larder is still a few months away, but we thought we would get into the spirit of it by creating a series of festive recipes in the lead-up to Christmas. These recipes are all tasty, nutritious and healthy for both us and the planet. Each week we’ll post a new recipe with a breakdown of each meal’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as tips on how to incorporate low-carbon food into your everyday lives.

The first recipe will be posted later today.

A Splendid Day Visit for Steiner School Students

We had a great visit from the Steiner Academy in Hereford today.

With a strong focus on teaching for sustainability, the school practices what it preaches by generating its own electricity on-site using photovoltaic panels. They also have a wood chip boiler for under-floor heating in the classrooms. Core to the school’s ethos is bringing nature into the classroom, supporting creativity in students and promoting respect.

During a tour of the CAT site by Ann, a member of our Education Team, the students interacted with our on-site displays. The students, who are currently doing their GCSEs, said that ‘they enjoyed the site very much’ and the willow sculptures on-site reminded them of their own school. Some students said they found ‘the mole hole a little bit scary’ but thought it was ‘very creative and artistic’.

Visit our Education Centre to find out more about what CAT can offer to school groups.

Whose Larder?

Building on the land-use and diets part of Zero Carbon Britain, Laura Blake, a food and diets researcher at CAT, has embarked upon an exciting new project, tentatively titled ‘Laura’s Larder’. In the first of a new series of blog posts, she explains the importance of thinking holistically about our food.

“Whilst working here at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), I have been doing some research into the environmental and health implications of our diets. This work was primarily conducted as part of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project, but more recently I have been developing something new (more details to follow!)

My interest in food has been ongoing for many years now. I became vegetarian at a young age and, with the help of my Mum, learnt how to get all the nutrients I require from non-meat sources. This was the beginning of my interest in nutrition, which I eventually went on to study for my undergraduate degree. I then went on to do a Masters in Food Nutrition, which, combined with membership of a fair-trade society, meant I became more aware of the inequalities of our current supply system.

There are many different issues surrounding the foods we choose to eat – from the effects of the greenhouse gases (GHG) released in their production, processing and transport; to the inequality in the profits of large companies who benefit from paying producers (often overseas) next to nothing. Recently commissioned research into shoppers’ buying habits noted that sales of Fairtrade products increased by 18% last year, despite people generally spending less on their shopping. It appears that we care about issues relating to the food we eat, and when we are provided with trusted information we can make good choices that have benefits on a global level – choosing to buy fair-trade, for example, really does make a difference to people’s lives.

As I continued my work in food issues I began to realise that the effects of climate change (droughts and soaring temperatures, floods and other extreme weather events) have already begun to affect our ability to grow food. My Masters helped me understand that farmers who are already lacking access to clean water, medical supplies and facilities – as well as struggling to make enough money to buy food for themselves – may find it even harder in the future to grow their crops, making life even more difficult. But climate change will not just be a problem in other parts of the world: the effects may hit poorer farmers hardest but they will also affect our growing abilities here in the UK.

As climate change results from high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, this makes reducing our food-related greenhouse gas emissions another important consideration when buying sustainable products – the story goes full circle.

Through my work on the Zero Carbon Britain project I was able to carry out some in-depth research into the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of foods that we commonly consume in the UK today. This was one of the two main focuses of research that went towards the recent publication of Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future here at CAT. It turns out that the best way we have currently of cutting emissions related to our food and agriculture is simply to choose to buy and eat different things that are lower in carbon. By looking at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of foods that we commonly consume in the UK, I could come up with a diet that both met all of our nutritional requirements and significantly lowered our greenhouse gas emissions.

Throughout my time working on the ZCB project I was often asked questions such as “how much cheese could I eat if I didn’t eat beef?” or “how much chicken could I eat if I gave up lamb”. These questions reflect the fact that we clearly care very much about making good choices with respect to our food, but we don’t currently have enough information. We all have different tastes, and foods that we would potentially prefer to swap over others in order to reduce our emissions. All of these thoughts have formed the backbone of my new project, something I will tell you about in more detail in my next post!”