MSc Students visit ancient ruin of Castell y Bere with ideas to build a Utopian Community

Susannah Trevelyan, who is volunteering in CAT’s media and marketing department, joins MSc students on an Adaptation Planning exercise in Castell y Bere.

Adaptation planning

Today I was lucky enough to be allowed a sneak preview into the  MSc Sustainability and Adaptation’s field trip to Castell y Bere, an ancient ruin of a 12th century castle that clings to a rocky out crop in the beautiful hills above Cardigan Bay. We had been split into two groups and given a brief earlier in the morning at the WISE centre; it was our job to design a utopian climate resilient community, that within 10 years would, amongst other things support a community of 500 and be carbon neutral. Given the positions of leaders of this new community it was our job to organise food security, energy security, communication networks, clean water and sanitation, fuel, and a political and trading system. Everything a community needs would have to be worked out and presented in a proposal by the end of the week. This was a chance to share knowledge and to discuss what we would really use to  build the foundations of the future.

Future Leaders? MSc students gather to kickstart their adaptation and sustainability planning project at Castell y Bere.
The MSc students gather as leaders of a new utopian society.
The rain held off for us as we approached the ruins at Castell y Bere.
The MCs students are asked to arrive on site in silence, so as to enable a clarity and personal approach to the sustainability and adaptation exercise.
Sustainability and adaptation planning in action with the sun shining on the MSc fieldtrip at Castell y Bere.
Lecturer Louise Halestrap gives us a few directions in terms of what we need to consider when prioritising our group adaptation and sustainability exercise.

In order to make this practical possible it was important that we make some assumptions about the project and its context, the following of which were given to us…

  • We must support a population of 500 people
  • We can use any land we can see
  •  We must increase the sites resilience against climate change
  •  We must be fossil free within 10 years
  •  We must be waste free
  •  We must be carbon sequestering
  •  We must be ecosystem enhancing
  •  We must develop non-growth trading

We organised ourselves according to areas of expertise and interest, and I ended up in the Health and Wellbeing group. Having worked in the arts, particularly within mental health I was acutely aware of the important role health and wellbeing could play in our utopian society, and was excited to be able to engage with the crossovers it had with other aspects of living. Maybe we could develop a preventative medicinal approach to health, with a nutritious diet and a medicinal garden? Maybe we could develop community through the farming, along with celebrations and festivities in accordance with the seasons…

On top of the world ! MSc students survey the surrounding landscape on their field trip at Castell y Bere.
On top of the world ! MSc students survey the surrounding landscape on their field trip at Castell y Bere.

Under the strict supervision of our kind course leader we arrived on site in silence, allowing all of us to naturally conceive of a vision on site. After half an hour we erupted into chatter and started to tackle some of the most pressing issues in our future community. Where would we get clean water from? Where would we live and what would we eat? These were just a few of the most pressing issues we needed to agree on before lunch, never mind the education and health system.

MSc Students on a fieldtrip at Castell y Bere.
MSc Students, team naz, getting their heads together to discuss the main concerns of this budding utopian community.

It soon became apparent that setting up a new utopian community wasn’t as simple as it sounds, with a multitude of complex issues needing investigation before we could move confidently on. To make the most of our time we decided to list all the potential resources the site offered and, then continued shaping the broader issues at hand.

Recording the natural resources available to use was an important part of the day.
Natural resources in the ruins surrounding Castell y Bere include a small meandering river, and pasture land, which maybe is in risk of flooding considering climate change?


MSc Field trip to the ruins at Castell y Bere.
Ancient oaks cover the steep slopes leading up the ruins at Castell y Bere . Maybe this would be a useful resource for our new utopian community.

What should we do with the ruins themselves? To put in perspective the heritage of the site, the history tells a tale not unlike that of Game of Thrones; The site of dramatic wars with the English, where the Welsh king Llywelyn the Great held his authority over the Welsh. In 1221 Llywelyn took control of neighbouring Meirionnydd from his son, Gruffydd; Llywelyn had previously placed Gruffydd in power there, but the father and son had fallen out. The prince then began to build the castle of Castell y Bere with the intent of controlling the local population and securing his new south-west border, which included the mountain trade routes between Gwynedd, Powys Wenwynwyn and Deheubarth. Castell y Bere was the first of several stone castles built by Llywelyn and the initial castle consisted of several towers positioned around a courtyard, situated on a rocky hillock in the Dysynni Valley near Cadair Idris. 

Maybe we should just forget the past, as some of the group suggested, deconstruct the castle and reuse the stones for our new buildings? A fierce debate ensued, with a multitude of ideas for the castle ruins thrown into the air.

To be able to take all these complex and relevant issues into account in our plans certainly gave us food for thought, and it was there i left the group to develop plans of their own. The sun  had shone down on us  making this a very enjoyable day, jam packed with juice discussion. I’m sure that by the end of the week, the MSc students will have fallen out and made up a million times, be a bit battered around the edges,  but also be a bit more knowledgable about exactly what it takes to plan for the requirements of future generations.

Come to our open day on 16th November to find out more about the masters degrees in Sustainability and Adaptation, Renewable Energy, Planning and the Built Environment. 

 Susannah Trevelyan

Media and Marketing Volunteer CAT.




Join us on the biggest climate march in history

Everyone’s calling it the biggest climate march in history. As Mr Cameron joins other Prime Ministers and President’s in New Your this weekend, people all over the world will be taking to the streets to call for action. We want you to join us in London.

Alice Hooker-Stroud, who coordinated our Zero Carbon Britain research for the report we launched last summer will address the people who march in London to tell them that we know how to stop emitting greenhouse gas. Our research sets out a way we could eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our demand for energy through sensible changes to our buildings, transport system and lifestyles. And at the same time replacing coal and gas power stations with renewable sources of energy, investing in storage infrastructure and changing the food we produce and therefore the way we use land.

On the March we will be joining the Fossil Free block with our Zero Carbon Britain banner.

Meet at 12:15 by this red telephone box on temple place this Sunday:

Peoples Climate March
Meeting point

Click here for more about the fossil free block.

Hottest April, May and June on record – the heat is on and it’s early

By Ranyl Rhydwen, Senior Lecturer on MSc Sustainability and Adaptation – CAT’s brand new masters degree starting in September 2014.

April, May and June 2014 all hottest since records began

June 2014 has been reported as being the hottest June since records began in 1891 by the Japanese Meteorological society, 3rd hottest by NASA and hottest by NOAA – data released today. This follows on from April and May 2014, being the hottest or equal hottest since reliable records allow the earth’s temperature to be taken. The last time we saw three consecutive months break temperature records was in 2010 – the hottest year ever.

To break long term records like this with the natural variability inherent in the climate system is incredible and the odds of such things if there were no human induced warming would be exceptional. In a warming world, record breaking years are becoming more common, these headlines are becoming increasingly familiar.

California Drought climate change
Sacramento in California, one of the places experiencing severe drought (Photo: Kevin Cortopassi)

El Nino should make next spring even hotter

But that this year is breaking records is unexpected. One of the things that controls the natural variability in the climate is El Nino, which warms the surface temperature. El Nino events tend to start in the spring or summer, peak in December and last for about 10 months; but it is the year after they begin where they tend to cause the biggest temperature anomaly. Last time three consecutive months broke world records in 2010, and prior to that in the famously warm year 1998, we were into the second year of the El Nino.

An El Nino event occurs when warm waters flow back from the west pacific to the east pacific and cap off the cold upwelling waters off the west coast of Central America and Peru all the way to the Galapagos Islands; these cold waters normal cool the earth by a few tenths of degree. However when the warm waters return (and they do every 2-7 years) these cold waters disappear and thus the planet warms by a couple of tenths of a degree depending on how warm the waters are (or how severe the El Nino is, 2010 was a moderate event and 1998 was severe).

In 2010, the El Nino commenced in June 2009 and lasted until May 2010. Heating the world up takes time and thus the rise in the global temperature lags behind the El Nino arrival by around 6 months. Hence 2010 was the hottest year yet recorded and had by far the hottest spring in the records, whereas in 2009 spring was only the 6th warmest. What’s more, the El Nino that year had already emerged by June 2009; this current El Niño isn’t predicted to fully emerge until late summer this year.

The main point here is that it is the year after the El Niño that is the hot year, yet this time round the El Niño forming year is already bringing exceptionally hot months, suggesting that 2015 could well be another record hot year – depending on how severe this EL Niño turns out to be. The current predictions are suggesting this El Niño will be at least as strong as in 2010.

Increasing extreme weather

All this additional heat is also having an affect around the world: Hurricane Arthur this June was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the USA before July, and the 2 major hurricanes that formed in the Pacific off the coast of Mexico this May and June were both the strongest to have formed at this time of year since records began. Also this year we have seen severe hail storms in Europe, flooding across the Balkans, critical drought in California, outrageous flooding in south east China and severe heat in Siberia and Alaska.

El Niño’s tend to cause extreme weather around the world as all the additional heat changes global weather patterns. Australia gets drier, which will add to existing drought concerns there. The California drought should get some relief; rainfall will be higher. However even here the water may come as large deluge events as it does in Peru, and thus will cause flash flooding and severe erosion especially on such dried out lands. Look out for the severe extremes to come around the world next year. In the UK the affect of an El Niño isn’t that clear cut although the winters tend to be colder and drier in Northern Europe, and wetter, milder through southern Europe and the Mediterranean, which won’t be much comfort for the Balkans.

Sustainability and Adaptation Planning

As extreme events are becoming more common, the need to transform society and plan for the new normal becomes more pressing. Sustainability should be at the heart of the plans governments, organisations and communities are making for the future and so should adaptation. Both require us to start judiciously planning – involving people in proactively choosing how to respond. The extremes in the last few years – and the ones we are likely to experience over the next year – must be taken as a call for change.

Join us on our masters degree in September to explore about Sustainability and Adaptation in depth.

Recent research on sea level rise and climate change – what you need to know

Ranyl Rhydwen, a lecturer in CAT’s Graduate school of the Environment on the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment, drills into the science of sea level rises and looks into the future. First posted by Sustain Magazine:

Humanity has already introduced enough CO2 into the atmosphere to raise the earth’s temperature by 4-6°C. This heat is being added at a rate approximately 300 times faster than when the earth’s ice sheets previously melted; past melt rates are therefore likely to provide low and conservative projections for the future. The earth’s remaining ice sheets contain 70 metres of sea level rise; with 40 metres of that being land locked in the East Antarctic Ice sheet that won’t melt unless CO2 reaches levels of >1000ppm. However the remaining 30m from Greenland, Western Antarctic Ice Sheet and the below sea level EAIS have all previously melted away when CO2 concentration levels were only 400-425ppm (April 2014 level 400ppm). A 30 metre sea level rise involves 50% of humanity, nearly all the world’s mega cities and large swathes of prime agricultural land. Sea levels will take thousands of years to fully rise, however 20 metres is inevitable and 30 metres probable. This needs planning for now as any manmade barrier is very unlikely to be able to cope with a 5 metre rise.

How fast will the melt occur?

Melt rates of up to 4 metres per century have previously occurred and although it is felt it would take the collapse of a major ice sheet to induce this 4 metre rate again, 1-2 metres per century is common, making the IPCC 80 cm projection by 2100 misguided considering the stakes involved. The 4m melt pulses occur due to the collapse of the marine based ice sheets. These ice sheets melt slowly at first as the glaciers get snagged on ocean bed ridges but once free of these ridges, they suddenly (after 200-1000 years) collapse in a process called rapid irreversible marine instability. These ice sheets are particularly vulnerable as they are melted from below by warm deep ocean waters lubricating the glacial flow and due to ocean dynamics warm waters (~3.5°C) currently bathe most of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s marine outlet glaciers.

The discovery that the Amundsen Sea outlet sea glaciers (that drain a third of the WAIS equivalent to 1.2 metres of sea level rise) have developed marine instability (i.e. they will now completely melt away) and are melting at an accelerating rate (30% greater than just 5 years ago) makes 4 metres a century look much more probable. Models suggest that this collapse is irreversible but may take 200-1000 years, however they didn’t account for the inevitable further warming of the melting waters. The last time Greenland, WAIS and parts of EAIS melted (120,000 years ago) melt rates of approximately 2 metres sea level rise per century occurred. The recent finding that the marine based glaciers draining the North East of Greenland (16% of it) have suddenly started rapidly melting and that the Fjords draining Greenland are much wider and extend further inland than previously thought all means that 4 metres in a century is again more likely. Therefore the recent evidence suggests that although 30 metres is the final outcome it is unlikely to occur by 2100, however 1-2 metres is virtually certain, 4-5 metres probable and greater amounts can’t be excluded.

Thus a large proportion of humanity is under direct threat from this sea level rise. The USA military are planning tactical retreat, however moving an army base is not moving a city (London), a state (Florida) or a country (Bangladesh). The first step in adapting to sea level rise is to slow it down and reduce its magnitude and the only way to do that is to remove (bio-sequester) carbon from the atmosphere and getting to 350ppm still means a 20-25 metre sea level rise and require a massive increase in mitigation efforts, which will take a transformation of societal systems to achieve. Adaptation and mitigation therefore need to be considered together. Adapting to sea level rise will mean more than building a sea wall as concrete barriers will have large carbon costs and will be overtopped eventually putting future generations at greater risk.

It seems we need to think again and take the approach of planned retreat, combined with innovative developments that embed humanity’s community into the new ecosystems and create new settlements that are robust to the extreme weather whilst sequestering carbon into the materials used to create them. That radical approach will take a transformation scale of change and the widespread uptake of progressive adaptation planning and is why here at Centre for Alternative Technology, we are putting transformational adaptation into the heart of our sustainability learning and teachings to help understand how to creatively approach the task that sea level rise imposes.

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.

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.

Rapid decarbonisation in a conservative state

This is the fourth instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston. For the third blog, Paul was in Ohio. Now he is in Utah, the mid point of his journey.

ZCB US research trip: Stop 3 – Salt Lake City, Utah

The next stop in my research program was Salt Lake City Utah. Both Boston and Oberlin had been mainly liberal social / political landscapes, so to get a more comprehensive overview, I also wanted to see if rapid decarbonisation scenarios and interdisciplinary perspectives of sustainability could thrive in a more Republican environment.

Paul at HEAL Utah

My first point of contact was Steven Burian of the University of Utah’s innovative ‘Global Change and Sustainability Centre’ (GCSC). The centre was established in 2009 with the goal of bridging departments and disciplines to facilitate interactions among social scientists, natural scientists, engineers, and policymakers who are interested in understanding the complex challenges and dynamics in both natural and human-built systems.

I was invited to make a ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ presentation to the GCSC. What struck me immediately as the post-presentation discussion got underway was the power of bringing together an interdisciplinary group who, once they all got to know each other, could offer an exciting range of academic perspectives. They explained that they see the sustainability challenge as a very deep and complex one, so it seems a very logical approach to bring together a wide range of disciplines to map and explore the dynamic interactions and interconnections that exist within those systems, and to explore the role of humanity in both creating and helping solve the problems.

From the point of view of my research, rapid decarbonisation touches many parts of our lives, so a cross-disciplinary perspective such as that offered by the GCSC would be essential in mapping how it can actually be delivered. I was very impressed by their research, so I decided to explore one of their programmes in more detail to see an example of how their interdisciplinary approach is evolving.

Steve kindly hooked me up with a programme led by Associate Professor of Communication Danielle Endres exploring ‘how low-carbon energy scientists and engineers talk about the social, cultural, and political implications of their work and how they influence policymaking’. Previous research to date had suggested that scientists and engineers primarily use technical scientific forms of reasoning in their internal conversations and then switch to non-technical, or value-based, forms of reasoning when interacting with the broader public. This new research sets out to discover whether (and how) engineers and scientists blend technical and non-technical modes of reasoning as they navigate the interface between science and decarbonisation policy. I was invited to attend Prof. Enders’ presentation of her initial findings, although the project is only about a year into its three-year duration. Using a range of methods her team had begun collecting and analyzing the ‘internal’ discourse between groups of engineers working in wind energy, nuclear energy power and CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies. Perhaps their most interesting analysis arose from a technical conference where CCS was being re-branded CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage). CCUS involves the use of captured carbon dioxide to force the heavier, thicker oil out of wells that have past their peak production. Their analysis revealed a much higher percentage of ‘non-technical’ or value-based arguments amongst the internal technical group than would have previously been expected. It is early days for this project, but clearly an interesting and innovative line of enquiry.

Using the university’s campus as a Living Laboratory

The University of Utah also operates a ‘Sustainability Resource Centre’ that fosters the living, learning laboratory concept, where academics interact directly with ‘campus operations’.  Working in close collaboration with the GCSC, they guide, support, and enable the transition to a ‘sustainable campus’ whilst also enhancing educational opportunities and supporting student engagement through the use of the campus as a ‘living lab’.

I explored several examples of this work. Their programme to reduce car use includes employing a ‘bicycle officer’ to support cyclists, and offering free bus/tram passes to all students. However, as the campus is dispersed over several miles, the university is in the process of installing an innovative cross-campus electric bus. My hosts very kindly arranged for me to take a ride – it uses wireless power charging points between vehicle and roadway to reduce battery size and extend battery life, and so reduce costs.

Paul learns about the electric bus
Wireless charging for the electric bus

Another part of their living lab concept is the ‘Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund’ (SCIF), which provides funding for student-led projects across campus. It works like this: as part of his or her admission fees, every student at the University pays $2.50 per term into the SCIF. Any student or group of students can then apply for funding to support projects with a positive environmental impact that can also help to educate the campus about sustainability. In order to ensure academic outputs are robust, students must collaborate with a faculty or staff member to deliver their projects. Projects have included a living roof, bee-keeping on the roof of a campus library and secure ‘cages’ for storage of bikes on campus.

Bee keeping on Utah campus

In 2010, the University of Utah released a Climate Action Plan with a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. However at time of writing no detailed ‘scenario’ had been developed.

Key learning from University of Utah:

  • Interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation of ideas works very well – it is essential in increasing engagement and getting to grips with both the drivers and barriers to change.
  • Practical on-campus ‘living lab’ work is engaging and motivating and can have very positive academic outputs plus physical real work benefits.
  • Infrastructure is important but so is ‘culture’ – car habits are still proving hard to break, despite: bike parks, bike lanes, a bike officer, free student pass for all public transport plus the electric bus.
  • Little or no integration with the other two big local players (City and Church) limits the sphere of influence and synergies in comparison with Oberlin.

Research outside the University – HEAL Utah

In addition to exploring the activities at the University of Utah, I also made time to meet the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah). HEAL is housed alongside other non-profit organisations in the new Artspace Commons, the first net zero mixed-use building with onsite solar production in the state. I arranged a lunchtime meeting with staff followed by a public ZCB presentation for their members and supporters in a local library.

Like many others I have met on this trip, rather than just oppose what they feel to be wrong, HEAL decided to develop a positive vision to show what they actually wanted. Their ‘eUtah’ scenario illustrates how renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, and geothermal can deliver the state’s energy needs, demonstrating what happens when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Rather than address all energy as ZCB does, eUtah only looks at electricity. An enthusiastic and diverse audience attended my ZCB presentation, and the room was buzzing with conversation by the end of the evening. Several invitations materialised including one to a lecture by leading climatologist Michael Mann as I make my way through Salt Lake City on the train back to Boston.

Lessons from HEAL Utah

  • Having a ‘solutions scenario’ like eUtah keeps up momentum, makes it easier to build links locally and helps engage with a wider public through a positive focus.
  • Engaging with ‘energy utilities’ is vital – their work developing comparisons of the percentage of wind turbines on promotional material compared with the percentage of wind in their power mix offered a useful perspective.
  • HEAL recognise the need to engage with utilities on their comparable constituency areas, which don’t always fit with state boundaries.
Paul meeting Chris Thomas from HEAL Utah

Zero Carbon Britain calls for faster emissions reductions in advance of IPCC mitigation report

Leaks from the latest IPCC report from Working Group III, being discussed this week in Berlin suggests it will call for radical emissions reductions globally which will require “large-scale transformations in human societies”. The IPCC will propose a reduction in emissions of 50% (from 2010 levels) by 2030 for developed nations such as the UK.

Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) research from the Centre for Alternative Technology shows how it is possible, and desirable, to reach net zero emissions in the UK by 2030. They will be presenting their work at an event in London (and broadcast online) at 6.30pm, Wed 9th April.


Commenting (ahead of the release of the IPCC report) on why we in the UK might need faster emissions reductions than the IPCC top line figure of 50% by 2030, Alice Hooker-Stroud, Zero Carbon Britain research coordinator says :

“Any greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere from now on risks people’s lives and happiness as well as ecosystems. It isn’t yet clear how likely these levels of emissions would be to increase temperatures by more than two degrees in the latest model, or how the IPCC have divided the responsibility for cutting emissions between rich and poorer nations. Both of these things are important moral questions relating to climate mitigation which the report will have to make a judgement on.

What is clear is that radical action is necessary. Our judgement is that as a rich nation with a long history of high emissions and therefore particular responsibility for the climate problem, we should be doing everything we possibly can to limit climate change impacts around the globe, remembering that all future emissions carry a risk.”

Zero Carbon Britain is a rigorous energy scenario which demonstrates that achieving net zero emissions in the UK by 2030 is technically possible using only current technology, while maintaining a modern standard of living.

The in-depth research, which included modelling hourly energy production and consumption data over a ten year period, shows that net zero emissions are possible using a combination of reducing energy demand, 100% renewable sources of energy and careful management of land.

The IPCC report shows that implementing these kinds of solutions would have several knock-on benefits for human society and the environment, but that we are currently failing to implement them fast enough. They warn that we are currently on track to overshoot the 2 degrees ‘guardrail’ in global average temperature increase, and would have to consider large-scale carbon-negative technologies if emissions aren’t reduced quickly enough.

Alice argues that it is neither sensible or desirable to rely on uncertain, large-scale, carbon-negative future technologies : “We already have everything we need to act responsibly, and play our part in the global effort to tackle climate change. We shouldn’t be relying on future technologies that may or may not get us out of the problem we all saw coming and knew was avoidable.

“Overshooting the 2 degree ‘guardrail’ would be devastating. I wouldn’t call that a plan at all – its reckless and irresponsible. Smaller scale carbon capture by natural ecosystems could play a role in getting the UK to net zero emissions, but we have to respect that there are limits to these systems. There are so many other options for producing low carbon energy and reducing consumption, and there are benefits from choosing to do so.”

Rapidly reducing emissions can’t rely on any single technology. It requires big cultural changes including potential changes to diets, transport patterns and energy consumption. The Zero Carbon Britain scenario includes reducing the amount of meat and dairy in our diet to allow for more provision of food from UK sources, all biomass for energy to be grown sustainably in the UK, and expansion of natural ecosystems for carbon capture.

Yet most of these actions required to reduce emissions were highlighted as having multiple benefits in the IPCC Working Group II summary report released last week: “Examples of actions [to mitigate climate change] with co-benefits include (i) improved energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources, leading to reduced emissions of health-damaging climate-altering air pollutants; (ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services.”

Alice concludes on the scale of the transformation necessary: “Large changes will be necessary to act on climate change, but the solutions are here. We can make these changes now, or have changes imposed upon us from a changed climate for generations to come: its our choice.”



Zero Carbon Britain Event 9th April: Join us online here!

ZCB FBOn the 9th April, the Zero Carbon Britain team from CAT will be hosting an exciting evening event to present their latest research and practical solutions for a zero carbon future. We’ll be joined by Duncan Clark, Owen Jones and the latest from the IPCC meeting in Berlin that week.

Details and registration here:

The event will take place in London between 6.30 and 8pm (with drinks and informal discussion until 9pm), but will also be broadcast online for all of those who’d like to take part from elsewhere.

How to join the online event

We’ll be broadcasting it live here, so simply make sure you’ve got internet signal and come back here for 6.30pm on 9th April!

Social media

Slides from the event:

Input from twitter will appear in this box below. Use the hashtag #ZCB or tweet @centre_alt_tech to propose questions for the panel and join the discussion.

Hosting a screening

Some people are hosting ‘screenings’ in their area, which is absolutely great! If you’d like to do that too – even if it’s just your friends and family – please go for it!

There are no issues about licensing or anything to worry about – and if you’d like a number of hard copies of the ZCB report to do in a ‘sale or return’ fashion we can sort that out too.

For more information or any questions, please get in touch with Danielle at

Please don’t forget to spread the message to your friends and networks. Thanks!