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.

Postgraduate Open Weekend: 17th- 18th May 2014

If you are an avid reader of CAT’s blog you will be well aware of the range of MSc Programmes offered by our Graduate School of the Environment. This May we are offering the opportunity for anybody interested in studying one of our courses, or anyone who wants to know more about the work of the GSE, to come and visit us to find out more about the unique experience of studying at CAT.

Based in a stunning setting in the Welsh hills, the Centre has been providing sustainability education for over 35 years and offers a range of inspirational postgraduate programmes. A unique combination of leading professionals, academics and authors teach and lead the the courses, offering GSE students the ability to develop not only their theoretical and academic knowledge, but also their practical skills.

Our two day event is no ordinary open day, with leading researchers sharing their work on climate change adaptation, practical activities on site led by students and an evening of pizza and entertainment, it promises to be a memorable and inspiring weekend that gives prospective students real insight into the experience of studying with the GSE.

The Open Weekend will showcase elements of our MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course, as well as providing a first look at some of the issues and topics covered by our brand new MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment and MSc Sustainability and Adaptation: Transformation Planning courses.

REASONS TO STUDY AT CAT

  • Our programmes are designed to equip our graduates with the skills required to work in a sector of increasing importance and relevance and with high demand for skilled individuals.
  • The graduate school is a recognised CPD provider and its MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment is accredited by the Energy Institute.
  • Flexibility is at the heart of our unique on-site courses; students come on periodic 5 days attendances at the GSE, which could allow students to continue with their current line of work while studying.
  • The distance learning course uses a highly interactive, modern virtual learning environment with flexible contact times and high levels of student-tutor interaction.
  • All courses benefit from a diverse and experienced student community unlike anywhere in the UK.

Graduates from the programme can look forward to careers in a large architectural practice, local government, government departments, commercial companies, and within the education sector. Over fifty companies have been formed by alumni of the Graduate School of the Environment (GSE). Alumni include Stirling Prize nominees, members of government advisory panels, respected academics, authors, and award winning designers and contractors.

But don’t just take our word for it; come and see for yourself!

For more information on attending the Open Weekend, please contact gsmo@cat.org.uk.

If you would like to take the opportunity to stay in one of our lovely WISE rooms on the night of Saturday May 17th, please contact joan.randle@cat.org.uk for prices and a booking form.

Ecobuild – How do you see the Future?

In a week’s time CAT will be heading down to Ecobuild in London. Visit the CAT stand to learn more about our postgraduate programmes and sustainable building techniques.  The largest sustainable building event in the world, it’s always a fascinating show with hundreds of exhibitors, dozens of talks and the occasional solar-powered bike tootling past…

This year, Climate Week is being launched at Ecobuild, running from the 3rd-9th March. Climate Week is Britain’s biggest climate change campaign, encouraging a new wave of action to create a sustainable future. We’ve been inspired by the campaign to think big and consider the future. At Ecobuild you can join in on this with us to help create a giant wall map examining the challenges and opportunities we face. What will the cities of the future look like? What does adaptation mean? If you would like to contribute to this then please join us at stand S38 from the 4th to the 6th of March.

For free tickets visit Ecobuild’s website.

For more information about Climate Week, click here.

 

Build It Live: Getting Muddy with Self-Builders in Kent, 22nd & 23rd Feb

This weekend CAT is travelling to Kent and we are planning to get muddy. Like west Wales, Kent has had more then its fair share of mud recently, but our purpose is not related to the storms; we will be demonstrating some simple techniques for using earth in construction – making a cob wall and a pizza oven at the Build It Live Exhibition at GLOW, Bluewater.

Putting the final touches to a pizza oven

Build It Live is the ideal event for anyone who dreams of building or renovating their own home. With free seminars, access to invaluable expertise and live, interactive demonstrations such as ours, we are looking forward to a lively weekend. Visitors can talk to us about all our short courses for self-builders or any of the other services offered by CAT.

Clay rendering demonstration

One of main reasons people decide to build their own home is that they want to create something that is truly individual. Using natural building techniques, and building with earth in particular, can be an excellent way to create unique architectural forms because by its very nature, every element of earth construction will be unique in terms of colour, texture and finish. Unfired clay and sand require little energy to produce and can be sourced locally in many parts of the UK. When earth is mixed with clay, straw and water it creates cob – a lovely material to work with because it sets slowly, allowing time for experimentation, trial and error, remixing and reuse.

So that is what we will be doing. Anyone who hasn’t had enough of mud in Kent is very welcome to come along and get involved. In fact, if you are reading this blog you can have two free tickets worth £24 by following this link.

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.

 

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.

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!”

ZCBlog: Does coal have a role in reducing emissions?

CC. Flickr. Kentucky Photo File.

Coal use for electricity production today

Currently in the UK, around 80% of all our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and using energy. Burning coal, gas and oil emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributes to climate change. Together, these fuels provide around 90% of the UK’s primary energy supply. Some of these fossil fuels are used directly – petrol and diesel (oil) in our vehicles for example; but some are burnt to produce the electricity we use. Although the burning of coal in fires to heat our homes directly has reduced dramatically over recent decades, we still rely on it to produce most of our electricity by burning it in power stations. If we are to play our part in tackling climate change in the UK, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions swiftly and sharply, it is clear that our methods of energy production must change. There are many ‘lower carbon’, ‘carbon neutral’ and even ‘zero carbon’ methods of energy production that offer us better ways of producing energy, (especially electricity) in the UK.

Replacing or changing coal use in the UK?

In Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future (the report launched in July 2013 by the Zero Carbon Britain project at CAT), we opt for 100% renewable energy production – wind (onshore, and offshore), solar, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, and others – all ‘zero carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’. With these, and ‘carbon neutral’ synthetic fuels, we can produce enough energy for the UK at the right times – making sure our energy demands are met at all times. In the UK today, however, high on the energy agenda is the conversion of our current coal plants to biomass (see article here about why this is a bad idea), but also about fitting current coal power stations with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) systems. In these plants, coal is still burnt to produce electricity, and most (but not all) of the carbon dioxide emitted is ‘captured’ before it gets into the atmosphere, and then ‘stored’, usually in old oil and gas fields under the sea or underground. This means electricity made from coal plants fitted with CCS can be classed as a ‘lower carbon’ energy source. So, why then, was there outrage from campaigners and environmentalists at the recent COP19 summit – the UNFCCC international negotiation on climate change – when the International Coal and Climate Change summit took place in Warsaw at the same time? Especially since the World Coal Association stated that the coal summit was meant as a contribution, not an alternative, to the UN talks? And why don’t we include coal and CCS in our Zero Carbon Britain scenario?

What is wrong with coal and CCS?

First of all, current standard methods of producing coal, for example mountain top removal for open cast coal mining, are extremely destructive locally and can be very dangerous. Also, coal (or any fossil fuel) power coupled with CCS does not provide a solution in the longer term. There are limits to the CO2 storage capacity of old oil and gas fields, meaning that in the longer-term they would have to be phased out entirely, and replaced by other energy production systems. Whilst it might seem sensible, or cost-effective to use the current infrastructure we have for burning coal, and simply add CCS, it is likely that this will raise the cost of coal-generated electricity, and increase the requirement for energy by at least 20%. We would have to produce far more energy to make CCS systems work, increasing our demand, potentially for coal itself. Furthermore, storage locations for the carbon captured through CCS, must be monitored indefinitely to minimise leakage. We would need to continually pay to keep the carbon safely locked away. This implies unknown costs and effective risk management long into the future, which cannot be guaranteed. And will it really be safely locked away? Whilst abrupt gas leakage events might be seriously damaging to local eco-systems (especially if the storage is underwater), diffuse leaks can be more difficult to stop and would, at least in part, reverse the effect of capturing the carbon dioxide in the first place, making it questionable whether or not coal and CCS would really provide the carbon reductions it promises.

CC. Flickr. Sidibousaid60.

Electricity is easy with renewables!

Finally, the thing that strikes us most when creating our Zero Carbon Britain scenario is that electricity – what we currently use coal to produce – is what is produced by almost all renewable sources – wind, wave, hydro, solar PV. It’s easy to produce plenty of electricity from renewables, and its much more efficient than burning coal where lots of energy is lost in the conversion process. In fact, given all the estimated resources in the UK, Zero Carbon Britain research suggests we can produce much more electricity than we require from renewable sources – even if we electrify lots of our systems like transport and heating. So, since not all the greenhouse gas (or carbon dioxide) emissions are captured from an electricity-producing coal plant, even when fitted with CCS, why opt for an electricity production method that is only ‘lower carbon’ (and is less efficient) when there are so many options that are more efficient, and truly ‘zero carbon’? Renewable electricity generation technologies offer larger and more secure greenhouse gas emission reductions. They will last us long into the future, provide jobs, and would allow us to be in control of our own energy production. The UK is blessed with great renewable resources – we are located in one of the windiest places in the world – and our future energy system should play to these strengths.