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Welcome to the UCL ISR blog

By Katherine Welch, on 17 April 2012

 

image credit: SXC/Joseph Hart

Welcome to the UCL ISR blog, a guest blog with informative and insightful commentary from invited stakeholders on a range of issues relating to the sustainable use of natural resources.

 

Investments in Resource Efficiency: Understanding benefits & overcoming barriers

By Jun Rentschler, on 26 May 2015

industry source pixabayby Jun Rentschler and Florian Flachenecker

Resource efficiency investments tend to yield both economic and environmental benefits, yet many low- and middle-income economies lag behind. The main causes of inefficiency are market failures and distortions, which create barriers preventing firms and governments from investing in efficiency. Comprehensive strategies are needed to address the complex and interlinked causes of inefficiency.

High and volatile resource prices, uncertain supply, rising demand and environmental impacts – various factors are putting increasing pressure on policy makers, researchers, firms and investors to explore pathways towards sustainable and efficient resource management. Resource efficiency is considered to be an answer to these challenges, yielding substantial benefits – both environmentally and economically. Read the rest of this entry »

UKERC – So what will and should a true-blue energy and climate change policy look like?

By Katherine Welch, on 11 May 2015

green city (c) istockphotoAlong with many of the political pundits I thought I would be writing this blog today full of uncertainty as to which combination of the energy and climate policies in the party manifestos would be going forward. In the event we can turn from these speculations and focus on how the Conservatives are likely to tackle the twin issues of energy and climate change.

Before the election David Cameron, along with the other then leaders of the major parties, signed a commitment to the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the Climate Change Act. It will not be easy to keep the Conservative parliamentary party behind that commitment, as the experience of the coalition showed, and a reasonably early sign of how troubled these waters will prove will be the Government’s response to the Climate Change Committee’s proposed Fifth Carbon Budget, due at the end of 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

Future Energy – Thoughts on conditions for environmentally sound UK shale gas development

By Paul Ekins, on 28 January 2015

shale gas extraction © istockphotoTwo recently published papers (McGlade & Ekins (2015) and McGlade et al. (2014)) examine possible futures for fossil fuels, with a particular focus on the ‘bridging’ role that natural gas may be able to play during a transition to a global low-carbon energy system. Drawing on the findings of these papers, we have commented that the UK may be able to develop some of its potential shale gas resources within the context of a global effort to keep average global warming below 2 oC with a reasonable likelihood. This note aims to discuss the conditions that we consider are necessary for this to be the case. Read the rest of this entry »

Negotiating Climate Change – Guest Seminar by Jeffrey Sachs

By Andrew ZP Smith, on 23 January 2015

Professor Jeffrey Sachs is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in New York, where he holds two professorships; he is also Special Advisor to the current UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals (a role he held for the previous Secretary General too). A busy man, so when he took the time to get in touch about the recent paper in Nature, by Dr Christophe McGlade and Professor Paul Ekins OBE, on which of the world’s fossil-fuel resources must remain unburned, and where they are, we hoped a brief email discussion might lead to collaboration sometime in the future. So it was a delight when Professor Sachs offered to drop by and present a talk just a few days later, and thanks to Kiran Dhillon and Paul Ekins, it happened. Here’s my summary of his talk:

Image: Prof. Jeff Sachs (c), with UCL Energy Institute Director Prof. Bob Lowe (l) and Prof. Paul Ekins OBE (r), Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate Change – The Lima Hangover

By Michael Grubb, on 13 January 2015

sustainable world (c) istockphoto

sustainable world (c) istockphoto

The 20th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate change opened in Lima on 1st December and finally closed at 1.30am on the morning of Sunday 15th.  As ever the case with complex global negotiations, the late finalisation reflected hard-fought struggles to reach agreement – in this case, establishing the final roadmap for the Paris COP21 in December 2015 on which hinge hopes for an effective new global treaty on tackling climate change.

Most commentators greeted the Lima outcome positively, somewhere on the spectrum between relief and enthusiasm. Some of those usually inclined to scepticism about international negotiations were marked in their praise. It may have helped that the organisation was smooth (no mean feat with more than 10,000 people attending), the venue unusually convenient for negotiators and observers alike, and the weather fine. A good atmosphere helps. Lima was marked above all by a sense of optimism, energy and – dare I say it – inclusiveness, which has been largely lacking ever since the collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

Decision-Making in the Face of Uncertainty: Jim Watson Discusses The Future of UK Carbon Reductions at UCL

By Melissa C Lott, on 17 December 2014

power plant (c) sxcThis December, Professor Jim Watson spoke at UCL on the topic of decision-making in the face of uncertainty. As the lead author of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) synthesis reportUK Energy Strategies Under Uncertainty” Professor Watson discussed key technical, economic, political, and social uncertainties in the UK’s low carbon transition. Read the rest of this entry »

All for one and one for all – sustainability, resources and stewardship of planet Earth

By Katherine Welch, on 17 November 2014

(c) IstockPhoto

(c) IstockPhoto

“The solutions are in our hands if only we could recognise them”, one of the key remarks from the closing panel discussion at this year’s BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities/UCL Grand Challenges Symposium hosted by the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources on Nov 6-7.

This is, I think, a sentiment shared by most, and certainly by those attending this year’s conference, which ran with the theme ‘Stewardship for Planet Earth’. Over the two days of the event we heard contributions from academics, policy makers and practitioners, both presenting and in the audience, and held rousing discussions about our individual and shared responsibilities for how, and to what extent, we exploit our natural resources. Read the rest of this entry »

Towards energy security, the Russia-Ukraine-EU Debate

By Catalina Spataru, on 18 September 2014

ukraineeventUkraine’s political situation has been dominating headlines in recent months, and its position as a main conduit for energy supplies between Europe and Russia is becoming a critical issue. It was such issues that were the topic of discussion at a recent workshop organised by Dr Catalina Spataru from UCL Energy, in collaboration with partners from UCL ISR, Europe, Ukraine and Russia. Read the rest of this entry »

Future infinite – research meets high-level policy of sustainability and climate change

By Emma Terama, on 8 July 2014

Dr Rajendra K. Pachauri (Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)Academic conference dates: 11-12 June 2014
Venue: Wanha Satama, Helsinki, Finland

The 16th International Futures Conference organised by Finland Futures Research Centre dealt with the different dimensions of Sustainable Futures in a Changing Climate.

Sustainable development and climate change operate at all scales ranging from local and regional to global, and require multidisciplinary research and cross-sectoral cooperation. Environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development as well as successful climate change adaptation and mitigation can only be achieved by encouraging knowledge sharing and cooperation between different sectors and decision-makers. Against the backdrop of Rio +20 (2012) and governmental commitments to post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs), this meeting brought together academics and decision-makers for fresh debate on questions of environmental sustainability and social equity.

The conference exhibited a remarkably high stratum of keynotes, delivered by:

President Tarja Halonen (Co-chair of UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability; former President of the Republic of Finland); Pekka Haavisto (Minister for International Development, Finland); Prof Joyeeta Gupta (Professor of environment and development in the global south at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam and UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft); Dr Markku Wilenius (Senior Advisor, University of Turku, Finland Futures Research Centre); Dr Ying Chen (Research Fellow at Institute of Urban and Environmental Studies (IUES), Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Deputy Director of CASS Research Center for Sustainable Development (RCSD) and Professor at CASS Graduate School); Dr Rajendra K. Pachauri (Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)); Prof Alf Rehn (Chair of Management and Organization at Åbo Akademi University, Finland); Prof Sohail Inayatullah (Tamkang University, Taiwan; Faculty of Arts and Business, the University of the Sunshine Coast; and the Centre of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Macquarie University, Sydney).

In the academic debate, sessions naturally focused on (narrow) individual research topics, however, with the right audience, such as in my session titled WG 10: URBAN SUSTAINABILITY, a lively discussion was initiated after most presentations, and even continued after the talks (presentations available via the conference website). I was able to share thoughts and details of my work with various colleagues, not least with Dr Ying Chen of CASS with whom we immediately identified future collaboration possibilities, as well as having had the opportunity to lunch with Dr Pachauri and his TERI colleague, sampling Finnish delicacies.. most votes being given to the ‘Fazer blue’ chocolate.

In the more politically driven talks it was striking, how much value could be placed on environmental sustainability and quality. Minister Haavisto (International Development) mentioned how environmental disputes concerning e.g. water play no small role in instigating conflict in Africa. President Halonen commented on an often-heard lamenting about leadership: “It’s right we don’t have strong leaders any more, we have a democratic system!” Some more highlights from the keynotes as captured in my twitter feed (@eterama):

What made this conference a success was not only the inclusion of high-level policy-makers together with strong academics, it was the well-enabled interactions of the two over a two-day period in a comfortable and engaging setting. What also helped was the rain on the second day, which kept people well indoors and conversing with one another throughout the meal times and breaks! I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Kone Foundation for supporting my attendance and enabling my research in this space.

Dr Emma Terama, Visiting Research Associate, UCL ISR

Emma joined UCL in 2011 on an Academy of Finland post-doctoral fellowship. She currently works on a personal Kone Foundation grant investigating sustainable consumption in the urban transition. She uses mathematical and statistical models for population projections, multivariate regression and socio-economic scenarios to combine population trends with environmental impact and climate adaptation and vulnerability. Her background in applied natural and computational sciences allows for an understanding of modelled and real life structures and their causal dependencies (or the lack of). She has a second affiliation with the Finnish Environment Institute as a senior researcher, working on the EU FP7 project IMPRESSIONS: high-end climate scenarios. View Emma’s profile.

Can Resource Productivity save the Climate?

By Stijn Van Ewijk, on 7 July 2014

power plant (c) sxcThe success of a country is commonly measured by its total economic output, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Acknowledging the pivotal role of natural resources in creating such wealth, the European Union is now promoting resource productivity as a leading indicator of progress. Resource productivity is measured as the ratio between economic output and material input, and is supposed to show advancement towards sustainable growth.

However, does the efficient extraction of economic value from material inputs also entail the protection of the environment providing those resources, most importantly by limiting global warming?

The graph below partly answers this question by comparing indicators for productivity and pollution. The horizontal axis displays resource productivity: the economic value (Gross Domestic Product, GDP) created per kilogram domestic material consumption (DMC). The vertical axis represents pollution intensity, calculated as the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted per unit of DMC. The coloured trend lines are for the member states of the European Union, calculated over the period 2000-2011. The black dotted line is the overall trend. Malta is excluded since it has much higher values for both variables, although it confirms the trend.

Graph blog V2 SVE July 2014The figure shows that higher resource productivity correlates with higher GHG emissions per unit of material, implying a rise of total emissions per country under constant resource use. This relationship holds both for 60 per cent of countries across time, and for every year across countries. Also, the countries with upward trend lines show stronger correlations than the ones with downward trend lines. Most likely, countries experience similar development patterns and generally increase pollution with resource productivity.

As a result, increased resource productivity is no guarantee for curbing climate change. Instead, striving for higher productivity under constant material consumption is likely to worsen global warming through increased total GHG emissions. This is not to say that resource productivity directly causes global warming; it merely shows that, all else being equal, higher resource productivity is not a good proxy for sound environmental stewardship. Also, it must be noted that pollution per unit of economic output actually goes down under higher resource productivity, which is good, but not enough to decrease total emissions.

To make sure higher resource productivity does not come at an environmental cost, countries will have to alter the way in which they develop. Not surprisingly, other data reveals that countries with high resource productivity also use more energy per kilogram of material consumed. To curb climate change, resource productivity must thus be achieved either while using less energy-intensive materials, cleaner energy, or both.

Alternatively, countries may move up along the trend line but still reduce total GHG emissions by reducing their domestic material consumption. This requires no change in the energy supply industry but demands radical changes in extraction, manufacturing, and consumption. This approach, known as dematerialization, requires absolute decoupling of the creation of wealth from the consumption of resources. So far, countries have achieved little in this regard.

Unless we opt for a different model of economic development, resource productivity alone is unlikely to coincide with absolute limits to global warming. Fortunately, the European Union aims to adopt many secondary indicators focusing on (among others) air emissions, material consumption, and economic transformation. Some of these secondary indicators may approximate environmental progress better than resource productivity does, and we may have to watch them closely to secure a carbon free path to the future.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the individual author and not UCL ISR.

Stijn van Ewijk, Doctoral Researcher, UCL ISR

Stijn is a doctoral researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources. His research focuses on sustainability indicators for waste and resources, the causes of waste problems, technological pathways to sustainability and the effectiveness of resource and energy policies. View Stijn’s profile.