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Jim WatsonLord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) visited UKERC on the 20 June to launch a special issue of the journal Climate Policy. The special issue, co-edited by my predecessor Prof Jim Skea, is a key output of the Low Carbon Societies Research Network. The Network brings together leading research institutes from Europe and Asia, and UKERC has been involved as the UK partner since it was established in 2009.

It was great to hear Lord Deben being complementary about the special issue, and about the important role that science plays in underpinning action to tackle climate change. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen a politician waving an academic journal to emphasise a point! But he also had a more critical message for the research community: there is a need for scientists to communicate better with non specialists, especially those who may be influenced by arguments that climate change is not happening, or that it is not caused by human activity.

He argued strongly that academics need to not only communicate in more straightforward terms – but that we also need to frame these arguments in a way that feels like common sense, especially to those who may not be naturally sympathetic. In common with Matthew Lockwood from University of Exeter, he argued that stating the seriousness of the problem with references to the science (e.g. limiting average global temperature increases to 2 degrees) is not enough.

To illustrate this, Lord Deben drew an analogy between action to reduce emissions and taking out fire insurance on your home. Even though you have a more than 99% chance of your house not burning down, people in the UK spend an average of around £140 a year on such insurance. For climate change mitigation, we are being asked to pay a small premium on our energy bills – which the CCC argue will rise to around £100 by 2020. Even if you are not entirely convinced by the science, he argued that this is a very reasonable and low cost insurance policy to pay for.

Lord Deben certainly has a good point here. We should not take it for granted that people will tolerate rises in energy bills to pay for low carbon policies. This is another way of arguing why such modest rises are needed. For others, including Matthew Lockwood, the solution is more radical that this reframing. The costs of climate policy should, in fact, come from general taxation rather than consumer bills. This is a good argument in principle, though a hard one to sustain in an age of austerity. I suspect that would not end the controversy about the costs of action. Lord Deben’s insurance analogy would clearly still apply.

This reminded me of a recent report by Adam Corner on engaging those with right of centre political views with climate change. This report identified a number of narratives that could help to communicate with this constituency including arguments that emphasise localism, energy security and sustainability as progress. Whilst some of these are more convincing that others in my view, they take Lord Deben’s point much further. They remind us that research is not only required to understand the implications of future energy pathways in terms of their emissions, costs, resilience and so on. Research is also required to understand the social context of our energy system – and to inform the development and implementation of climate change and energy policies.

Professor Jim Watson is Research Director of UKERC. Jim was previously Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex.


39401717To meet the 2020 renewable energy target the UK is going to need biomass, and lots of it. The Department for Energy and Climate Change is hoping for an additional 20-38TWh of biomass electricity. This will require around 12-23 million dry tonnes of biomass, most of which will be imported as pellets from North America and burnt in converted coal-fired power plants.

Read the rest of Raphael Slade’s guest post on the Green Alliance Blog:

Dr Raphael Slade is a lecturer in Environmental Sustainability at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College.

John Loughhead pics 001UKERC Executive Director John Loughead gives his thoughts on the recent Carbon Management Canada meeting in Calgary.


I’m fresh off the flight from Calgary – well not that fresh courtesy of British Airways’ statutory 3-hour delay for “operational reasons”. I was there for the annual conference and a Board meeting of Carbon Management Canada, an organisation similar in some ways to UKERC but with the focus its name implies.

If you don’t know the Province of Alberta is Canada’s energy capital, home of the tar sands and with high expectations of substantial shale reserves. Edmonton is the industrial centre and Calgary the political and business city.  Calgary is Boomtown writ large; the downtown area resembles Shanghai in the scale and ambition of redevelopment with the original two storey buildings being replaced by 50-storey office blocks. New housing is expanding rapidly across the plains. And it’s easy to see why: production of oil has doubled, associated services are following on, big business is already there – BP were holding their international Technology Advisory Board meeting at the same time as the conference – and there are jobs galore.

So, clearly a picture of aggressive pursuit of profit at any cost? Well that’s perhaps partly true but not as simple. The conference had nearly 300 participants, all focused on carbon abatement needs; the oil producers were all there presenting their own programmes; and academic researchers from across Canada came too. There was a consistent message that a solution for carbon had to be found, and if they didn’t do it who else would? And they do need a solution because a step outside and into the expensive brand-name stores or high-end restaurants shows how much there now is to lose if they cannot continue hydrocarbon exploitation.

There is a real sense Alberta sees this as a problem it will take the responsibility to solve – because everything depends on it. From the conference papers they are making real progress – one report was of demonstration of a CO2 capture system with costs of just $20/tonne – and there is certainly substantial research funding available. What is notable is the engagement of industry in support, both in finance and collaborative work, and the number of ex-pat Europeans who have moved to join the action.

Calgary is famous for the annual Stampede, originally a competition of frontier living skills. It’s become the largest fair and rodeo in North America, but perhaps now joined by another stampede of intellect and entrepreneurs. Lots of space, high living standards, just an hour from the amazing Rockies, and the belief they are going places. What’s not to like? Oh, and CMC are paying all costs for any Canadian student that can win a place at UKERC’s Summer School. Clearly an organisation of vision!

Professor John Loughhead is Executive Director at UKERC. Before joining UKERC, John was Corporate Vice-President of Technology and Intellectual Property at Alstom’s head office in Paris.

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