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Catalyzing changes in energy

This was the third meeting in the series and the four witnesses brought a policy perspective to the discussion and helped us explore ideas inspired by the concept of a circular economy entirely based on biological resources.

Rob Mills, the Head of European Energy Markets at Ofgem joined Dr Rana Pant, a Scientific Technical Project Officer in Life Cycle Assessment and Environmental Footprint, Sustainability Unit of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC), Paul Newell, a statistician in the Energy Science team at the Met Office and Dr Jeremy Woods, Imperial College London, co-director of ICEPT-Centre for Energy Policy and Technology and a member of the Bioeconomy Platform of Climate-KIC.

Research gaps

The four witnesses offered different perspectives on how to create circular economies using photosynthetic technologies. Much of the discussion concerned problems regarding policy requirements and social and cultural behaviour which can suppress the successful implementation of pre-existing technological solutions.

Rob Mills described some of the policy and finance challenges behind using bioenergy to create circular economies in off-grid areas. There are a number of possible business models: supply can come from large-scale industry – although the transport of biofuels to off-grid areas requires infrastructure – or small utility, community-level projects, and demand can be at a community or household level. There were three main observations regarding circular economics: resource efficiency is already high in areas of rural poverty out of necessity; it is easier to implement than design circular economies because of the complex interplay of household economics, personal incentives, price signals and broader societal norms; and there is a danger of technological interventions undermining pre-existing markets.

Paul Newell offered some insights into how the Met Office’s modelling work could influence sustainable decision-making. The Met Office has a unified model for local, regional and global climate that can be used to predict hazards. This can help with rapid aid deployment and assessing and mitigating the risk of climate change for important agriculture. Wind resources can be modelled at different atmospheric levels for different turbine types, and the best places to harness increasing solar resources can be identified.

Dr Rana Pant explained how life-cycle assessment attempts to comprehensively assess a situation so that the ramifications of any changes are fully understood, particularly to avoid simply moving burdens to a different region, time period or part of a system. Three key problems for creating circular economies in developing areas were described. First, analysis becomes more complex as you scale up a problem. Thus, understanding trade-offs within a system and any future rebound effect is crucial. Second, user behaviour has an impact on the environmental performance of a system and social scientists need to study how to motivate and inform people in varying contexts to help environmental efforts. Third, new innovations can be inhibited by a lack of data when compared with existing solutions.

Dr Jeremy Woods highlighted the challenge of maintaining trust in the evidence base and the need to question how values elicit scientific outcomes as science moves from reductionism to multidisciplinarity and systems perspectives. He also introduced the Global Calculator: a tool designed to encapsulate major points of actions which humanity could use to mitigate climate change. This tool can demonstrate unforeseen impacts of policy change; for example, by examining the interaction between bioenergy and food production it can be seen that the nature of human diet is as important to climate change as our response in the energy sector. Bioenergy systems are deeply complex and uncertain as they have an impact on social, health and resource availability issues to a unique degree. The local, environmental context must also be considered. This was demonstrated through the example of a circular economy created in Malawi to promote resilience in the local supply chain and enhance income provision for poor rural farmers.

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion

Is a top-down or bottom-up approach to solving development problems more appropriate? The complexity and heterogeneity of local contexts can make a top-down technological solution difficult to implement. A variety of different solutions for different areas and problems will be required, and by initially looking at things on a global scale nuances can be missed. Combining the two approaches is likely to be crucial.

What are the appropriate metrics for human wellbeing? GDP is still used as a metric for wellbeing in some reports. Although this is problematic and value-laden, having comparison tools that allow you to measure this metric against others may mitigate some of those issues.

Is it feasible or sensible to move towards a circular economy entirely based on biological resources? Photosynthetic solutions are likely to be at the heart of responses to climate change and sustainable communities, although they may be one solution of many. Although photosynthesis may not be the most efficient means of drawing energy there are methods that would increase its efficiency to meet future demands.  Photosynthesis is also valuable because it can convert solar radiation into both electrical energy and food. However, there can often be problems after technological improvements stemming from imprudent policy decisions. It is also important that we use biological materials in an appropriate way and avoid harmful waste.

How can we implement technology in areas of rural poverty? Often the technological solutions for creating sustainable development exist but the problem is in their implementation. A common theme of the energy forums has been issues concerning local contextual challenges and how to encourage the behavioural changes needed for acceptance of new technologies. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that, despite conservative practices sometimes being a barrier to change, people in rural communities can be creative and innovative in unforeseeable ways. Using market forces to encourage businesses built around technologies is an effective way of ensuring long-term change. Another possible strategy is to learn lessons from effective marketing strategies and make technologies seem exciting rather than prescriptive.

How can we encourage the development of new technologies? Innovative ideas often lack the data to demonstrate their worth and may carry an element of uncertainty. Current systems often encourage incumbency, so policy changes are needed to encourage new solutions.

To find out more about this theme or the meetings, please e-mail Dr Konstantina Stamati (ks712@cam.ac.uk)