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Catalyzing changes in energy

This was the third meeting in the series and the three 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.

At the forum in June, Rob Mills, the Head of European Energy Markets, 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) and Dr Jeremy WoodsImperial College London, co-director of ICEPT -Centre for Energy Policy and Technology and a member of the Bioeconomy Platform of Climate-KIC.

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)