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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


Our topic for the year was risk, resilience and response and in the third term, we talked about energy resilience. 

In April, we focused on off-grid situations and to explore existing approaches and possible challenges while using local resources. In May and June, we turned to ways in which existing bio-energy technologies linked to photosynthesis can provide sustainable and rapidly-deployable energy and the role of policy in applying the principles of the circular economy to bioenergy provision. 

As always, a panel of three witnesses joined us each month and to provide their perspective on gaps and future research questions, followed by an open question and answer session. 

A bird's eye view of our meetings

One of the main points of discussion concerned the appropriateness of different technologies for providing energy solutions to developing areas. Sir Professor Brian Heap discussed biomass as a rapidly deployable off-grid energy solution but suggested that improvements needed to be made, including new and higher quality crops, new crop rotations, improved market efficiency and more affordable finance. However, overdependence on one particular energy approach can have unsustainable environmental consequences. Policy challenges for biofuels include the tension over land-use between energy and food production as well as issues regarding land rights; rebound effects, such as cheaper energy driving consumption higher; a lack of regulation to combat deforestation; and the need for better transport infrastructure.

The importance of biomass for food and resources led the Forum to consider additional technology options. Dr Heinz Ossenbrink discussed photovoltaic energy as an efficient option for energy production; Edgar Blanco mentioned various photosynthetic opportunities such as photosynthetic fertilisers and a need for more water-based solutions; and Professor Chris Howe discussed biophotovoltaics, a new technology that harnesses electrons produced as a byproduct of the photosynthetic process, which could potentially be scaled up to charge mobile phones.

It was agreed that although improvements can be made, generally the technological capacity to solve problems already exists. No one technology will provide a solution, and direct and indirect energy savings need to be considered. Thus, in all three of the meetings the necessity for a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to energy was highlighted. The human energy footprint, encompassing food, water, energy and space requirements, must be considered as a whole. This could also help grasp the opportunity to combine energy production with other industry sectors, such as agriculture or waste disposal. Dr Rana Pant advocated a process known as life-cycle assessment, whereby a situation is assessed so that all ramifications of an action or policy are understood so as to avoid shifting the energy burden to a different region, time or part of system.

It was frequently emphasised that there needs to be better engagement with and understanding of local populations; different areas need different solutions, and these must be tailored for a local context. For example, Dr Muhammad Tayyab Safdar pointed out that off-grid energy must serve a purpose, be it improving access to business opportunities, health care or education. The communication pathways between scientist and consumer need to be improved so that public scepticism regarding new technologies can be overcome. Dr John Mullet emphasised that traditional practices are a key barrier to the success of energy projects, and the continued use of inefficient cooking stoves and charcoal was used to elucidate this point. Conversely, rural or developing communities can also be creative and innovative. Community engagement, education and further research into the mechanisms by which behavioural change can be encouraged are required.

Financial and policy challenges were a constant theme throughout Forum meetings. New markets are needed that can adapt to the business model required for renewable energy sources, which involves heavy initial investment but long-term savings. Currently, companies need a lot of capital and it can be difficult for developing countries to establish subsidies, which may not be necessarily be a sustainable solution but can help demonstrate the viability of business models to encourage future private investment and consumer uptake. These financial barriers are exacerbated by subsidies for fossil fuels. There needs to be greater policy clarity in developing countries, and globally the international community needs to explore unconventional policy solutions such as carbon passports or pricing, waste taxes and making people aware of the impact of their energy choices.

To aid policy decisions and create interventions that are appropriate for any given area requires modelling of the different elements. Paul Newell highlighted the unified nature of the Met Office’s model for local, regional and global hazards, as well as their ability to provide data regarding the best location for wind turbines or solar panels. Dr Jeremy Woods introduced the Global Calculator, a tool that shows the major points of action where humanity can mitigate climate change and the unforeseen impacts of policy change.

Combining these threads, the final forum focused on circular economies. Rob Mills observed that in developing communities resource efficiency is often already high as a result of necessity. Again, a holistic view is needed to factor the interplay between household economics, price signals, societal norms and undermining existing markets and all the other possible trade-offs and rebound effects. The mechanisms that help motivate and inform people so they commit to environmental efforts need further research.

For more information about these meetings, please follow the links on the right or e-mail Dr Konstantina Stamati ()




Energy report cover - BANNER

This report highlights the 'wicked problems' and key future research questions we generated during the three meetings on energy resilience.

Download the report