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Monday, 7 August 2017

Science and Sunflowers

Sunflowerfest is an annual three-day festival of music and art held just outside Lisburn, Northern Ireland, priding itself on its family friendly atmosphere and sprawling spectrum of creative activities. Unlike the monster festivals that are held in other parts of the UK, in Northern Ireland our festivals are small (think a few thousand people, not a few hundred-thousand) with a strong focus on local talent. The perfect place for some experimental, creative science outreach…

In 2016, I contacted the organisers and floated the idea of a science outreach stall based upon my research and others in BRIDGE and the Cabot Institute. The idea, called Living Earth, was new, reasonably grand and completely untested. The response was a very enthusiastic “yes please!”

So, last year a squad of five outreachers (Alan Kennedy, Emily White and Michael Cooper of the Cabot Institute, plus Dewi Owen and Zuleika Gregory our puppeteers) arrived in blustery Northern Ireland and over the course of the festival recreated the entire history of Earth. 4.5 billion years in 3 days. With the help of punters at the festival, we built a 1.5 m diameter model of the Earth out of willow, foliage, recycled and craft materials. As the Earth was built, we recreated many of the major processes and events that shape it today, from the placement of the continents, the expansion of biomes and climate zones, the formation of the cryosphere and the destruction of the Anthropocene.

As well as this geological ‘Big Art Attack’, crafts and a puppet show entitled This Soup Tastes Funny! about the evolution of life were put on in the festival’s dedicated Kids Zone. Our puppets, Doug and Barry, had to travel back in time to the primordial soup and race through evolution in order to relive the first day of the festival. Five time periods, four puppet costume changes, asteroid impacts, crowd participation and even a song left the young audience both entertained, but also possibly very confused… That’s a lot of science to take on-board in 15 minutes!

We (and our marquee) got battered by wind, rain and the exhausting amount of activities we were juggling, including our recreational ‘time off’. However, we certainly offered something unique at the festival and left a positive impression with the organisers:

“Just to say THANK YOU to you and the crew for all the great things you did at Sunflowerfest. So appreciate everything you do and did. We would always welcome you back to do whatever you would like!” – Vanessa, Sunflowerfest Organiser

Now, I have quite an active imagination, so that last sentence was a dangerously open invitation… With 2017’s festival theme being ‘a parallel universe’, I thought something immersive on the theme of deep time would fit right in. The new plan was to build a time machine! Or in other words transform the inside of a marquee into a jungle, to show what Ireland would have been like during the hot Eocene period ~50 million years ago. As I wrote down a proposal for the festival application, this seemed like it would be reasonably straightforward compared to 2016. In hindsight, I misjudged that.

Logistically, constructing a jungle was only possible because my mum had recently had some trees in the garden felled and she also had several hedges needing cut back. A supply of logs and some waxy leafed laurel and bay that would hold their colour after cutting for the duration of the festival made a good, but somewhat bulky start. These were attached to the marquee ceiling and a heavy metal tripod to give us a central ‘tree’ and performance space to demonstrate some tectonic themed experiments. Ferns and other leafy plants were then dug up and temporarily housed in buckets to fill out the back of the tent and childhood toys added around the stall for the jungle fauna. Finally, a small speaker playing jungle sound effects was hidden up in the canopy to complete the experience.

Obviously, a hearty dose of imagination was required to convince yourself our locally sourced, temperate vegetation was an Eocene jungle, but luckily this year our stand was based entirely in the Kids Zone, where imagination is not in short supply. Ideally, I wanted to have a Superser heater in the back of the tent to raise the temperature to 35 °C, but doubted that would pass the risk assessment. We settled for having the ambient Northern Irish temperature, but luckily, we did have a few biblically heavy rain showers to give it a nice wet rainforest feel. It took three days of preparation, cutting, digging and replanting vegetation, and five hours of construction, but eventually we had the most eye-catching stand in the whole Kids Zone. It was pretty much the Eocene.

In our jungle, we had information about how Ireland has changed over the past billion years, a floating plate tectonics game and crafted fossils and jungle wildlife to decorate the stand, all of which kept us mostly run off our feet during our three-hour slots each day. Our flagship performance however, was a bicarbonate soda-vinegar erupting volcano, as ~50 million years ago Northern Ireland was at the centre of lots of volcanic activity, forming for example the Giant’s Causeway. Without a single trial run (we spent all of our preparation time building the jungle), our resident chemistry undergraduate, Oliver Feighan, carried out the experiment in front of an audience 40 strong. It was possibly the least explosive or inspiring volcano in the world. As the foam dribbled out the top of the bottle it was met with a slow and bemused round of applause. Those kids will definitely go on to be the environmental scientists of the future.

Creative outreach at big events may not always go quite to plan, it takes time and effort and you can sometimes bite off more than you can chew, but it’s a great way reframe the relevance of research in a totally different way, speak to a new audience (a very bohemian crowd, in the case of Sunflowerfest) and just do something fun. It’s not often families can experience palaeoclimate, tribal drumming circles and the Rubberbandits* all in one day. We ended up going on to run the globe building activity from 2016 at a further two events (you can see a highlight video of the almost finished piece here). Although kids and parents found 2017’s time machine a lot of fun and it looked surprisingly effective, unfortunately I don’t think I will have time or energy to ever recreate the Eocene again! However, while I may be leaving the Eocene in the past, I highly doubt this will be my last Sunflowerfest.

*Caution, likely explicit content

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Global Environmental Change mini-symposium

At the end of June, the Cabot Institute hosted the Global Environmental Change mini-symposium – a one hour whistle-stop tour showcasing the breadth of research within this theme of the Cabot Institute. Speakers represented different schools from the University that actively work on the spectrum of Global Environmental Change challenges, such as environmental law and policy, biodiversity conservation, biogeochemical cycles, environmental justice and environmental history.

Each speaker had time for a very short talk, with some choosing to focus on specific aspects of their work in depth and others instead covering the breadth of research carried out by colleagues in their school. The audience too came from a wide background, with everyone from undergraduate and masters students up to professors represented. Although with five speakers (plus some words from the theme leaders, Jo House and Matt Rigby) there was not much time for questions during the hour of talks, there was plenty of time for discussion over food and drinks afterwards.

Although it was billed as a miniature event, it set out to address grand, ambitious, global challenges. It was a short, punchy reminder of the huge range of research skills found within the Cabot Institute. We might not have solved the Earth’s challenges in an hour or two, but now that the dust has settled we certainly have a good idea of who to ask and how to start taking them on. I look forward to the mini-symposiums for the Cabot Institute’s other five research themes!

The speakers were:
Kath Baldock – Life Sciences
Alice Venn – Social Sciences and Law
Alix Dietzel – SPAIS
Kate Hendry – Earth Sciences
Daniel Haines – History

The event was hosted by:
Jo House – Geographical Sciences

Matt Rigby – Chemistry

Blog post by Press Gang member Alan Kennedy.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Sea and Sky

I’ve always loved the sea. Pursuing a major in oceanography led me to chose a degree in Physics and it was I realised that studying the atmosphere was just as, amazing, if not more so! I therefore decided to pursue a PhD in atmospheric sciences. But once the sea captures you, it never really lets you go. That is how I found myself between the sea and sky.

Several years ago, a group of like-minded friends and I decided to start an NGO, based in Croatia, called Deep Blue Explorers that would focus on marine and atmospheric sciences and research. That task proved to be extremely challenging as getting the funding we needed to start our adventures seemed to be a little harder than we had anticipated. However, we were fortunate enough and, after a very rough first season, we started to collaborate with Operation Wallacea who design and implement biodiversity and conservation management research expeditions with university and high school students from all over the world.

At the same time, we started collaborating with another Croatian NGO called 20.000 Leagues who have over 10 years of experience in marine research. Together, we are running the Adriatic Ecology Course that aims to bring together scientists and experts from all over the world to give international students a hands-on experience of field work and high-quality research. The course takes place in the National Park of Mljet and the research includes fish, sea urchin and sea grass surveys. Additionally, the students conduct boat monitoring in Lokva bay, three times a day, in order to record the pressure of boats anchoring in the Bay.

The expedition is supported by scientific lectures regarding conservation in the Adriatic; the ecosystem and biodiversity of the island of Mljet; sustainability; research methods and global challenges such as marine pollution. The students also have the opportunity to be involved in workshops to discuss conservation and global challenges issues and to take part in personal and professional development training activities that focus on sustainability and protection of marine life.

It is an amazing experience for everyone and the students leave the Island with a new understanding and new appreciation of the ecology Island of Mljet, the contribution of the National Park regarding conservation and the need and importance of supporting the National Park’s efforts.

As for me, being able to work both with the sea and the sky, I can just say, I have never been happier!

Blog post by Eleni Michalopoulou. Eleni is currently a PhD student in the department of Chemistry and part of the ACRG Group. Her PhD focuses on studying the PFCs CF4 and C2F6. A physicist by training with a major in Oceanography, environment and meteorology she has spend most of her early career working on marine conservation, microplastics oceanography and Atmospheric dynamics.  She is one of the lecturers of the Sustainable Development open unit and one of the lead educators for Bristol Futures and the Sustainable Futures pathway. Her scientific interests cover a variety of topics such as climate change, conservation, sustainability, marine and Atmospheric Sciences. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

In defence of science: Making facts great again

"We must not let rhetoric or vested interests divert us from what we know is the right course of action."

From across the Atlantic, the European scientific community is watching warily as our American colleagues endure increasingly politicised attacks on their work and on the very foundation of evidence-based science.

President Donald Trump's decision earlier this month to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change - a decision condemned by heads of state, businesses, mayors and ordinary people in the US and the world over - epitomised this contempt for the facts from some within the political sphere.

We can, to some degree, relate, as many European scientists - and particularly those who research climate change and its impacts, as I do - have been forced to confront the politicisation of their disciplines, the distortion of their research and the promotion of "alternative facts" and vested-interest propaganda.

In fact, just two months ago at the annual General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union, for the first time in the body's history, we debated issues around existential threats to science in general, the integrity of the scientific community, trust in science and what we can do to ensure that evidence-based science forms the basis for informed decisions and debate by policymakers and the public.

Later this month, we'll watch as some of our American colleagues gather for the annual Broadcast Meteorology Conference of the American Meteorological Society, which will include in its programme a short course explicitly focused on the communication of climate science.

Never has accurate, fact-based communication of climate science been more urgently needed, and in modern history, it has rarely been so compromised. There is a clear trend, particularly evident in the US, of a growing distrust of "experts" who are branded as intellectual elites, rooted in a populist backlash towards the establishment.

This goes all the way up the rungs of government to the American president himself, who has called climate change a "hoax" and in his first 100 days in office has moved to curb spending on climate and earth science research and is overseeing an agency-wide scrubbing of climate science out of federal websites and publications.

As he announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on June 1, Trump also left himself open to accusations of misrepresenting climate science to suit his own political objectives: after the US president quoted a figure from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study to support his argument that the Paris Agreement is ineffectual, MIT officials - including one of the study's authors - declared that Trump had misunderstood their work and that they did not support a US withdrawal from the agreement.

The science of climate change, however, is clearer than ever. We see the fingerprints of human-induced global warming on more and more long-term climate trends. In the US and throughout the world, for instance, warmer temperatures are amplifying the intensity, duration and frequency of many weather events, none more evident than extreme heat. Western states have suffered through record numbers of heat waves since the turn of the century, with overnight temperatures often at historical highs. This is particularly dangerous as it doesn't give the human body the necessary relief. Already, these heat waves are costing lives, and the scientific link between human-induced global warming and heat waves is crystal clear. The European heat wave of 2003 is estimated to have caused 35,000 premature deaths and was very likely a consequence of human interference with the climate system.

By listening to the best available science on climate change, we can better prepare for its impacts. By ignoring, censoring, or shunning our scientists, we put more Americans at risk. The alternative to informed decision-making is uninformed decision-making. Without evidence-based science, decisions of vital importance to humanity will be made founded in prejudice, emotion and ignorance. That is no way to run the planet. It is no way to plan our future.

Besides helping prepare for the impacts of climate change, science should guide our efforts to minimise them. For these mitigation efforts, the science is telling us that we don't have much time. In fact, it's saying that 2020 must be the target for peaking global carbon emissions. We must bend the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions towards a steady decline by the next US presidential election. If emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, the world stands very little chance of limiting global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold set by the Paris Agreement, and a temperature limit that many of the world's most vulnerable communities consider a threshold for survival.

The world has four short years to reverse our emissions trends to avoid the very real risk of dangerous and irreversible climate change, but we won't get the policies we need without trusting and relying on the science that tells us that's so. Science has no political affiliation, nor can it be bent to your will. You don't renegotiate with physics and you aren't about to "win" a deal with chemistry. We must not let rhetoric, vested interests or the blind dismissal of the overwhelming scientific consensus divert us from what we know is the right course of action ethically, scientifically and economically.

By Jonathan Bamber, professor of polar science at the University of Bristol and president of the European Geosciences Union. Blog originally posted on Al Jazeera.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Forest accounting rules put EU’s climate credibility at risk, say leading experts

**Article re-posted from EURACTIV **

Forest mitigation should be measured using a scientifically-objective approach, not allowing countries to hide the impacts of policies that increase net emissions, writes a group of environmental scientists led by Dr Joanna I House.

Dr Joanna I House is a reader in environmental science and policy at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK. She co-signed this op-ed with other environmental scientists listed at the bottom of the article.

From an atmospheric perspective, a reduction in the forest sink leads to more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere and is thus effectively equivalent to a net increase in emissions. [Yannik S/Flickr]

When President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the EU’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete spoke for all EU Member States when he said that, “This has galvanised us rather than weakened us, and this vacuum will be filled by new broad committed leadership.” The French President, Emmanuel Macron, echoed him by tweeting, “Make our planet great again”.

But as the old saying goes, ‘If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk,’ and what better place to start than the very laws the EU is currently drafting to implement its 2030 climate target under the Paris Agreement. This includes a particularly contentious issue that EU environment leaders will discuss on 19 June, relating to the rules on accounting for the climate impact of forests.

Forests are crucial to limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Deforestation is responsible for almost one tenth of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while forests remove almost a third of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.

In the EU, forests currently grow more than they are harvested.  As a result, they act as a net ‘sink’ of CO2 removing more than 400 Mt CO2 from the atmosphere annually, equivalent to 10% of total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

New policies adopted or intended by Member States will likely drive them to harvest more trees (e.g. for the bioeconomy and bioenergy), reducing the sink. The controversy is, in simple terms, if forests are taking up less CO2 due to policies, should this be counted?

Based on lessons learnt from the Kyoto Protocol, the European Commission proposed that accounting for the impacts of forests on the atmosphere should be based on a scientifically robust baseline. This baseline (known as the ‘Forest Reference Level’) should take into account historical data on forest management activities and forest dynamics (age-related changes). If countries change forest management activities going forward, the atmospheric impact of these changes would be fully accounted based on the resulting changes in GHG emissions and sinks relative to the baseline. This approach is consistent with the GHG accounting of all other sectors.

Subsequently, some EU member states have proposed that any increase in harvesting, potentially up to the full forest growth increment, should not be penalised. This would be achieved by including this increase in harvesting, and the related change in the net carbon sink, in the baseline.

As land-sector experts involved in scientific and methodological reports (including for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC), in the implementation of GHG inventory reports, and in science advice to Governments, we have several scientific concerns with this approach.

From an atmospheric perspective, a reduction in the forest sink leads to more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere and is thus effectively equivalent to a net increase in emissions. This is true even if forests are managed “sustainably”, i.e. even if harvest does not exceed forest growth.

This is further complicated as the issues are cross-sectoral. Higher harvest rates may reduce the uptake of CO2 by forests, but use of the harvested wood may lead to emissions reductions in other sectors e.g. through the substitution of wood for other more emissions-intensive materials (e.g. cement) or fossil energy. These emission reductions will be implicitly counted in the non-LULUCF sectors.  Therefore, to avoid bias through incomplete accounting, the full impact of increased harvesting must be also accounted for.

Including policy-related harvest increases in the baseline could effectively hide up to 400 MtCO2/yr from EU forest biomass accounting compared to the “sink service” that EU forests provide today, or up to 300 MtCO2/yr relative to a baseline based on a scientific approach (up to two thirds of France’s annual emissions).

If policy-related impacts on net land carbon sinks are ignored or discounted, this would:

  • Hamper the credibility of the EU’s bioenergy accounting: Current IPCC guidance on reporting emissions from bioenergy is not to assume that it is carbon neutral, but rather any carbon losses should to be reported under the ‘Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) sector rather than under the energy sector (to avoid double counting). EU legislation on bioenergy similarly relies on the assumption that carbon emissions are fully accounted under LULUCF.
  • Compromise the consistency between the EU climate target and the IPCC trajectories. The EU objective of reducing GHG emissions of -40% by 2030 (-80/95% by 2050) compared to 1990 is based on the IPCC 2°C GHG trajectory for developed countries. This trajectory is based not just on emissions, but also on land-sinks. Hiding a decrease in the land sink risks failure to reach temperature targets and would require further emission reductions in other sectors to remain consistent with IPCC trajectories.
  • Contradict the spirit of the Paris Agreement, i.e., that “Parties should take action to conserve and enhance sinks”, and that Parties should ensure transparency in accounting providing confidence that the nationally-determined contribution of each country (its chosen level of ambition in mitigation) is met without hiding impacts of national policies.
  • Set a dangerous precedent internationally, potentially leading other countries to do the same (e.g. in setting deforestation reference levels). This would compromise the credibility of the large expected forest contribution to the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement needs credible and transparent forest accounting and EU leaders are about to make a decision that could set the standard.   Including policy-driven increases in harvest in baselines means the atmospheric impacts of forest policies will be effectively hidden from the accounts (while generating GHG savings in other sectors). Basing forest accounting on a scientifically-objective approach would ensure the credibility of bioenergy accounting, consistency between EU targets and the IPCC 2°C trajectory, and compliance with the spirit of Paris Agreement. The wrong decision would increase the risks of climate change and undermine our ability to “make the planet great again”.

Disclaimer: the authors express their view in their personal capacities, not representing their countries or any of the institutions they work for.



Joanna I House, Reader in Environmental Science and Policy, Co-Chair Global Environmental Change, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK
Jaana K Bäck, Professor in Forest – atmosphere interactions, Chair of the EASAC Forest multifunctionality report, University of Helsinki, Finland
Valentin Bellassen, Researcher in Agricultural and Environmental Economics, INRA, France
Hannes Böttcher, Senior Researcher at Oeko-Institut.
Eric Chivian M.D., Founder and Former Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard Medical School
Pep Canadell, Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project
Philippe Ciais, scientist at Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Gif sur Yvette, France
Philip B. Duffy, President and Executive Director Woods Hole Research Center, USA
Sandro Federici, Consultant on MRV and accounting for mitigation in the Agriculture and land use sector
Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems, University of Exeter, UK.
Scott Goetz, Professor, Northern Arizona University
Nancy Harris, Research Manager, Forests Program, World resources Institute.
Martin Herold, Professor for Geoinformation Science and Remote Sensing and co-chair of Global Observations of Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD), Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands
Mikael Hildén, Professor, Climate Change Programme and the Resource Efficient and Carbon Neutral Finland Programme, Finnish Environment Institute and the Strategic Research Council, Finland
Richard A. Houghton, Woods Hole Research Centre USA
Tuomo Kalliokoski University of Helsinki, Finland
Janne S. Kotiaho, Professor of Ecology, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Donna Lee, Climate and Land Use Alliance
Anders Lindroth, Lund University, Sweden
Jari Liski, Research Professor, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Finland
Brendan Mackey, Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, Australia
James J. McCarthy, Harvard University, USA
William R. Moomaw, Co-director Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, USA
Teemu Tahvanainen, University of Eastern Finland
Olli Tahvonen, Professor forest economics and policy, University of Helsinki, Finland
Keith Pausitan, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University, USA
Colin Prentice, AXA Chair in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, Imperial College London, UK
N H Ravindranath, Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST), Indian Institute of Science, India
Laura Saikku, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
Maria J Sanchez, Scientific Director of BC3 (Basque Center for Climate Change), Spain
Sampo Soimakallio, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
Zoltan Somogyi, Hungarian Forest Research Institute, Budapest, Hungary
Benjamin Smith, Professor of Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Sweden
Pete Smith, Professor of Soils & Global Change, University of Aberdeen, UK
Francesco N. Tubiello, Te Leader, Agri-Environmental Statistics, FAO
Timo Vesala, Professor of Meteorology, University of Helsinki, Finland
Robert Waterworth
Jeremy Woods, Imperial College London, UK
Dan Zarin, Climate and Land Use Alliance

Thursday, 8 June 2017

MSc Environmental Policy and Management Course Trip to Warsaw, Poland

Each year, students on the MSc Environmental Policy and Management program receive funding to plan an educational trip in Europe. Previous cohorts have chosen to visit Berlin, Copenhagen, Riga, and Amsterdam. This year, we democratically decided to visit Warsaw. We chose to do so not because the city and Poland are exemplary in environmental management, but rather because they have real challenges facing them in the transition to a low-carbon future.

The energy sector represents the biggest environmental challenge in Poland and government leaders are reported to actively oppose European Union climate change targets (Kowalski, 2016). After its most recent election (2015), the country announced that energy policy would prioritise the exploitation of domestic coal deposits. Indeed, there is a historical and cultural attachment to coal in Poland, as the coal industry was influential in the country’s socio-economic development in the period between World War I and World War II, and during the post-World War II Communist era (Kowalski, 2016). More recently, coal has been promoted as a path to increase Poland’s energy independence, particularly from Russia, by reducing the need for imported fuel.

Poland has consistently been one of the biggest coal producers in the EU (Lukaszewska, 2011). A large majority of the country’s electricity generation (80 – 94%) comes from coal-fired power plants fuelled by domestic hard coal and lignite (Kozlowska, 2017; Lukaszewska, 2011). The dominant position of these fossil fuels in Poland’s energy mix presents a significant challenge in the fight against global climate change. We arranged meetings with the Polish Climate Coalition, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and Greenpeace Poland to learn more.

Our first meeting was with the Polish Climate Coalition. As our large cohort climbed the stairs to their office, it soon became clear that we would not all fit in and so we turned back and headed for a local café just around the corner. Walking with Krzysztof and Urszula, they seemed apologetic, but they need not have been. We found the experience to be an honest representation of how a grassroots organisation may operate when fighting for causes arguably more important than having a fancy corporate office. The Coalition is an association of 22 NGOs engaged in climate protection and includes Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and ClientEarth. It was established under the outright belief that humans are responsible for climate change.

Over the next 90 minutes, Krzysztof and Urszula provided us with an in-depth overview of the energy sector in Poland. We learned that the dominant driving force for current practice is a flawed interpretation of energy security which focuses on supply in lieu of other considerations, such as tackling fuel poverty and environmental pollution or ensuring stable, long-term access to energy.

The Polish energy sector is seemingly outdated and inadequate in the face of 21st century challenges. It was particularly concerning to hear that the combination of both a dry winter in 2014 and a hot summer in 2015 significantly reduced the water levels in Poland’s rivers. These rivers are the primary source of water for cooling the country’s coal-fired power plants, and in August 2015, power restrictions were imposed on 1,600 of the biggest companies in Poland as a result (Olszwski, 2015). The population face an ever-increasing risk of power blackouts due to the vulnerability of the energy sector from over-reliance on coal. If hot summers persist (temperatures exceeded 24C on the day of our visit in May!), then such vulnerability will surely continue.

One thing became clear in that, despite the major challenges which Poland faces, there are good people like Krzysztof and Urszula who are willing to fight the uphill battle, within a context where motivation must surely be difficult to find.

Upon arrival at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, for our second meeting, we were welcomed into a light, air-conditioned conference room where water and nibbles were laid out for us. While our physical environment was starkly different to our first meeting, we soon realised an overarching theme in Poland.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is a politically independent 'green visions' think tank with 30 offices worldwide. Their work is divided into three programmes and we met with Katarzyna from the Energy and Climate programme in Warsaw, whose work aims to intensify the discourse about the challenges presented by energy transformation and climate change.

Much of Katarzyna’s message reinforced what we had learned in our first meeting. However, it was particularly interesting to enter into a discussion about air pollution toward the end of her presentation. We learned that coal is not only the primary source of electricity production, but is also still burned, alongside rubbish and other discarded materials, to heat homes in the winter, creating an ever-worsening problem with smog in Warsaw and across Poland. We were told that in the winter of 2016 - 2017, smog was so thick that you could not see your hand in front of you. In January 2017, air pollution in Warsaw was so bad that local authorities decided to limit local emissions by making public transport free for a short period. Approximately 45,000 people in Poland die each year from air pollution (Kozlowska, 2017). The total population is around 38 million (“Population, total,” 2017).

Our final meeting was with Greenpeace, and this took us away from the city centre to their office in what was once a very large home. Many of us took advantage of Warsaw’s bike rental scheme, called Veturilo, to make the almost 6-kilometre ride from our hostel along cycle lanes, roads, and even the sidewalk.

The office culture immediately felt distinct to that of the previous two organisations. Staff dressed more casually; unmade bunk beds showed us where visiting volunteers can stay; bumper stickers and sketched environmental messages decorated some walls; and stuffed bees the size of large dogs hung from the ceiling (purportedly they have used the bees for campaigning). The efforts of Greenpeace Poland depend less on paper and pen and more on influential signage and community engagement.

Our contact, Anna, shared stories of human chains to call attention to the rivers that have dried up because of open-pit lignite mining. She taught us about the mining process, showing us on a map of the country where current mines are operating and new ones are planned. The process destroys landscapes, diverts massive volumes of water, and forces displacement of people. The low energy content of lignite means power plants must be built immediately adjacent to the mines. Since opening about 10 years ago, Greenpeace Poland has had some successes. Anna shared her involvement in advocating for the sale of excess renewable energy back to the grid, which ultimately came to pass, at least temporarily. To highlight that the battle for environmental progress is constantly uphill however, the government later reverted this policy, and at the time of writing has not reinstated it.

Despite a certain level of negativity in our meetings, Anna’s anecdote provided some optimism. The temporary success depended on using political divisions and public advertising focusing on the benefits to individuals. Though a small step, it shows that sometimes addressing the self-interest of the general public can be an effective way to combat environmental issues in a country with Poland’s political context.

Due to a lack of climate change education in Poland, environmentalism must be achieved through its benefits to the public rather than through traditional means. Indifference towards environmentalism is something that can be seen in other countries, and to us provided a good indication of how hostile public attitudes can be addressed to allow for environmental and climate protection. One of the authors, Michael, comes from Texas and found parallels between the situation in Poland and that back home. Progress cannot depend on a shared sense of responsibility to address climate change, in which many people do not even believe. Counterproductive financial interests are rampant. However, reframing the conversation to discuss savings from energy efficiency, economic opportunities in renewables, and energy security can achieve gains in the low-carbon transition. In Texas, wind power has boomed not because of political or public will to move beyond fossil fuels, but because of its economic viability.

We are truly grateful to the School of Geography for affording us the opportunity to undertake this trip. Beyond learning more about the energy system in Poland and organisations working to improve it, we became closer as a cohort and had a wonderful time.

The reader can reach out with any questions on the trip or the program to the authors of this blog post: Mark Nichols (, Allan MacLeod (, or Michael Donatti (

Kowalski, K., 2016. In Poland, efforts to rescue coal industry will likely come up short. [online] Available:

Kozlowska, H., 2017. When it comes to air pollution, Poland is the China of Europe. [online] Available:

Lukaszewska, H., 2011. Poland’s Energu Security Strategy. Journal of Energy Security.

Olszewski, M., 2015. The Polish Energy Drought. [online] Available:

“Population, Total.” The World Bank, 2017.

Monday, 5 June 2017

A response to Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

The decision by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change puts the United States at odds with both science and global geopolitical norms.  The fundamentals of climate change remain unambiguous: greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, they are increasing because of human action, the increase will cause warming, and that warming creates risks of extreme weather, food crises and sea level rise. That does not mean that scientists can predict all of the consequences of global warming, much work needs to be done, but the risks are both profound and clear. Nor do we know what the best solutions will be - there is need for a robust debate about the nature, fairness and efficacy of different decarbonisation policies and technologies as well as the balance of responsibility; the Paris Agreement, despite its faults with respect to obligation and enforcement, allowed great flexibility in that regard, which is why nearly every nation on Earth is a signatory.

Moreover, although climate change affects us all, it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most. They, despite being least responsible, bear the greatest risks and the greatest burdens. For the President of the world’s second largest carbon polluter to blatantly disregard such evidence and injustice, to refuse to even acknowledge the consequences of its actions and to disengage with this relatively modest and non-binding agreement puts it odds with the norms of global partnership and human rights. This abrogation of responsibility is particularly profound because President Trump has also withdrawn the United States from the Green Climate Fund, which helps the poorest of the world adapt to the climate change that his actions make more likely.

And to what end?  Other nations will now assume global leadership, politically, morally and technologically.  It will likely cost American businesses money, hinder innovation in one of the world’s most dynamic sectors, and ultimately cost jobs. It will likely undermine the United States’ global stature and diplomatic reach. It is hard to imagine a decision so blatantly motivated by self-interest while being so profoundly self-harming.

The crucial question now is how we respond.  China and the EU have stepped forward, increasing their voluntary commitments, repudiating President Trump’s decision and assuming the mantle of leadership.  Nations around the world are following suit, as are cities and states across the United States.  Businesses have re-stated their commitment to decarbonisation – ironically, the day before Trump’s decision, shareholders voted that Exxon develop plans compliant with the Paris Agreement’s targets.  In the UK, in the midst of a general election, parties from across the political spectrum have responded to Trump’s decision with reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage. The UK has always provided leadership in this arena, recognising that climate change is a non-partisan issue, and it is one of the few nations with a cross party Climate Change Act.  It is vital for both the planet and the UK that these initial comments are followed by bolder actions and stronger leadership.

Across the world and in the University of Bristol, we are frustrated with the symbolism of Trump’s actions, his speech’s misrepresentation of facts, and his decision’s potential to slow climate action.  But we also recognise that these actions will not stop climate action. The responses of local, national and international leaders, in politics, community groups and businesses, across sectors and across society show that no person, regardless of his position or his nation, can stop the energy revolution. It is too deeply embedded in our politics, economy and ambitions, borne of out of multiple necessities.
Here, in the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, we remain committed to this challenge.  Our University is committed to carbon neutrality, ethical and low-carbon procurement and divestment from fossil fuel-intensive businesses. We have foregrounded Sustainable Futures in our undergraduate teaching.  And in our research, we are investigating improved energy efficiency in everything from computer software, to our homes and our cities.  We are exploring how smart technology enables new forms of transport, community energy and individual action. We are converting nuclear waste into diamond batteries with 5000-year lifetimes, we are leading one of the projects under the Natural Environment Research Council’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction programme and we have just launched new initiatives in wind, tidal, solar and nuclear energy.

Our ambitions are at all scales, from the local to the global.  We continue to work with our Green Capital partners, with a focus on building an informed, diverse, inclusive and powerful movement to become a more sustainable city and region, exemplified by the Green and Black Ambassadors Initiative.  Globally, our projects have been exploring the impact of conflict, climate change and geological hazards on development and the environment; the potential for micro-grids to deliver electricity to isolated communities; new forms of parasite resistance for subsistence farmers; and how geothermal energy can be harnessed in Ethiopia.

This commitment to sustainability builds on five decades of research on our environmental challenges and how to manage them.  The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group makes among the world’s most accurate measurements of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and they have shown how rapidly these compounds are accumulating. They are committed to refining those measurements and the modelling methods that allow us to understand why global emissions change. The Bristol Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment reconstructs past climates and uses those insights to better understand our future; recent projects are building global collaborations to explore the controls on Earth’s temperature and monsoons.  Our glaciologists study sea level rise; our hydrologists study floods and drought; our social scientists study the injustice of climate change and its impact on migration and conflict; and our vets and life scientists are exploring how to improve animal welfare and crop yields on a climate disrupted planet.

Our commitment includes appointing the best and the brightest at understanding these challenges, including Dr Dann Mitchell who joined the University in November.  As co-ordinator of the largest dedicated project in the world on the climate impacts of the Paris Agreement (, he sums up the Cabot Institute’s collective commitment: “The news of Trump wanting to pull out is incredibly frustrating. Our results are already suggesting more extreme events, such as droughts and heat waves, and serious impacts on society, such as increased human and animal health issues, failures in global crop distributions and bleaching of our coral reefs. I am frustrated that Trump continues to ignore the scientific evidence that has been recognised by his global peers, but that will not dissuade us from doing all we can to understand climate risks… and prevent them.’

Article by Professor Rich Pancost,
Director of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute
Professor of Biogeochemistry
Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Scholar

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Yangon’s mobility crisis: A governance problem

A mobility crisis has arisen in Yangon, Myanmar, as growth-induced congestion is slowing travel times for the city’s widely used buses, thereby incentivising car ownership and increasing traffic further. The key cause is poor governance, which manifests itself through fragmented planning, low public infrastructure investment, and a ban on motorcycles and bicycles.

Home to more than 5 million people and producing nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s gross domestic product, this metropolis is once again buzzing with activity as it reopens to the world after decades of military rule. But Yangon’s potential to serve as an engine of economic growth for the nation is being severely undermined by a mobility crisis. As the economy speeds up, the city slows down.

Journey times have skyrocketed in the city as the streets become ever more crowded. Some estimates suggest travel speeds at peak times have dropped from 38 km/h in 2007 to 10-15 km/h in 2015. This slowdown matters for several reasons. First, such high congestion places a significant drag on productivity by raising the cost of doing business and generating friction in the greater Yangon labour market. It is harder for workers to commute to the jobs they are qualified for. Second, the worst affected are the poorest. As a group, they spend the highest share of income on transport and the most time in traffic, which impedes poverty reduction efforts and adds to inequality. Third, air pollution has reached dangerous levels. The World Health Organization finds that Myanmar has some of the worst air pollution in the world, due in part to “inefficient modes of transport”.

The proximate causes: liberalisation and economic growth

Yangon’s mobility crisis is a positive indicator insofar as it reflects robust economic growth. Estimating the city’s growth rate is challenging due to a lack of economic data. However, by exploiting satellite images of night-time lights, which can be used as a rough proxy for economic activity, we can get an idea of the pace of growth. Figures 1 and 2 show images of Yangon at night in 2003 and 2013, respectively. Over this period, the level of luminosity nearly tripled, which we estimate translates into an impressive average annual growth rate in output of 8.5%. Growth appears to have been accelerating, given our estimate that the city grew at an average annual rate of 11.2% between 2008 and 2013.

Figure 1: Luminosity in Yangon Region, 2003   

Figure 2: Luminosity in Yangon Region, 2013

Since 2011 this growth has been accompanied by a large expansion of personal automobile usage. It was virtually impossible to import automobiles prior to 2011 due to heavy restrictions imposed by the military. The relaxation of vehicle import restrictions, as part of a wider range of liberalisation reforms in recent years, has revealed extensive pent up vehicle demand and allowed a precipitous decline in car prices. Yangon’s burgeoning middle class has jumped at the opportunity to acquire newly imported vehicles and escape the deteriorating bus system. Official figures indicate that there was a 153% increase in registered vehicles in Yangon between 2011 and 2014 alone.

The congestion incentive spiral

The surge in automobile ownership has set in motion a “congestion incentive spiral” that has exacerbated traffic. Prior to liberalisation, buses were by far the dominant mode of transport. The bus system was run as a competitive cartel with a restricted number of private bus owners competing for passengers on similar routes. This incentivised overcrowding, reckless driving, and under-investment in bus fleet maintenance — all of which contributed to congestion and a poor passenger experience.

For those who can afford a car, abandoning the buses is rational. Cars are more comfortable and always quicker than buses. The ability to go directly from origin to destination without stops or transfers significantly reduces the overall journey time. There remains a dilemma: the more people abandon buses, the worse traffic becomes, and the greater the incentive to use private transport. It is an incentive spiral that can only be broken by dramatically increasing the costs of individual car use or by providing an attractive alternative.

Fragmented governance as a root cause

There is no ready alternative to buses and cars in Yangon due to a legacy of poor planning, low public investment, and the fact that motorcycles and bicycles are banned in the city. In fact, there has been no significant investment in public transport infrastructure since the colonial era when the city’s Circular Railway was built. The railway is running and affordable, but its slow speed and limited coverage mean it attracts only a small fraction of Yangon’s commuters.

The emergence of the dysfunctional private bus cartel was an organic response to the lack of alternatives, which in turn was a consequence of the systematic lack of public investment in transport infrastructure and services. This crisis of governance persists today despite the energetic efforts of the current Chief Minister of Yangon, who has driven an impressive reform of the bus system by breaking the cartel and introducing proper public oversight.

An improved bus system, however, will not be enough to break the congestion incentive spiral now that so many people have purchased cars. What is required is a comprehensive and financially viable transport plan developed and implemented by a public transport authority with a metropolitan remit. Currently, the delivery of city infrastructure and services is fragmented across three tiers of government and dozens of agencies and offices. This fragmentation of governance is the true underlying cause of Yangon’s mobility crisis.

A path forward: governance then infrastructure

It is important to frame the problem as a mobility crisis, not a traffic congestion crisis. People can move through cities in many ways, and all large cities have traffic congestion challenges. More prepared cities do not suffer from mobility crises because other transport options are available: bus rapid transit systems that are insulated from traffic; cycling infrastructure; rail networks; and pedestrian-friendly mixed-used developments that reduce the demand for vehicular travel.

Relatively modest public investment could help Yangon. Nonetheless, a bus rapid transit plan announced in 2014 unfortunately appears to have been shelved. The mostly flat topography of Yangon is conducive to cycling. Relaxing restrictions on the use of bicycles on key arteries and in the city centre, combined with modest investments in cycling infrastructure, could provide an affordable alternative mode of individualised transport in the city.

These initiatives require significant governance reforms to succeed. Yangon is projected to join the ranks of the world’s mega-cities (i.e. cities with 10 million or more inhabitants) by 2030. With this growth comes physical expansion, which alters commuting patterns and transport demand. Without a concerted and sustained intervention by a metropolitan-scale transport authority with a mandate to maximise urban mobility, Yangon’s transit woes will surely worsen and further undermine the city’s enormous potential to support Myanmar’s economic renaissance.

This blog is written by Dr Sean Fox (Political Economy of Development & Urban Geography) and originally hosted on the IGC blog.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Environments without Borders

The effects of climate change vary hugely across political borders, and have wide-ranging impacts on different communities and environments. Climate policy responses must recognise this global interconnectedness, and integrate international cooperation with effective local action. This is why global treaties such as the Paris Agreement are so important in the fight against climate change, but individual nations must also do their bit to achieve the objectives set out in the agreement. In Environments without Borders (part of Research Without Borders), a panel debate hosted by Bristol Doctoral College and the Cabot Institute on Wednesday 10th May, we will discuss some of these issues, using examples from our research on particular challenges facing our global ocean and water environments.

Iceberg photo taken on a research trip to Antarctica, by Eric Mackie

Rising Sea Levels

Many climate change impacts require a policy response that balances mitigation with adaptation. Mitigation, by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a zero-carbon economy, can drastically reduce some of the worst effects of climate change. However, we are already committed to certain climate change impacts, and these will require humanity to adapt. Sea level rise is a prime example. Global sea level has already risen 20cm since 1900, and the rate of sea level rise is increasing. We know this trend will continue throughout the 21st century and beyond, but the question is, how much will sea level rise, and how fast? Projections of global sea level rise by 2100 range from a further 30cm, assuming drastic mitigation action, to 1m or more in “business-as-usual” scenarios with increasing carbon emissions. Cutting carbon emissions can hugely reduce the number of people at risk of displacement by sea level rise globally, from up to 760 million in a scenario with 4°C of warming, down to 130 million if warming is limited to 2°C in line with the Paris Agreement. Mitigation is therefore essential if we want to avoid the worst effects, but adaptation is also necessary to ensure humanity is resilient to sea level rise that is already locked in.

A coastal scene taken on a research trip in the South Pacific, by Alice Venn

Disappearing Islands

The South Pacific is home to some of the world’s states most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Sea-level rise threatens coastal erosion, the widespread displacement of people and the inundation of the lowest-lying islands in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, while oceanic warming and acidification threaten the livelihoods of many remote coastal communities. More intense tropical cyclones, Cyclone Pam in 2015 and Winston in 2016, have recently resulted in tragic losses of life and damages in excess of $449 million and $470 million respectively. The devastation facing Small Island Developing States in the region, when juxtaposed with their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions which is estimated at just 0.03%, serves to illustrate the need for the international community to urgently step up efforts to provide support. Enhanced financial assistance for adaptation is essential, however this must be accompanied by strengthened legal protection for communities, readily accessible compensation for loss and damage, capacity building and a strengthened role for civil society organisations giving voice to community needs and traditional knowledge in policy-making processes.

The Lion Fish is an example of an aggressive invasive fish in the Caribbean Sea, and has had an impact over native species, ecosystems and local economies.

Invasive Aliens

Biodiversity in water environments can be adversely affected by invasive fish species, which originate from different sources, including marine ballast, fisheries improvements, and aquaculture. Invasive fish species can cause environmental concerns such as changes in the nutrients cycle, transmission of diseases, competence for resources, displacement and extinction of native species. Success in the establishment of invasive species depends on propagule size, physiology of the proper species, and current biotic and abiotic factors in the invaded system. Invasive species represent a global issue, and when combined with climate change their effects can be sharpened. Some limiting abiotic factors are expected to change as the climate changes, favouring new invasions and the spread of established invasive species to new ranges. Milder winters in northern latitude lakes, worldwide flooding and salinisation of coastal freshwater systems will provide suitable thermal conditions, new pathways for escape and dispersion, and the increase in dominance by invasive fish species adapted to brackish water systems. Deficient planning for future responses in water management can also result in favourable conditions for dispersion of undesirable aquatic organisms. For example, this is the case with the Nile tilapia, an invasive species in tropical ecosystems of southern Mexico and Tanzania, where flooding causes its dispersion but alternative management policies could improve the situation. More information see the Invasive Species Specialists Group.

Sustainable Resource Management

Against the backdrop of climate change, which will exacerbate the impact of human activities on natural resources, today’s environmental challenges require above all a strong and consistent commitment by national governments to better implement ambitious environmental policies that they previously adopted. However, traditional decision making approaches often are not equipped to ensure that precious resources are protected, if not enhanced. Sustainable management of natural resources is without doubt complex and creates conflicts between users that compete for access. For instance, there still seems to be too great a divide between the environmental and the business sector and these policy domains are as yet not fully integrated. Nonetheless, there are good examples of governments (and sub-national governments) that were successful in getting all key policy sectors on board when implementing difficult and ambitious environmental policies. For instance, the Scottish Government’s approach in implementing the Water Framework Directive demonstrates that with a strong political commitment, coupled with very proactive efforts in balancing the decision making towards more inclusive and cooperative policy processes, and with an intense and systematic use of evidence to back up policy proposals, it is possible to build trust between sectors and to act upon the barriers to implementation.

It’s clear that each of these challenges requires imminent action, but what are the right approaches, actors, and requirements to make meaningful progress? Whether you’re a member of the public, a policy maker, or someone working in the field, we invite you to join us at the Environments without Borders event on Wednesday 10 May for a lively and provocative debate about the challenges we face and how, collectively, we can spur action for change.

Blog authors (and panel members): Laura De Vito is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Geographical Sciences. Carlos Gracida Juarez is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Biological Sciences. Alice Venn is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Social Sciences and Law. Erik Mackie is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Geographical Sciences, working together with the British Antarctic Survey, and kept up a blog during his recent fieldwork in Antarctica. Blog originally posted on the Policy Bristol Blog.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Why cities are crucibles for sustainable development efforts (but so hard to get right)

Figure 1. Rural and urban population trends, 1950-2050.
Fox, S. & Goodfellow, T. (2016) Cities and Development, Second Edition. Routledge.

Sustainable Development Goal 11 outlines a global ambition to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. It is arguably one of the most important of the 17 recently agreed Goals, but we’re unlikely to reach it in most parts of the world by 2030.

The importance of Goal 11 stems from global demographic trends. As Figure 1 illustrates, over 50% of the world’s population already lives in towns and cities, and that percentage is set to rise to 66% by 2050. In fact, nearly all projected population growth between now and 2050 is expected to be absorbed in towns and cities, and the vast majority of this growth will happen in Africa and Asia (see Figure 2).

These trends mean that when it comes to eliminating poverty and hunger, improving health and education services, ensuring universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation, promoting economic growth with decent employment opportunities, and creating ‘responsible consumption and production patterns’ (and achieving many other goals) urban centres are on the front line by default.

Figure 2. Estimated and projected urban population increase by region, 1950/2000 & 2000/2050
Dr Sean Fox, Lecturer in Urban Geography and Global Development, University of Bristol

But cities are complex political arenas prone to the kinds of conflicts that can thwart ambitious visions for transformative development.

To appreciate just how difficult it can be to achieve seemingly obvious and desirable improvements in cities, it is useful to examine some practical challenges. Consider the goal of ensuring access to clean, affordable water for all (Goal 6, Target 1; Goal 11 Target 1). In cities across Africa and Asia, a significant share of households live in informal settlements that lack piped water infrastructure. As a result, most residents rely on water provided by private vendors who sell water by the bucketful from tanker trunks or standpipes that they control. Perversely, the poor often end up paying a significant premium for their water on the open market, while more fortunate residents who are connected to municipal infrastructure pay far less. This perpetuates inequality, both between socioeconomic groups and between men and women (as women generally bear the burden of water collection in such contexts), and it also means that there are groups of people with fairly strong incentives to resist infrastructure investments: the water vendors. And these vendors sometimes take aggressive steps to protect their captive markets and thwart infrastructure development.

A similar dynamic is often at play when it comes to upgrading informal settlements more generally. In many cities poorer households do not have formal (i.e. legally binding) tenure security but rather pay some form of rent to a third party in return for protection against eviction. This form of ‘land racketeering’ is often undertaken by the very politicians and bureaucrats who should be seeking to improve citizens’ lives.

In other words, urban underdevelopment creates profitable opportunities for some, which in turn creates interest groups opposed to change.

But even rich cities, with well-developed physical infrastructure and formal tenure arrangements, often suffer from political gridlock that impedes progress. Consider the city of Bristol in the UK. Bristol was recently voted the best place to live in the UK, yet the city also suffers from dangerous levels of air pollution, which is linked directly to debilitating levels of traffic congestion in the city.
While Bristol’s transport woes have long been recognized, it has proven fiendishly difficult to tackle the underlying problem: a lack of metropolitan-scale transport planning and investment integrated with land use plans. This is due to a legacy of ‘horizontal fragmentation’ and ‘vertical dependence’.

Figure 3. Map of Greater Bristol with council boundaries 

Horizontal fragmentation refers to the fact that Greater Bristol—i.e. the functional area of the city as defined by daily commuter behaviour—is home to over 1 million people spread across four different local government areas, each with its own budget, council, transport planning processes, etc. As Figure 3 clearly shows, the local government boundaries (in red) carve up this functional urban region into four artificial parts). Indeed, in some places, such as north Bristol, local government boundaries run straight through clearly contiguous built-up areas (represented as grey). The challenge of coordinating planning and investment across four councils is compounded by the fact that in the past any major infrastructure investment needed to be approved and funded by the UK central government (i.e. the problem of vertical dependence). This support is not necessarily forthcoming. An ambitious plan tabled around the turn of the millennium to integrate city transport with a tram network, and make the whole system more inclusive for low income residents, was rejected by central government. This is a prime example of how political challenges in wealthy countries impede development progress.

In sum, there are significant political obstacles to progress in poor cities and rich cities alike. But this doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. In fact, recognising and understanding these political complexities is helpful in identifying effective courses of action, whether as citizens, activists or policymakers. I doubt we will fulfil the aspirations of SDG 11 in a convincing manner by 2030, but I am hopeful that progress can be made if we approach the challenge with our eyes wide open to the political dynamics that could undermine our efforts.

Blog by Dr Sean Fox, School of Geographical Sciences. Originally hosted by the Policy Bristol blog.

The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.