Cabot Institute blog

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Contemporary Eco-Cities: An improvement on previous work?

History offers up many grand ideas for how urban planning and design can be used to improve cities and society to be more sustainable and liveable. These ideas include early urban reforms by David Dale, Robert Owen, and Titus Salt, Benjamin Ward Richardson’s City of Health, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City, amongst others. The eco-city, as an idea that initially developed out of the 1960s grassroots environmental movement, should be considered within this long tradition of ideas for the betterment of cities. The construction of ‘eco-cities’ in the recent decade has also been controversial. The aim of this article is to introduce the ideas and practices of contemporary eco-cities and to discuss the extent to which they can be regarded as an improvement on the work of previous urban reformers.

Eco-city concept and development stages of eco-cities

The term ‘eco-city’ was first coined in 1987 by US-based eco-city pioneer Richard Register as ‘an urban environmental system in which input (of resources) and output (of waste) are minimised’. As the eco-city concept began to be used more extensively, it became more broadly defined, ergo, there is no single accepted definition in the literature. Recognising and permeating ideas of nature in the city into the concept of sustainable cities should be considered essential in setting a framework for eco-cities. This idea can be seen as a continuation of planning trends which attempted to reconcile the nature-city relationship, beginning with Howard’s Garden City movement. The approach is also novel, in that it represented a wide range of factors which coalesce around sustainability in the contemporary context of global climate change, environmental degradation and environmental politics.

There are three stages in the development of eco-city. Early initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s were locally-oriented, bottom-up approaches which aimed to improve environmental conditions, with only few examples of practical projects. The period of 1990s to early 2000s marked the emerging stage of eco-city development, when balanced sustainable development was adopted as a principal objective. At this stage, national and municipal governments started to develop eco-cities and eco-towns, most of which were redevelopments or expansions of existing towns and cities as demonstration projects. Successful examples include eco-towns in Japan and small-scale ones in Europe. Since the mid-2000s, a number of ambitious built-from-scratch eco-city masterplans have emerged, aiming to make entire towns and cities highly sustainable. These top-down proposals are occurring predominantly in Asia, including the highly publicised Dongtan Eco-City, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City and Caofeidian Eco-City in China and the Masdar City which was proposed as a zero-carbon city in the UAE. The latter two stages of eco-cities are the foci in the following discussion, considering the development scale and significance.

General visions and planning of contemporary eco-cities

Contemporary eco-cities and eco-towns are, in general, an improvement on previous ideas and works in terms of their visions, planning and objectives.

Almost all smaller eco-town plans and holistic eco-city blueprints in recent years are emerging as reflections of and responses to the global context of climate change and environmental degradation, with emphasis on cutting-edge technology, clean energy, and circular economy to achieve sustainable living. This indicates that the finiteness of resources as well as the ecosystem itself has been more extensively recognised. This is an improvement from earlier works. Earlier works targeted urban problems including sanitation and personal health in the case of ‘Hygeia, City of Health’ by Richardson in 1876, and poor working and living conditions in the case of Saltaire and New Lanark, but hardly realised the limits of the environment. An example was Howard’s claim in his 1902 book Garden Cities of Tomorrow: ‘…to a more noble use of its infinite treasures. The earth for all practical purposes may be regarded as abiding forever’. Today’s improvement leads to the consideration of intergenerational ecological justice, being an essential principle of the development of eco-cities.

Moreover, there are three forms of eco-city projects identified: new developments, expansions of urban areas, and retrofits where existing cities adopt eco-city principles. Unlike earlier visionaries such as Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier who tended to reject the idea of gradual improvements to the conditions of existing cities in favour of comprehensive transformations of the urban environment, the planning of contemporary eco-cities/towns includes various forms of urban development and redevelopment. Whilst the ambitiously proposed built-from-scratch eco-cities in China and the UAE belong to the first type, most examples of smaller-scale ones in Japan, Germany, Scandinavia, and the UK are expansions of urban areas and retrofits, which is an improvement in terms of development forms.

Implementations and outcomes of contemporary eco-cities

The implementations and outcomes of contemporary eco-cities at early stage of the development in the 1990s and early 2000s are an improvement upon early urban reformers in many aspects, while those at current development stage may vary in light of different contexts. It is doubtful that the prospects of these newly-built eco-cities might be an improvement.

At the early stage, contemporary eco-cities and eco-towns were mainly developed in Japan and central and northern Europe, exemplifying the eco-cities in Germany. During this stage, a distinctive characteristic of small-to-moderate-scale developments is that they gave equal weighting to the environmental, economic and social aspects of their design and integrated them well.

The Eco-Town Program was launched in Japan in 1997 through national initiatives and municipal redevelopment planning in order to deal with waste management issues, industrial pollution and to stimulate new industry development during a time of economic stagnation. The Eco-Town concept in Japan originally focused on Industrial Symbiosis—the iconic 3R application of Industrial Ecology which concerns ‘the productivity and environmental impacts of resources in industrial societies’ (McManus 2005). The theory then extended to Urban Symbiosis to become part of the Eco-City concept, focusing on overall urban planning and urban ecosystems, civil society and greening of cities. The implementation of this program and the successful development of 26 eco-towns, which focused mainly on circular economy and environmentally conscious planning, highlight three major aspects of improvement on earlier urban reformers. First, the government put in place a comprehensive legal framework for becoming a recycling-based society. This action provides a legislative foundation, imposes a sense of duty, and reduces the risk for further transition and development in industries and society, which is a practical improvement on the ideas of earlier reformers which were often hard to carry out (in a large scale) without legislative basis. Second, the program emphasised a combination of initiatives from public sector, business sector and, especially, civil society. There were a number of citizen activities emerging during that period and engaging in the program, which stands in contrast to places like Saltaire that were largely paternal. Third, the program was carried out mainly in the form of redevelopment and retrofitting projects, which faced less trouble than those early built-from-scratch ideas because it could take advantages of existing social capital.

There are also two smaller-scale eco-town examples in Freiburg, Germany: Vauban and Rieselfeld. These two district-scale projects are expansion of the city in response to the increasing population. They were carefully planned and developed with foci on public transport, dense but diverse housing, and environmental buildings. A major improvement on earlier works includes the emphasis on public transport, as these two districts were designed to minimise car dependency, given that 35% of residents in Vauban have abstained from driving (Beatley 2012). Le Corbusier’s fetishisation of the automobile in his La Ville Radieuse (1967) is of little relevance considering today’s traffic congestion, the high energy consumption, and air quality concerns associated with automobiles. These two examples successfully demonstrate how public transport can contribute to urban and environmental sustainability.

At the current stage (since mid-2000s), contemporary eco-cities are primarily proposed to be built from scratch, on a grand scale. They would represent highly sustainable, experimental flagships, most of which are promoted by the Chinese national and municipal governments including examples such as the Masdar City in the UAE. The characteristic of these projects is they are predominantly entrepreneurial cities and tend to prioritise economic concerns over environmental ones. In terms of implementation and outcomes, these new cities sometimes fail to demonstrate improvements on previous works, with uncertainty remaining considering that many of them are still under construction.

Due to rapid population influx, emissions pressure and pollution issues, the Chinese state government encourages local governments to experiment the ‘eco-city’ as a flagship project for new technologies and ‘sustainable’ economic and ecological urban development. Highly publicised projects include Dongtan Eco-City on Chongming Island, Shanghai, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city and Caofeidian Eco-City. The first project, Dongtan Eco-City, has already been stalled due to issues of land quotas. The subsequent Caofeidian Eco-City, claiming to be a renewable energy city, has only completed a few buildings and failed to attract residents, suffering from huge debt and being indefinitely postponed. The only project that has come close to completion is the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, which has not been developed without issues and is still of little improvement upon earlier urban reformers. It is being developed according to 26 sustainability indicators (Fig. 1), demonstrating the progressive practices within the Chinese context, although many of them are taken for granted in the West. There are many problems in the construction. The city claimed to promote green transport but the implementation of numerous highways are still the dominant transport structure in the city, accompanied by high-rise residential buildings, which is a strong resemblance of the type of city Le Corbusier imagined for ‘the contemporary city’. There is even less open green space compared with Le Corbusier’s ideas. Additionally, this city has only managed to attract 6000 residents thus far—far less than its objective. There is also hardly any inclusion of social sustainability, where there should be relevant viable attempts, as Caprotti states (2015), ‘the view of sustainability which is concerned purely with a city’s environmental footprint, or with its economic success is severely limited’.

26 Key performance indicators to measure success (Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Investment and Development Co.,Ltd 2015)
In the case of Masdar City, the so-called ‘carbon-neutral city’ (recently modified to be ‘low- carbon city’) initiatives are just a part in making Abu Dhabi a leader in the industry of renewable energy technologies, which does not include many real actions with reconciliation of the nature-human relationship. An exception to the Asian ambitions of the eco-city is the Eco-town plan in the UK, which may constitute an improvement on earlier works. Those eco-towns proposed by the North West Bicester, which are an expansion of existing urban areas, aim for affordable housing and promoting social justice.

In conclusion, the contemporary eco-cities, from the early emerging stage of the1990s till today, are in general, an improvement upon the work of earlier urban reformers in terms of their ideas and planning. Whilst the early-stage developments such as Eco-towns in Japan demonstrate an improvement in terms of practical implementations and existing outcomes, brand-new built-from-scratch eco-cities may not be sustainable in reality in light of different contexts.  They tend to prioritise economic goals instead of environmental concerns. Whether these newly built eco-cities will be an improvement on those of earlier reformers remains uncertain. The developments which have begun, however, provide lessons for future urban developments which can be introduced to improve future designs and the redevelopment of existing cities.

Blog by Cabot Institute Masters Research Fellow Shiyao (Silvia) Liu.

Further reading

Beatley, T., 2012. Green cities of Europe: global lessons on green urbanism, Washington DC, Island Press.
Caprotti, F., 2015, Eco-Cities and the Transition to Low Carbon Economies, Palgrave.
Howard, E., 1902, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, London: Swan Sonnenschein.
Le Corbusier, 1967, The Radiant City (La Ville Radieuse): Elements of a doctrine of urbanism to be used as the basis of our machine-age civilization, New York, The Orion Press.
McManus, P., 2005, Vortex Cities to Sustainable Cities: Australia’s Urban Challenge, UNSW Press, Sydney.
Register, R., 1987, Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Richardson, B.W., 1876, Hygeia, A city of health. MacMillan & Co., London.
Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Investment and Development Co.,Ltd. 2015, Tianjin Eco City website,  http://www.tianjineco-city.com/en/index.aspx

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Model uncertainties in multispecies ecological models

We live in an increasingly uncertain world.  Therefore, when we model environmental processes of interest, it is vital to account for the inherent uncertainties in our analyses and ensure that this information is communicated to relevant parties.  Whilst the use of complex statistical models to estimate quantities of interest is becoming increasingly common in environmental sciences, one aspect of uncertainty that is frequently overlooked is that of model uncertainty.  Much of the research I conduct considers this additional aspect of uncertainty quantification; that is not just uncertainty in the quantities of interest, but also in the models that we use to estimate them.

An example of this is in a paper recently published in Ecology and Evolution (Swallow et al., 2016), which looks at how different species of birds that we commonly see in our gardens respond to the same environmental factors (or covariates).  Some of the species have declined rapidly over the past 40 years, whilst others have remained stable or even increased in number.  Possible drivers of these changes that have been suggested include increases in predators, changes in climate and availability of natural food sources.  Statistically speaking, we try to understand and quantify changes in observed numbers of birds by relating them to changes in measured environmental quantities that the birds will be subjected to, such as numbers of predators, weather variables, habitat quality etc.  Most previous analyses have modelled each of the species observed at many different geographical locations (or monitoring sites) independently of each other, and estimated the quantities of interest completely separately, despite the fact that all these species share the same environment and are subject to the same external influences.  So how do we go about accounting for the fact that similar species may share similar population drivers?

This essentially constitutes a model uncertainty problem – that is, which parameters should be shared across which species in our statistical model and which parameters should be distinct?

If we were to consider two different species and use two different environmental factors to explain changes in those species, say habitat type and average monthly temperature, there are four possible models to consider.  That is,

Model
Habitat type
Temperature
No parameters
1
Shared
Shared
2
2
Distinct
Shared
3
3
Shared
Distinct
3
4
Distinct
Distinct
4

This can easily be extended to a higher number of species and covariates.

There is also inevitably going to be some aspects of variability shown by some of the species that we cannot account for through the quantities we have measured.  We account for this using site-specific random effects, which explain variability that is linked to a specific monitoring site, but which is not accounted for by the environmental covariates in the model.  Again, we would usually assume this is a single quantity representing the discrepancy between what we have accounted for using our measured covariates and what is ‘left over’.  Following on from work of previous authors (Lahoz-Monfort et al., 2011), we again split this unexplained variation into two – unexplained variation that is common to all species and unexplained variation that is specific to a single species.  The ratio of these two quantities can give us a good idea of what measurements we may be missing.  Is it additional environmental factors that are wide-ranging in their effects or is it something relating to the specific ecology of an individual species?

In the paper, we apply our method to a large dataset spanning nearly 40 years, collected as part of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Bird Feeding Survey.  We selected two groups of similar species commonly found in UK gardens during the winter.  For ecological reasons, we would expect the species within the two groups to show similar traits, so they act as ideal study species for detecting synchrony in responses to environmental factors.  Whilst most the results were consistent with those from single-species models (e.g. Swallow et al., 2015), studying the species at an ecosystem level also highlighted some additional relationships that it would be impossible to study under more simplistic models.  The results highlight that there is unsurprisingly a large degree of synchrony across many of these species, and that they share many of the traits and drivers of population change.  The synchronies observed in the results corresponded to both significant positive or negative relationships with covariates, as well as those species that collectively show no strong relationship with a given environmental factor.  There is, however, more to the story and some of the species showed strong differences in how they respond to external factors.  Highlighting these differences may offer important information on how best to halt or reverse population declines.

The results from our analyses showed the importance of considering model uncertainty in statistical analyses of this type, and that by incorporating relevant uncertainties, we can improve our understanding of the environmental processes of interest.  Incorporating more data into the analysis will help in further constraining common or shared parameters and reduce uncertainties in them.  It also allows us to guide and improve future data collection procedures if we can gain a better understanding of what is currently missing from our model.

Blog written by Dr Ben Swallow, a Postdoctoral Research Associate, studying Ecological and environmental statistics in the School of Chemistry.

References

Lahoz-Monfort, J. J., Morgan, B. J. T., Harris, M. P., Wanless, S., & Freeman, S. N. (2011). A capture-recapture model for exploring multi-species synchrony in survival. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 2(1), 116–124.

Swallow, B., Buckland, S. T., King, R. and Toms, M. P. (2015). Bayesian hierarchical modelling of continuous non-negative longitudinal data with a spike at zero: An application to a study of birds visiting gardens in winter. Biometrical Journal, 58(2), 357–371

Swallow, B., King, R., Buckland, S. T. and Toms, M. P. (2016). Identifying multispecies synchrony in response to environmental covariates. Ecology and Evolution, 6(23), 8515–8525

Figure 1. Blue tits show a highly synchronous response with great tits, and to a lesser degree coal tits, to their surrounding environment.



Figure 2. Male house sparrow feeding on fat balls.  Whilst they show some synchrony in their response to environmental factors, they appear to be subject to a differing ecology to the other two species they were compared with.




Challenges of generating solar power in the Atacama Desert

My name is Jack Atkinson-Willes and I am a recent graduate from the University of Bristol’s Engineering Design course. In 2016 I was given the unique opportunity to work in Chile with the renewable energy consultancy 350renewables on a Solar PV research project. In this blog I am going to discuss how this came about and share some of the experiences I have had since arriving!

First of all, how did this come about? Due to the uniquely flexible nature of the Engineering Design course I was able to develop my understanding of the renewable energy industry, a sector I had always had a keen interest in, by selecting modules that related to this topic and furthering this through industry work experience. In 2013, the university helped me secure a 12 month placement with Atkins Energy based near Filton, and while this largely centred around the nuclear industry it was an excellent introduction into how an engineering consultancy works and what goes into development of a utility-scale energy project.

In 2015 I built on this experience with a 3 month placement as a research assistant in Swansea University’s Marine Energy Research Group (MERG). I spent this time working on the EU-funded MARIBE project, which aimed to bring down the costs of emerging offshore industries (such as tidal and wave power) by combining them with established industries (such as shipping). This built on the experience I had gained through research projects I had done as part of my course at Bristol, and allowed me to familiarise myself further with renewable energy technology.

Keen to use my first years after graduation to learn other languages and travel, but also start building a career in renewables, I realised that the best way to combine the two was to start looking at countries overseas that had the greatest renewable energy potential. Given that I had just started taking an open unit in Spanish, Latin America was, naturally, the first place I looked; and I quickly found that I needn’t look much further! Latin American was the fastest growing region in the world for renewable energy in 2015, and this was during a year when global investment in renewables soared to record levels, adding an extra 147GW of capacity. (That’s more than double the UK demand!)

So, eager to find out more about the opportunities to work there, I discussed my interest with Dr. Paul Harper. He very kindly put me in touch with Patricia Darez, general manager of 350renewables, a renewable energy consultancy based in Santiago. As luck would have it, they were looking to expand their new business and take someone on for an upcoming research project. Given my previous experience in both an engineering consultancy and research projects I was fortunate enough to be offered a chance to join them out in Chile. Of course I jumped at the opportunity!

1 - Santiago, Chile (the smog in this photo being at an unusually low level)
Fast-forward by 8 months and I am tentatively stepping off the plane into a new country and a new life, eager to get started with my new job. Santiago was certainly a big change to Bristol, being about 10 times the size, but to wake up every day with the Andes mountains looming over the skyline was simply incredible. The greatest personal challenge by far has been learning Spanish, largely because the Chilean version of Spanish is the approximate equivalent to a thick Glaswegian accent in English. So for my (at best) GSCE level Spanish it was quite a while before I felt I could converse with any of the locals (and even now I spend almost all my time nodding and smiling politely whilst my mind tries to rapidly think of a response that would allow the conversation to continue without the other person realising I haven’t a clue what they’re saying!) But it has taught me to be patient with my progress, and little by little I can see myself improving.

Fortunately for me though, I was able to work in English, and before long I was getting to grips with the research project that I had travelled all this way for! But before I go into the details of the project, first a little background on why Chile has been such a success story for Solar.

2 - There's a lot of empty space in the Atacama

The Atacama desert ranges from the pacific ocean to the high plains of the Andes, reaching heights of more than 6000m in places. It is the driest location on the planet (outside of the poles) where in some places there hasn’t been a single drop of rain since records began. This combined with the high altitude results in an unparalleled solar resource that often exceeds 2800 kWh/m2 (Below are two maps comparing South America to the UK, and one can see that even the places of highest solar insolation in the UK wouldn’t even appear on the scale for South America!)

3 - Two maps comparing the solar resource of Latin America to the UK. If you think about the number of solar parks in the UK that exist, and are profitable, just imagine the potential in Latin America!
The majority of the Atacama lies within Chile’s northern regions, and because of this there has been a huge rush over the past 3 years to install utility-scale Solar PV projects there. Additionally, Chile has seen an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability since the 1990’s, in part due to the very same Atacama regions which are mineral-rich. The mines used to extract this wealth are energy-hungry, and as Chile has a lack of natural fossil fuel resources, making use of the plentiful solar resource beating down on the desert planes surrounding these remote sites made perfect economic sense. This is added to the need for energy in the rapidly-growing cities further south, in particular the capital Santiago, where almost a third of the Chilean population live. From 2010 to 2015, the total installed capacity of PV worldwide went from 40GW to 227GW, a rapid increase largely due to decreasing PV module manufacture costs. As the cost of installation dropped, investors began to search for locations with the greatest resources, and so Chile became a natural place to invest for energy developers.

However, as large scale projects began generating power, new challenges began to emerge. New plants were underperforming and thus not taking full advantage of the powerful solar resource. This underperformance could be down to a whole range of factors; faulty installation, PV panels experiencing a drop in performance due to the extremely high UV radiation (known as degradation). But the main culprits are likely to be two factors; curtailment and soiling.

Firstly, curtailment. Chile is a deceptively large country, which from top to bottom is more than 4000km long (roughly the distance from London to Baghdad). Because of this, instead on having one large national grid, it is split into four smaller ones. The central grid (in blue, which is connected to the power-hungry capital of Santiago) offered a better price of energy than the northern grid (in green) supplying the more sparsely populated Atacama regions. This lead to a large number of plants being installed as far into the Atacama desert as possible, and therefore as far north as possible, whilst still being connected to the more profitable central grid.

4 - A map of the central (blue) and northern (green) grids in Northern Chile. Major PV plants are shown with red dots
This lead to a situation where the low number of cables and connections that existed connecting these areas with the cities further south suddenly became overloaded with huge quantities of power. When these cables reach capacity, the grid operators (CDEC-SIC - http://www.cdecsic.cl/), with no-where to store this energy, simply have no other option but to limit (or curtail) the clean, emission-free energy coming out of these PV plants. This is bad news for the plant operators as it limits their income, and bad news for the environment as fossil fuels still need to be burned further south to make up for the energy lost.

The solution to this is to simply build more cables, a task easier said than done in a country of this size and in an area so hostile. This takes a long time, and so until the start of 2018 when a new connection between the northern and central grids will be made, operators have little choice but to busy themselves by improving plant performance as much as possible in preparation for a time when generation is once again unlimited.

This leads me onto soiling. Soiling is a phenomenon that occurs when wind kicks up sand and dust from the surrounding environment and this lands on the PV panels. This may seem relatively harmless but in Saudi Arabia is has been found to be responsible for as much as a 30% loss in plant performance. Chile, however, is still a very new market and so the effects of soiling here are not as well understood. What we do know for sure is that it affects some sites much more than others – the image below being taken by the 350renewables team at an existing Chilean site.

5 - The extent of soiling in the Atacama. One can appreaciate the need for an occasional clean!
These panels can be cleaned, but this becomes somewhat more complicated when you consider that some of these plants have more than 200,000 panels on one site. Cleaning then becomes a balance between the cost of cleaning, the means of cleaning (water being a scarce commodity in the desert) and the added energy that will be gained by removing the effects of soiling.

This is what the research project that I am taking part in hopes to establish. Sponsored by CORFO, a government corporation that promotes economic growth in Chile, and working with the University of Santiago, 350renewables hopes to establish how soiling effects vary across the Atacama and which cleaning schedules are best suited to maximising generation. There are 10 utility scale projects currently taking part, providing generation data and cleaning schedules. My role within this project has thus far been to inspect, clean and process all the incoming data and transfer this to our in-house tools for analysis. In the future (as my spanish improves) this will move onto liaising with the individual maintenance teams at each site to ensure that cleaning schedules are adhered to.

My most notable challenge thus far was presenting some of our initial findings at the Solar Asset Management Latin America (SAM LATAM - http://www.samlatam.com/#solar-asset-management-latam) conference in September. Considering I had only been in the country for just over a month, it was a lot to learn in not very much time! My presentation discussed the underperformance of Chilean PV plants and the potential causes for this, examining some of the publicly available generation data over the past few years. It was certainly terrifying, but getting the opportunity to share a stage with a plethora of CEOs, managers and directors from the Chilean solar energy industry was a fantastic opportunity.
6 - I felt like an impostor amongst all the Directors and Managers
A few weeks prior to this we had also gone to the Intersolar South America conference (https://www.intersolar.net.br/en/home.html) in São Paulo, Brasil, where Patricia was speaking. This was another fantastic opportunity to meet other people from the industry (although somewhat limited by my non-existent Portuguese abilities) and I was lucky enough to have some time to explore the city for a few days thereafter.

7 - São Paulo, Brazil
In addition to São Paulo, I have been able to find the time to travel elsewhere in Chile during my time here, including down to Puerto Varas in the south with its peaceful lakes nestled at the feet of imposing active volcanoes (including the Calbuco volcano, which erupted in spectacular fashion in early 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faacTZ5zeP0). Being further south the countryside is much more green, and with a significant German influence from several waves of immigration in the 1800s.

8 - Me in front of the incredible Osorno Volcano near Puerto Varas
9 - Puerto Varas

By far my favourite though was the astounding Atacama desert. As beautiful as it is vast. The high altitude making for astounding blue skies contrast against the red rocks of the surrounding volcanic plains. It is also one of the best stargazing spots on the planet, and the location of the famous A.L.M.A. observatory, which hopes to provide insight on star birth during the early universe and detailed images of local star and planet formations (http://www.almaobservatory.org/).


10 - Me in the Atacama. The second photo being what can only be described as a dust tornado. To call the Atacama inhospitable would be taking it lightly
11 -Valle de la luna, an incredible formation of jagged peaks jutting out of the desert plains. Certainly a highlight.
In the new year the soiling project really gets underway, and by the end of 2017 we hope to have some findings that will provide some insights into the phenomenon that is soiling. Personally, it has been a great adventure so far, the language skills I have developed and the experience of living in another culture, as opposed to merely passing through as a tourist, has been very rewarding. I still have a long way to go, and hope to post an update to this blog in the future, but for now a Happy New Year from Chile!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The 95th percentile

The 95th percentile is a way of describing, in a single value, a surprisingly large outcome for any quantity which can vary.  As in ‘surprisingly large, but not astonishingly large’.

For example, heights vary across people.  Consider adult UK women, who have a mean height of about 5’4’’ with a standard deviation of about 3’’. A woman who is 5’7’’ inches would be tall, and one who is 5’9’’ would be surprisingly tall.  5’9’’ is the 95th percentile for adult UK women.  The thought experiment involves lining every adult UK woman up by height, from shortest to tallest, and walking along the line until you have passed 95% of all women, and then stopping.  The height of the woman you are standing in front of is the 95th percentile of heights for adult UK women.

The formal definition of the 95th percentile is in terms of a probability distribution.  Probabilities describe beliefs about uncertain quantities.  It is a very deep question about what they represent, which I will not get into!  I recommend Ian Hacking, ‘An introduction to probability and inductive logic’ (CUP, 2001), if you would like to know more.  If H represents the height of someone selected at random from the population of adult UK women, then H is uncertain, and the 95th percentile of H is 5’9’’.  Lest you think this is obvious and contradicts my point about probabilities being mysterious, let me point out the difficulty of defining the notion ‘selected at random’ without reference to probability, which would be tautological.

So the formal interpretation of the 95th percentile is only accessible after a philosophical discussion about what a probability distribution represents.  In many contexts the philosophy does not really matter, because the 95th percentile is not really a precise quantity, but a conventional label representing the qualitative property ‘surprisingly large, but not astonishingly large’.  If someone is insisting that only the 95th percentile will do, then they are advertising their willingness to have a long discussion about philosophy.

Blog post by Prof. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science.
First blog in the series here.
Second blog in series here.

Monday, 23 January 2017

A local view helps fight the effects of climate change on the ocean

In 2011, a marine heatwave hit the west coast of Australia leading to ten days of above average sea temperatures. The area was already known as an ocean warming “hotspot”, but this particular period was a tipping point, causing dramatic changes to the marine ecosystem. Underwater kelp forests along the coast reduced in density by 43%, with some disappearing entirely.

Kelp Forest. Image: Fastily, CCBYSA3.0 
The loss of kelp resulted in an ecological shift, which led to the growth of different kinds of algae as temperate water species were replaced by subtropical and tropical species. Five years later, kelp forest recovery has still not been observed. A few days of extreme heat resulted in apparently irreversible change.

The frequency and intensity of extreme events, like marine heatwaves, are only expected to increase, and their consequences are hard to predict. But while some of these extreme events could be devastating, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Even though human-induced climate change is happening, local steps can be taken to help alleviate the impacts on our marine environments. And by focusing on a localised approach, we could make a positive difference on a global scale.

For example, in Australia, the government of Queensland spent AUS$7m on a 560 square kilometre cattle station in a bid to protect the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. This cattle station had been producing as much as 40% of the sediment running into the Normanby River system and ultimately the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef. Image: Wise Hok Wai Lum, CCBYSA 4.0
The very existence of the Great Barrier Reef and its extraordinary biodiversity ultimately depends on the health of the corals. When they are covered by sediment, their ability to photosynthesise is dramatically reduced, resulting in less healthy coral. Unhealthy reefs are less able to deal with predators and other damaging events.

In buying the cattle station the government is able to stem the sediment runoff away from the Great Barrier Reef and provide a healthier environment in which the coral can thrive. This is just one example of scientists using local knowledge successfully to inform ministers to make decisions on the local scale that alleviate the problems faced by marine ecosystems of climate change, over fishing and pollution.

To apply such processes in more places in the world, organising climate information and action must move from a global to a regional scale. Overfishing and pollution can be much more effectively dealt with by focusing on local responses.

The Pacific Islands for example, rely heavily on the tuna fish industry. But they have faced major problems of over fishing and reducing stocks – from both small vessels and industrialised ships from other countries. Only a united front would enable control over stocks and a future for the industry.

So in 1982, a collective of islands focused on the conservation and management of tuna in the pacific set up the Naura agreement. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Naura, the federated states of Micronesia and Palau, and more recently Tokelau, all signed up to the Vessel Day Scheme for Pacific tuna, which limits the amount of days available for fishing to maintain tuna populations. In the last five years the collective has received global recognition for its sustainable management methods – and an increase in revenue from US$60m to US$360m.

Over in the Caribbean, meanwhile, Antigua has some of the most degraded coral reefs in the region. Overfishing is thought to be a main reason for this as it has reduced the amount of herbivorous fish, resulting in the proliferation of seaweed – a main competitor of the corals.

A sea change


To improve the health of the reef, marine protected areas – and specifically a “no take zone” – were created in 2014 in conjunction with the local fishermen. Within a year, this change in local management led to significant increases in the biomass of target fish species. This allowed herbivore fishes to actively graze on the seaweed biomass, enabling respite and providing recovery time for the corals.

In Fiji, mangrove trees are being planted to combat coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels and increasing storm surges. While a direct benefit to Fiji’s inhabitants against potential harm from the ocean, this action also creates a habitat and a site of refuge for many juvenile marine species that will also be affected by future climate change.

Mangrove trees, Fiji. Image: J.-M. Lebigre, CCBYSA3.0


Lessons can be learned from all of these local strategies which could be replicated in similar environments facing similar problems. But developing these initiatives will depend on our understanding of key organisms and their interactions with each other. These are some of the areas suggested by professors Daniela Schmidt and Philip Boyd, in a commentary on what ocean scientists should consider when informing policymakers.

Small island nations will feel the impact of global changes on the ocean first, so they are leading the way in adaption and mitigation techniques in retaliation to changing climates. With the additional threat of America no longer being a part of the international agreements on global warming, tackling climate change on a local and regional scale may be our only hope.

Article written by Cabot Institute member Leanne Melbourne and originally hosted on The Conversation

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize: forest communities and conservation

This is the second blog post from former Environmental Policy MSc student Rachel Simon. During her time at the University Rachel was a member of the Fossil Free Bristol University group. Following the completion of her MSc in 2016 Rachel spent time with an indigenous conservation organisation in Belize, recording voices of land rights activists for the Latin American Bureau’s [http://lab.org.uk/] forthcoming book, Voices of Latin America.

The previous blog post in this series is available here.

Back in the SATIIM office in Punta Gorda, I’m invited on a patrol into the Sarstoon Temash National Park led by Maya and Garifuna community members. These monthly forest patrols are an important way of monitoring illegal logging and poaching. They also gather data on the forest’s rich ecosystems, which spread across over 40,000 acres of broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest, and ten miles of coast in the Gulf of Honduras, a wetlands designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

SATIIM and the Belize Government used to manage the area under a co-management agreement. But when SATIIM took a stance against oil drilling in the park the government terminated their funding and their partnership (see my previous blog post ‘Whose land, whose development?’ http://cabot-institute.blogspot.com.co/2017/01/the-sarstoon-temash-national-park.html)
However SATIIM continues to patrol and monitor the park, providing reports to the government and new funders such as Global Forest Watch [http://www.globalforestwatch.org/] an initiative of the World Resources Institute which works to collect and disseminate data about deforestation.
 
Map of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park and drill site by Amandala Newspaper
So early one morning seven men from the surrounding villages and I set off from the coastal town of Punta Gorda in a speed boat loaded up with three days’ camping equipment and supplies. We pull south round the coast on the glinting waters of the Bay of Honduras, speed past the Garifuna village of Barranco, before pulling into the darker stiller mouth of the Sarstoon River, the border with Guatemala. Tensions between the two countries over the boundary have been high over the years, and Guatemala has been uncooperative over conservation efforts - some SATIIM patrols have even been intercepted and detained by the Guatemalan military. A newish Belize Defence Force (BDF) outpost marks the Belizean side of the Sarstoon, and this has helped to discourage poachers and loggers crossing the river from Guatemala, as well as maintaining Belize’s claim over the area. We pull into the BDF check-point to report our trip. The commander informs us shortly that he can’t do anything to protect us if we stray from the Belizean to the Guatemalan side of the river. With that we start the patrol.
 
Marking sites of deforestation
Cruising the banks of the Sarstoon we count numerous lines and trails cut through the mangroves and forest cover, signs that poachers have come in to hunt, fish, and log hardwoods and comfre palms.
 
Illegal logging of Santa Teresa and Sapodilla hardwoods
On this patrol SATIIM are piloting a new tablet and app provided by Global Forest Watch to help them track deforestation more easily. The app is pre-loaded with maps highlighting “threats”: patches of fragmentation or breaks in forest cover identified from satellite imagery using algorithms. The patrol is then able to navigate to these areas using GPS in order to investigate. However on reaching our first “threat”, somewhere inland alongside the bank of the Sarstoon, it’s a pleasant surprise to find undisturbed mangroves and thick forest cover. It seems that the app’s algorithms need a little tweaking, and may be mis-coding some changes in vegetation or colouration as deforestation.

Unfortunately most “threats” are simply too far away to investigate, as trekking through the forest cover is slow and heavy work, and back in the office SATIIM’s Director muses that it might be better to pilot a drone which could zoom over the wetlands and photograph the areas we can’t reach.

On the second day we dock on the bank of the Temash River, in order to survey US Capital Energy’s main drill site, a couple of acres of dust and sand amid the vibrant forest cover. Martin Cus, the leader of the patrol tells me that the numbers of illegal incidents in the forest have increased dramatically after the government granted the company oil exploration contracts. Our 300m crawl from the river bank through mangrove, dense forest swamp and wetland takes 20 minutes - but the major road on the opposite side of the drill site, snaking north out through the forest, means there is now a much easier journey into its heart. Along with the company’s seismic testing lines, this has opened up the forest to more extractive activities, intensifying fragmentation of the forest cover and endangering its ecosystems. The company also ignored warnings about the drill site’s position in a low-lying and swampy area. Containing spills in this wetland would be near impossible, with run-off quickly contaminating the surrounding swamp, mangroves, and rivers out into the Bay of Honduras - as well as impacting the villages upstream which use the rivers as water sources.


US Capital  Energy’s drill site, and road through the forest
Aside from monitoring threats to the forest, we spend a good deal of time using GPS coordinates to note down bird and animal sightings. The boat’s captain Roberto seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of bird species, but SATIIM is looking for scientists and data gatherers to carry out a more comprehensive review of the park, to help them evidence the value of its eco-systems.

Forest dependent communities

A week later, staying in the Mayan village of Crique Sarco, I’m able to learn more about the communities’ dependency on the forest. Many Maya subsist on milpa farming, a form of slash and burn agriculture. The forest is where they get most of their protein, hunting gibnut and other creatures for much of the year, while respecting the animals’ gestation periods. Communities have used the forest sustainably in this area for almost 150 years. Juan Choc, Village Council Leader, explains that the area around US Capital’s drill site used to be rich with animal life, but the company’s construction and working noise drove them away.

 
Juan Choc, Crique Sarco
Making the land more resistant to encroachment and the forest less vulnerable to resource extraction is now a vital project for the survival of these communities’ livelihoods. Juan Choc explains their communal land ownership model which prevents land from being gradually sold off and becoming fragmented, and that the village is now georeferencing their boundary in order to get more solid legal recognition. Land demarcation will offer better protection from outside corporate interests, empower the community, and safeguard the land for the younger generation. 

Reflections on sustainability in my first few months in the U.K.

I’m Michael Donatti, a Cabot Institute Masters Research Fellow for 2016-2017. I have come to the University of Bristol from Houston, Texas, to read for an MSc in Environmental Policy and Management. Alongside studying, I have had the chance to experience this new city and this new country from an outsider’s perspective, and here are some of my initial thoughts on environmental sustainability in Bristol and the UK.

To be quite honest, Bristol is an interesting choice for a European Green Capital city. It lacks the biking infrastructure of Amsterdam, the strict ambition to attain carbon neutrality of Copenhagen, and the abundance of green space of Ljubljana. According to the University of Bristol student newspaper, epigram, 60% of Bristol’s air contains illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. While walking and running along the streets of Bristol, I have felt this pollution. Partly, the low air quality results from the differing priorities of American and British/European emissions regulations. According to David Herron, Europe focuses on carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to increase efficiency, decrease dependency on Russian oil, and curb climate change; in contrast, the USA focus on nitrogen oxides and particulate matter to improve local air quality and reduce smog. Combined with Bristol’s traffic problem, it is no wonder the air quality is actually quite bad.


Before arriving here, I expected more farmers’ markets and small shops. Like much of England (purely from my personal experience), the city seems to suffer from an overabundance of chain stores, cafes, supermarkets, and the like. Coming from the capitalists’ land of strip malls and chain stores, this observation shocked me. Tesco and Sainsbury hold a position of power scarcely rivalled by any supermarket chains back home, and while prices tend to be good because of their power, sustainability is lacking. Fruits and vegetables come wrapped up in plastic cases and bags; differentiating between what is local or organic or seasonal and what is not often takes detailed inspection. At HEB, a supermarket chain in Texas where I do much of my shopping, produce is in bulk bins, not unnecessary plastic cases. They have marketing campaigns and price markdowns for what is in season and what is local (granted, “local” in America’s second largest state is a loaded term).


I have felt excited to find nice coffee shops and cute stores, only to shortly thereafter realise that even those are chains, like Friska on Bristol’s Queen’s Road (which has at least two other locations). In Oxford, I was disappointed to learn that even The Eagle and Child, the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien hung out, has been bought out by Nicholson’s, a chain of pubs across the UK. Not all chains inherently lack environmental sustainability, but they certainly lack character and promote the social inequalities that pervade modern capitalism.


Don’t get me wrong, Bristol and the UK are certainly much better in some areas of sustainability than Houston and the USA. As environmentalists, we can’t revel in our successes for too long without then setting higher goals and getting back to work. However, to paint a better picture of Bristol and the UK (because I have truly loved it here), I will include some of those successes. The British train network is far more extensive than any in the USA. Recycling is more ingrained in British cities; in Bristol, we even separate food waste, which is far from commonplace in Texas. Charging for plastic bags in stores and supermarkets appears more widespread here; while Austin, Texas, promotes using reusable bags, Houston has no restrictions on them. Bristol is far denser and more walkable than most American cities; Houston is the quintessential American automobile city. Not having a car is almost unheard of, partly because the greater Houston area is almost 40 times larger than the greater Bristol area and many families live in single-family homes.

Another aspect of Bristol that earned it its European Green Capital status is its social capital. I have only been here a few months, but I have tried to plug in to the city’s network of change makers. The city’s Green Capital Partnership has over 800 business partners that have pledged to improve their sustainability; the city has initiatives in resident health, happiness, and mobility; and it has set lofty goals for carbon emissions reductions. The challenge now is to make Bristol’s social capital accessible to all. I realised I could buy my food from the Real Economy Co-operative to waste less plastic, reduce transport emissions, and help local farmers, but how do we transfer opportunities like that into the mainstream? I am excited to keep learning more about Bristol’s initiatives in sustainability as I study here, and hopefully what I learn I can take back with me to Houston and Texas, which sorely need the help. I also hope Bristol will not become complacent with its Green Capital designation or too focused on nice-sounding rhetoric. Society needs real environmental improvements, and those improvements need to happen now.

References

“Bristol Green Capital Partnership.” Bristol Green Capital. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://bristolgreencapital.org/.
“European Green Capital.” Accessed November 16, 2016. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/winning-cities/2015-bristol/index.html.
Herron, David. “Differences in US and EU Emissions Standard Key Cause of Dieselgate.” The Long Tail Pipe, October 2, 2015. https://longtailpipe.com/2015/10/02/differences-in-us-and-eu-emissions-standard-key-cause-of-dieselgate/.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Climate negotiations: From Paris to Marrakech and… Trump?

A few weeks ago, Morocco hosted the Twenty-second Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP22), which meant to become the "COP for action". One of the main challenges of this edition was setting the stage for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, adopted by the UNFCCC parties last December.


After the unexpected early entry into force of the Agreement, the COP22 sought to transform Paris discussions into reality and to develop concrete guidelines for achieving the 1.5°C goal. However, this call for climate action was disrupted on its second day by the outcome of the elections in the United States: someone who thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax was elected President of the Unites States.

When I arrived in Marrakech, I was not sure what to expect from the COP22 after that black Tuesday. The scenario was disappointing, but so predictable at the same time; besides the statements of countries such as China, Japan and the European Union ratifying their commitment to the fight against climate change (with or without the U.S. in the game), there was still an odd combination of uncertainty and sadness among delegates. These feelings were definitely projected onto the negotiations.

Broadly speaking, speculation overshadowed the final decisions of subsidiary bodies of the Convention and the governing body of the Paris Agreement (CMA).  They came out with generic final decisions, sometimes focused on procedural matters under the Paris Agreement and the rules of the Convention of Climate Change. In some other cases, they surprisingly postponed discussions to the next subsidiary bodies meetings in Bonn (May 2017) and, for topics such as the linkages between the Technology Mechanism and the Financial Mechanism to accelerate and enhance climate technology development and transfer, they agreed to bring it back again to the agenda at the twenty-fourth session in 2018.

But why? The answer is aggressively simple: Gaining time. By far, the U.S -one of the crucial players in the game of tackling Climate Change- has been leading a wide range of initiatives together with the European Union, China, Canada and Mexico, to name a few. It is understandable from an international perspective, that nations are anxious to know if, after this transition period, the U.S. will still be part of the team or abandon the game.


At COP22, the first press brief of the U.S. was delivered by Jonathan Pershing, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. He stressed the importance of transitioning from negotiation to implementation and qualified as ‘immature’ speculating about the new administration and what actions they would take. But rumors of President elected Trump appointing a climate change destroyer as the head of the EPA were annoying many delegations in Marrakech.

The COP22 appeared to be a Conference for merely presenting initiatives agreed between the UNFCCC Parties, using the Paris Agreement goals as a guideline, rather than defining pathways for implementing the legal instrument itself. However, we should keep an eye on strategies such as the ‘2050 Pathways Platform’ presented by national and subnational entities as well as the private sector, to reach a deep decarbonisation towards the middle of the century; and the Global Partnership on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency launched by the least developed countries (LDCs) to speed up the clean energy transition.

In terms of climate finance, countries such as Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Switzerland and the United States announced a $23 million contribution to the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) of the UNFCCC to facilitate and accelerate climate change mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries.

Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, remarked the importance of the deployment of clean and green technologies for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). She also stressed that “Finance will also be key if deployment is to happen at the speed and scale required”.

Although these initiatives can give us hope for the upcoming years, we should bear in mind that some pieces are still missing in the climate change puzzle.  Many countries are still deciding the roadmap for implementing their nationally determined contributions (NDC), whose achievements should be evaluated every five years; and the Ad Hoc Group of the Paris Agreement (APA) has not yet defined the rulebook for the implementation of the Agreement, nor the accountability rules to ensure a transparent and flexible process of monitoring and verification of those targets.

The international community agrees with the IPCC that climate change needs to be addressed now in order to achieve the well below 2 degrees aim. It is widely acknowledged that there is no time to lose, so why does time seem to have frozen for those in the frontlines of climate negotiations? Why they are still trapped in an endless loop of bickering?

During Education Day, Youth representatives raised their voices to say: We refuse to accept that this is over! And I am one of them. This is just the beginning of an era in which all sectors, from youth to the private sector, have to take the lead. We cannot base our decisions on childish statements from a democratically empowered billionaire and lose precious time. The clock is ticking, if we don’t take action now, there won’t be anything left to fight for in the near future.

Thanks to the Coordination Unit of International Affairs at the Mexican Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) for the opportunity of being part of the Mexican Delegation.

Blog by Cabot Institute Masters Research Fellow and Chevening Scholar Mireille Meneses Campos.

Chevening Scholarships, the UK government's global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organisations.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

After 2016; how to achieve more inclusive food policy?

Having spent my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship researching forms of governance that aspire to achieve that nebulous concept of 'sustainability' in relation to certain parts of the global agro-food/fuel system, it seemed fitting that the last event I attend in this capacity should be City University's annual Food Symposium.  This year's Symposium enabled Prof. Tim Lang, who is passing the baton of running City's influential Food Centre to Prof. Corinna Hawkes, and a number of his colleagues, to reflect on the past 25 years of food policy. But it also provided an unprecedented opportunity to 40 audience members from both academia and civil society to imagine a more utopian future - not difficult in our troubled present - to table their vision of 'How to do food policy better'. We heard from a headteacher, a producer, a proud 'Colombian peasant', a farmer's daughter, a student, the BBC chef of the year, a former advertiser, a community food network coordinator.  We then went on to hear from a panel of those who have been working to enable such diverse voices to be heard both in relation to the research they have been undertaking or the programmes they have been endeavouring to implement.

While my own work has been predominantly focused on issues brought to the fore in international development, it is clear that inequalities and unequal vulnerabilities exist extensively in the global North, as well as the global South.  Although we as researchers recognise the need for a holistic and systemic approach to food and agriculture, this is rarely translated into more holistic food policy.  But we have seen that policies that do not adopt a systemic approach to food and agriculture may instead produce extensive social, cultural and environmental problems related to food and farming across the globe.

There are so many pressing reasons to change our diets, for our own health, and the health of the planet, but we carry on producing and selling food which is bad for us, and pursuing agricultural production on a scale that feeds such consumption.  While this may not be in the same vein as the productionism pursued in the 1970s and 1980s, agricultural production continues to be tenaciously coupled with carbon emissions. And knowledge alone is insufficient to change this food and agriculture system of mass consumption and supermarket driven value chains.

As we heard a number of times, we are not only going through a period of weak food policy, but the intensive agricultural regime is in crisis.  And there is a lack of progressive consensus as to what any kind of food project should be. Given that 40% of EU legislation relates to food and agriculture, this does not bode well for this soon-to-be-Brexiting-less-than-united-kingdom.

While we can indeed celebrate that the need for 'sustainable consumption' and 'sustainable production' is generally accepted, and that 'food and nutrition' is even on the public health agenda, we also have much to fight for.  For many at the Symposium, there was a palpable anger at the policies that have led to growing inequality and hunger in this country.  While there is an evidential link between low income, diet and poor health, there remains an ongoing rhetoric of 'blame' and 'undeserving'. And low income must in turn be linked with other vulnerabilities, such as gender, infancy, maternity, citizenship status (or lack of it).  But as Prof. Liz Dowler aptly summarised, the circumstances in which people are having to live are being ignored by governments whose own policies have caused them to be in this predicament. So with a growing reliance on charity, such as food banks, people are deprived even of any sense of 'entitlement' and 'rights', even when it comes to food. Whether or not a human being goes hungry or malnourished should never be dependent on deserving, even on citizenship. And governments, rather than charities, must be held accountable.  Nevertheless, there is a fear that Brexit, and a rise in anti migrant feeling, is going to make inequalities harder.

A Symposium on food policy would be remiss, however, if it did not link government policies with a recognition that access to nutritious food is also determined by corporate power.  This needs to take in supermarkets, fast food chains, the catering sector.  And this is indeed where power lies. And that power does not only involve selling much of the wrong kinds of food to people, but also squeezing the power of farmers who, as many argued, need to be central in finding a solution to the crisis of carbon based food production.  Prof. Terry Marsden suggested the need to build alliances between producers and consumers and take out the power of the middle of the value chain. Although at the Symposium it was widely agreed that there needs to be greater inclusivity of those voices who are affected by, but rarely manage to influence, food policy, I would argue that this view is slightly myopic of the wider agrofood system.  This system is indeed driven by wider agri-industrial policies and corporate interests, but ones which have very little to do with food at all.  Such policies explain the EU Renewable Energy Directive mandating the production of biofuel from prime agricultural land.  And such policies are repeated and repeated in country after country, and drive down incentives that farmers might otherwise have to grow nutritious food – our horticulture sector, for instance, is hardly thriving.  So while an annual Symposium on Food Policy is hugely valuable, and indeed this was one of the best conferences I have ever been to (not least for its inclusion of diverse civil society voices amongst academics), I would argue that food policy cannot be considered without a systemic lens cast much more widely than just food.

Blog post by Dr Elizabeth Fortin, Senior Research Associate, School of Law, and PolicyBristol Coordinator