The cracks are where the light gets in – studying vulnerabilities in Elite Incumbent Resistance at COP26

Elites are often rightly blamed for resisting bold action needed to tackle climate change. But what if elite alliances are more fragile than commonly assumed? What if we consider Elite Incumbent Resistance – to transitions in food, energy and finance – not as a homogenous bloc of resistance towards sustainability transitions, but instead as made up of temporary, fragile alliances held together in ways that might be amenable to disruption?

A group of interdisciplinary researchers brought together by the British Academy’s Virtual Sandpit on Just Transition, set out to explore this question by piloting a new approach to studying the COP26 Climate Summit.

Starting Points

This thought experiment emerged from a critique of existing International Political Economy literature on climate negotiations which tends to focus on intense resistance to transitions to sustainable societies from elite groups benefiting from the status quo. This approach tends to homogenise incumbent elite-alliances, making them appear more robust than they really are. We were curious about what would happen if we instead focused on the vulnerabilities inherent in any alliances and how they are maintained and undone in climate negotiations. 

As tools to help us think this through, we firstly turned to  Laclau and Mouffe’s work on hegemony and socialist strategy. This is an old text but still relevant as it shows how all alliances are built on what they call relations of ‘equivalence’, which means, in simple terms, coming to a compromise about what key words  (‘sustainable growth’ anyone?) mean. These equivalences, however, are always temporary and can, in theory, be unsettled. 

Secondly, we drew on performance theory to highlight the importance of physical, visual and material performances, like UNFCCC COPs, for creating and maintaining the impression of elite unity and competence in managing global public goods like the climate. 

Thirdly, Science and technology studies helped us to consider how to spot opportunities to facilitate rapid transitions by identifying how changing material circumstances bridge differences between previously opposed groups.  Equally, the multiple-level perspective, drew our attention to how changing conditions at regime, landscape and local levels might have the opportunity to both disrupt existing alliances and bring seemingly opposed groups together through shared interests.  

With these theories, we set out to explore whether we could find cracks in elite forums at COP, explore whether there were strains in these performances and if we could identify potentially new alliances that might come out of opening up these cracks. 

What happens next is described in the rest of this blog and illustrated with cartoons we developed to capture the essence of what we came to think of as the highly vulnerable performances of elite power at COP26. 

Performing the COP

What struck us about COP26 was that it was not a coherent space managed and led by a single elite. Instead, it had a multiple, fragmented nature. COP is perhaps best thought of as a bewildering circus of loosely connected activities masquerading as a single event.  

This is not surprising. A COP meeting gathers multiple groups with contradictory aims: simultaneously a forum of intergovernmental negotiations, a trade fair for corporate partners and a site of civil society participation and protests. 

What is also noticeable, however, is that this fragmentation is hierarchically organised through complex procedures of inclusion and exclusion (Blue Zones, Green Zones, Access Cards, T shirts) with different levels of access accorded to different groups depending on their symbolic importance for validating the COP performance of an inclusive and diverse forum (recognised and acceptable scientists, a selection of key green activists and representatives of youth indigenous peoples). This is stage managed in such a way as to produce a performance that reassures a public watching via television and social media that there is a coherent plan for averting climate disaster. 

Cartoon of a clown made of two children standing on top of each other, standing at the entrance to a circus talking to two other children saying "of course we're a real-life legitimate, trustworthy, responsible, ticket-taking adult".

The hierarchical format of the COP, most clearly expressed through the separation between the Green and Blue Zones, maintains the impression of there being a central heart of power,  where decisions are made and the global response is organised. Such an impression produces the performance of the COP as the key forum for climate action, to which interested parties must desire access, and in which those with access must desire ever greater access to the ever elusive and ever more exclusive circle of decision-making. Despite this, the event was characterised in fact by a pluralisation of decision-making activities – by side dinners for particular industries, by one to one meetings, bilateral agreements, and encounters between civil society, academic, policy, media and industry groups. 

From this perspective, the ultimate discursive illusion of the COP is that there is a central seat of power, of the governing and corporate elites that come together in a single place to take decisive actions to avert climate change disaster. The selective inclusion of groups like youth, indigenous peoples and green civil society organisations in particular, served to bolster this illusion – creating an impression of participation while reducing them to symbolic speeches and side-events. We call this co-option because, in reality, such groups and individuals appear to have had almost no influence on the outcomes of COP, the Glasgow Climate Pact or the agreement of the Paris Rulebook.  

A circus master standing on a stand talking to people saying "everyone has a role here! your role is to stand 3 miles away, quietly".

Intra-elite cracks and potential for new alliances

Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe, we mapped out the discursive nodal points that created the equivalences that allowed the highly fractured parties in the discussions to sustain the perception of elite consensus on addressing the climate crisis. Unsurprisingly, they were vague. All organised around the major overarching nodal point – the climate model itself. The key nodal points of the official COP26 were  ‘keeping one degree alive’ and ‘achieving net-zero’, with vague references to  ‘technological solutions’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ as means of achieving this. These were reiterated in a variety of different formulations across all aspects of the COP – from the public-facing leaders’ stages to online materials to banners and marketing materials throughout the events. A second critical overarching nodal point was the false universalism that diffused responsibility from specific actors and instead presented this as a shared global challenge – the repeated marketing phrases ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘we have to turn anger into action’. This papered over the intra-elite cracks that would emerge between the winners and losers of any genuinely decisive action. 

Cartoon of balloons with environmental slogans on being popped with a person saying "your plan was more than just hot air though, right?"

Given the intentional ambiguity of these discursive nodal points, there is unsurprisingly growing debate about what they actually mean, and signs of intra-elite cracks emerging around them. This creates opportunities for civil society groups and others wanting to build alternative strategies to combat the climate emergency. 

An example of such a crack is evident in the concept of ‘nature-based solutions’ and what it can mean to different incumbent elite factions. The fossil fuel industry is happy to endorse this phrase, provided that it allows offsets from carbon emissions through reforestation to reach ‘net-zero’. Such an interpretation of nature-based solutions would in practice mean doubling down on current practices which have led to the displacement of indigenous peoples and peasants to make room for offsetting plantations.  On the other hand, the insurance industry, which routinely underwrites extractive projects, has grown increasingly aware of its exposure to climate change. We can see an emerging rift between them and their long time fossil fuel partners as they begin to demand that nature-based solutions involve the preservation of biodiverse nature. 

At COP we saw some examples of civil society groups seeking to re-articulate and open up the contestation in terms such as ‘nature-based solutions’ and ‘we are all in this together’ as a way of disrupting intra elite relationships. For example, we saw joint activities between the insurance giant Aviva, civil society group Global Canopy and representatives of Amazonian Indigenous peoples speaking of their partnership in identifying companies contributing to deforestation and divesting from them. Such activities take these key terms and make visible the differences in how they might be interpreted in ways that can either enable the preservation of climate destroying practices or empower current custodians of biodiverse nature. Such events successfully undermine the performance of consensus in events such as COP and outline routes towards rearticulating these key terms in ways that allow new alliances to form between marginalised and elite groups. 

Reflections

Our team started out with hunches that there were cracks in elite incumbent resistance to serious actions to tackle climate change. What we came away with after using these theoretical tools to make sense of the COP was less a sense of cracks in alliances, and instead a sense of profound fragmentation, disconnection between hugely varied actors and a desperate struggle to create the impression of coherence and the successful performance of control. We were left wondering whether the search for ever greater access to inner sanctums of elite power that seemed to be ever more elusive would be a wise strategy for actors wishing to shift the debate. Instead, starting from an assumption of heterogeneity and disorganisation, of failed performances and illusory central points of power would suggest there are opportunities in thinking horizontally, organising in multiple sites, pluralising and making visible the heterogeneity of decision-making moments. At the same time, rather than simply naming the over-familiar discursive nodal points as ‘blah blah blah’ – recognising them precisely as a key means of organising alliances, the challenge may be to occupy, interpret and reinterpret these terms. If we are all in it together – let’s make it all of us, if we are looking for nature-based solutions – let’s have a conversation about the different meanings of nature and what we are looking for a solution to. 

In other words – our sense is that it no longer makes sense to only search for cracks in elite incumbent resistance. But instead – there is merit in starting from the assumption that it is a miracle that alliances are made at all, and working creatively and persuasively to make visible the divides that sit both beneath the performance of events like COP, and the disagreements that sit within the language of consensus. From that, new alliances might be made. 

References

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: University Press.

Bachram H. (2004) Climate fraud and carbon colonialism: the new trade in greenhouse gases, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 15:4: 5-20.

Barry, A. (2002) The anti-political economy, Economy and Society, 31:2: 268-284.

Callon, M, Lascoumes, P and Barthe, Y (2001). Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy. Boston Mass: MIT Press.

Ford, A. and Newell, P. (2021) Regime resistance and accommodation: Toward a neo-Gramscian perspective on energy transitions, Energy Research & Social Science, 79.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY:Doubleday.

Golnaraghi, M et. al. (2021) Climate Change Risk Assessment for the Insurance Industry: A holistic decision-making framework and key considerations for both sides of the balance sheet, The Geneva Association: https://www.genevaassociation.org/sites/default/files/research-topics-document-type/pdf_public/climate_risk_web_final_250221.pdf Last accessed on 06.10.2022.

Krauss, A.D. (2021) ‘Chapter 16 – Effect of climate change on the insurance sector’, in ed. Letcher T.M., The Impacts of Climate Change: A Comprehensive Study of Physical, Biophysical, Social, and Political Issues, Bath, UK: Laurel House, Stratton on the Fosse: 397-436.

 Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics. NY: Verso.

Marres N. The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy. Social Studies of Science. 2007; 37(5): 759-780.

Newell, P. (2021). Power Shift: The Global Political Economy of Energy Transitions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newell, P., & Mulvaney, D. (2013). The political economy of the ‘just transition’. The Geographical Journal, 170(2): 132–140.

Oxfam (2021) ‘Net zero’ carbon targets are dangerous distractions from the priority of cutting emissions says new Oxfam report. Press Releases, 03.08.2021: https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/net-zero-carbon-targets-are-dangerous-distractions-priority-cutting-emissions-says Last accessed on 06.10.2022.

Paterson, M (2001) Risky Business: Insurance Companies in Global Warming Politics, Global Environmental Politics, 1(4): 18–42.

Swilling M. & Annecke E. (2012). Just transitions: explorations of sustainability in an unfair world. Claremont, South Africa, UCT Press.

Turnheim, B. and Sovacool B.K. (2020) Forever stuck in old ways? Pluralising incumbencies in sustainability transitions, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions. 35: 180-184.

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The authors of this blog have worked on this as “the Carbon Elites Collective”, which includes Aslak-Antti Oksanen (Bristol, SPAIS), Keri Facer (Bristol, School of Education), Peter Newell (University of Sussex), Pablo Suarez (The Red Cross/Red Crescent), María Estrada Fuentes (Royal Holloway), Jeremy Brice (University of Manchester), Antonia Layard  (University of Oxford) and Kendra Allenby (freelance cartoonist).

Loss and Damage: fears, vulnerabilities, emotions and compensation in the face of climate change

Artwork by Andy Council on loss and damage
Artwork by Andy Council on loss and damage. Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy. View the artwork in high resolution.

In July 2023, the Cabot Institute for the Environment and Universities UK Climate Network hosted an event focusing on loss and damage.

Loss and damage captures the adverse impacts and irreversible harm caused by climate-related events and changes, particularly in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. It recognizes that some effects of climate change cannot be fully mitigated or adapted to, leading to tangible and intangible losses such as loss of lives, livelihoods, cultural heritage, and ecosystems.

Loss and damage has become a significant topic in international climate negotiations, with discussions focusing on how to address and compensate for unavoidable consequences of climate change, often in the context of financial support and liability for those responsible.

Participants at Loss and Damage event.
Participants at Loss and Damage event.

Participants at the workshop were encouraged to speak openly about their emotions around climate change losses and what it might look like to be compensated. They spoke openly and with great vulnerability about what they feared and hoped for.

post it notes denoting peoples feelings around loss and damage

Artist Andy Council was on hand to take notes and created a stunning piece of art to reflect our conversations – centering around greed, grief, injustice, and anger.

post it notes about compensation with regards to loss and damage

Andy said ‘When I attended the event, I heard different thoughts on the issues raised and I wanted to get as many of these into my artwork piece as possible. I wanted to get the different ideas as smaller components into a larger image, a symbol: the dollar sign. It seemed relevant as unfortunately things come down to money – profit from industry over climate change and habitat loss, money put towards preserving prestigious artefacts, less industrialised nations bearing the brunt of climate change and the funding to compensate for the loss and damage. The artwork is overall quite dark and gloomy, however there are elements of hope within the piece with images of resistance and preservation of the world’s natural landscape.’

Artist Andy Council looking at post it notes on the floor
Artist Andy Council reading post it notes.

Art has the unique ability to transcend language and cultural barriers, making it a powerful tool for raising awareness and fostering understanding of complex global issues like loss and damage. Climate change often feels abstract and distant, but through art, it can become tangible and emotionally resonant. Art can also convey the urgency and gravity of the issue, bridging gaps between different communities and fostering a sense of shared responsibility.

The UK Climate network said ‘we are keen to make sure that our research connects to people and action outside the academic world. It was great to see Dr Alix Dietzel engaging the public on this topic and bringing the conversation to life through art.’

COP27 established a Loss and Damage Fund that aims to provide financial assistance to nations most vulnerable and impacted by the effects of climate change. However, the UNFCCC has not yet specified which countries should contribute to the fund, and who will be eligible to receive help. As we head into COP28, all eyes will be on the negotiations to see whether these aspects of the fund can be nailed down.

Are you a journalist looking for climate experts for COP28? We’ve got you covered

COP28 logo

We’ve got lots of media trained climate change experts. If you need an expert for an interview, here is a list of our experts you can approach. All media enquiries should be made via Victoria Tagg, our dedicated Media and PR Manager at the University of Bristol. 

Email victoria.tagg@bristol.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 428 2489.

Climate change / climate emergency / climate science / climate-induced disasters

Dr Eunice Lo – expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells, and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter/X @EuniceLoClimate.

Professor Daniela Schmidt – expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems. Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports.

Dr Katerina Michalides – expert in drylands, drought and desertification and helping East African rural communities to adapt to droughts and future climate change. Follow on Twitter/X @_kmichaelides.

Professor Dann Mitchell – expert in how climate change alters the atmospheric circulation, extreme events, and impacts on human health. Dann is also a Met Office Chair. Follow on Twitter/X @ClimateDann.

Professor Dan Lunt – expert on past climate change, with a focus on understanding how and why climate has changed in the past and what we can learn about the future from the past. Dan is also a Lead Author on IPCC AR6. Follow on Twitter/X @ClimateSamwell.

Professor Jonathan Bamber – expert on the impact of melting land ice on sea level rise (SLR) and the response of the ocean to changes in freshwater forcing. Follow on Twitter/X @jlbamber

Professor Paul Bates CBE – expert in the science of flooding, risk and reducing threats to life and economic losses worldwide. Follow on Twitter/X @paul_d_bates

Dr Matt Palmer – expert in sea level and ocean heat content at the Met Office Hadley Centre and University of Bristol. Follow on Twitter/X @mpclimate.

Professor Guy Howard – expertise in building resilience and supporting adaptation in water systems, sanitation, health care facilities, and housing. Expert in wider infrastructure resilience assessment.

Net Zero / Energy / Renewables

Dr Caitlin Robinson – expert on energy poverty and energy justice and also in mapping ambient vulnerabilities in UK cities. Caitlin will be virtually attending COP28. Follow on Twitter/X @CaitHRobin.

Professor Philip Taylor – Expert in net zero, energy systems, energy storage, utilities, electric power distribution. Also Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Bristol. Follow on Twitter/X @rolyatlihp.

Dr Colin Nolden – expert in sustainable energy policyregulation and business models and interactions with secondary markets such as carbon markets and other sectors such as mobility. Colin will be in attendance in the Blue Zone at COP28 during week 2.

Professor Charl Faul – expert in novel functional materials for sustainable energy applications e.g. in CO2 capture and conversion and energy storage devices.  Follow on Twitter/X @Charl_FJ_Faul.

Climate finance / Loss and damage

Dr Rachel James – Expert in climate finance, damage, loss and decision making. Also has expertise in African climate systems and contemporary and future climate change. Follow on Twitter/X @_RachelJames.

Dr Katharina Richter – expert in decolonial environmental politics and equitable development in times of climate crises. Also an expert on degrowth and Buen Vivir, two alternatives to growth-based development from the Global North and South. Katarina will be virtually attending COP28. @DrKatRichter.

Climate justice

Dr Alix Dietzel – climate justice and climate policy expert. Focusing on the global and local scale and interested in how just the response to climate change is and how we can ensure a just transition. Alix will be in attendance in the Blue Zone at COP28 during week 1. Follow on Twitter/X @alixdietzel.

Dr Ed Atkins – expert on environmental and energy policy, politics and governance and how they must be equitable and inclusive. Also interested in local politics of climate change policies and energy generation and consumption. Follow on Twitter/X @edatkins_.

Dr Karen Tucker – expert on colonial politics of knowledge that shape encounters with indigenous knowledges, bodies and natures, and the decolonial practices that can reveal and remake them. Karen will be in attending the Blue Zone of COP28 in week 2.

Climate change and health

Dr Dan O’Hare – expert in climate anxiety and educational psychologist. Follow on Twitter/X @edpsydan.

Professor Dann Mitchell – expert in how climate change alters the atmospheric circulation, extreme events, and impacts on human health. Dann is also a Met Office Chair. Follow on Twitter/X @ClimateDann.

Dr Eunice Lo – expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells, and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter/X @EuniceLoClimate.

Professor Guy Howard – expert in influence of climate change on infectious water-related disease, including waterborne disease and vector-borne disease.

Professor Rachael Gooberman-Hill – expert in health research, including long-term health conditions and design of ways to support and improve health. @EBIBristol (this account is only monitored in office hours).

Youth, children, education and skills

Dr Dan O’Hare – expert in climate anxiety in children and educational psychologist. Follow on Twitter/X @edpsydan.

Dr Camilla Morelli – expert in how children and young people imagine the future, asking what are the key challenges they face towards the adulthoods they desire and implementing impact strategies to make these desires attainable. Follow on Twitter/X @DrCamiMorelli.

Dr Helen Thomas-Hughes – expert in engaging, empowering, and inspiring diverse student bodies as collaborative environmental change makers. Also Lead of the Cabot Institute’s MScR in Global Environmental Challenges. Follow on Twitter/X @Researchhelen.

Professor Daniela Schmidt – expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems. Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports. Also part of the Waves of Change project with Dr Camilla Morelli, looking at the intersection of social, economic and climatic impacts on young people’s lives and futures around the world.

Climate activism / Extinction Rebellion

Dr Oscar Berglund – expert on climate change activism and particularly Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the use of civil disobedience. Follow on Twitter @berglund_oscar.

Land / Nature / Food

Dr Jo House – expert on land and climate interactions, including emissions of carbon dioxide from land use change (e.g. deforestation), climate mitigation potential from the land (e.g. afforestationbioenergy), and implications of science for policy. Previously Government Office for Science’s Head of Climate Advice. Follow on Twitter @Drjohouse.

Professor Steve Simpson – expert marine biology and fish ecology, with particular interests in the behaviour of coral reef fishes, bioacoustics, effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, conservation and management. Follow on Twitter/X @DrSteveSimpson.

Dr Taro Takahashi – expert on farminglivestock production systems as well as programme evaluation and general equilibrium modelling of pasture and livestock-based economies.

Dr Maria Paula Escobar-Tello – expert on tensions and intersections between livestock farming and the environment.

Air pollution / Greenhouse gases

Dr Aoife Grant – expert in greenhouse gases and methane. Set up a monitoring station at Glasgow for COP26 to record emissions.

Professor Matt Rigby – expert on sources and sinks of greenhouse gases and ozone depleting substances. Follow on Twitter @TheOtherMRigby.

Professor Guy Howard – expert in contribution of waste and wastewater systems to methane emissions in low- and middle-income countries

Plastic and the environment

Dr Charlotte Lloyd – expert on the fate of chemicals in the terrestrial environment, including plasticsbioplastics and agricultural wastes. Follow on Twitter @DrCharlLloyd.

Cabot Institute for the Environment at COP28

We will have three media trained academics in attendance at the Blue Zone at COP28. These are: Dr Alix Dietzel (week 1), Dr Colin Nolden (week 2) and Dr Karen Tucker (week 2). We will also have two academics attending virtually: Dr Caitlin Robinson and Dr Katharina Richter.

Read more about COP on our website at https://bristol.ac.uk/cabot/what-we-do/projects/cop/
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This blog was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Communications and Engagement Officer at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. Follow on Twitter @Enviro_Mand and @cabotinstitute.

Watch our Cabot Conversations – 10 conversations between 2 experts on a climate change issue, all whilst an artist listens in the background and interprets the conversation into a beautiful piece of art in real time. Find out more at bristol.ac.uk/cabot/conversations.

Navigating divorce and environmental challenges: Implications in a changing world

Broken heart on wooden table.In an ever-evolving world, societal dynamics are continually shifting, reflecting the multifaceted nature of the human experience. One of the most profound changes we have witnessed in recent decades is the transformation of family structures, with divorce becoming a common facet of modern life across various societies. For instance, according to Office for National Statistics as of 2021, 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. Alongside this social evolution, we grapple with an equally pressing issue—the burgeoning environmental emergency. These two forces converge dramatically in more profound ways than we might realise. In this blog, I will explore the profound impact of dealing with divorce within the context of logistical and emotional anxiety brought about by the existential threat to our environment. 

The complex landscape of divorce

Divorce, a life-altering event, affects not just the couple but an entire ecosystem—that is to say, the nuclear family. My PhD research findings illuminated the diverse experiences of young people whose parents divorced in different cultural contexts. After interviewing forty-four young people aged between 11 and 16 in Türkiye and England, what emerged strongly was a nuanced understanding of the variegated effects – both uplifting and otherwise, of divorce particularly for children. 

For instance, more than half of the Turkish young people reported changing schools due to their parents’ divorce. While many didn’t directly attribute their school performance to the divorce, several children noted that changing schools positively impacted their performance. This aligns with global trends. A changing world demands adaptability, and some young people see education as their anchor, providing hope and a chance to take control of their lives, as reported by older participants in my study. 

Emotional turmoil is a common aspect of divorce, with sadness and confusion being initial reactions. However, as my research indicates, many young people learn to adapt and grow from their experiences over time. Young people also emphasised the pivotal role that the home environment plays in shaping children’s experiences during and after divorce. Exposure to violence or maltreatment within the family environment can have a lasting negative impact. 

Environmental challenges as an added layer

While navigating the intricate terrain of divorce, families now face an additional layer of complexity—the environmental challenges we face as a society. The world around us is changing rapidly due to issues such as climate change, pollution, and resource depletion. These challenges bring new dynamics to the fore within family life. A changing world presents economic challenges for families. Natural disasters, resource scarcity, or environmental policies have disrupted livelihoods and strained family finances, each feeding into existing marital tensions and ultimately increasing the likelihood of divorce. According to the World Economic Forum, climate change and related disasters could cost the global economy $360 billion annually by 2030. 

Environmental crises force families to relocate or to become displaced persons, creating stress and uncertainty. The number of internally displaced people around the world reached 71.1 million as of the end of 2022, an increase of 20% from the previous year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s flagship annual report. Today’s displacement crises are growing in scale, complexity and scope, and factors like food insecurity, climate change, and escalating and protracted conflicts are adding new layers to this phenomenon. 

The emotional toll of witnessing environmental devastation can affect family members’ mental health. Anxiety, depression, and a sense of helplessness may surface, adding to the existing emotional challenges of divorce. The Mental Health Foundation in the UK has highlighted the impact of environmental issues and climate change on mental health, that stress and anxiety are rising. 

A call for resilience and adaptation

As we stand at the crossroads of these two significant societal shifts—divorce and environmental challenges—it becomes clear that resilience and adaptation are paramount. Families must not only weather the storms of marital dissolution but must also equip themselves to confront the environmental storms of a changing world. 

Empowering young people with education and awareness about both divorce and environmental issues is crucial. They need the tools to understand, adapt, and make positive contributions to their lives and the world around them. Families need robust support systems. This includes access to mental health services for emotional well-being and community networks that can assist during economic hardship or environmental crises. 

Having to separate houses also means having to double the expenses for two different households. While divorce can bring about significant changes and challenges, it is important to recognise that it can also have positive aspects, such as the potential for personal growth and the opportunity to create healthier family dynamics. In my research, 95% of the young people said they feel happier after their parents’ divorce than before and during. Therefore, sustainable living practices can help mitigate the impact of both divorce and environmental challenges. This not only contributes to the preservation of the planet but also instils values of responsibility and resilience in younger generations. Divorce cannot solely be seen as a breakdown of a family unit. On the contrary, families can advocate for action on environmental issues, fostering a sense of purpose and unity. Addressing these challenges collectively can lead to positive changes that benefit the family unit and the world. 

In our rapidly changing world, families often find themselves at the intersection of two transformative forces—personal and environmental upheaval. At first glance, divorce and environmental challenges may seem unrelated. However, the two have a profound connection. Studies have shown that the environment plays a significant role in shaping our mental health and well-being. The increasing prevalence of climate change-related stress and anxiety, as documented by the American Psychological Association, highlights this link.

When we realise that environmental changes impact our mental health, we can begin to see the intricate relations between these forces. By acknowledging the complexity of divorce within the context of a changing world, understanding the implications of environmental challenges on our emotional well-being, and fostering resilience and adaptation, we can empower families to not only survive but thrive in this shifting landscape. Ultimately, through these challenges, we can shape a more compassionate, resilient, and sustainable world for generations to come. 


This blog is written by Dr Gozde Burger, whose PhD is on young people’s experiences of parental divorce in Türkiye and England. She is currently working as part of the GW4 Alliance as a Senior Research Coordinator. Contact: Gozde.burger@bristol.ac.uk.

Gozde Burger
Gozde Burger

The microclimate of Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland: Planning and planting for the future

Think of Northern Ireland and think of its weather. I wouldn’t blame you if all you knew about Northern Ireland is that it is cool (arguably cold) and wet. A famous pub in Belfast has a sign outside stating “Belfast has seven types of rain: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…” The temperature typically doesn’t get above 25 °C. While England’s all-time record temperature is 40.3 °C, Northern Ireland’s is a relatively low 31.3 °C – quite a difference. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place you would attempt to grow banana plants outside all year around. However, in the National Trust’s Mount Stewart gardens, on the shore of Strangford Lough in County Down, that is exactly what you’ll find.

Climate and climate change occurs at all different scales. We all know that the climate we experience as a resident of, for example, Belfast varies from that of Northern Ireland, or the UK in general, or Europe, or the globe. At the same time, even within a relatively small area like Northern Ireland, there will be a large range of unique microclimates as a result of highly localised physical features.

Mount Stewart is one such example of a unique microclimate. Being close to sea level keeps frost and cold extremes at bay, while it has a dense 8-acre sea plantation – a shelter belt of established woodland on the shoreward side of the gardens – that shelters tender plants from the worst of colder sea winds and salt spray. Cocooned behind the shelter belt, Mount Stewart’s range of gardens grow a huge variety of plants, including bananas, and have been voted one of the best gardens in the world.

Gardeners working at Mount Stewart have known its microclimate is unique for years, however in the face of climate change, the National Trust are taking action to get ahead of the curve and plan for the future. In recent years, high storm surges have caused salt water intrusion in parts of the ornamental gardens, with the salinity subsequently damaging or killing many plants that required replanting. Long-term, such flooding seems inevitable and is even expected to take the sea plantation with it.

To understand exactly the nature of the microclimate of Mount Stewart and the importance of its sea plantation, University of Bristol have teamed with the National Trust to install 12 sensors around the site to measure the temperature, humidity, soil temperature, soil moisture and precipitation. These sensors cover the ornamental gardens’ microclimate (some sensors are literally amongst the banana plants), the walled gardens and in the land surrounding the microclimate, on the edge of agricultural areas and on the shoreward side of the sea plantation.

A map showing weather sensors around Mount Stewart.
Map showing the location of the weather sensors (marked NTUB-…) around Mount Stewart.

The project began monitoring in July 2023. We hoped to capture how the microclimate responded through summer heatwaves, but instead had the rainiest July on record in Northern Ireland. Not to worry – that’s interesting data to capture too. The project plans to run for as long as we can maintain the sensors at the site, capturing heatwaves, cold snaps, storms and everything in between over the coming years. The variation in climate across Mount Stewart will be quantified, including the effect of the much-hyped sea plantation. At the same time, the offset between the weather recorded by Met Office or reanalysis data products for Northern Ireland in general versus at the Mount Stewart site will be calculated, allowing local scale bias corrections to be applied to historic records and potentially future climate model projections.

The initial results collected so far provide some tantalising and surprising insights. At least for a cool, wet summer like Northern Ireland has just experienced, the microclimate is in fact not warmer than the surrounding countryside. The warmest part of the site – perhaps unsurprisingly – was found to be the walled garden. However, that still leaves me wondering how the bananas survive in ‘normal’ Northern Irish weather! The true test of the microclimate and sea plantation’s effect may be seen during the coming winter, where this area is expected to be milder and significantly less frost prone.

The information from this project will be used by the National Trust to plan their next steps. They are already in the process of planting the next generation of sea plantation further inland and ultimately the majority of the gardens may have to move. Understanding how the microclimate varies will help inform where is best to resituate the existing planting and gardens. This project is a trial and if it is useful and successful, the National Trust may carry out similar analysis at other sites across the UK. As a climate researcher, I love data! However, a research question which we hope to answer with this project is whether more data is always necessary? The gardening team at Mount Stewart have a very detailed knowledge of the microclimate in terms of what plants thrive where and when – just not in terms of graphs and numbers. We will explore whether quantifying this microclimate provides added value above and beyond tacit local knowledge.

Gardeners always keep one eye on the future. Seeds are sown expecting shoots in the spring. Saplings are planted expecting an orchard in decades to come. This project will help the National Trust’s gardening team to make decisions that will shape this garden into the next century and maybe beyond. This ‘seedcorn funding’ has taken on a different and very literal meaning.

This work was funded by University of Bristol’s Third Sector Impact Seedcorn funding. The project team includes Alan Kennedy-Asser and Simon Cobb (School of Geographical Sciences) and Keith Jones (National Trust). Thanks to the gardening team at Mount Stewart including Mike Buffin, Robert Wilson and Abigail Wilson for their support in running and maintaining the sensors. You can hear Mike Buffin discussing the project on BBC Radio Ulster’s Gardeners’ Corner programme here.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Alan Kennedy-Asser, University of Bristol.

Alan Kennedy-Asser
Alan Kennedy-Asser

Is climate change really a reason not to have children? Here’s four reasons why it’s not that simple

Should we consider having children to be the same as overconsumption?
Piyaset/Shutterstock

In 2009, statistician Paul Murtaugh and climate scientist Michael Schlax calculated that having just one child in a high-emitting country such as the United States will add around 10,000 tonnes of CO₂ to the atmosphere. That’s five times the emissions an average parent produces in their entire lifetime.

The reason this number is so large is because offspring are likely to have children themselves, perpetuating emissions for many generations to come.

According to one prominent argument from 2002, we should think of procreation in analogy to overconsumption. Just like overconsumption, procreation is an act in which you knowingly bring about more carbon emissions than is ethical. If we condemn overconsumption, then we should be consistent and raise an eyebrow at procreation too.

Given the potential climate impact of having even a single child, some ethicists argue that there are ethical boundaries on how big our families should be. Typically, they propose that we ought to have no more than two children per couple, or perhaps no more than one. Others have even argued that, in the current circumstances, it may be best not to have any children at all.

These ideas have gained traction through the efforts of activist groups such as the BirthStrike movement and UK charity Population Matters.

Climate ethicists broadly agree that the climate crisis is unprecedented and requires us to rethink what can be ethically demanded of individuals. But proposing ethical limits on family size has struck many as unpalatable due to a number of concerns.

Parents playing with their daughter in a park.
Some ethicists propose limits on family size.
Liderina/Shutterstock

1. Blaming certain groups

Philosopher Quill Kukla has warned of the danger of stigmatisation. Affirming a duty to have fewer children might suggest that certain groups, which have or are perceived to have more children than average, are to blame for climate change. These groups tend to be ethnic minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged people.

Kukla has also expressed concern that if we start talking about limiting how many kids we have, the burden might end falling disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Women are already pressured to live up to society’s idea of how many children they should or shouldn’t have.

These worries do not directly concern what actual moral obligations to reduce emissions we have. However, they do highlight the fraught nature of talking about ethical limits to procreation.

2. Who’s really responsible?

A philosophical worry we’ve raised in the past challenges the conception of responsibility that underlies arguments for limits to procreation. We usually only think that people are responsible for what they do themselves, and not what others do, including their adult children.

From this perspective, parents might have some responsibility for the emissions generated by their underage children. It’s conceivable that they might also bear some responsibility for the emissions their adult children cannot avoid. But they’re not responsible for their children’s luxury emissions, or for the emissions of their grandchildren and beyond.

When broken down like this, the carbon footprint of having a child is much less drastic and no longer stands out compared to other consumption choices. According to one estimate that follows this logic, each parent bears responsibility for about 45 tonnes of additional CO₂ emissions. This is the same as taking one transatlantic return flight every four years of one’s lifetime.

A plane taking off.
A plane departing from Manchester Airport, UK.
Plane Photography/Shutterstock

3. Simply too slow

We are already seeing signs of climate breakdown. The ice is melting, oceans are warming and many climate records have tumbled already this summer.

To avoid the escalating impacts of climate change, climate scientists are in agreement that we must urgently reach net zero emissions. The most commonly proposed targets for this goal are by 2050 or 2070. In many countries, these targets have been written into law.

But, given the pressing need for urgent emissions reductions, limiting procreation is a woefully inadequate response. This is because the resulting emissions reductions will come into effect only over a much longer period. It is simply the wrong place to look for the emissions savings that we need to make now.

4. Path to net zero

Since limiting procreation does not reduce emissions quickly enough, per capita emissions need to drop – and fast. But that is not solely in the power of individual consumers or would-be parents.

What we are facing is a collective action problem. The ethical responsibility for reducing emissions rests on the shoulders of not just individuals, but also with societies, their institutions and businesses.

In fact, if we collectively manage to reduce our per capita emissions to net zero by 2050, then having a child today leads to only a small amount of emissions. After 2050, they and their descendants would cease to add to net emissions.

However, despite political commitments to achieve this target, the jury is still out on whether this target will be met. More than US$1.7 (£1.3) trillion is expected to be invested in clean energy technologies globally this year – by far the most ever spent on clean energy in a year. Yet, the UK continues to grapple with how to fund its net zero transition – a predicament they’re unlikely to be alone in.

Philosophical arguments that we should have fewer children challenge our understanding of what morality can demand in an age of climate change. They also call into question whether the most meaningful choices we can make as individuals are simple consumption choices (for example, between meat and plant-based alternatives). But the philosophical debate about whether there is a duty to have fewer children is complex – and remains open.

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This blog is written by Dr Martin Sticker, Lecturer in Ethics, University of Bristol and Dr Felix Pinkert, Tenure-track Assistant Professor, Universität Wien. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Martin Sticker
Martin Sticker

Bats are avoiding solar farms and scientists aren’t sure why

The common pipistrelle. Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock

As our planet continues to warm, the need for renewable energy is becoming increasingly urgent. Almost half of the UK’s electricity now comes from renewable sources. And solar accounts for one-fifth of the energy capacity installed since 2019.

Solar farms are now a striking feature of the British landscape. But despite their growth, we’re still largely in the dark about how solar farms impact biodiversity.

This was the focus of a recent study that I co-authored alongside colleagues from the University of Bristol. We found that bat activity is reduced at solar farms compared to neighbouring sites without solar panels.

This discovery is concerning. Bats are top predators of nighttime insects and are sensitive to changes in their habitats, so they are important indicators of ecosystem health. Bats also provide valuable services such as suppressing populations of insect pests.

Nonetheless, our results should not hinder the transition to renewable energy. Instead, they should help to craft strategies that not only encourage bat activity but also support the necessary expansion of clean energy sources.

An aerial shot of a solar farm in south Wales.
Solar farms are now a striking feature of the British landscape. steved_np3/Shutterstock

Reduced activity

We measured bat activity by recording their ultrasonic echolocation calls on bat detectors. Many bat species have distinctive echolocation calls, so we could identify call sequences for each species in many cases. Some species show similar calls, so we lumped them together in species groups.

We placed bat detectors in a solar farm field and a similar neighbouring field without solar panels (called the control site). The fields were matched in size, land use and boundary features (such as having similar hedges) as far as possible. The only major difference was whether they contained solar panels.

We monitored 19 pairs of these sites, each for a week, observing bat activity within the fields’ centre and along their boundaries. Field boundaries are used by bats for navigation and feeding.

Six of the eight bat species or groups studied were less active in the fields with solar panels compared to the fields without them. Common pipistrelles, which made up almost half of all bat activity, showed a decrease of 40% at the edges of solar panel fields and 86% in their centre. Other bat species or groups like soprano pipistrelles, noctules, serotines, myotis bats and long-eared bats also saw their activity drop.

Total bat activity was almost halved at the boundaries of solar panel fields compared to that of control sites. And at the centre of solar panel fields, bat activity dropped by two-thirds.

Why are bats avoiding solar farms?

Conflict between clean energy production and biodiversity isn’t just limited to solar farms; it’s an issue at wind farms too. Large numbers of bats are killed by colliding with the blades of wind turbines. In 2012, for example, one academic estimated that around 888,000 bats may have been killed at wind energy facilities in the United States.

The way solar farms affect bats is probably more indirect than this. Solar panels could, in theory, inadvertently reduce the abundance of insects by lowering the availability of the plants they feed on. We’re currently investigating whether there’s a difference in insect numbers at the solar farm sites compared to the control sites.

Solar panels may also reflect a bats’ echolocation calls, making insect detection more difficult. Reduced feeding success around the panels may result in fewer bats using the surrounding hedgerows for commuting, potentially explaining our findings.

However, bats are also known to collide with smooth vertical flat surfaces because they reflect echolocation calls away from bats and hence appear as empty space. Research has also found that bats sometimes attempt to drink from horizontal smooth surfaces because they interpret the perpendicular echoes as coming from still water. But, given the sloped orientation of solar panels, these potential direct effects may not be of primary concern.

Improving habitats

An important lesson from the development of wind energy is that win-win solutions exist. Ultrasonic acoustic deterrents can keep bats away from wind turbines, while slightly reducing the wind speed that turbines become operational at (known as “cut-in speeds”) has reduced bat fatality rates with minimal losses to energy production. Research suggests that increasing turbine cut-in speeds by 1.5 metres per second can reduce bat fatalities by at least 50%, with an annual loss to power output below 1%.

A slightly different approach could be applied to solar farms. Improving habitats by planting native trees along the boundaries of solar farm fields could potentially increase the availability of insects for bats to feed on.

Research that I have co-authored in recent years supports this theory. We found that the presence of landscape features such as tall hedgerows and even isolated trees on farmland has a positive effect on bat activity.

Carefully selecting solar sites is also important. Prior to construction, conducting environmental impact assessments could indicate the value of proposed sites to bat populations.

More radically, rethinking the siting of these sites so that most are placed on buildings or in areas that are rarely visited by bats, could limit their impact on bat populations.

Solar power is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy worldwide. Its capacity is projected to overtake natural gas by 2026 and coal by 2027. Ensuring that its ecological footprint remains minimal is now particularly important.

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This blog is written by Gareth Jones, Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Britain’s next election could be a climate change culture war

Signs indicating Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) on a street in London, UK.

A byelection in a London suburb has placed environmental policy at the centre of political debate in the UK, and could make it a key battleground in the next general election.

The Conservative party narrowly held former prime minister Boris Johnson’s seat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, vacated after his resignation from parliament. The win has been cast as a victory driven by popular anger against climate policy, particularly London’s ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez) – an area where drivers of the highest-polluting vehicles must pay a fee.

The winning candidate positioned himself as the anti-Ulez choice, tapping into local anger at the policy. But as comments from media and politicians show, the Uxbridge story signals a new stage of national politics that demonises environmental policies. And my research suggests this could develop into an important new front in the culture war, with the power to help determine the next election.

The Ulez, created by Boris Johnson as mayor of London in 2015, is a restricted area covering central London, where vehicles must meet emissions standards or pay £12.50 to enter. Most petrol cars registered after 2005 and diesel cars registered after 2015 meet the standards. It’s primarily a public health policy, with the goal to reduce air pollution and encourage the use of low-emission vehicles.

It is due to expand into London’s outer boroughs in August 2023 – an area 18 times larger than the original zone. Legal battles and public protests have blamed London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, for the expansion of the policy.

The opposition to Ulez is highly partisan. Nationally, 59% of Conservatives oppose Ulez schemes compared to 23% of Labour voters. In London, 72% of those who voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum opposed the Ulez expansion. Former Remain voters are evenly split, with 44% in support and 44% against the policy.

The Conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has now distanced the government from green policies that could contribute to household expenses. Labour leader Keir Starmer acknowledged the role that Ulez played in the loss, saying that “policy matters” in elections. He also called on Khan to “reflect” on the Ulez expansion.

Climate change culture wars

My research shows net-zero policies are the next target of right-wing populism and culture wars in the UK. Narratives are emerging that tie complaints about climate policies being undemocratic or expensive to issues of Brexit, energy security and a “green elite”.

Last year, Nigel Farage called for a referendum on net-zero, policies that, in his words, had “been imposed upon people without any public discussion.”

This narrative is evident in the opposition to Ulez, despite evidence for the scheme. Air pollution has dropped dramatically one year into the Ulez expansion across inner London, and most cars in London’s outer boroughs fulfil the Ulez standards and would be unaffected by the expansion.

Yet videos of anti-Ulez protests show placards reading “Stop the toxic air lie”, a cardboard coffin with “democracy” written across it and protesters complaining about a lack of fairness and transparency in the policy.

Climate and public health measures are now linked in broader ideological battles about political and economic priorities. These policies have become fertile ground for anybody seeking to rally new supporters. Those supporters will come from groups whose day-to-day lives are impacted by these policies.

Green policies

The Ulez is not the first environmental policy to face public opposition. In 2009, the UK saw a popular campaign against the replacement of incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs.

More recently, bollards that designate low-traffic neighbourhoods have been set on fire. Opposition to these schemes has also been co-opted by conspiracy theorists arguing that climate policies are an attempt to take away personal freedoms.

We have seen the consequences of such debates before. A decade before Sunak, Conservative prime minister David Cameron stepped back from environmental policies, calling for ministers to “ditch the green crap”. This arguably led to a “lost decade” in climate policy, as well as the slowing of policies that would have reduced vulnerability in the recent energy crisis.

There is reason to hope that the coming election will be different. Public concern about the climate remains high: 67% of British people surveyed worried about climate breakdown.

And people are more likely to think that the government should do more, not less, in climate policy. New polling shows that climate concern is likely to pay off for Labour.

As I’ve argued, green policies can transform neighbourhoods. But governments must also recognise how such policies affect people’s everyday struggles, like cost of living, which are likely to dominate the next electoral cycle.

Policies must minimise impacts that disproportionately impact some groups over others. People living in London’s outer suburbs, without wide access to public transport, are more likely to own a car – driving local opposition to the Ulez in places like Uxbridge.

Ways to address this include paying people to scrap older vehicles. This is something Khan has put in place for Londoners, but has not had the government support to expand it to people living around London who would be affected when they drive into the capital.

Khan has spoken about opposition to the Ulez expansion as an “orchestrated campaign” that has moved beyond many Londoners’ “genuine concerns”. But concerns about Ulez aren’t limited to those engaging in conspiracy theories. They include residents worried about the getting to work, the school run, or caring for elderly relatives. These are problems that should be ironed out by comprehensive and sensitive policies that maximise the benefits of any change.

The coming election

The fact that a candidate can win on an anti-Ulez platform shows the effectiveness of simplifying climate action and its outcomes into what people can lose, and failing to emphasise the benefits.

The current debates miss a key point of climate action: it is never just about emissions. Opposition to the Ulez is not exclusively resistance to climate policy. It is dissent over who it impacts, and how.

The Labour party must decide whether to retreat from or double down on climate action. If the latter, the next general election will be fought as a climate change culture war.

On one side will be a group seeking to portray climate action as a costly, undemocratic and unfair exercise. On the other must be a call for climate policy that is about cleaner air, warmer homes and healthier neighbourhoods, without disproportionately impacting certain groups of people.


This blog is written by Dr Ed Atkins, Senior Lecturer, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ed Atkins
Ed Atkins

Limiting global warming to 2℃ is not enough – why the world must keep temperature rise below 1℃

Warming of more than 1℃ risks unsafe and harmful outcomes for humanity.
Ink Drop/Shutterstock

The Paris Climate agreement represented a historic step towards a safer future for humanity on Earth when it was adopted in 2015. The agreement strove to keep global heating below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels with the aim of limiting the increase to 1.5℃ if possible. It was signed by 196 parties around the world, representing the overwhelming majority of humanity.

But in the intervening eight years, the Arctic region has experienced record-breaking temperatures, heatwaves have gripped many parts of Asia and Australia has faced unprecedented floods and wildfires. These events remind us of the dangers associated with climate breakdown. Our newly published research argues instead that humanity is only safe at 1℃ of global warming or below.

While one extreme event cannot be solely attributed to global heating, scientific studies have shown that such events are much more likely in a warmer world. Since the Paris agreement, our understanding of the impacts of global heating have also improved.

A fishing boat surrounded by icebergs that have come off a glacier.
Fishing boat dwarfed by icebergs that came off Greenland’s largest glacier, Jakobshavn Isbrae.
Jonathan Bamber, Author provided

Rising sea levels are an inevitable consequence of global warming. This is due to the combination of increased land ice melting and warmer oceans, which cause the volume of ocean water to increase. Recent research shows that in order to eliminate the human-induced component of sea-level rise, we need to return to temperatures last seen in the pre-industrial era (usually taken to be around 1850).

Perhaps more worrying are tipping points in the climate system that are effectively irreversible on human timescales if passed. Two of these tipping points relate to the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Together, these sheets contain enough ice to raise the global sea level by more than ten metres.

The temperature threshold for these ice sheets is uncertain, but we know that it lies close to 1.5℃ of global heating above pre-industrial era levels. There’s even evidence that suggests the threshold may already have been passed in one part of west Antarctica.

Critical boundaries

A temperature change of 1.5℃ might sound quite small. But it’s worth noting that the rise of modern civilisation and the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago took place during a period of exceptionally stable temperatures.

Our food production, global infrastructure and ecosystem services (the goods and services provided by ecosystems to humans) are all intimately tied to that stable climate. For example, historical evidence shows that a period called the little ice age (1400-1850), when glaciers grew extensively in the northern hemisphere and frost fairs were held annually on the River Thames, was caused by a much smaller temperature change of only about 0.3℃.

A sign marking the retreat of a glacier since 1908.
Jasper National Park, Canada. Glaciers used to grow extensively in the Northern Hemisphere.
Matty Symons/Shutterstock

A recent review of the current research in this area introduces a concept called “Earth system boundaries”, which defines various thresholds beyond which life on our planet would suffer substantial harm. To avoid passing multiple critical boundaries, the authors stress the need to limit temperature rise to 1℃ or less.

In our new research, we also argue that warming of more than 1℃ risks unsafe and harmful outcomes. This potentially includes sea level rise of multiple metres, more intense hurricanes and more frequent weather extremes.

More affordable renewable energy

Although we are already at 1.2℃ above pre-industrial temperatures, reducing global temperatures is not an impossible task. Our research presents a roadmap based on current technologies that can help us work towards achieving the 1℃ warming goal. We do not need to pull a technological “rabbit out of the hat”, but instead we need to invest and implement existing approaches, such as renewable energy, at scale.

Renewable energy sources have become increasingly affordable over time. Between 2010 and 2021, the cost of producing electricity from solar energy reduced by 88%, while wind power saw a reduction of 67% over the same period. The cost of power storage in batteries (for when the availability of wind and sunlight is low) has also decreased, by 70% between 2014 and 2020.

An aerial photograph of a photovoltaic power plant on a lush hillside.
A photovoltaic power plant in Yunnan, China.
Captain Wang/Shutterstock

The cost disparity between renewable energy and alternative sources like nuclear and fossil fuels is now huge – there is a three to four-fold difference.

In addition to being affordable, renewable energy sources are abundantly available and could swiftly meet society’s energy demands. Massive capacity expansions are also currently underway across the globe, which will only further bolster the renewable energy sector. Global solar energy manufacturing capacity, for example, is expected to double in 2023 and 2024.

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Low-cost renewable energy will enable our energy systems to transition away from fossil fuels. But it also provides the means of directly removing CO₂ from the atmosphere at a large scale.

CO₂ removal is crucial for keeping warming to 1℃ or less, even though it requires a significant amount of energy. According to research, achieving a safe climate would require dedicating between 5% and 10% of total power generation demand to effective CO₂ removal. This represents a realistic and attainable policy option.

Various measures are used to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. These include nature-based solutions like reforestation, as well as direct air carbon capture and storage. Trees absorb CO₂ from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and then lock it up for centuries.

A group of people planting a mangrove forest next to the sea.
A mangrove forest being planted in Klong Khone Samut Songkhram Province, Thailand.
vinai chunkhajorn/Shutterstock

Direct air capture technology was originally developed in the 1960s for air purification on submarines and spacecrafts. But it has since been further adapted for use on land. When combined with underground storage methods, such as the process of converting CO₂ into stone, this technology provides a safe and permanent method of removing CO₂ from the atmosphere.

Our paper demonstrates that the tools and technology exist to achieve a safer, healthier and more prosperous future – and that it’s economically viable to do so. What appears to be lacking is the societal will and, as a consequence, the political conviction and commitment to achieve it.

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This blog is written Cabot Institute for the Environment member Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Glaciology and Earth Observation, University of Bristol and Christian Breyer, Professor of Solar Economy, Lappeenranta University of TechnologyThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jonathan Bamber
Jonathan Bamber

Why are neonicotinoids so polarised?

Bee on yellow flower

The use of neonicotinoid insecticides has been, and still is, a topic of huge controversy and dispute. To use an appropriate analogy, stakeholders appear to fall into one of two neighbouring fields, distinctly fenced off from one another.

In one field, there are those that believe that the scientific evidence revealing the impacts of neonicotinoid compounds on pollinators and the wider environment is more than sufficient to strictly ban their use as a pest management tool. In the other field, interested parties argue that the evidence is convoluted and context specific, and that in some circumstances neonicotinoid use can be a safe, and environmentally resourceful strategy.

But why has this topic become so polarised? And why is there increasingly less space for those that wish to ‘sit on the fence’? This blog summarises the research published in a recent paper by Hannah Romanowski and Lauren Blake. The paper investigates the causes of controversy, and analyses the viability of alternatives in the UK sugar beet system.

What are neonicotinoids?

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are a group of synthetic compounds used as the active ingredient in some insecticides. They are neuroactive, which means that they act on the nervous system of the insect, causing changes in behaviour. They specifically bind to receptors of the nicotinic acetylcholine (nAChRs) enzyme, which are specific to insects, meaning neonics have low toxicity to vertebrates, such as mammals. They are used to control a variety of pests, especially sap-feeding insects such as aphids. Neonics are a systemic pesticide, meaning that they are absorbed by the whole plant (either by seed coating or spraying) and distribute throughout all the plants tissue.

Are neonics legal in the UK?

That’s where things get confusing… the answer is both yes and no. In 2018, the UK prohibited the outdoor use of neonics following a review of the evidence about their risk to pollinators, published by the European Food Safety Authority. However, the UK and many other EU member states have since granted emergency authorisations, which allows the use of neonics under a set of specific circumstances and conditions. The best-known example of this in the UK is the emergency authorisations granted in 2021, 2022 and 2023 for the use of thiamethoxam, one of the banned neonicotinoid compounds, on sugar beet.

However, even if an emergency authorisation is approved by UK Government, the predicted virus incidence (forecasted by Rothamsted Insect Survey) in a given year must be above a decided threshold before authorisation is fully granted. If the threshold is not met, neonicotinoids use remains prohibited. In 2021 for example, Defra set the threshold at 9%, and since the forecast of the virus was only 8.37%, the neonicotinoid seed treatment was not used. The crop went on to grew successfully unscathed by the virus.

Why is sugar beet an exception?

The Expert Committee on Pesticides (ECP) produced a framework in 2020 that laid out a list of requirements for an emergency authorisation of a prohibited pesticide. Requirements include not having an alternative, adequate evidence of safety, limited scale and control of use, and evidence of a permanent solution in development. In essence, the long-term economic and environmental benefits of granting the temporary emergency authorisation must outweigh any potential adverse effects resulting from the authorisation.

Sugar beet farm in Switzerland
Sugar beet farm. Source: Volker Prasuhn, Wikimedia.

Sugar beet is extremely vulnerable to a yield-diminishing group of viruses known as yellows virus (YV). YV are transmitted by an aphid vector, Myzus persicae, which are effectively controlled by neonic seed treatment. Compared to other crop systems, sugar beet is also considered low risk and ‘safer’ as it does not flower before harvest and is therefore not as attractive to pollinator insects. As was found during the research of this paper, there are currently no alternatives as effective as neonics in this system, but long-term solutions are in development. Since sugar beet produces 60% of white sugar consumed in the UK, the economic and environmental impacts of yield loss (i.e. from sugar imports) would be serious. In 2021, the government felt that sugar beet sufficiently met the requirements outlined by the ECP, and emergency authorisation was granted.

What were the aims of this paper?

The main aim of this study was to identify the key issues associated with the debate surrounding the emergency authorisation of neonics on sugar beet, and evaluate and compare current policy with potential alternatives.

Most of the data for this study was collected through semi-structured interviews with nine respondents, each representing a key stakeholder in this discussion. Interviews took place in 2021, just after the announcement that neonics would not be authorised, despite granting the emergency authorisation, as the threshold was not met.

What did this research find?

The main take-home from this research was that uncertainty around the scientific evidence was not the biggest concern to respondents, as was predicted. Instead, respondents were alarmed at the level of polarisation of the narrative.  It was broadly felt that the neonicotinoid debate illustrates the wider issues around environment discussions, that are falsely perceived as a dichotomy, fuelled by media attention, and undermining of science.

The organisation of the sugar beet industry was also considered an issue. In east England, where sugar beet is grown, local growers supply only one buyer, British Sugar. This means that for British Sugar to meet demand they use a contractual system, whereby growers are contracted each year to meet a particular yield. This adds pressure to growers, and means that British Sugar controls the seed supply and therefore the treatment of seeds with synthetic pesticides. One respondent in the study said, “At one time you couldn’t order seed that wasn’t treated with neonicotinoid’.

The study also found that alternatives such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Host Plant Resistance (HPR) were not yet effective in this system. There were 3 reasons why IPM fails. Firstly, sugar beet has a very low yield diminishing threshold for the virus, meaning that it does not take much infection to significantly effect yield. Secondly, the system is extremely specific, meaning that general IPM practices do not work and research on specific methods of IPM (such as natural predators of Myzus persicae) are limited. HPR is in development, and some new varieties of plant with host resistance have been produced, but the virus has multiple strains and no HPR varieties are resistant to all of them. Finally, there is no incentivisation for farmers to take up alternative practices. Due to the contract system, the risk to growers of sugar beet to try new pest management strategies is too high.

What is the latest in 2023?

In 2023, another emergency authorisation was granted, however the threshold set by Defra was increased to 63% virulence. In March, the Rothamsted Virus Yellows forecast predicted an incidence of 67.51%, and so the neonicotinoid seed treatment was used. With this authorisation there are still conditions that growers are required to meet to mitigate any risk to pollinators. This includes no flowering crops being grown for 32 months after neonic treated sugar beet has grown, using herbicides to reduce the number of flowering weeds that may attract pollinators to the field growing treated sugar beet, and compliance with stewardship schemes such as monitoring of neonicotinoid residues in the environment.

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This blog is written by Hannah Romanowski, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. The paper that this blog is based on can be found here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13412-023-00830-z.

Hannah Romanowski