Tackling the climate crisis with energy transitions

Aerospace Engineering student Kieran Tait recently returned from a transformative journey through Western Canada, representing the University at the Energy Transitions summer school at the University of Alberta. A timely topic following the recent declaration of climate emergency here at the university.

Kieran underneath a glacier in Lake Louise, Banff National Park.

Throughout the two weeks, we endured a 40-hour lecture series, in which world-leading industry experts and researchers presented to us the current state of energy, the outlook for the future and an insight into different types of energy systems and their relative merits. This was superbly rounded off with insightful field trips including a tour around a wind farm and a hydroelectric dam, which really helped to contextualise the lectures.

The course was coordinated by the Worldwide Universities network, in which 21 representatives from 13 universities worldwide came together to study the practicalities of decarbonising society. The network brought a diversity of cultures and study areas together, which really shed light on the interconnectedness of the energy crisis and the need for mass mobilisation of society to focus minds on the solutions to the single biggest existential crisis humanity has ever faced. Climate breakdown.

The impending breakdown of our climate is an issue faced by every living being on Earth: no matter your nationality, race, gender, beliefs or background, the impacts of a warming world will completely transform your standard of living in the coming decades unless drastic steps are taken in the next 18 months to transition away from our current overconsuming, unsustainable way of life.

If we fail to meet this objective, we can expect unprecedented weather events, resulting in scarcity of basic human resources such as land, food and water, mass migration in the hundreds of millions and potentially the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Worse still, we can expect all of this as early as 2050 if action is not taken immediately. The seemingly impossible task imposed on our current generation is unparalleled in scale and complexity. It will require a collaboration among all disciplines and every nation on earth to achieve the sort of far reaching and functional solutions required to give us the best chance of limiting the warming trajectory preventing us from passing the point of no return.

Visiting the TransAlta wind farm in Pincher Creek, known as the Wind Capital of Canada.

The course in Energy Transitions provided me with the fundamental knowledge required to propose a logical working plan to phase out the current destructive energy policy and replace it with a more sustainable alternative. This included an overview of current climate science and projections for the future global energy mix, followed by an insight into a variety of energy production methods, including traditional fossil based systems such as coal, oil and gas and renewable types such as wind, solar, hydro, marine, geothermal, nuclear, biomass and hydrogen fuel cells.

The science behind each technology was explained thoroughly and the social, environmental and political implications associated with each type were also discussed. Also carbon sequestration methods such as Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage and land reclamation were explained to us in great depth, as it is clear that we need to not only reduce emissions to zero, but also begin to remove emissions that already exist in the atmosphere if we are to maximise our chances of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Alongside lectures, we also got the chance to go to Pincher Creek, a town in southern Alberta which is home to a large number of wind farm projects, making use of the region’s windy climate. We got the chance to visit a wind farm and go inside a turbine and we were also shown around a hydroelectric dam, bringing to life the concepts studied in lectures. Further to this we visited Waterton Lakes national park to experience some of the natural beauty Canada has to offer.

The group outside the house of the University’s founder Alexander Rutherford, before a ceremonial dinner.

When we returned, it was back to work as we all were tasked with presenting to the rest of the group, a proposal for energy transition solutions throughout different areas of the world. My team and I were given the job of proposing an EU wide energy transition plan. A timely subject following the newly appointed European Commissioner’s calls for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. This task involved reviewing current policy and future goals, developing a sustainable infrastructure plan which would sufficiently meet increasing demand and discussing the issues associated with this transition.

Working with students from Spain, Ghana and Brazil led to some contrasting opinions and views on various subject matters, however the overwhelming consensus was that the transition had to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, acknowledging the need to sacrifice living standards in order to allow this rapid transition to happen. It is reassuring to know that despite our cultural differences, we all share the same view that action must be taken immediately, and we must undergo a process of degrowth to cut further emissions and keep temperature rises to a minimum to avert catastrophic climate change.

All in all, this course excelled at bringing like-minded inquisitive individuals together from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds to discuss the most pressing technological, political and ethical challenge humanity has ever faced. It’s admittedly a very frightening time to be a young person, but its undeniable that the times ahead present humanity with a chance to reach a new age in technological and cognitive ability and will allow for multi-national cooperation like the world has never seen before. I would like to thank the Worldwide Universities Network, the University of Alberta and everybody involved for making this incredible experience a possibility!

This blog is written by University of Bristol engineering student Kieran Tait. It’s fantastic to hear Kieran’s passion and enthusiasm for combating the climate crisis we are facing through engineering and renewable energy solutions. This is something that the University is highly committed to and this year world-leading renewable energy expert Andrew Garrad will be joining the Faculty as a visiting professor to enhance our teaching of sustainable energy not only to our engineering undergraduates but to students across the University. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Kieran and the Faculty of Engineering blog. View the original post.

Divestment at the University of Bristol?

Earlier this year I was approached by students who were involved in the campaign to petition the University of Bristol to divest from fossil fuel investments to see if I would be prepared to support their campaign and to encourage other members of the University’s staff to do so also.  I give lectures to students from the Faculty of Engineering on the subject of sustainable development, and through those lectures the students were aware that I have a good understanding of some of the challenges that face us.

I am a mechanical engineer by training, a specialist in engineering design, and I have worked in and with the transportation industries throughout my working life.  These industries– automobile, railway, aerospace, marine – are among the prime users of the fossil fuels with which the students are concerned, and although I am passionate about all things mechanical I have become convinced in recent years that we must be more radical in addressing issues of climate change than we have so far been prepared to be.  I was thus pleased to be able to give the students my support.  I felt at the very least the subject should figure strongly in debate and discussion within the University. I wrote emails to a number of members of the University staff inviting them to sign up to the campaign, using the letter reproduced below.

Dear Vice Chancellor,
We are writing to you to express our support for the open letter [1] that urges the University of Bristol to divest itself of investments in companies in the fossil fuel industry.  We acknowledge that exploitation of fossil fuels has enabled the remarkable developments of the industrial world, but we are now convinced that its continuation poses enormous threats to our planet and its population through climate change and through the pursuit of ever-more risky approaches to resource extraction.  We appreciate that reducing our use of fossil fuels is a tremendous challenge: we are ‘locked in’ to our current ways of doing things by the choices we have made at a time of fossil fuel abundance. Any change we make will be painful and might seem less than rational in terms of immediate short term financial impact (although not if fossil fuel assets become ‘stranded’ as the Bank of England has recently warned). But the longer we wait before we take decisive action the worse the negative impacts are likely to be, and for this reason we respectfully request that you give very serious consideration to the case for divestment.
[1] https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/university-of-bristol-divest-from-the-fossil-fuel-industry

Those replies that I received were very largely supportive: over 50 members of staff have agreed to add their names to the petition. But I also received a number of thoughtful comments, and I thought I should share those through a Cabot Institute blog as a contribution to a debate on the topic.

Of those who declined to offer support, the most frequent reason offered was that the subject was too political – I received emails from colleagues saying that they were supportive in principle, but that it was “above their pay grade” or that they did not want to tie the hands of the University’s management.  For others, the University had important relationships with industry, especially with the petro-chemical industry – as sponsors of research and employers of our graduates – that might be threatened by divestment (and indeed an engineering student from the petro-chemical industry asked me why were we not also targeting the aerospace and automobile industries, among others, whose activities were leading to the demand for fossil fuels).

There were dissenters on technical grounds also.  A number of colleagues felt that to lump all fossil fuels together was much too indiscriminate, that natural gas and shale gas at least should play an important role in the transition to a low carbon future, and that technologies such as carbon capture and storage should be a part of future energy strategy.  For another respondent the difficulties in transitioning to alternative fuels were underestimated. Another felt that we should not divest until we have a viable alternative.  He believed that this could be nuclear, but that we needed to address the issues of the long-term storage of waste first (and he believed it was addressable).  Other colleagues admonished me for the way I wrote the statement of support.  I had suggested that divestment would be painful, but that I believed that the pain would be worth enduring because the consequences of runaway climate change were so unthinkable.  I was reproached by one writer for being too pessimistic – he said that the track record of market-based measures for reducing fossil fuel use is excellent: putting a price on pollution is very effective and it’s not even that costly.  For another colleague the letter was insufficiently assertive.  We should request that the University divest itself from investments in fossil fuel industries, not just consider it!

The responses that I received have caused me to re-examine my views, but I have not substantially changed them.  I still believe that we must very actively transition away from fossil fuels, even if it means significant changes in our lifestyles (and I remain convinced that it will).  As one colleague said we have reached a point where all scenarios are painful and that the logical thing to do is to act as quickly as possible to minimise the long term impact.  But the responses also demonstrated to me that there is an appetite in the University for an informed debate on the topic, and I hope that this blog entry and any responses that it attracts will be a helpful contribution to that debate.



Kevin Anderson’s commentary in Nature Geoscience this month and reproduced in his blog at http://kevinanderson.info/blog/duality-in-climate-science/ is very relevant to the divestment debate.  His conclusion that ” . . even a slim chance of ‘keeping below’ a 2°C rise . .  now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society” is in line very much with the sentiments behind the divestment campaign, and supports the need for urgent action.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Prof Chris McMahon from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol.