The last ozone-layer damaging chemicals to be phased out are finally falling in the atmosphere

The high-altitude AGAGE Jungfraujoch station in Switzerland is used to take measurements of Earth’s atmosphere.
Jungfrau.ch

Since the discovery of the ozone layer, countries have agreed and amended treaties to aid its recovery. The most notable of these is the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, which is widely regarded as the most successful environmental agreement ever devised.

Ratified by every UN member state and first adopted in 1987, the Montreal protocol aimed to reduce the release of ozone-depleting substances into the atmosphere. The most well known of these are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Starting in 1989, the protocol phased out the global production of CFCs by 2010 and prohibited their use in equipment like refrigerators, air-conditioners and insulating foam. This gradual phase-out allowed countries with less established economies time to transition to alternatives and provided funding to help them comply with the protocol’s regulations.

Today, refrigerators and aerosol cans contain gases like propane which, although flammable, does not deplete ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere when released. However, ozone-friendly alternatives to CFCs in some products, such as certain foams used to insulate fridges, buildings and air-conditioning units, took longer to find. Another set of gases, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), was used as a temporary replacement.

A collection of used refrigerators.
HCFCs can leak to the atmosphere from discarded fridges.
RichardJohnson/Shutterstock

Unfortunately, HCFCs still destroy ozone. The good news is that levels of HCFCs in the atmosphere are now falling and indeed have been since 2021 according to research I led with colleagues. This marks a major milestone in the recovery of Earth’s ozone layer – and offers a rare success story in humanity’s efforts to tackle climate-warming gases too.

HCFCs v CFCs

HCFCs and CFCs have much in common. These similarities are what made the former suitable alternatives.

HCFCs contain chlorine, the chemical element in CFCs that causes these compounds to destroy the ozone layer. HCFCs deplete ozone to a much smaller extent than the CFCs they have replaced – you would have to release around ten times as much HCFC to have a comparable impact on the ozone layer.

But both CFCs and HCFCs are potent greenhouse gases. The most commonly used HCFC, HCFC-22, has a global warming potential of 1,910 times that of carbon dioxide, but only lasts for around 12 years in the atmosphere compared with several centuries for CO₂.

As non-ozone depleting alternatives to HCFCs became available it was decided that amendments to the Montreal protocol were needed to phase HCFCs out. These were agreed in Copenhagen and Beijing in 1992 and 1999 respectively.

This phase-out is still underway. A global target to end most production of HCFCs is set for 2030, with only very minor amounts allowed until 2040.

Turning the corner on a bumpy road

Our findings show that levels of HCFCs in the atmosphere have been falling since 2021 – the first decline since scientists started taking measurements in the late 1970s. This milestone shows the enormous success of the Montreal protocol in not only tackling the original problem of CFCs but also its lesser known and less destructive successor.

Two graphs side by side showing a the climate warming and ozone-destroying influence of HCFCs declining from 2021.
The influence of HCFCs on the atmosphere is set to fall steadily.
Western et al. (2024)/Nature

This is very good news for the ozone layer’s continuing recovery. The most recent scientific prediction, made in 2022, anticipated that HCFC levels would not start falling until 2026.

Despite HCFC levels in the atmosphere going in the right direction, not everything has been smooth sailing in the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances. In 2019 a team of scientists, including myself, provided evidence that CFC-11, a common constituent of foam insulation, was still being used in parts of China despite the global ban on production.

The United Nations Environment Programme also reported that HCFCs were illegally produced in 2020 contrary to the phase-down schedule.

In 2023, I and others showed that levels of five more CFCs were increasing in the atmosphere. Rather than illegal production, this increase was more likely the result of a different process: a loophole in the Montreal protocol which allowed CFCs to be produced if they are used to make other substances, such as plastics or non-ozone depleting alternatives to CFCs and HCFCs.

Some HCFCs at very low levels in the atmosphere have also been shown to be increasing or not falling fast enough, despite few or no known uses.

Most of the CFCs and HCFCs still increasing in the atmosphere are released in the production of fluoropolymers – perhaps best known for their application in non-stick frying pans – or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

HFCs are the ozone-friendly alternative that was developed and commercialised in the early 1990s to replace HCFCs, but their role as a potent greenhouse gas means that they are subject to international climate emission reduction treaties such as the Paris agreement and the Kigali amendment to the Montreal protocol.

The next best alternative to climate-warming HFCs is a matter of ongoing discussion. In many applications, it was thought that HFCs would be replaced by hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), but these have created their own environmental problems in the formation of trifluoroacetic acid which does not break down in the environment and, like other poly- and per-fluorinated substances (PFAS), may pose a risk to human health.

A column of air-conditioning units attached to the exterior of a building.
HFOs enable air-conditioners to use less electricity than competing alternatives.
AndriiKoval/Shutterstock

HFOs are at least more energy-efficient refrigerants than older alternatives like propane, however.

Hope for the future

In discovering this fall in atmospheric levels of HCFCs, I feel like we may be turning the final corner in the global effort to repair the ozone layer. There is still a long way to go before it is back to its original state, but there are now good reasons to be optimistic.

Climate and optimism are two words rarely seen together. But we now know that a small group of potent greenhouse gases called HCFCs have been contributing less and less to climate change since 2021 – and look to set to continue this trend for the foreseeable future.

With policies already in place to phase down HFCs, there is hope that environmental agreements and international cooperation can work in combating climate change.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Luke Western, Research Associate in Atmospheric Science, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Luke Western
Luke Western

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

Local students + local communities = action on the local environment

As part of Green Great Britain Week, supported by BEIS, we are posting a series of blogs throughout the week highlighting what work is going on at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment to help provide up to date climate science, technology and solutions for government and industry.  We will also be highlighting some of the big sustainability actions happening across the University and local community in order to do our part to mitigate the negative effects of global warming. Today our blog will look at ‘Climate action in communities.

Geography students from the University of Bristol spent February 2018 working on air, soil and water quality research projects for local organisations and community groups, including Bristol Green Capital Partnership members. Below is a summary of each project, the findings and next steps.

Bristol City Council – Bristol Urban Heat Island effect

Students investigated the effects of urban and suburban heat islands within Bristol compared to local rural areas. Urban Heat Island can impact human health, air and water quality and energy demand in the City with implications for future planning and city resilience. This project aimed to provide early groundwork for Bristol City Council in developing a better understanding of the Urban Heat Island in the city. The group used fifteen Tinytags across the city to collect temperature data and gained secondary data from local weather stations and building management systems. The group used a contour graph (see image below) to illustrate the UHIs they found, there was significant differences (c.1.3C) between rural sites, such as Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton compared to urban sites in close proximity, such as Hotwells Road. Bristol City Council will be using this data and other insights generated through participation in the project to inform i) the co-development of an urban temperature monitoring network and ii) further research into the Urban Heat Island effect.

Malago Valley Conservation Group – water pollution in the River Malago

Students investigated how water quality varied along the River Malago in Bishopsworth and what biological impact the dam has on microplastics and pollution in the river. Initially the group collected GPS data to map the river course and used water quality samples from 40 sites along the river to record nutrient, chlorophyll and microplastic data. The team found that some microplastic build up was evident before dams and weirs along the river and nitrate concentrations increased downstream through nitrification which suggests there may be impacts on the ecology of the river. Overall the river was found to be relatively healthy according to DEFRA and Environment Agency data, but there were recommended actions to protect its health in the future. The Malago Valley Conservation Group will be using the findings to plan conversation work programmes with their volunteers.

Bristol Avon Rivers Trust – water pollution in Three Brooks Lake

Students investigated the Three Brooks Lake and accompanying urban brooks in North Bristol to see if there was a difference in pollution levels entering the lake from two brooks from separate local residential areas. The group collected twenty water samples from the site and secondary data from the Environment Agency to examine variations in the pH, nutrient concentrations, turbidity (cloudiness of the water) and microplastics levels at the site. The findings suggested that there is likely to be a difference in the water quality of the two brooks and that the lake may be a sink for water pollution in the area. The Three Brooks Nature Reserve group will use the findings to support the development of a local management plan and the Bristol Avon Rivers Trust will be using the findings to contribute to their existing knowledge base for the catchment and to search for funding to develop the research further and to undertake any necessary improvements.

Friends of Badock’s Wood – wildflower cultivation in Badock’s Wood

Students investigated the soil conditions in Badock’s Wood to support the cultivation of wildflower meadows. The group collected soil cores from three meadows and a control meadow to analyse the soil moisture and organic matter content in the lab. Most wildflower species prefer calcareous soils (>15% calcium) with low phosphorous and high nitrogen content to grow optimally. Findings showed that two meadows have calcareous soils and two were on the borderline, all meadows had low phosphorus and low nitrogen content. In the present conditions, although some wildflowers do grow, the soil isn’t optimal to sustain the growth of many species but measures could be taken to improve the soil and more robust wildflowers could be selected to cope with soil conditions. The Friends of Badock’s Wood will be using the findings to revise their management plan for the site.

Dundry and Hartcliffe Wildlife Conservation Group – water pollution in Pigeonhouse stream tributaries

Students investigated water quality variances in five tributaries of the Pigeonhouse stream in Hartcliffe and whether this is influenced by land use in the area. The group collected samples to analyse the pH, nutrient content and temperature of the streams. The findings showed that the tributaries were healthy and unlikely to be contributing to water pollution levels in the Pigeonhouse stream and further downstream in the River Malago. The group suggested that high levels of nitrate in one tributary and Pigeonhouse stream were likely to be a result of run-off from neighbouring fertilised agricultural fields. E. Coli was prolific in all areas, the source of this will be a subject for future students to investigate. Dundry and Hartcliffe Wildlife Conservation Group will present the findings to the local neighbourhood partnership group.

Dundry and Hartcliffe Wildlife Conservation Group – effects of urban development and refuse on the Pigeonhouse Stream

Students investigated water quality along the Pigeonhouse stream in Hartcliffe. The group collected water samples to analyse for pH, nutrient content, turbidity and microplastic levels in the stream. Findings showed that microplastic pollution increased and turbidity (water cloudiness) decreased downstream as urbanisation increased. Ammonia and nitrogen concentrations were found to be high in the stream, but average compared to other streams in the region and within DEFRA safety standards. In-flow pipes from the surrounding urban areas are likely to be influencing the water quality in the stream. Dundry and Hartcliffe Wildlife Conservation Group will use the report to work with Bristol Waste to reduce fly-tipping in the area and with the local neighbourhood partnership to develop strategies to reduce pollution from the in-flow pipes.

Friends of Bristol Harbourside Reed Bed – impacts of reed beds on water quality in Bristol Floating Harbour

Students investigated spatial variation in water quality across the reed bed. The group collected twenty-one water samples and analysed for E.Coli, heavy metals, pH and nutrient content. Findings showed usual levels of heavy metals, except for zinc which was ten times higher than expected. There was no evidence that the reed bed influenced nutrient concentrations or pH levels, but this may be different if the research was conducted in summer during peak growing season. High levels of chlorophyll were found over the reed bed which can result in algae blooms. The group recommended that the reed beds should be cut back annually in autumn, this will reduce the amount of dead plant matter in the water to maintain healthy levels of zinc and chlorophyll in the reed bed. Friends of Bristol Harbourside Reed Bed will be using the findings to inform their management plan of the reed bed.

Friends of Bristol Harbourside Reed Bed – the health of the Bristol Floating Harbour reed bed

Students investigated concentrations of heavy metals and microplastics in the reed bed which would impact the reed bed ecology. The group collected ten sediment samples and five reed samples to test in the lab. Findings showed usual nitrate and phosphate levels, but zinc and potassium levels were higher than in comparable rivers which may be due to houseboats dumping excrement in the water. Microplastics were prolific in the sediment samples and identified as a major pollutant in the reed bed. The reed beds were filtering some pollutants in the water, particularly potassium, but these will re-enter the ecological system if the reeds are left to die back. The group recommended that reeds were cut back annually to reduce pollutants in the water. Friends of Bristol Harbourside Reed Bed will be using the findings to inform their management plan of the reed bed.

Bristol Zoo – air pollution at Bristol Zoo

Students investigated CO2 levels as an indicator of air pollution levels at Bristol Zoo. The group collected data using CO2 probes and gas samples at five sites at Bristol Zoo and two control sites at Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton and Bear Pit Roundabout, City Centre. The analysis accounted for environmental factors such as temperature and windspeed. Findings showed that air pollution was higher at the boundaries of Bristol Zoo than in the centre, but not as high as in the city centre. The group suggested further investigations into the impact of the high boundary wall and roadside vegetation on air pollution at Bristol Zoo would be useful. Bristol Zoo will be using the findings to as a baseline for more research into air pollution at the site.

Narroways Millennium Green Trust

Students investigated the impacts of firepits on soil pollution and compaction at the Narroways Hill conservation site in St Werburghs. The group collected twenty soil samples to test in the lab. Findings showed that soil compaction was high in some areas of the site, but no evidence linked this to firepits at the site. Soil moisture was found to increase further from the firepits. There was not significant evidence to show heavy metal pollutants at the sites, except for arsenic which the group are investigating further. Narroways Millennium Green Trust will be using the findings to inform public communications around fires at the site.

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This blog is written by Amy Walsh from Skills Bridge. If your organisation would benefit from similar research, please email amy@bristolgreencapital.org.



Read other blogs in this Green Great Britain Week series:
1. Just the tip of the iceberg: Climate research at the Bristol Glaciology Centre
2. Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions: Now more important than ever?
3. Digital future of renewable energy
4. The new carbon economy – transforming waste into a resource
5. Systems thinking: 5 ways to be a more sustainable university
6. Local students + local communities = action on the local environment

Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions: Now more important than ever?

As part of Green Great Britain Week, supported by BEIS, we are posting a series of blogs throughout the week highlighting what work is going on at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment to help provide up to date climate science, technology and solutions for government and industry.  We will also be highlighting some of the big sustainability actions happening across the University and local community in order to do our part to mitigate the negative effects of global warming. Today our blog will look at ‘Explaining the latest science on climate change’.

The IPCC report

On 8 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [1] published their special report on Global Warming of 1.5 ˚C. As little as 24 hours after the report had been published, the results of the report were already receiving extensive global coverage in the media, with BBC News describing the report as the “final call”. The BBC News article also explicitly mentions that this is “the most extensive warning yet on the risks of rising global temperatures. Their dramatic report on keeping that rise under 1.5 ˚C states that the world is now completely off track, heading instead towards 3 ˚C. Staying below 1.5 ˚C will require ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ [2].”

Reading the report has quite honestly been somewhat overwhelming but also necessary to understand exactly what we are in for. And as much as I understand the difficulty one might face either with the technical terms of the report or even the volume of information, I would really encourage you to give it a read. This special report covers a wide range of subjects from oceans, ice and flooding to crops, health and economy. However, if you do find that the chapters themselves are too lengthy or difficult, there is an amazing interactive, and very easy way that will help you explore the impacts of a 1.5 ˚C, 2 ˚C and beyond on Carbon Brief’s website.

There are two distinct parts in the IPCC special report. The full technical report that consists of 5 chapters and a short summary for policy makers (SPM). The SPM clearly states that “Estimated anthropogenic global warming matches the level of observed warming to within ±20 %” which translates into ‘almost 100 % of the warming is the result of human activity’ [3] [4].

We know for a fact that human activity is warming the planet

One outcome of this “human activity” that we often discuss is the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Through various types of activities, whether that is agriculture, deforestation or burning fossil fuels, GHGs are emitted to the atmosphere. Without going too much into the chemistry and physics, what these GHGs do is change the mixing ratios within the atmosphere, resulting in greater absorbance of infrared radiation. And it is this change in the composition of our atmosphere that we refer to as the manmade greenhouse gas effect which also leads to the warming described in the IPCC report. But far more than the warming effect itself, global warming has all sorts of impacts most of which you can explore through the interactive link above.

Greenhouse gases and a long history of monitoring

Some of the ‘usual suspects’ in the discussion of GHG emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) (often described as the ‘major’ greenhouse gases [5]). However, an often-overlooked set of halogenated greenhouse gases are playing an increasingly large role in anthropogenic driven climate change. Gases like perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are compounds that are emitted through some form of human activity. In the case of PFCs for example, the GHGs CF4 and C2F6 are two of the most volatile and long-lived gases monitored under the Kyoto protocol [6] and they are both primarily emitted through or during industrial processes. In contrast, HFCs are used widely as coolants in refrigerators and air-conditioning units, as blowing agents in foam manufacture and propellants in aerosols. They were originally introduced to replace ozone-depleting gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but like their predecessors, are potent greenhouse gases. Given the long lifetime of many of these halogenated gases, current emissions will influence the climate system for decades to come.

In order to monitor the accumulation of these gases in atmosphere, high-precision measurements are required. Through projects such as the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) [7] (figure 1 [8]) that has been measuring the composition of the global atmosphere continuously since 1978 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory Global Monitoring Division, scientists have tracked the atmospheric concentrations of climate forcing gases from as far back as 1950s [9].

Figure 1: The AGAGE network

The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group (ACRG) Chemistry Department, University of Bristol

The ACRG carries out research in the UK and worldwide in collaboration with other atmospheric chemistry research centres, universities and third parties. In the UK, the ACRG runs the UK Deriving Emissions linked to Climate Change network (DECC) [10], funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to measure atmospheric GHG and ozone depleting substances over the UK. These measurements are used in elaborate mathematical models to create top-down emission estimates for the UK and verify the UK GHG inventories submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of the Kyoto protocol. Worldwide, the group is involved in the AGAGE network, monitoring global background levels of a wide range of GHGs. The ACRG runs 2 of the 9 global background stations under the AGAGE programme. One of these is the Mace Head station (Figure 2) on the west coast of Ireland, which is ideally placed for resolving northern hemispheric baseline air amongst European pollution events. The other AGAGE research station managed by the ACRG is the site at Ragged Point, Barbados. This site just north of the tropics, sits on the eastern edge of the island of Barbados and is directly exposed to the Atlantic. The researchers in ACRG study a variety of GHGs and a very large range of topics from maintaining instrument suites to ensuring the quality of the resulting data so that it can be used in modelling studies.

Figure 2: The Mace Head Station (Credit: Dr Kieran Stanley)

Why are measuring stations and networks like AGAGE so valuable and more important than ever?

The answer to this question is straightforward. Without measurement stations and their underlying networks, we would have very few means [11] by which to measure the accumulation of GHGs in the global atmosphere, and consequently no way of evaluating their emissions without relying on statistics from the industries that emit them. The current IPCC report is underpinned by such measurements, which allow scientists to estimate the impact of anthropogenic activity on past, present and future climates.

From Mauna Loa and its 60 -year record of atmospheric CO2 [12], to unexpected growth in emissions of banned substances such as CFC – 11 [13] and monitoring the accumulation of extremely long-lived greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere, atmospheric measurements stations have been our inside man when it comes to keeping track of what is happening in our atmosphere and to what extent human activities are altering its composition.

Perhaps now more than ever, in the light of the IPCC report, we can appreciate the importance of the data that have been collected over decades but also, the efforts of those who have been directly or indirectly involved in this kind of work.  Continuing and expanding the measurement networks for these gases is and will be even more vital for a continued understanding of global and regional GHG emission trends.

References

[1] http://www.ipcc.ch/
[2]  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45775309
[3]  http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf
[4]  https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-why-scientists-think-100-of-global-warming-is-due-to-humans
[5]  https://www.c2es.org/content/main-greenhouse-gases/
[6]  https://www.atmos-chem-phys.net/10/5145/2010/acp-10-5145-2010.pdf
[7]  https://agage.mit.edu/
[8]  https://agage.mit.edu/
[9]  https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/about/aboutgmd.html
[10]  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/chemistry/research/acrg/current/decc.html
[11]  https://www.co2.earth/co2-ice-core-data
[12]  https://www.co2.earth/daily-co2
[13]  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/16/mysterious-rise-in-banned-ozone-destroying-chemical-shocks-scientists

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute members Eleni Michalopoulou, Dr Dan SayDr Kieran Stanley and Professor Simon O’Doherty from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry.

Dan Say
Eleni Michalopoulou

 

Read other blogs in this Green Great Britain Week series:
1. Just the tip of the iceberg: Climate research at the Bristol Glaciology Centre
2. Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions: Now more important than ever?
3. Digital future of renewable energy
4. The new carbon economy – transforming waste into a resource
5. Systems thinking: 5 ways to be a more sustainable university
6. Local students + local communities = action on the local environment

Olive oil production in Morocco: so many questions

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

More images can be found on the original blog.

References

[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.

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This blog is written by Lydia Medland, a PhD student at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies who is looking at the role of seasonal workers in global food production, specifically in Morocco and Spain.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from her Eating Research blog.  View the original blog post.

Lydia Medland

Read Lydia’s other blog: Watermelon work

Age of the Anthropocene

“We’ve killed off the dodo, released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and raised sea levels: welcome to the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humankind has permanently left our mark on the planet.”

This was the description I gave to my new unit ‘The Age of the Anthropocene’, hoping to catch the attention of second year students keen to explore the impact and meaning of global environmental change. It worked: students from History, English Literature, Religion and Theology, Philosophy, Ancient History, and Study Abroad students joined me this autumn to explore how the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ has gained traction as a definition of time that recognises the unprecedented Earth-altering impact of the human species. We engaged with debates among scientists and humanities scholars over the concept, while also exploring how it has captured popular and scholarly imagination.

One of the activities that I looked forward to was holding an inaugural Bristol ‘Anthropocene Slam’ – inspired by the original Anthropocene Slam at the Nelson Institute, Centre for Culture History and Environment (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014); the Anthropocene exhibition at the Deutsches Museum (Munich, 2014-16); and the BBC/British Museum initiative, ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’. The challenge was to select an object/visual/sound that encapsulates and communicates the Anthropocene to a wide audience. Here, the students describe the unit, the Slam, and present their selection of objects which best communicate the Anthropocene to you, the public.

What is the Age of Anthropocene unit?

The Anthropocene is the notion that humanity has become a geological force in its own right, moving us in to a new epoch. Proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, it has inspired this unit ‘The Age of Anthropocene’, which explores the origins, reality and future of the changing planet. Expect hard-hitting truths about the changing relationship between humans and the environment, using the most innovative of recent scholarship, but also material and technology sources.

What is the Anthropocene Slam?

Slam! Now I’ve got your attention. For the Anthropocene slam we were each tasked with presenting a material source ranging from audio to bleach bottles, which represented our perceptions of what the broad concept of the Anthropocene meant. Our overall purpose was to present the Anthropocene with clarity, in the most effective fashion. Our broad scope reflected how the Anthropocene affects all areas of life.

Object 1: Fordite /Detroit agate
Proposed by Thecla Horton

 
Image via theoldmotor.com

I chose this as an item that I think most represents the Anthropocene for a number of reasons. Fordite is layers and layers of old car paint, from when cars were hand spray-painted, which built up in the painting bays on the ‘tracks’ and ‘skids’ that cars were painted on. The colourful layers show many years of this, these layers were then ‘baked’ when the car bodies went into ovens to set the paint. This process is now extinct as cars are no longer hand sprayed.

Firstly, I think it is a good representation of the Anthropocene as a product of the automobile industry-a significant driver behind the oil industry, mass consumption, and a significant contributor to global warming. The fact that the production of this material is now extinct seems symbolic to the proposed idea that we are entering the 6th mass extinction. Technology and our world is moving so quickly that even these man made materials are becoming rare.

It looks natural and beautiful, even the name ‘Fordite/Detroit agate’ is suggestive of a natural mineral, the pattern of multiple layers making it look like it is millions of years old.  Yet it is a fossil of the beginning of the Anthropocene. While fossils have taken millions of years to form, the human impact on the planet has happened so rapidly and violently to produce fossils within just a few years, and then for it also to become virtually ‘extinct’.

Object 2: Photograph of Malé, Maldives
Proposed by Toby Lane

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr/la_camera_obscura

This is Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Situated in the Indian Ocean it is home to over 130,000 people and is the fifth most densely populated island globally. It is the world’s lowest lying nation with the islands that make up the Maldives being on average only a few feet above sea level. Sea level rise consequently jeopardises the future existence of the Maldives and the way of life for all those who live on the island.

The example of the Maldives epitomises the problems offered by the onset of the Anthropocene but also its unjust nature. Those who live on Malé have contributed little towards anthropogenic climate change but will be massively affected by the decisions and excesses of others. Furthermore the fate of Maldives is almost entirely outside of its inhabitants’ influence and the country lacks the ability to defend itself. Malé itself is only protected by a 3m high sea wall which took 14 years to construct at an expense of $63 million (99% of which was funded by Japan).

Finally, a study of the Maldives also emphasises how little time is left in order to take action on climate change if catastrophic levels of disruption are to be avoided. In April 2012 President Nasheed of the Maldives declared that “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years.”

Object 3: Emojis
Proposed by Noa Leach
Emoji story by Noa Leach ©
Object 4: Video of a turtle (warning: scenes of an animal in distress)
Proposed by George Mumford

 

Object 5: Pollution mask
Proposed by Matt Davis

A man and child wear masks to visit Shanghai’s Bund. Via Creative Commons/CNN

Since the end of the Second World War and the onset of the ‘Great Acceleration’ phase of the Anthropocene, air pollution has risen rapidly.

In the build-up to the 2008 Olympic games held in Beijing, the Chinese media became fixated on the city’s choking pollution. During an air quality crisis in February 2015, the concentration of ‘hazardous particulate matter’, known as ‘PM 2.5’, since they are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, rose to nearly twenty times the safe level.

Due to the health risk, many people who live in China’s major cities have started wearing pollution masks in an attempt to keep themselves safe from PM 2.5, that are small enough to seep into a person’s lungs or bloodstream. The cause of the ridiculously high air pollution has been attributed to the Chinese industrial sector as the nation’s heaviest polluters. Despite the use of pollution masks a recent report has claimed air pollution is killing around four thousand people per day in China, and accounts for one in six premature deaths.

Air pollution masks represent much about human interaction and the general consequences of the Anthropocene. It has been predicted by scientists that continued burning of fossil fuels and high pollution levels will make much of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable by the year 2100. Pollution masks represent how Beijing has arguably become the closest city yet to be rendered unfit for human habitation due to the effects of the Anthropocene, and although the government is taking action to reduce pollution, the staggering number of deaths caused already begs the question ‘are they acting too late?’ The mask also represents the human reliance upon technological remedies to the Anthropocene, a quick fix that makes the immediate threat smaller and yet fails to address the cause of the problem, that of a constant striving for economic growth, over consumption and a frame of mind that prioritises the pursuit of human progress over nature.

Object 6: Bunch of keys
Proposed by Beth Gaffney

Photographer: ©M Dudley

This object consists of a household key chain, three different sized keys, a combination padlock, and a supermarket points fob. This object symbolises Paul Crutzen and John McNeill’s third stage of the Anthropocene: ‘The Age of the Stewards’, which marks mankind’s recognition that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth system as a whole and is filtering through to decision making. Just as a steward is an official person responsible to take care of something, mankind uses keys to lock something into a safe space. This illustrates how humans have come to acknowledge their responsibility for the earth systems, which they value for continuance of human life.

However, keys are generally forgotten about; they remain hidden in our pockets for most of the day and are often misplaced. This suggests that mankind “knows” the importance of protecting the Earth systems, but often forget to act appropriately in everyday life. Mankind’s planetary ecological consciousness has not formed.

In addition, the different sized keys illustrate how human individuals have been given various “solutions” to protect the environment. However, neither of these three keys fit into the padlock. The keys also sit alongside a plastic supermarket key fob. The solutions provided by market environmentalism often falsely legitimatize the idea that one can continue his or her consumption habits without adjustment, and no broader systematic or structural changes are required. For example, polluters pay distant others, frequently located in the global south, to engage in emission reduction activities as a substitute for reductions at the source. These solutions prioritise the western anthropogenic world and are tokenistic.

By Dr Marianna Dudley (Lecturer in Environmental Humanities), Lucy Bennett (Religion and Theology), Matt Davis (History), James Foss (History), Beth Gaffney (History), Thecla Horton (History), Lydia Hunt (Philosophy and Theology), Yejin Jeong (Study Abroad), Toby Lane (History), Noa Leach (English), Rupert Liddell (Ancient History), George Mumford (History), Roisin Murphy (History), Olivia Nathan-King (Religion and Theology), and Cassie Rist (Religion and Theology) . Thanks go to Bristol Museum Curator Bonnie Griffin for joining our workshop and sharing her expertise, and to Cabot Innovation Fund for their support.

Olympic opening ceremony leaves some feeling green


For the first time in South America, the ‘greatest show on earth’ opened with a Brazilian bang last Saturday. The ceremony was a colourful celebration of the diversity of Brazilian culture complete with 50m long animated microbes, Amazonian dancers and pop-up favelas. As the BBC’s Andrew Cotter (slightly awkwardly) remarked ‘Beijing was grandiose, London was smart. This is going to be cool’.

Somewhat to my surprise, intertwined with the samba and sparkles the ceremony carried a strong environmental message, showing the world that the diving pool isn’t the only thing with a hint of green in Rio. It was apparent that the organisers planned to tackle the environmental concerns around the most recent Olympics head-on by brazenly exhibiting Brazil’s environmental conscientiousness rather than its negligence. As the ceremony unfolded, this seemed to sit a little uncomfortably against the backdrop of the polluted waters of Gunanabara Bay, which reportedly have resulted in several competitors contracting illnesses.

This is an easy thing to bash from the comfort of our keyboards and credit should be given where it is due. The Brazilians have done something that no country has done before. They had the world’s spotlights on them and instead of producing a nothing but a stream of outlandish pyrotechnics and expensive set design, they took the opportunity to speak directly to the globe about one of the biggest challenges facing humankind. Whatever the motive, this must be a good thing, surely? They screened a film about the causes and effects of sea-level rise and coupled it with stunning footage of the amazon in all its natural beauty. They also gave each competitor a seed which will be planted to form a forest as a legacy of the Rio Olympics.

A Flor e a Nausea by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

“A flower has sprouted in the street
Buses, streetcars, steel stream of traffic: steer clear!
A flower, still pale, has fooled the police,
it’s breaking through the asphalt.
Let’s have complete silence, halt all business,
I swear that a flower has been born
Its colour is uncertain.
It’s not showing its petals.
Its name isn’t in the books.
It’s ugly. But it really is a flower.
I sit down on the ground of the nation’s capital at five in the afternoon
and fondle with my fingers this precarious form.
It’s ugly. But it’s a flower. It broke through the asphalt, tedium, disgust, and hatred.”

Amongst this, they interwove the poem ‘A Flor e a Nausea’ (Flower and Nausea) by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which was read by our own Dame Judy Dench. The Portuguese and English recitals rolled into each other as the poem was read out. Married with film of the streets of Rio it expressed both the fragility and resilience of nature amongst the polluted artificial environment. The decision to end on a poetic note was a good one in my opinion, providing a more uplifting conclusion to the climate change-chunk of the proceedings. I came away feeling hopeful that the world might have taken heed and we may see some good come out of it.

This feeling of excitement didn’t last long. Looking through the twitter reaction to the ceremony I can’t help but feel a little frustrated. The most animated response were reserved for Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen’s (albeit impressive) catwalk across the stage and the muscled Tongan flag bearer who was so oiled it would put Dominos pizza to shame. The message of global unity in the fight to prevent irrevocable environmental devastation paled into insignificance against his shiny torso. It seemed that people, in the UK Twittersphere at least, are a little bored of hearing the climate change rhetoric.

Perhaps even more frustrating was the media reaction from some outlets…  I suppose we should be happy at the use of the word ‘lectures’ rather than ‘lies’. Small victories.

In other coverage, the green-theme was simply ignored. The BBC write up lacked even one mention of the words ‘climate’ or ‘environment’: clearly the 11,5000-strong forest being built as the legacy of the games was totally irrelevant compared to Pele’s kidney troubles and the presence of Russians in the stadium.

Still, there are lessons to be learnt everywhere and maybe this wasn’t the best location for this message to be broadcast.  Perhaps the irony of Brazil’s environmental damage and the hypocrisy surrounding a lot of what the games entail was too much for some to bear:

 

For others, the focus on climate was seen as ‘green-washing’ technique to try and mask the social inequality that is reported across Brazil. Coupled with political turbulence and accusations of corruption, many believe the Olympics games are bad news for the country full stop.

Whatever the answer is, I believe that this was a positive step forward in global climate change acceptance. On a stage that is meant to celebrate some of the greatest achievements of humankind we were brave enough to highlight our failures. With the closing ceremony around the corner, let’s hope it doesn’t get forgotten amongst the excitement of scandals, medals and world records.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Brexit, trust and the future of global environmental governance

Post-Brexit vote, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
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Is Brexit the canary in the mine for global environmental governance? 

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has troubling implications for global environmental governance. Water pollution, air pollution, and climate change have no regard for political borders. The world needs supranational political institutions to facilitate a coordinated response to these challenges. The EU is a relatively effective supranational institution for progressive environmental governance. EU nations have enjoyed major improvements in recent decades in areas like air quality, bathing water quality, nature preservation, and acid rain. The EU is one of the most constructive voices in global climate governance.

The decision to leave is therefore likely to present some setbacks with regard to regional environmental governance. But more importantly it signals broad disenchantment with supranational political institutions more generally. People resent and distrust them as distant and undemocratic. And it’s not just the British public that feels this way. The impulse to withdraw and disengage is increasingly evident across Europe and the USA.

This trend is all the more worrying when we look at the profile of the average Leave voter. A recent YouGov survey of British voters found that Leave supporters are deeply distrustful of just about everyone. They don’t much trust academics—as Vote Leave’s Michael Gove put it, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Nor do they trust the opinions of think tanks, economists, or international organisations like the UN. Just 8 percent trust British politicians. By contrast, a majority of Remain voters generally trust academics, economists, business leaders, and international organisations. (Neither group trusts journalists or, perhaps more positively, celebrities.) But, as we now know, voters for Remain are in the minority.

This ‘trust deficit’ is at the root of the post-factual politics that seems to have taken hold across much of the Western world.

Without trust in ‘experts’ such as environmental scientists we will not be able to build an informed consensus about the nature of the problems we face, let alone go about solving them. Without trust in politicians we will not be willing to accept difficult decisions with short-term costs but long-term benefits, including for younger and future generations. Without trust in supranational institutions, such as the EU and UN, we will not be able to coordinate our efforts in addressing many of the greatest threats to human welfare, all of which are supranational in nature. 

There has been much commentary about the generational divide in the Brexit vote, perhaps offering some hope for the future. Younger people supported Remain by a wide margin indicating a willingness to remain engaged with Europe. But younger generations turned out in much smaller numbers and low youth turnout is consistent with the evidence that millennials are less politically engaged than previous generations. They are also less trusting. (See evidence of mistrustful millennials here and here).

In short, young people appear to be more open to international cooperation, but disinclined to engage with domestic politics. In the worst case scenario, this could be a recipe for divisive politics in which motivated minorities on both sides of the political spectrum seize the centrist vacuum to promote their worldviews through formal political institutions.

What then does the future hold? The cacophony of narratives of next-steps is almost unprecedented in British history. No one appears to have a clear plan with an emergent consensus. But there is one potential ray of hope in this political drama. If young people—and millennials in particular—are shocked into engaging more actively and passionately with formal political institutions, the Brexit vote might well turnout not to be the canary in the mine so much as an important moment of political awakening.

Let us hope this is the case. For the future of environmental governance is ultimately in the hands of our worldly but politically disengaged youth.

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This blog is written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute members Dr Sean Fox (Political Economy of Development & Urban Geography) and Dr Malcolm Fairbrother (Global Policy and Politics), both from the School of Geographical Sciences.

Sean Fox

Read other blogs in the Brexit series:

The end of the road for diesel?

Smoggy day in Bristol
The Volkswagen (VW) emissions scandal is now into its second week, and with each day the enormity of the deception seems to increase. What started off as a few hundred thousand cars in the US has now become an astonishing 11 million cars worldwide that VW says may have to be recalled. In addition to the VW brand, diesel models of Audi, Skoda and SEAT cars have all been affected, with 1.2 million in the UK alone.
 
At the heart of this deception is the use of software, designed to be able to detect when a car was under test conditions, in order to reduce the emissions of a group of nitrogen and oxygen compounds, commonly referred to as NOx.  However, these emissions controls would not be switched on during normal driving.
 
Given that the cars were clearly built with the potential to emit less NOx, it’s not immediately clear why the emissions controls were applied only under test conditions.  Although VW have admitted they “screwed up”, they don’t seem to have said why. However, it’s a fair assumption that the emissions controls would affect the performance of the car, both in terms of drive and fuel economy. Since fuel economy is probably the main selling point of a diesel car, anything detrimentally affecting it, could easily lead to a decline in sales.
 
In addition to the flouting of the rules by VW, the wider issue is the NOx emissions themselves, which are a seemingly inevitable product of diesel powered vehicles.
 
The use of diesel as a fuel in cars has been on the up (in Europe at least) over the last couple of decades, with a supposedly superior fuel economy and hence lower CO2 emissions, meaning they have been incentivised in Britain with lower tax. However, this policy failed to take into account other pollutant emissions such as NOx and particulate matter that have been linked with thousands of premature deaths. Indeed, this push to diesel was labelled in a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year “the great car con” and just this week former science minister Lord Drayson called this policy a mistake.
 
Due in part to this push for more diesel vehicles on the roads in the UK and Europe, Bristol is just one of many cities which fail to meet the 40 μg/m3 annual mean WHO guideline level for NO2 (one of the collection of NOx gases). NOx levels in the UK have seen only a very small decline over the last decade or so, despite vehicle manufacturers telling us they make the cleanest cars yet. This contrasts with petrol vehicles, which have seen a dramatic decrease in NOx emissions over this time.
 

Why is NOx bad?

 
The presence of NOx in the lowermost part of our atmosphere, along with other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) promotes the formation of ozone. Not to be confused with the protective ozone layer which is much higher up in the atmosphere, ozone near the surface has detrimental health effects, mostly involving the respiratory system, in addition to being a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, NO2 has itself been linked with certain respiratory health problems
 

Is there a simple solution?

 
Well, technologies exist to reduce NOx emissions from diesel vehicles, such as urea injection, only it seems that the VW group chose to cheat the system rather than use it, since it would add cost and weight to the car. If these technologies are implemented manufacturers claim to be able to filter out particulate emissions and greatly reduce NOx emissions. But, given the current furore, why on earth should we believe them?
 
In addition, a recent report from the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) said that the real-world CO2 emissions of diesel (and petrol) cars are well above those in tests. There go the supposed CO2 savings of diesel then. Again you can’t help but question why diesel cars continue to enjoy a tax break in this country.
 

The death knell tolls for diesel…

 
…Ok, maybe not. Given the massive investment that the automobile industry has put into diesel over the last 20 years or so, they’re unlikely to suddenly jack it all in. What will probably follow is a splurge of marketing diarrhoea about how each new car is the ‘greenest yet’, all the while completely ignoring the fact that the simplest way to cut emissions would be to have fewer cars not more. Nevertheless, the current news story highlights how frivolously pollutant regulations, and the health implications, are taken when set against generating a profit. It also serves to impress the need for independent verification of emissions, such as those that uncovered VW’s fraudulent behaviour. The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group here at Bristol, performs similar verification at the national level for greenhouse gases. It has been said that not taking the time to verify emissions statistics is like dieting without weighing oneself. Well, in this case I guess they did make it to the scales, but no one bothered to check they’d been calibrated properly. 
 
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This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Mark Lunt, from the University of Bristol’s Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group.