Net Zero Oceanographic Capability: the future of marine research


Image credit: Eleanor Frajka-Williams, NOC.

Our oceans are crucial in regulating global climate and are essential to life on Earth. The marine environment is being impacted severely by multiple and cumulative stressors, including pollution, ocean acidification, resource extraction, and climate change. Scientific understanding of marine systems today and in the future, and their sensitivity to these stressors, is essential if we are to manage our oceans, and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, these systems are complex – with a vast array of interacting physical, chemical, biological and sociological components – and operate on scales of microns to kilometres, and milliseconds to millennia. To address these challenges, modern marine science spans a wide range of multidisciplinary topics, including understanding the fundamental drivers of ocean circulation, ecosystem behaviour and its response to climate change, causes of and consequences of polar ice cap melt, and the impacts of ocean warming on sea level, weather and climate. Marine scientists investigate problems of societal relevance such as food security, hazards relating to sea level rise, storm surges and underwater volcanoes, and understanding the consequences of offshore development on the health of the ocean in the context of building a sustainable blue economy. With the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in 2021, there is a clear motivation not only for more research, but for sustainable approaches.

However, a key challenge facing all scientists in the near future is the absolute necessity to reduce and mitigate all carbon emissions, achieving ‘Net Zero’. Among many of the high-impact pledges made over recent months, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) have promised to achieve Net Zero by 2040. UKRI is the umbrella organisation encompassing all of the UK Research Councils including the Natural Environment Research Council, which funds the National Oceanography Centre and British Antarctic Survey to operate the large-scale UK marine research infrastructure.

Whilst marine science is intrinsically linked to Net Zero objectives since the ocean is a major sink of anthropogenic carbon and excess heat, the carrying out marine research itself contributes to the problem in question: ocean-going research vessels use considerable amounts of fossil fuels. Ship-based observations allow scientists to address global challenges, to support ocean observing networks, make measurements not possible via satellite, or in remote and extreme environments. Such observations are essential to establish a thorough picture of how the ocean is changing, and the underlying processes behind the complex interweaving of physics, chemistry, biology and geology within marine systems, but can only continue into the future if the carbon footprint of sea-going research is cut dramatically.

Image credit: Eleanor Frajka-Williams, NOC.


The Net Zero Oceanographic Capability (NZOC) scoping review, led by the National Oceanography Centre but supported by researchers from around the UK, is a groundbreaking project aimed at understanding the drivers and enablers of future oceanographic research in a Net Zero world. New technologies and infrastructure – together with multidisciplinary, international approaches, and collaborations with private and public sector stakeholders – are going to be increasingly important to advance understanding of the oceans and climate, while accomplishing Net Zero. The NZOC team are building a picture of a future research ecosystem that capitalises upon emerging technologies in shipping, marine autonomous systems (MAS) sensor technology and data science.  Ships will still be an essential linchpin of a new marine observing network, to gather critical information that may not be accessible using MAS, and to enable the maximum value to be extracted from datastreams collected during oceanographic expeditions.  The new Net Zero approaches have the potential to not just replace existing marine research capability with one less damaging to the environment, but also to expand and extend it, with new tools available more marine observing, new avenues of research opened up, and wider accessibility.  In order to achieve its potential, the development of new systems, and adaptation and improvement of existing methodologies, must be co-designed between technologists and scientists, including modellers and data scientists, as well as those engaged with sea-going observations.  Investment in an equitable, diverse and inclusive marine workforce must be considered from the beginning, with engagement in skills training for existing and future marine researchers so that scientists are primed to use the new approaches afforded by a Net Zero approach to their full potential.  All of these initiatives have to deliver on their promise in a co-ordinated way and in a short timeframe.  Many of them will rely upon global infrastructures and international systems that must similarly adapt at pace.

Image credit: Eleanor Frajka-Williams, NOC.

Environmental and climate scientists overwhelmingly and urgently support a move towards Net Zero. However, we cannot overstate the importance of getting the transition to Net Zero right. Whilst an ever-growing number of UK marine scientists are using MAS and low carbon options, NZOC also identified a number of case studies where achieving Net Zero will limit marine science – possibly permanently – if not addressed.  These include research areas where scientists need to drill into deep rock, or carry out intricate biological or geochemical experiments and measurements. Any transition to using new methods must be managed flexibly, requiring intersection between old and new technologies, due consideration to accessibility, and verification and validation by the wider scientific community.

Achieving Net Zero is one of the most important societal goals over the next decade. We can not only maintain but also build on marine science capability – essential for meeting Net Zero targets – with equitable and fair strategic planning, co-design of new approaches, and by taking advantage of new opportunities that arise from emerging technologies.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Katharine Hendry is an Associate Professor in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. With Contributions by Eleanor Frajka-Williams, National Oceanography Centre (NOC).
Dr Katharine Hendry


Toward an age of low tech for a more resilient and sustainable society

The various restrictions that have been imposed to tackle the COVID-19 crisis have led many of us to reflect on what might be our response to other pressing issues that we face, especially inequalities in our societies and the major ecological issues of climate change, biodiversity collapse and resource depletion. What has the crisis told us about the state of our planet and societies, and are there wider lessons that can be learned from our response?

Even before the pandemic, we had begun to talk in public debate in ways that would have been unimaginable ten years ago: about the climate crisis and resilience to ecological disruption, questioning the dogma of growth at all costs. The pandemic has reinforced concerns about globalisation and challenged beliefs about the role of the state and the possibility of printing money in a real emergency, while showing that we could do very well without certain things, such as shopping trips to Dubai or cruise ships. Many of us have learned to value nature more, to seek conviviality and escape from the incessant pressures of modern life, while seeking to build societies that are more resilient to disturbances.

The crisis has further also exposed our societal inequalities in the contrasts between those who were confined in pleasant conditions and others in less fortunate circumstances, between those who could work from home and those who had to stay in their workplaces in order to keep healthcare, food supplies and other essential services operating, and between those who kept getting paid no matter what and those whose earnings dried up.

It is also clear that in many ways the response to the pandemic was rather ‘low tech’, based largely on modifying behaviour rather than on technology. We were treated to a few articles on surveillance drones and robots disinfecting the streets in China, but in the end we addressed the crisis through regulation and behavioural changes: staying at home, wearing masks, washing our hands, keeping a distance. This low-tech remedy is one that could be applied to the environmental challenges that we face.

Using a detailed analysis of humankind’s relationship with resources through history, I suggest, in The Age of Low Tech: Towards a Technologically Sustainable Civilization, an alternative perspective on how we should be marshalling our resources to preserve the planet and secure our future. I believe ‘high’ technology will not solve global problems and propose a different ‘low tech’ approach to building a more resilient, equitable and sustainable society.

How might this be done? We must reinvent our modes of production. In questioning the race for productivity and economies of scale in mega-factories, we should review the place of people in our economies, the degree of mechanization and robotization, and our way of choosing between manpower and resources. It is not about returning to the spinning wheel and draught animals, but about relocating workshops and businesses on a human scale to manufacture durable goods. Equipping these with a few simple and robust machines, we should be able to maintain a good part of current productivity, while reducing energy demand. Such manufacturing units, less productive but more labour-intensive and closer to locations of consumption, would be coupled with arrangements for the recovery, repair, resale and sharing of everyday objects.

With a few priorities – to eat well, take care of ourselves, to find proper accommodation – our ambition should be to produce locally, to be able to manufacture and repair tools, clothes, shoes, everyday objects, to value meaningful work. We will achieve resilience through a variety of actions and behaviours at different scales by individuals through their lifestyle choices, by businesses and public authorities through their purchases at all levels, setting an example and supporting initiatives to develop and support local economies.

In many areas we can drastically reduce our resource and energy needs, for example, in transportation, smaller, lighter and slower cars would have significantly reduced impact, public transport and bicycles even more so. We could reduce the environmental impact of digital systems by over 90% by avoiding duplicated networks and redundant systems; by favouring wired access, which consumes much less energy; by properly designing data centre software and architecture; by giving up the race for speed, real time and immediacy, which consumes a lot of equipment and generates additional traffic; reducing unnecessary functionality and performance; by working on the service life of the equipment, through modularity, ‘repairability’, compatibility and interoperability.

I believe that an alternative exists to our society hell-bent on extraction, production and consumption. What might make people want to contribute to a general movement with conviviality as a priority, with DIY, zero waste, repair shops, local agriculture and regenerated nature? It will be necessary to give the population some immediate compensations, as well as meaning and hope, not just ’blood, sweat and tears‘ or ’belt tightening for future generations’. One avenue is to move towards a post-growth system (economic, industrial, commercial, etc.) of full employment, or full activity, which is perfectly achievable. Power will come from people with convictions that want to make the change, but we also need to convince the public authorities, and businesses at every level, of the urgency of the situation. But it will take a profound rethinking of existing practices, economic models, regulatory approaches, cultural patterns and educational methods to reflect on our real needs and successfully implement intelligent sobriety. We are very far from it.


This blog is written by Philippe Bihouix, an independent author and engineer, and Cabot Institute member Professor Chris McMahon.

If you enjoyed this blog, you can also read the book The Age of Low Tech


What global threats should we be most worried about in 2019?

The Cambridge Global Risk Index for 2019 was presented on 4 December 2018 in the imposing building of Willis Towers Watson in London. The launch event aimed to provide an overview of new and rising risk challenges to allow governments and companies to understand the economic implications of various risks. My interest, as a Knowledge Exchange Fellow working with the (re)insurance sector to better capture the uncertainties embedded in its models, was to find out how the index could help insurance companies to better quantify risks.

The presentation started with the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies giving an introduction on which major world threats are included in the index, followed by a panel discussion on corporate innovation and ideation.

The Cambridge Global Risk Index quantifies the impact future catastrophic events (be they natural or man-made) would have on the world’s economy, by looking at the GDP at risk in the most prominent cities in the world (GDP@Risk). The Index includes 22 threats in five categories: natural disasters and climate; financial, economics and trade; geopolitics and security; human pandemic and plant epidemic; and technology and space.

Global Risk Index 2019 Threat Rankings (Cambridge Global Risk Index 2019 Executive Summary)

The GDP@Risk for 2019 for the 279 cities studied, which represents 41% of the global GDP, has been estimated to be $577bn or 1.57% of the GDP of 2019. The GDP@Risk has increased since last year by more than 5%, which was caused by both an increase in GDP globally and a rise in the chances of losses from a cyber attack and other threats to richer economies. Risk is becoming ever more interconnected due to cascading threats, such as natural hazards and climate events triggering power outages, geopolitical tensions triggering cyber attacks sponsored by states, conflicts worsening human epidemics, and trade wars triggering sovereign crises, which in turn caused social unrest.

Nonetheless, the GDP@Risk can be reduced  by making cities more resilient, that is improving the ability of a city to be prepared for a shock and to recover from it.  For example, if the worst off 100 cities in the world would be as prepared as the top cities, they could reduce their exposure to risk by around 30%, which shows the importance of investing in resilience and recoverability. This is a measure of what the insurance industry calls the “protection gap”, how much could be earned from investments to improve the preparedness and resilience of a city to shocks. How fast a city recovers depends on the ability to access capital, to reconstruct and repair factories, houses and infrastructure, to restore consumers’ confidence and to reduce the length of business interruption.

Global Risk Index 2019 Growth by Sub-Category ($, bn) (Cambridge Global Risk Index 2019 Executive Summary)

Natural catastrophe and climate

After a 2017 with the second highest losses due to natural disasters, 2018 saw several record-breaking natural catastrophes as well. This year we have experienced events from magnitude 7.5 earthquakes and tsunami in Indonesia, which caused more then 3000 deaths, to the second highest number of tropical cyclones active in a month, from Typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines, to Japan’s strongest storm in the last two decades. Hurricanes have beaten records too, with hurricane Florence in North Carolina becoming the 2nd wettest hurricane on record, which caused $10 bn losses, and hurricane Michael in Florida reaching the greatest wind speeds ever recorded, which caused $15 bn losses.

Floods in 2018 caused heavy death tolls in Japan and south India, with 225 and 500 fatalities respectively, the former showing the weakness of an ageing city infrastructure, while the latter raising criticism on poor forecasting and management of water resources. Droughts raged in South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Italy reducing harvests, while wildfires in California were the largest on record, which caused $20 bn losses. Extreme events have made it to weather events too, with extreme heatwaves, as the hottest summer in the UK, comparable to the one of 1976, and the heatwave in Japan which hospitalised 35,000 people, as well as with extreme freeze, as the “Beast from the East” in the UK which caused losses estimated at $1 billion per day.

Extreme events are becoming ever more frequent due to climate change, with the next few years expected to be anomalously warm, even on top of the regular climate change. This hints that the rising trend in losses due to natural catastrophe and climate is not due to stop.

Devastation from the cyclone in Tonga, 2018.

Finance, economics and trade

Market crash is the number one threat for 2019, which could cause more than $100 billion in losses. Nonetheless global financial stability is improving due to increased regulation, but risk appetite has increased as well due to positive growth prospects and low interest rates, which increases financial vulnerabilities. Trade disputes between the US and China and the US and Europe are disrupting the global supply chains. The proportion of GDP@Risk has increased in Italy due to policy uncertainty and increased sovereign risks, while in countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Portugal sovereign debt risks have decreased following restructuring of their debt and country level credit rating upgrades.

Geopolitics and security

The risk from geopolitics and security worldwide has remained relatively similar compared to last year, with roughly the same countries being in conflict as in 2017. Iran’s proxy presence remains in conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, Israel, Syria and Lebanon, while social unrest has increased risk in Yemen, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina, Iraq and South Africa. The conflict in Yemen has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crises in 2018, with more than 2 million displaced, with food shortages and malnutrition causing cholera outbreak. The total expected loss from this category is similar to the one from financial, economic and trade risk.

Technology and space

Technology and space is the category with the lowest expected GDP at risk. Nevertheless, the risk has increased over recent years, with cyber attacks becoming ever more frequent due to the internationalisation of cyber threat, the increasing size and cost of data breaches, the continued disruption from DDoS attacks, the threat to critical infrastructure, and its continuous evolution and sophistication. Cyber attacks have climbed one level in the ranking this year, assuring the 6th overall position. In 2017 the WannaCry ransomware attacks affected 300,000 computers across 150 countries disrupting critical city infrastructure, such as healthcare, railways, banks, telecoms and energy companies, while NotPetya produced quarterly losses of $300 million for various companies. The standstill faced by the city of Atlanta when all its computers were locked due to a ransomware attack in March caused £2.6 million to be spent, and another $9.5 million are expected. This attack highlighted the breath of potential disruption, with energy, nuclear, water, aviation and manufacturing infrastructure at risk. Moreover 66% of companies are estimated to have experienced a supply chain attack, costing on average $1.1 million per attack. In response to these threats, countries are increasing their spending on cyber offensive capability, with the UK spending hundreds of millions of pounds. Power outage, nuclear accident and solar storm are not at the top of the threats ranking globally, but solar storms could cause over $4bn of GDP@Risk in North American cities, due to their position in northern latitudes, leaving 20-40 million people without power.


Health and humanity

The greatest threat to humanity according to the UN is anti-microbial resistance, with areas in the world already developing strains of malaria and tuberculosis resistant to all available medicines. It is expected that over the next 35 years 300 million people will die prematurely due to drug resistance, decreasing the world’s GDP between 2 and 3.5% in 2050. Major epidemics have remained largely constrained in the same areas as last year, and are fuelled by climate and geopolitical crises which aggravates hygiene and public health, such as the Yemen and Somalia cholera outbreaks. Plant epidemics have not increased, with the ongoing problems of Panama disease in bananas, coffee and wheat rust, and the xylella fastidiosa still affecting olive plants in southern Europe.

Corporate innovation and ideation discussion

The panel discussed the importance of the Cambridge Global Risk Index to prepare companies for future threats. For example, for insurance companies including the index in their management of risk would allow them to be better prepared and more profitable. I found the words of Francine Stevens, director of Innovation at Hiscox, particularly inspiring. She talked about how the sheer volume of research produced is often too large to be digested by practitioners, and how workshops might help to bring people with similar interests together to pull out what are the most exciting topics and challenges to work on. As a Knowledge Exchange Fellow myself, this strikes a familiar chord, as it is my job to transfer research to the insurance sector and I have first-hand experience on the importance of adopting a common language and identifying how industry uptakes new research and methods.

Francine has also talked about the importance of collaboration between companies, a particularly sensitive topic in the highly competitive insurance sector. This topic emerged also at the insurance conference held by the Oasis Loss Modelling Framework in September, where the discussion touched on how non-competitive collaborations could bring the sector forward by avoiding duplication. Francine’s final drop of wisdom was about the importance of diversity to drive innovation, and how having a group of smart people with diverse backgrounds often delivers better results than a group of high-achievers with the same background. And this again sounded very familiar!

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Valentina Noacco, a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol Department of Civil Engineering. Her research looks at improving the understanding and consideration of uncertainty in the (re)insurance industry. This blog reports material with the consent of the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies and is available online at

Dr Valentina Noacco

COP21 daily report: The need for innovation (but do not call it innovation)

Cabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost will be attending COP21 in Paris as part of the Bristol city-wide team, including the Mayor of Bristol, representatives from Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. He and other Cabot Institute members will be writing blogs during COP21, reflecting on what is happening in Paris, especially in the Paris and Bristol co-hosted Cities and Regions Pavilion, and also on the conclusion to Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital.  Follow #UoBGreen and #COP21 for live updates from the University of Bristol.  All blogs in the series are linked to at the bottom of this blog.


For the past two days, a delegation of us have been representing Bristol City Council and a group of Bristol businesses at the Sustainable Innovation Forum (SIF) at Paris.  Our group included Bristol Mayor George Ferguson, who spoke on Tuesday; Amy Robinson, of Low Carbon Southwest and the driver behind the Go Green business initiative; Bristol City Council representatives Stephen Hillton and Mhairi Ambler; and Ben Wielgus of KPMG and Chris Hayes of Skanska, both Bristol Green Capital sponsors.

This was the COP21 ‘Business event’ and aspects of this have been rather sharply targeted by Paris activists. There is a legitimate question of whether corporate sponsors are engaging in greenwashing, but this was not my perception from inside Le Stade de France.  There were some major fossil fuel dependent or environmentally impactful companies in attendance, but they seemed genuinely committed to reducing their environmental impact.  Their actions must be transparent and assessed, and like all of us, they must be challenged to go further. This is why it was fantastic that Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, was speaking. Ceres is a true agent of change, bringing a huge variety of businesses into the conversation and working with them to continually raise ambitions.

The majority of these businesses, just like those that attended Bristol’s Business Summit in October, are clearly and objectively devoted to developing new technologies to address the world’s challenges,. Whether it be new solar tech that will underpin the PVC of 2050 or innovative new ways to deploy wind turbines cheaply and effectively in small African villages, it is no longer ‘business’ that is holding back climate action and in many cases they are leading it.

And we need them to do so.  We need them to develop new products and we need them to be supported by government and Universities.  We need them because we need new innovation, new technology and new infrastructure to meet our environmental challenges.

One of the major themes of the past two days has been leadership in innovation, an ambition to which the University of Bristol and the City of Bristol aspires – like any world-class university and city.  We have profound collective ambitions to be a Collaboratory for Change. These are exemplified by Bristol is Open, the Bristol Brain and the Bristol Billion, all endeavours of cooperation between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council and all celebrated by George Ferguson in his speech to the SIF attendees yesterday.

This need for at least some fundamentally new technology is why the Cabot Institute has launched VENTURE. It is why the University has invested so much in the award-winning incubator at the Engine Shed. It is why we have devoted so much resource to building world-leading expertise in materials and composites, especially in partnership with others in the region.

We do not need these innovations for deployment now – deployment of already existing technology will yield major reductions in our carbon emissions – but we need to start developing them now, so that we can achieve more difficult emissions reductions in 20 years.  Our future leaders must have an electrical grid that can support a renewable energy network. Our homes must have been prepared for the end of gas.

And we will need new technology to fully decarbonise.

We effectively have no way to make steel without burning coal to melt iron – we either need new tech in recycling steel, need to move to a post-steel world, need to completely redesign steel plants, or some combination of all three.

We will need new forms of low-energy shipping. Localising manufacturing and recycling could create energy savings in the global supply chain.  But we will always have a global supply chain and eventually it must be decarbonised.

Similarly, we will need to decarbonise our farm equipment.  At heart, I am still an Ohio farm boy, and so I was distracted from my cities-focus to discuss this with Carlo Lambro, Brand President of New Holland.  Their company has made some impressive efficiency gains in farm equipment, especially with respect to NOx emissions, but he conceded that a carbon neutral tractor is still far away – they require too much power, operating at near 100% capacity (cars are more like 20-30%).  He described their new methane-powered tractor, which could be joined up to biogas emissions from farm waste, but also explained that it can only operate for 1.5 hours.  There have been improvements… but there is still a long way to go. I appreciated his engagement and his candor about the challenges we face (but that did not keep me from encouraging him to go faster and further!).

Finally, if we really intend to limit warming to below 2C, then we will likely need to capture and store (CCS) some of the carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere. Moreover, some of the national negotiators are pushing for a laudable 1.5C limit, and this would certainly require CCS. In fact, the need for the widespread implementation of such technology by the middle of this century is explicitly embedded in the emissions scenarios of IPCC Working Group 3. That is why some of our best Earth Scientists are working on the latest CCS technology.

Unfortunately, CCS illustrates how challenging innovation can be – or more precisely, as articulated by Californian entrepreneur Tom Steyer, how challenging it can be to develop existing technology into useful products. The CCS technology exists but it is still nascent and economically unviable.  It must be developed.  Given this, the recent cancellation of UK CCS projects is disappointing and could prove devastating for the UK’s intellectual leadership in this area.  The consequences of this decision were discussed by Nicola Sturgeon in a panel on energy futures and she renewed Scotland’s firm commitment to it.

This issue exemplifies a wider topic of conversation at the SIF: social and technological innovation and development requires financing, but securing that financing requires safety.  Skittish investors do not seek innovation; they seek safe, secure and boring investment. And SIF wrapped up by talking about how to make that happen.

First, we must invest in the research that yields innovations. We must then invest in the development of those innovations to build public and investor confidence.  Crucial to both of those is public sector support. This includes Universities, although Universities will have to operate in somewhat new ways if we wish to contribute more to the development process. We are learning, however, which is why George Ferguson singled out the Engine Shed as the world’s leading higher education based incubator.

Second, and more directly relevant to the COP21 ambitions, businesses and their investors need their governments to provide confidence that they are committed to a new energy future.  It has been clear all week that businesses will no longer accept the blame for their governments’ climate inaction.

Instead, most businesses see the opportunity and are eager to seize it. As for the few businesses that cling to the past? Like all things that fail to evolve, the past is where they shall remain.  The new generation of entrepreneurs will see to that. Whether it be the new businesses with new ideas or the old businesses that are adapting, the new economy is not coming; it is already here.


This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.  For more information about the University of Bristol at COP21, please visit

Prof Rich Pancost


This blog is part of a COP21 daily report series. View other blogs in the series below: