Bristol 2015 Student Day: Young peoples ideas for the future

The Bristol Student Day for the Bristol Festival of Ideas was all about the future. Cabot Institute director Rich Pancost opened the day with the remark: ‘This is your planet, it is no longer my generation’s’. What he says is true; young people are soon to inherit positions as policy makers, CEOs and decision makers. Student’s visions for the future may soon become a reality, so what are their visions?

Bristol 2015: Student Day at At-Bristol. Organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas

The student day was orchestrated to produce a dialogue for the University of Bristol and UWE student’s opinions on some of the planet’s greatest problems. The thoughts generated will become part of Bristol’s message to the world in at the COP21, a global sustainable innovation forum in Paris later this year.

The discussions ranged from local cycling routes to global overpopulation. The breadth of topics covered meant discussions oscillated between worldwide concerns and university-based issues.  Regardless of scale, the prevailing desire was for increased suitability for the future generations.

Bikes parked at the University of
Bristol.  Image credit: Emily Gillingham

On a university level the participants expressed discontent with the institution’s reliance on fossil fuels with many agreeing they would like to see increased investment in sustainable energy for their organisations. Financial returns from green energy may be long term but if any institution can expect longevity it’s a university- why should their energy solutions not reflect that?

Waste reduction was an additional point for local improvement with participants venturing ideas such as a ban on single use coffee cups and increased recycling opportunities on campus. There was no shortage of creative ideas, the main issue was implementation and education; how can young people convince their less green-minded peers that such schemes are essential? Food waste was of additional concern, with unanimous support for schemes such as the Bristol Skipchen. The desire to see projects such as this affiliated with the university was a common vision.

Naturally, food was an issue close to the heart of many students and discussion quickly progressed to agriculture. Organic food was considered a luxury for personal health purposes, but its environmental benefit was surprisingly contentious. Many students believed that large scale, non-organic, industrialised farming is more energy efficient and produces fewer emissions, while others believe smaller organic farms are the future of agriculture.

The boundaries of the discussion were pushed both mentally and geographically as the day progressed.  The younger generation’s global responsibilities were also high priority for discussion. Overpopulation in the developing world is putting strain on resources- how can Bristol students help? Food waste reduction was high on the list of solutions, as well as the universal need for more environmentally attractive power solutions, from the first to third world.

The enthusiasm of the participants to build a better, greener and more sustainable future made the discussion both interesting and beneficial. If there is one thing the day has shown, it’s that young people have the desire for long term solutions. After all, it is the millions of small ideas such as the ones discussed in At-Bristol that will shape the future for us all.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Further reading

Ethics and sustainability in University of Bristol catering

Sustainable waste management at the University of Bristol

Read more about all the sustainability initiatives taking place at the University of Bristol

Uncertainties about the effects of fracking in the UK

I’m a bit of an energy agnostic. This week I attended a talk at UWE about fracking and its impact on the environment in the hope of making a better informed decision on the controversial topic.

What is fracking?

Jenna Brown, a first year PhD student, started off with an introduction to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.

Gas molecules trapped in dense shale rocks are almost impossible to obtain by normal drilling. Fracking involves drilling vertically down and then horizontally into the rock. Fracking fluid, a mixture of water, sand and other chemicals, is injected into the rock at high pressure, expanding the tiny cracks and allowing the gas trapped within to escape and travel back up the pipe for collection.

Taken from BBC News


Natural gas is viewed as a transition energy source from dirty fossil fuels to greener renewable energies in the future. It produces almost half the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, which could help us meet the national target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.


Image by Varodrig
Jenna explained that the government see shale gas as a way to improve our national energy security. The British Geological Survey estimates that the Bowland Shale reserve in central England holds 1329 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, although across the entire UK estimates vary wildly because they are mainly based on data from other countries. Jenna highlighted the fact that whilst this is a huge amount of fuel, much if not most of it will not be technically recoverable. Still, it could provide greater energy security in the UK, which imported one trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the first six months of this year.

Water use
Dr. Chad Staddon, associate professor of resource geographies at UWE, spoke about the possible problems that UK water security faces with fracking. As well as the potential to pollute ground water (explained here), Chad was concerned that fracking could pose a problem to UK water security but even more worried that this had not yet been assessed in detail.
Fracking requires a huge volume of water; around 4 – 20 million litres per well in the USA according to the International Energy Agency. This amounts to just 0.3% of US national water usage, however Chad highlighted two important problems with this figure. First, US shale reserves are only around 750m deep. In the UK, our reserves may reach down as far as 3km, meaning we could layer six or more horizontal fracking pipes in a single well. The increased depth and number of fracking pipes means that significantly more water may be required in UK sites.
The second issue is one of local resources. Even in relatively rainy countries there can be pockets of water scarcity, which can be intensified by local demand. Unfortunately, there is little guidance in the published scientific literature to aid the UK in avoiding over-committing our water to fracking at the cost of food production and water security. Parts of the UK, such as the south east, are already at water capacity. Adding the water demands of fracking may lead to local droughts or the costly transport of water from other parts of the country. A 2013 report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change stated that if waste water is recycled where possible, water requirements for fracking could be managed sustainably.

Air quality
Dr. Enda Hayes, a UWE research fellow, spoke about the effect fracking could have on air quality management. He was trying to learn more about the emissions from a shale gas well, however the findings in scientific reports varied enormously because no two wells are the same. Different geographies, demands and outputs greatly affect the results, which means that it is very difficult to use US data to try and predict the effect of fracking on UK air quality. Fracking could contribute to particulates and toxic compounds in the air, as well as increased CO2 emissions and methane leaks.  
Less CO2 is produced per unit of energy when burning shale gas compared to coal and oil. However Enda spoke about recent reports stating that the net effect of shale gas on greenhouse gases is likely to be small, and could actually increase emissions if the displaced coal and other fossil fuels are used elsewhere. Another major player in climate change is methane. In the USA, 11% of methanee missions are produced from coal mining, mainly by methane leaking from the mines. Shale gas is mostly comprised of methane, which must be properly contained to prevent even greater emissions from leaks.


Big questions
The panelists agreed that there is simply not enough relevant information to decide whether the benefits outweigh the negatives of fracking in the UK. There are several big questions that I think need to be answered. Just how much water would a UK shale gas well need? Do we have the technology to prevent water and air pollution? Do viable alternatives to fracking exist, and can we afford them?
Is there a perfect energy source? Should we stick to cheap-but-dirty coal or switch to inefficient bird-killing windmills? Are you more scared of nuclear meltdowns or global warming? As David Shukman concluded in his excellent BBC article,whichever type of power you choose, it is going to make someone angry“.
This blog is written by Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci
Sarah Jose