Archive for ‘Climate Change’

April, 2014

Let’s heed the canary

Professor Rob MacKenzie


IMAGE: Smog in the city (

Day three of southeast-England-in-the-murk, and still a pool of smoggy gloom catches your throat and wipes out the middle distance. This little week of blogs, with which I had hoped to engage with the large-scale and chronic challenges highlighted by the University of Birmingham’s Saving Humans theme, has — in the event — mutated into reflections on a local and acute threat to health and well-being. Such a change of focus may actually be for the better; perhaps through learning what pollution ‘feels like’ the debate about how to ameliorate the pollution that surrounds us every day can be reignited.

My suspicion is that there is a window of opportunity in public engagement with issues that are difficult to perceive directly most of the time. If nothing brings air pollution to our attention — really, tangibly to our attention — then we have to rely on expert opinion and ‘white-coat fatigue’ can set in. If we have to struggle through a pea-soup of pollution each and every day then it becomes easy to regard it as unavoidable and irremediable. But, in communities in which public engagement counts, sudden and perceptible reductions in quality of life can cause a commotion and galvanise governments into action.

Having issued the smog alerts and kept the message simple, scientific commentators are now beginning to fill-in some details. The analyses may, in the end, change our diagnosis of the event quite radically, reducing the role of Saharan dust and increasing the role of chemical production of particles in air travelling to us from Europe. A more complete diagnosis will enable policy-makers to consider options to minimise the risk of a repeat of these conditions in the future. Controlling local pollution would improve our chronic exposure to pollution and provide a little more ‘head room’ within which natural particle loadings and long-range transport of pollution can vary, but car bans and the like are unlikely to be a useful measure in the middle of episodes. International action to limit emission of the gases that react in the atmosphere to form particles looks to be necessary. Certainly we should not accept that there is nothing we can do simply because the particles did not, in the main, originate from within our borders.

International environmental regulation has enabled us to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer and has outlawed many environmentally persistent poisons. Where, as in these instances, technological ‘fixes’ to industrial processes reduce the emission of pollutants, the chances of binding international agreement seem relatively high. Unfortunately, for smog, improving engine efficiency and fitting stack and tailpipe filters only gets us so far; human behaviour can subvert our best efforts. To go the next step towards clean air requires joined-up ‘systems thinking’ that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocated this week, seeks win-win-win solutions, recognises that there will be unintended consequences, and privileges a love of life over incomplete measures of cost and benefit.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

The three-legged race to sustainability

Professor Rob MacKenzie


Image: Dawn Smog (

The old adage says if you want to give God a laugh, tell her your plans. I had the best of intentions of putting all the cares of everyday academic life to one side for a day in order to enjoy the Trees, People & Built Environment conference, here at University of Birmingham. Then, late on Tuesday night, news began to filter through that weather patterns had conspired to produce a situation in which local air pollution, regional-scale pollution from north and central Europe, and Saharan dust were all contributing to an air pollution episode. So, instead of musing deeply on urban sustainability and our innate connection to “nature”, I spent the day saying what amounted to the content of the third sentence of this blog. Well, truth be told, I did manage to smuggle in a few sneaky references to what I think is really the “big picture” when we are confronted by one of these environmental episodes, be it flood, or heat wave, or smog: these are symptoms of a systems failure, and the system (or system-of-system) that is failing is UK land management.


Image: Green City (

We can apply sticking plasters to a particular transport bottleneck, or a particular river, and relieve the problem for a while, only for it — or something quite different but subtly related — to pop up somewhere else. But perhaps there is another approach. I am feeling fired-up enough by Tuesday’s seminar on the biophilic city to venture an outlandishly ambitious vision: to reconfigure our relationship with “Nature” and with the City so that we break apart the old-fashioned dichotomy of town and country. Breaking these boundaries would usher-in a new view of human life: shared with every other form of life that can help us turn a linear highway to hell into a circular pattern of birth, death, regrowth. We have the visionaries to show us some of the way and we should not be scared to add to the canon of those ideas, so long as we recognise that ideas only work when in harness with strategy and serendipity. We are in a three-legged race to sustainability and, as I eventually learnt as a child, that can be an exhilarating race once you learn how not to fall over.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

Trees of life

Professor Rob MacKenzie

Welcome to a week of the Saving Humans blog focused predominantly on how the plant life with which we share the planet is saving, and can do even more to save, us. First and foremost amongst the plant life-savers are the plant crops we’ve domesticated and changed beyond all recognition for efficient production of food. This week, however, the focus will be more on trees: wild woodland and forest landscapes; trees in agricultural landscapes; parks and gardens; and trees in streets. The blogs coincide with the launch of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), an event to launch Birmingham as the UK’s first biophilic city, and the Trees, People & Built Environment conference of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

The role and importance of the world’s woodlands and forests is hard to overstate: they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, provide recreational facilities, provide economic benefits, and are home to more than half of all species. Yet despite this the UK still has only 13% of its area given over to forest and the world’s forests are subject to continuing threats from emerging disease pandemics and from environmental change.

In response to these challenges, The University of Birmingham and the UK-based JABBS Foundation have invested £20million to establish the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFOR) that will address two fundamental and interrelated challenges: the impact of climate and environmental change on woodlands; and, the resilience of trees to invasive pests and diseases.

The Institute, which has secured initial funding for  ten years, will consist of refurbished laboratories and growth facilities on-campus, along with a large-scale, ground-breaking ‘free-air carbon dioxide enrichment’ (FACE) field facility that will enable globally leading scientists to take measurements from deep within the soil to above the tree canopy. The forest-FACE facility will be one of only two currently working worldwide (the other is in Australia) and one of only two that have ever attempted the experiment on a mature, mixed, semi-natural woodland.


The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

Autonomous sensors and instrumented trees will allow our scientists to take measurements continuously and remotely, over timescales ranging from seconds to decades. The facility will enable our ecologists, plant biologists, and environmental scientists to raise the concentration of CO2 in a specified area in an otherwise natural environment. By measuring the trees’ response, we will elucidate environmental risk and help developed and developing societies innovate to prepare, adapt and prosper to a future that is already set in-train by our current use of fossil fuels.

Yesterday saw the release of the Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that is the non-technical summary of the part of the “IPCC report”, as it is known by scientists the world over, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The summary IPCC report weighing-up the evidence for man-made climate change was published in September 2013; the current part of the report is much about how we will feel climate change in almost every part of the Earth and in almost every part of society. The 44 pages of densely argued and comprehensively referenced text summarise many ways in which forests are under threat from climate change, each with the IPCC’s assessment of how confident they are in their statements:

“Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere (e.g., in peatlands, permafrost, and forests) is susceptible to loss to the atmosphere as a result of climate change, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation (high confidence). Increased tree mortality and associated forest dieback is projected to occur in many regions over the 21st century, due to increased temperatures and drought (medium confidence). Forest dieback poses risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity.”

Thankfully, the report also points to the many ways — e.g. agroforestry projects and reforestation of coastal mangrove swamps in Asia — in which forests can be part of a solution or, at least, an accommodation to our changing environment. This upbeat identification of opportunities to change things for the better is the perfect introduction to this week’s series of blogs, so I leave the last word to the IPCC:

“Significant co-benefits, synergies, and tradeoffs exist between mitigation and adaptation and among different adaptation responses; interactions occur both within and across regions (very high confidence). …Examples of actions with co-benefits include …(ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services. (IPCC, WG2 SPM, p24)”.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

March, 2014

The vital role of trees: from atmospheric chemistry to architecture

Dr James Levine

As an atmospheric chemist, I am interested in the influence that trees have on the quality of air we breathe and the climate we either enjoy or ‘weather’, depending on where we live.  First off, there’s the appealing synergy between people and trees: as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, trees draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and top up our oxygen supply.  If we have an immediate need for oxygen, we have a long-term need for a habitable climate, and trees again play a vital role.  In drawing down, or sequestering CO2, they reduce the burden of this greenhouse gas (GHG) that is at the forefront of our minds as we consider the climate our children, and children’s children, will inherit.  But trees have a further, much more subtle means of influencing both air quality and climate.



The atmosphere is predominantly cleansed of gases harmful to human health, and some potent GHGs (e.g. methane), by a perhaps surprising simple chemical species, the OH radical (just an oxygen atom joined to a hydrogen atom).  Trees emit gases, so called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that influence the abundance of OH radicals globally.  As part of Prof Rob MacKenzie’s group here at the University of Birmingham, I am involved in the Cooperative LBA Atmospheric Regional Experiment exploring the influence that the Amazon rainforest has in this regard; this is a collaboration with the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), the University of Lancaster and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.  Of course, whilst trees affect the climate, the climate also affects trees; changes in climate also ‘feedback’ on the chemistry stemming from the VOCs trees emit.  Under Rob’s direction, the new Birmingham Institute for Forest Research will explore some of these feedbacks.  In particular, it is tasked with exploring the impact of climate change on UK woodland, both directly via changes in physical conditions (e.g. air temperature and humidity), and indirectly via changes in the incidence of, and resilience to, pests and disease.

I now have a confession to make: I lead a bit of a double life.  Atmospheric chemist by day, I’m an architecture student by night.  Trees and timber have important parts to play in architecture too, including one pertinent to reducing anthropogenic CO2 emissions.  Construction of the built environment, and the energy used to maintain a comfortable environment within it, account for around half the UK’s (and global) CO2 emissions.  If sustainably and locally sourced, timber embodies very little energy, or CO2 emissions; the CO2 locked up in the timber and ultimately released to the atmosphere (upon decay at the end of a building’s life), may be drawn down from the atmosphere by a tree grown in its place.  Timber construction is also readily compatible with approaches to radically reducing the ‘operational energy demands’ of maintaining a comfortable environment, reliant on high levels of insulation and air-tightness.  Built to the Passivhaus standard, for example, a house in the UK may require no more heating, year-round, than the warmth its occupants alone provide.  And it doesn’t stop there.

The use of trees and timber in architecture has a part to play in improving our quality of life and providing uplifting, life-affirming spaces.  Be it the oxygen they ‘breathe out’, the microclimates they yield, or the sense of well-being they inspire, research suggests trees benefit people living and working in their vicinity.  In schools, for example, they appear to increase children’s concentration and ability to learn.  The architect, Louis Kahn (1960), envisaged that “Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher discussing his realization with a few who did not know they were students.”  I wonder what role he imagined the tree played.  Did it simply provide shelter or did it also help cultivate a sense of security, that commodity which is recognised as key to learning?  We only have to look at David Nash’s Ash Dome  to see the potential the boughs of a tree have to offer both shelter and that peculiar sense of ‘rootedness’ a connection to the outdoors inspires.  For an exploration of the many and varied qualities we associate with trees and timber, Roger Deakin’s Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees makes a visceral and evocative read.

So what has motivated this brief reflection on the role of trees in relation to my dual interests in atmospheric chemistry and architecture?  It is the Trees, People and the Built Environment II conference, taking place in Birmingham this week.  Trees clearly have a vital role, be it at present or with a view to the future, and I look forward to learning in the next few days about many more, perhaps equally diverse, facets to this.

Kahn, L. I. (1960). Form and Design (1960). In R. Twombly (Ed.), Kahn (pp. 62-74). New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Dr James Levine is a Research Fellow at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham.

October, 2013

Resuscitating Nuclear Power Frank Uekotter

Last week the British government announced a deal with the French utility EDF over the construction of two new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. It is the first new nuclear power station to be built in Great Britain in a generation, and it has drawn vigorous criticism from the environmental community. Nuclear power is not safe – see Chernobyl and Fukushima. There are unresolved problems such as nuclear waste. It undermines the future of renewable energy. And with a guaranteed price at twice the current market rate, nuclear electricity will be obscenely expensive. Rarely has the case against nuclear power been so easy to make.


From the historian’s point of view, there is even more ground for scepticism. After all, this is not the first time that we are getting a lousy deal on nuclear power. Since Fukushima, the risk of a nuclear meltdown is plain. But the history of nuclear power does not look much better if we look at it in purely economic terms.

Nuclear reactors are expensive to build, cheap to run, and expensive to dismantle. In other words, building a nuclear reactor means hedging a bet on energy needs for decades into the future, far more so than for fossil fuels and renewables. It is the kind of risk that corporations usually shun unless there is an emergency.

The 1950s and 1960s, when the first commercial reactors were built, were no such time. In the history of modern energy, these were the easy years: never before or since has energy been so little of a problem. Nuclear power was conceived and born in a world where profits were second-rate issues. Promoting nuclear energy was about cutting-edge technology and staying abreast in a science-based world. It was about visions of all things nuclear, culminating in plans for nuclear-powered airplanes that look like a bad joke nowadays. And it was about the bomb.

In the end, nuclear power became a very complicated way to heat water. For a high-tech project supposed to pave the way to the future, that was a pretty meagre result.

It is important to recall that the utilities – today the embodiment of nuclear power – were initially lukewarm about the new technology. They had good reasons. The economics of nuclear energy was highly uncertain as a result of lack of experience. Entrenched interests supported existing modes of power production. And in the fifties and sixties, there was no urgent power gap waiting to be filled.

But the utilities were negotiating with governments who dreamed about a coming nuclear age. Even more, governments had invested huge sums into nuclear research and development that they were hesitant to write off. That brought the utilities into a favourable position: they did not need reactors, but they knew that the government did. With that, they could ask for generous subsidies and other concessions. And they got them.

Which brings us to the negotiations that led to last week’s decision. For a scholar of nuclear history, they look terribly familiar. A clever strategy would have defined parameters for future energy goals, along with an invitation to submit ideas. It is unlikely that corporations would have come up with nuclear solutions by themselves – way too risky as a business proposition. But the government chose a different strategy. They announced that they wanted to build nuclear reactors. And then they sat down with companies that might fulfil their wish. Little wonder that EDF got such a great deal.

Environmentalists like to talk about nuclear risks, and every update from the Fukushima clean-up makes their case more convincing. But maybe narrow-minded capitalist thinking is just as good as an ally here. If we cannot get nuclear reactors unless we negotiate poorly and dish out huge subsidies, it’s probably bad business.

Further useful links:

Image source:

October, 2013

Professor Heather Widdows

Professor Heather Widdows is the Director of Centre for the Study of Global Ethics

In my post on Monday I argued that the threats to health, environment and security, cannot be addressed locally, but have to be addressed globally. My claim was that these threats were all interconnected and could not be addressed in isolation. This does not mean – of course – that people, groups, organisations, states and the international community should not adopt specific projects, policies and practices to tackle particular issues, but that there should be awareness of how these link into the wider solutions.

But, as I discussed on Monday finding such solutions is the problem. For instance, as noted in climate change there is broad scientific consensus (as shown in last week’s intergovernmental panel on climate change report. Scientific scepticism of a radical kind is extreme – it is not a balanced view. This is not to say there is no debate about the extent of what is happening or how it is to be addressed – but there is little doubt in the mainstream scientific community that climate change is happening and that it is man-made. The controversy in ethics then is not about whether climate change is happening – but rather what should we do to address it. There five solutions which are commonly suggested:

  • Equal burdens: That all should share the burden of climate change equally. This is the approach roughly of the Kyoto protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which takes a historical baseline of 1990 and then requires differential reductions in accordance with this. Some ethicists reject this as it falls more heavily on underdeveloped countries.
  • Equal shares: That all are assigned ‘per capita’ quotas. The advantage of this over the equal burden model is that it does allow some space for growth for the poorest – who are yet to use their whole quota of emissions – while requiring large reductions for the richest.
  • Polluter pays: That those who created climate change are responsible for addressing its ill effects. It is a backward-looking model and a view which ethically is intuitively strong. It seems fair and puts financial responsibly in the same place as moral responsibility. Again part of this principle is built into the Kyoto model in that a 1990 baseline is set.  But, although this appears fair there some problems. First (and true to some extent all responses to climate change) there is the problem of uncertainty. Estimating the ill effects of climate change is notoriously difficult and therefore estimating causes even more uncertain. Second, is it fair that polluters are responsible for the ill effects before it was known that such actions contributed to climate change (say around the 1990s when scientific consensus began to emerge)?
  • Beneficiary pays: That those who have benefited from development pay. This escapes the problem of uncertainty. It doesn’t matter if you caused climate change what matters is whether you benefited or not.
  • Ability to pay: That those who can pay should – irrespective. Quite simply the challenge is so great and the need of solving it so pressing – anyone (and perhaps everyone) who can pay should. This is pragmatic response. Rather than attempt to track difficult networks of causal injustices we just focus on what we can do now and as quickly as possible.

The problem though is not which of these to choose – any of them would be better than the current inaction and (as noted) at least two of them are evident in Kyoto and the international attempts to address the issue to date. So the problem is perhaps not ‘who pays?’ but ‘why does no-one pay?’. How can we get people, institutions and governments to act? How do we get collective action? How can any of these be put into practice? How do you get individual people and individual countries to conform?

My answer is that we need to move to a different understanding of what is valuable and of what we protect. At the moment theories of justice tend to protect individual rights and choice, and these are allowed to ‘trump’ all other concerns. By trumping I just mean that these are valued more than anything else. This is a principle of ethics or justice which applies almost across the board – if you choose something, if you consent to it, then it is deemed to be ethical. There are some instances where this is clearly right – and where no-one else is affected by your decision. But when it comes to climate change, or to protecting antibiotic efficacy (see Monday’s blog – 30 September), to allow individuals to choose not to engage in shared and collective action is devastating. Primary public goods of a sustainable environment and health are simply destroyed. In global theories of justice these goods need respecting too – and ethics and governance structures must be able to do this. To make this happen individual choice cannot always trump. Such a theory would revolutionise global justice and ethics thinking, but is, I think essential, if the current global challenges are to be met. As mentioned on Monday the costs of not protecting such global public goods are almost unthinkable: devastating to others now and overwhelmingly destructive to future generations. The prospect of returning to a pre-antibiotic era, or surviving global warming, is just too horrible to contemplate.

If you would like to read this argument in full please see my recent paper ‘Revising Global Theories of Justice to Include Public Goods’ co-authored with one of my Phd Students in Global Ethics, Peter West-Oram.

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