Guest post: Why we’ll still need waste in a circular economy

Huguette Roe/Shutterstock

Stijn van Ewijk, Yale University and Julia Stegemann, UCL

Every year, we buy 30 billion tonnes of stuff, from pizza boxes to family homes. We throw out or demolish 13 billion tonnes of it as waste – about 2 tonnes per person. A third of what we discard was bought the same year. The extraction, use and discarding of so much stuff creates a large environmental burden, from the depletion of minerals to the destruction of rainforests.

The idea of a circular economy aims to address these problems by rejecting the take-make-dispose model of production and consumption that governs our world. Instead, waste is “designed out” and materials are kept at a high value for longer through reuse, repair and recycling.

Find another use for it.
Steve Buissinne/Pixabay, CC BY

Unfortunately, some wastes are an inevitable result of growing or making things, and even durable products such as cars, toasters and smartphones eventually break down or become useless. So how should we deal with it? In a recent paper, we argue for a legal requirement to recognise the potential for this waste to be used again.

Why waste is necessary

To deal with waste, we must first understand why it is there. Waste consists of products that are unwanted and so little attention is currently paid to their fate. As a result, they tend to end up in the wrong places, including ecosystems that supply our food and drinking water. After all, the cheapest way to get rid of waste – a plastic bag, old furniture – is to dump it.

The first waste management systems were introduced to address the public health problems that emerged from this habit. The 1854 cholera outbreak in London was caused by the unsafe disposal of human waste in urban cesspools. The accumulation of plastic waste in the ocean today – which ensnares and chokes wildlife while contaminating the seafood we eat – has the same root cause: ineffective waste collection and treatment.

To avoid litter and dumping, governments define everything we discard as waste. Once that happens, strict regulations apply for its transport, treatment and disposal. For example, when you have your car tyres replaced, the car workshop needs a permit, or a permitted contractor, to legally and safely reuse, recycle or dispose of the old tyres.

Used tyres are regulated as waste to prevent their unsafe reuse and illegal dumping.
Ich bin dann mal raus hier/Pixabay, CC BY

But defining a potentially valuable material as waste can complicate the process of using it again for another purpose. A construction firm may want to reuse the tyres from the workshop, but since they’re classified as waste, both parties have to fill out paperwork just to show they’re meeting the waste handling requirements.

Defining fewer materials as waste cuts out paperwork and makes reuse easier. But tyres are flammable and release chemicals as they wear down. If the reuse of tyres was unregulated, it could compromise fire safety and endanger our health. Without strict regulations, the car workshop might even resort to illegal dumping, which is already a major problem.

The use potential of waste

This leaves regulators with a dilemma. How can we strictly regulate waste while promoting its reuse? The solution is to think ahead. If we know in advance how and to what extent waste can be used again – its “use potential” – we can regulate it more effectively. Most importantly, we need to design products to be safely reusable and create regulations that allow and encourage reuse.

For example, if we design car tyres that aren’t flammable or toxic, they can be reused in a wider range of applications. To get manufacturers to develop and use these products, governments need to help them identify the use potential of the resulting waste. Tyres could be approved and labelled not only for their first use on a car, but also for their subsequent reuse in construction.

A universal requirement for designers to increase the use potential of waste, and for product users to fulfil this potential, can ensure waste is repeatedly used, without having to change the definition of waste and how it’s regulated. Waste is still a necessary concept for keeping us safe and preventing illegal dumping, but we should think about it even before it’s generated, rather than pretending it can be made to vanish entirely.

Stijn van Ewijk, Postdoctoral associate, Yale University and Julia Stegemann, Professor of Environmental Engineering, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


Further reading: articles on waste management from The Knowledge Exchange blog

How smart is your city?

Photo by Peng LIU on Pexels.com

by Scott Faulds

In recent years, cities across the UK have begun to explore how they can best capitalize on technological advances to help to create places which operate in a more efficient and sustainable way. The concept of the smart city is relatively wide-ranging; in basic terms, it can be described as an urban area that uses various forms of technology to gather data that can then be analysed to reveal insights about how citizens engage with their environment. The advent of smart city technology, and its ability to be installed in numerous forms across existing city infrastructure, means that it can often be challenging to assess and understand the success of its deployment.

A recent article published in Emerald Open Research UK smart cities present and future: An analysis of British smart cities through current and emerging technologies and practices aims to address this issue by providing an overview of the progress of 26 UK cities which are currently deploying smart city technology. The article attempts to analyse the current state of the smart city roll-out and evaluate the types of technology that are being installed. As the concept of the smart city is one that is fluid, each city’s implementation of the technology can vary, as can the success of the integration.

Designing a smart city evaluation framework

In order to understand the current state of the smart city rollout, the article employs a framework that can be used to assess what types of technology have been deployed and the current state of the deployment.

The following categories are used to classify smart city technology:

Essential services 5G, full-fibre internet, Internet of Things

Smart Transportation digital ticket booking, smart cards, electric vehicle charging points

Broad Spectrum retrofitting buildings, digital social inclusion schemes, hackathons

Business Ecosystem innovation hubs, co-spaces, tech entrepreneurial networks 

Open Data Provider urban dashboards, urban models, big data

The state of the rollout of smart technology is evaluated on the following scale:

0 – no measures underway

1 public announcement of plan

2 study in advanced stages/detailed roadmap

3 testing/trials

4 installation of technology on smaller scales

5 fully established and integrated into the city

By analysing relevant documents/news reports and applying the aforementioned framework, the article finds that the most common type of smart city infrastructure installed in cities across the UK is technology which enables the collection of open data. In particular, a group known as Smart Cities Scotland has been found to have one of the most advanced implementations of open data technology. This is due to the creation of an open source data platform which allows anyone to access the data collected and develop smart city technology that directly responds to the needs of these cities.

Approaches to deploying smart city technology

Through the application of the framework, London and Bristol were discovered to be the cities in the UK with the most advanced implementation of smart city technology; this was largely due to the widespread use of all of the categories. However, the authors also suggest that the steps taken by smaller cities, such as Dundee and Peterborough, are often of more interest, as they clearly show the two prevailing approaches to the implementation of smart city technology.  

The approach taken by Dundee is one in which cities select one or two smart city categories and focus on getting these technologies to become fully integrated and widespread. For example, Dundee has chosen to focus on the integration of open data (via Smart Cities Scotland) and smart transportation technologies, in a bid to create a fully sustainable transport network. An in-depth focus on these areas has enabled Dundee to become a leader in the switch to zero-carbon transport, through the creation of the Mobility Innovation Living Lab and the electrification of 20% of the local taxi fleet. However, whilst the implementation of open data and smart transportation technology places Dundee as a leader in these categories, their implementation of essential services or broad spectrum technology is poor when compared to other cities in the UK.

Peterborough, on the other hand, has taken an almost diametric approach and is focused on deploying a broad variety of smart city technologies, that will allow them to reach their goal of becoming a gigabit city and establishing a circular economy. The city has deployed a variety of online platforms, designed to engage citizens and business alike, to come together and share resources that will allow Peterborough to support and empower everyone in the city to minimize waste.

The future of the Smart City

As well as analysing the current state of the smart city rollout, the article also discusses the future of the smart city and sets out its expectations for the next decade. A key theme discussed is the concept of a more connected city, powered through 5G and increased network capacity, which will allow for city infrastructure to communicate and easily respond to changes in the way citizens are engaging with the urban environment. However, the article concludes that we are unlikely to see any major visual changes to our cities, apart from an increase in electric vehicles and their accompanying infrastructure. A great deal of the smart city technology currently being deployed in UK cities tends to occur behind the scenes, but, these changes will allow councils to harness the power of data to make better decisions about the future day-to-day workings of our cities.

To conclude, this article provides one of the first overviews of the state of the smart city rollout across the UK, allowing for a comparative analysis of the different approaches cities have taken to implement various forms of smart city technology. Establishing a framework of how to evaluate this progress allows those interested in smart city technology to assess which smart city technologies are most prevalent and which cities are at a more advanced stage of the rollout.

In short, this article will be extremely informative for anyone with an interest in learning more about smart city technology and its deployment in the UK.


Further reading
Articles on smart cities on The Knowledge Exchange blog

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Food for thought: is Covid-19 a watershed moment in the fight against food waste?

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Much has been said about the reduced air pollution levels during the coronavirus lockdown as a result of the drastic reduction in travel but what about the impact other sectors are having as a result of recent changes? With eating out not currently an option, more of us are tucking in to takeaways as an alternative, which has had an impact on food waste.

Food waste in restaurants rises but waste at home is on a downward trend

New research released by Just Eat and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has found that “fluctuations in demand and unpredictable ordering patterns” have led to a slight increase in food waste generated in takeaway restaurants during lockdown. According to the analysis, food waste from restaurants has risen from an average of £111 to £148 per week per restaurant. This means food waste has increased from 9% of all waste to 10%, since pre-lockdown – which equates to a £16.7m rise for the sector as a whole during lockdown.

As well as the variations in demand and unpredictability of ordering patterns, the survey found that disrupted supply chain and business models also had an impact on waste. Almost half (45%) of the restaurants surveyed said they throw most food waste in the bin, which is not good news for the UN target of halving global food waste by 2030.

On the flip side, however, consumers have seemingly become more aware of the food they waste at home and are now wasting less of their takeaway, down from 9% on average to 7.2%. The research estimates that, as a result, households have saved an average of £3.2 million per week during lockdown which adds up to £22.4 million all together.

Over half (59%) of consumers say that they have a greater oversight over how much food is wasted since Covid-19. And there is also agreement that food shortages have heightened awareness of food waste, with 84% agreeing that: “Stockpiling and empty supermarket shelves showed me how important it is to make the most of what we have”.

Changing behaviours and attitudes to food waste

Another recent survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) of more than 4,000 participants found that almost a third of consumers said they were cooking more creatively while staying at home, while 30% have started saving leftovers. As a result of these new behaviours, the research shows that the public are throwing away a third less in food waste when compared to the average across 2018-2019, across four key products – bread, milk, potatoes and chicken.

Other changes in consumer behaviour and attitudes during lockdown, highlighted by the research include that:

  • 63% are shopping less often
  • 59% are buying more to create more meals at home
  • there has been a shift to more fresh produce and long-life products and less pre-cut veg, salad packs and ready meals
  • almost half (47%) are checking their cupboards more often before shopping, and 45% their fridge
  • 37% have been organising the food in their cupboards and the fridge
  • around 9 in 10 agree that “food waste is an important national issue” (87%) and that “everyone, including me, has a responsibility to minimise the food we throw away” (92%)

This shows there has been a small but significant change in attitudes towards food waste, according to WRAP, as this represents a 23% increase since November 2019 in the number of citizens that strongly agree with the above two statements.

Sustaining such behaviour and attitudes post-lockdown could certainly help in the fight against food waste, something the UK is already on target with.

Progress in reducing food waste

Indeed, before the current crisis, the UK had been making good progress in reducing food waste according to data from WRAP, with total levels falling by 480,000 tonnes between 2015 and 2018 – the equivalent of 7% per person and a reduction in emissions of 7.1 million tonnes CO2e.

The data shows there was a 27% reduction in food waste between 2007 and 2018, which has saved 1.7 million tonnes of food waste, equal to £4.7 billion. There was also an increase in the number of people that see food waste as an issue, rising from 26% in 2015 to 69% in 2019.

It is clear from the figures that we are moving in the right direction to meet both national and international targets on food waste, and that the current crisis has accelerated this, at least in the short term.

Final thoughts

It has been suggested that the current health crisis could perhaps be a catalyst for lasting air quality improvements. Could it also be a catalyst for a food waste revolution? The report from WRAP suggests it could be:

“This could be a watershed moment in the fight against food waste. There is a unique opportunity to embed these good habits into a ‘new normal’ – a culture which values food and reaps the maximum benefit from it. This makes good financial sense, at a time of economic uncertainty, but will also deliver significant benefits for the planet.”

Of course, the report also acknowledges that there are a range of behaviours that may require some level of support post-lockdown (particularly when citizens once again are more time-pressured). Similarly to the issue of air pollution, there will be a need to maintain certain changes and for new ways of thinking around tackling climate change across sectors when we once again shift focus back to the enduring climate emergency.

One thing is for sure, while we may begin to breathe more easily in the UK’s urban areas, it is no time to take our eye off the ball when it comes to tackling carbon emissions.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our other recent posts related to food waste:

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Guest Post: Will coronavirus be the catalyst for lasting air quality improvements?

By Freddie Talberg

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.

Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?

We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.

In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.

Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.

But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.

In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.

We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.

The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue  once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.

Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.

We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.

EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.

It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.

When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.

Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol

Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.


Idox Transport solutions enable traffic managers to model, monitor and control the environmental effects of travel as well as reducing congestion to maximise the use of a limited road network, all using UTMC, RTIG, SIRI and other recognised industry protocols. Idox Transport was also funded through the UK Government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics Trial to explore the use of real-time data tools to change driver behaviour, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.


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Guest post: The 2035 petrol, diesel and hybrid ban – what it means and how we get there

The government has announced they will ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles from 2035, bringing forward the original date by five years. In this guest blog, Ian Johnston, CEO of EV charging network, Engenie, discusses the challenges and opportunities that this target will bring.

Since 2017, when a ban on petrol and diesel cars was first introduced by the UK government, there has been growing calls for the policy to have more ambition. Those calls were answered when the government brought forward its ban.

On Tuesday February 4 the government, having resisted calls for more stringent anti-ICE (internal combustion engine) polices for three years, brought its ban forward from 2040 to 2035.

The move was announced almost a year after the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) formally advised that the ban be brought forward to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and just weeks after an election dominated by an environmental policy arms race between rival parties competing for the ever-growing climate-conscious vote. This meant that the change of date, as radical as it was, wasn’t wholly unexpected. The real surprise? Hybrids.

The decision to include hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) in the ban came as quite a shock to many in the industry, not least for those who had, as recently as late 2018, been offered generous subsidies for these alternatives to dedicated ICE vehicles.

However, considering a series of studies reported that PHEVs could actually be emitting more CO2 than equivalent petrol-only cars due to extra battery weight, it seems to be a policy that has considered the real impact of hybrids and the scale of change needed for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hybrids have played an important role by getting drivers used to electric motoring but with pure electric vehicles (EVs) approaching cost parity and achieving longer range, they are no longer needed as much as they once were.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the CCC, also pointed out that cars are typically on UK roads for 14 years, meaning a ban – inclusive of these polluting hybrids – must happen by 2035 in order to get them off the road in time for Net Zero by 2050.

2035 – what does it mean and how do we get there?

Despite being welcomed by environmentalists and authoritative organisations such as the CCC, a number of motoring groups and manufacturers have described the move as ‘a date without a policy’.

So, we have a date to focus our minds but what do we need to do to get there? Perhaps the most prominent criticism levelled at the new policy is that public charging infrastructure is not yet ready to cope with mass electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

However, this is far from the truth. The private sector has done a great job of developing a huge number of public-access EV chargers in populated areas. In fact, as of last year, there are more public-access EV charging points than petrol stations.

The industry is also rising to the challenge of creating a truly open-access network to give drivers the best possible experience. Regulation, due to come into force this spring, is primed to enshrine this interoperability between charging networks in law.

Yet an issue remains. While the more commercially viable areas of the country which benefit from higher customer demand – shopping centres, retail parks, supermarkets, car parks etc. – have been well served by the private sector, other, more rural, areas of the country with less customer demand naturally deliver less return on investment and are therefore less likely to attract private investment.

The result is under-developed infrastructure in these areas. This is where the government can give real substance to its new target. By offering direct support to these areas, in particular, we can ensure that the rollout of chargers is a strategically managed programme, aimed at enabling mass EV adoption in all areas of the UK.

The idea that there are virtually no public charging points to cater for EV owners is just one misconception that plagues the country’s efforts to develop an established EV market. That’s why a sustained effort to educate the general public on EVs is needed.

If the government is committed to achieving its 2035 target, it must take responsibility for dispelling myths – i.e. lack of charging points, misconceptions about charging behaviour, range anxiety etc. – and educating on benefits i.e. the ease of home charging, lower fuels costs, zero emissions, minimal maintenance and superior driving experience.

Supply and demand

Finally, and perhaps most frustratingly for early adopters of EVs, there is the issue of EV supply. There’s no doubt that demand for EVs is skyrocketing. In fact, the market for EVs is set to expand from 3.4% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 5.5% in 2020. Despite this, drivers are often discouraged by long waiting times for new vehicles – something that’s severely inhibiting the growth of this burgeoning market.

To tackle this issue, and thus help meet the 2035 target, the UK must cultivate an attractive trading environment for EV suppliers. One effective way to do this is to encourage OEM investment in UK-based supply chains – namely battery Gigafactories.

This will keep costs down for OEMs by shortening supply chains for the UK market and make a compelling case for them to prioritise UK EV deliveries over other countries.

The 2035 target is no mean feat and we have certainly planted an ambitious stake in the ground. The industry has already done much of the hard work but only by continuing to implement meaningful actions and gaining government support in key areas can we give the new target real substance and credibility.


Our thanks to Air Quality News for permission to republish this article.

Further reading: more blog posts on electric vehicles

Whither wind power?

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in the UK’s energy supply. In 2010, almost three quarters of Britain’s electricity was generated by fossil fuels. But in the third quarter of 2019, renewables outpaced coal, oil and gas for the first time since Britain’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882.

As Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK has observed, the transformation of the UK’s electricity supply has been extraordinary:

“We’re in the middle of basically an industrial revolution. If you look back 10 years ago when we thought about renewables, we only thought about them as this kind of niche climate change technology and now they’re the backbone of the energy system.”

More megawatts: the growth of wind power

Increases in turbine capacity, hub height and rotor diameter, and sharp reductions in the costs of constructing and operating wind power facilities have helped to grow the UK’s wind power sector. The current generation of offshore turbines are taller than the London Eye (195m), generating 8-9 megawatts of power. But wind power operators are already planning 300m turbines, with a capacity to generate between 10-15 megawatts. Another innovation has been the development of floating turbines, which can be placed in deeper waters where the wind is stronger and less variable. The world’s first floating wind farm was opened off the coast of Scotland in 2017.

Offshore wind: “a major game changer”

An additional factor driving the growth of wind power is government support. The UK government has provided competitive subsidies to the offshore wind sector, with further help pledged in the 2019 Offshore Wind Sector Deal

The UK is now the world’s biggest offshore wind market. In the past two years, supersize wind farms have opened off the coasts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Caithness. Another wind farm will become operational in 2020, while work has already started on what will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm, capable of powering 4.5 million homes.

While the UK, along with Germany and Denmark, has been leading the development of offshore wind power, other countries are catching up fast. In 2018, China installed more new offshore wind power schemes than any country in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) offshore wind provides just 0.3% of global power generation. But by 2040 wind could be the single biggest source of power generation in Europe. Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA is in no doubt about the future of onshore wind power, telling the Financial Times last year: “It has the potential to be a major game-changer.”

Onshore wind: a sector becalmed

For onshore wind it’s a different story. In April 2016, the UK government ended new subsidies for onshore wind schemes, pointing to growing public opposition. In addition, changes to planning regulations have made it harder to develop new onshore wind schemes. As a result, new capacity in onshore wind has slowed markedly.

The UK onshore wind sector has argued strongly in favour of lifting the ban on subsidies, pointing to the economic benefits of onshore wind and its capacity to replace lost resources. In January 2019, when Hitachi abandoned plans to build a nuclear plant in Wales, the onshore wind industry highlighted 794 projects that have won planning consent and are ready to build. Industry representatives claim that together these projects would generate two thirds of what the Hitachi plant would have produced.

While onshore development in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has lost pace, continuing support from the Scottish Government for onshore wind power means there is a current pipeline of 26 projects in Scotland.

Elsewhere in the world, onshore wind power is strong in Sweden, Denmark and China, but in Germany there is growing opposition to onshore schemes.

Skills and jobs

In 2019, the UK adopted a net zero carbon emission target, bringing all greenhouse gas emissions — excluding aviation and international shipping — to virtually zero by 2050. Achieving this will require profound changes, not least in terms of power generation. This in turn means recruiting the right people with the right skills.

Last month, a report published by the National Grid forecast that the UK’s energy sector will need to recruit several hundred thousand workers in order to deliver net zero emissions by 2050. The report found that in the north west of England alone, over 60,000 jobs will need to be filled to meet the demands of offshore wind expansion, while the continued growth of on-shore and offshore wind power in Scotland will drive the need for almost 50,000 jobs by 2050.

Final thoughts

Wind power is not without its critics. Some commentators have expressed doubts about its contribution to world energy supply, and warned of its environmental impacts. But it seems that a critical turning point has been reached. Wind now accounts for 20% of UK electricity generation, making it the country’s strongest source of renewable energy.

The trend is set to continue, certainly regarding offshore wind power. And even onshore wind schemes may be set for a comeback, with signs that public support for this cheap and clean form of electricity generation has never been greater.

Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

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‘Veganuary’ – could a plant-based lifestyle really save the planet?

As we leave behind the indulgences of the festive period, an increasing number of people are signing up to ‘Veganuary’, a campaign encouraging people to try vegan for the month of January and beyond. Already, the campaign has reached its target of 350,000 participants as it continues to grow in popularity; increasing its support every year since its launch in 2014.

Participants sign up for a number of reasons, with major drivers being health, animal welfare and the environment. It’s perhaps no surprise that health is a major driver, given the time of year, but increasingly people are turning away from animal products in a bid to help protect the planet.

Indeed, animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and while it hasn’t received the same attention as others such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport, it is now receiving increasing media coverage.

Impact of animal agriculture

“The food industry is destroying the living world”. These were the words of environmental journalist George Monbiot, also a supporter of Veganuary, in the recent Channel 4 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet.

With the increasing population, there has been much discussion in recent years of the effects of urban sprawl and how to tackle this, but Monbiot suggests that attention should be turned to ‘agricultural sprawl’, which he asserts is a much bigger cause of habitat destruction. While ambling through the indisputably scenic Lake District, he describes the landscape as a “sheep-wrecked desert”, which was once home to a rich mosaic of trees, shrubs, plants and animals.

It is also noted that while deforestation in the Amazon is a topic of much current discussion and concern, Britain is actually one of the most deforested landscapes in the world, with agriculture one of the biggest drivers.

The documentary highlights that 51% of land in the UK is currently used for livestock or growing food for livestock, while less than 20% is used for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables for human consumption, and just 10% is used for trees – the one thing that is “essential for both nourishing living systems and preventing climate breakdown”.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and 10-12% of emissions globally; the fourth highest GHG emitting sector in the world.

Monbiot makes a radical suggestion that all farming could be eradicated in the future as we look to other sources of food and more sustainable practices. This may be somewhat extreme and undoubtedly something with which the farming community would disagree.

Nevertheless, the extent of the current climate crisis warrants drastic measures and as one of the largest contributors, it would make sense for action to be taken to reduce the impact agriculture currently has.  And it has been argued that a change in diet is the easiest and fastest way to reduce our own personal emissions.

Impact of reduced meat consumption

According to calculations based on the current Veganuary participation figures, 31 days of a vegan diet for 350,000 people would equate to the following savings:

  • 41,200 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere – the same as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin;
  • 160 tonnes of PO43 equivalent (eutrophication) from waterways – the same as preventing 650 tonnes of sewage from entering waterways; and
  • 5 million litres of water, which is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In addition, it is suggested that 1 million animals could be saved.

Analysis of the Veganuary 2019 campaign results by Kantar suggests that going vegan for January also leads to sustained meat reduction. Drawing on data from January to June 2019, it was found that there was a sustained reduction in consumption which is estimated to have saved approximately 3.6 million animals in Britain alone.

Still just 3% of the population identify as vegan according to Kantar. Nevertheless, those who participated in Veganuary but did not stay vegan beyond January, did maintain reduced consumption levels at least until July, suggesting a long-term impact on consumption habits.

With increasing numbers pledging their support to Veganuary each year and the resulting reductions in sales of red meat, it would seem that reducing meat consumption may well be a way forward.

Indeed, the United Nations (UN) has also emphasised the need for significant changes in global land use, agriculture and human diets. The UN-commissioned special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. By 2050, it suggests that dietary changes could free several million km2 of land and considerably reduce CO2 emissions.

Final thoughts

The ‘Veganuary effect’ has clearly been significant and one that sees no sign of dissipating any time soon.

Of course, changing diets isn’t the only way to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Reducing food waste and changing farming and land management practices can also help reduce emissions. The IPCC report also calls for an end to deforestation, the planting of new forests and support to small farmers. It does not call for an end to all farming.

So while we wait for the many governments to take meaningful action on climate change, perhaps picking up our knives and forks as the weapon of choice against the climate crisis is an effective way of making a difference now.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of our other posts related to the environment and climate change:

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Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

Rivers are changing all the time, and it affects their capacity to contain floods

Houses alongside the Saigon river in Vietnam. Tony La Hoang/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

This guest post was written by: Louise Slater, University of Oxford; Abdou Khouakhi, Loughborough University, and Robert Wilby, Loughborough University.

The rainfall that has inundated the North of England is the latest in a long line of flood events that are becoming the country’s new normal. Indeed, across the world, flooding is expected to become more frequent and more extreme as the planet heats up.

Building robust flood defences and modelling vulnerable areas is crucial if we are to avoid loss of life and livelihoods from these devastating weather events. But our new research reveals that the capacity of rivers to keep water flowing within their banks can change quickly – and in failing to acknowledge this, some flood models and defences may be under-equipped to deal with the consequences when they do.

Many assume that flooding is due to heavy rainfall. This is true, but only part of the explanation. Floods also occur when the amount of water running off the land exceeds the capacity of rivers to carry that flow – as was the case when the River Don breached flood defences in the Sheffield area recently. So, floods are partly caused by the amount of rain falling, partly by the moisture that is already in the ground, and partly by the capacity of rivers to contain water within their channels.

This means that if the capacities of river channels change, then two identical rainfall events falling on similarly wet ground can cause flooding of very different severity.

Most rivers are forever changing. They are shaped by the sediments and water they carry. Humans have modified most of the world’s rivers in some way. In some cases this is through direct influence, such as dam construction or river engineering. Other influences are indirect – building on nearby land reduces the capacity of ground to absorb water, agriculture draws water from rivers, and deforestation leaves more water to flow elsewhere.

After the River Don burst its banks in places, multiple roads in urban centres such as Rotherham flooded. DnG Photography/Shutterstock

Rivers respond to changes in climate as well. During drier periods, less water flows through river systems. This means that there is often less energy to move the sediments at their beds, so riverbed levels may progressively rise, decreasing the capacity of the river. Abundant plant growth within the channel can also reduce a river channel’s capacity by slowing the flow.

But it is not always easy to predict how rivers will change. Extreme shifts in channel shape and capacity can occur very rapidly. After a recent flash flood in Spain, one river rose almost a metre as huge volumes of sediment from upstream were displaced and dumped further along. In tropical river systems, which tend to carry more sediment than temperate rivers, these changes can be several metres.

Uncertain risk

Unfortunately, such changes are typically ignored by flood engineers and modellers, who generally treat the channel as a fixed feature. If rivers actually change their capacity in space and time, then estimates of flood probability may be incorrect, putting people and property at risk.

Motivated by these concerns, we investigated the pace at which channel changes occur, and to what extent these alterations might be driven by climate. We began with a simple conceptual model: climate controls rainfall, rainfall affects river flow, and river flow shapes channel capacity.

Direct observations of this link were lacking in river systems over short timescales. So, we took 10,000 measurements of the capacity of 67 rivers in the US, covering a period of nearly 70 years. We also gathered rainfall and river flow data, to assess how climatic changes affected the capacity of the rivers.

We discovered that temporary shifts in river capacity, lasting years to decades, were far more frequent than had previously been assumed. Overall, river capacity tends to increase during periods that are wetter than average due to greater erosion of river channels, and decrease in drier periods.

The flood-prone Ganges river is a lifeline to millions who live along its course. Joachim Bago/ Shutterstock

We also found that multi-year climate cycles that affect regional precipitation patterns – such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation – can cause channel capacity to expand and contract too, perhaps on a global scale. Armed with this knowledge, we may eventually be able to predict how the capacity of rivers changes, and hence better understand flood risk.

In temperate regions such as the UK, where rivers tend to be vegetated, heavily engineered and relatively stable, delicate changes in channel capacity are hard to detect and unlikely to be life threatening. However, in river systems that carry high volumes of sediment, or in parts of the world where rainfall varies considerably during the year, sudden reductions in river capacity may dramatically increase flood risk for nearby settlements. For example, the Ganges-Brahmaputra river in India and Bangladesh falls under this category. Its capacity is already changing, and its floodplains are some of most densely populated in the world.

Unfortunately, we still have very poor understanding of the nature and causes of channel capacity changes in most regions – and it is the most at-risk places that tend to have the least data. To better understand what’s happening, we need to use satellite imagery to monitor how fast rivers are responding to changes in the climate. What we can’t yet do though is monitor river adjustment in real time. Developing technologies that do this would greatly improve our understanding of how changes in river shape and capacity affect flood risk across the world.

Until this information becomes apparent, flood models and defence structures should build this uncertain risk into their designs. Doing so could make all the difference for those living in vulnerable areas.


Louise Slater, Associate Professor in Physical Geography, University of Oxford; Abdou Khouakhi, Research Associate, Climate and Weather Data Analysis, Loughborough University, and Robert Wilby, Professor of Hydroclimatic Modelling, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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