_FEATURES_ UCL saves the planet


Experts from the UCL community share their news and views on the way forward. Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology, sets the scene

Illustrations Irena Gajic

Climate change is one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced. But it is also an opportunity for us to make a safer, healthier, and better world for all. UCL is leading the way by designing and implementing win-win solutions at all levels, from the local to the global. These include designing renewable energy systems and helping develop the global green economy, which will increase energy security, create jobs and stimulate sustainable economic growth.

Other win-win solutions include low-emission farming, zero-emission building and more vegetable-based diets, all of which increase human health and well-being and cut the costs to our health services. UCL researchers are also working on saving and expanding our global forests and natural habitats, through reforestation and rewilding programmes, which help protect biodiversity, stabilise soils and boost adjacent agricultural production.

At UCL we advocate cutting fossil fuel subsidies and exploring different ways in which fossil fuel use could be taxed progressively – saving public money and incentivising alternatives. UCL also works with governments, businesses and international organisations to increase the amount of innovation and technology transfer that occurs to produce new and exciting solution for everyone.

Solving the climate crisis requires everyone to play their part, from national and local government to industry, from business to civil society and individuals. Leading Universities such as UCL are centres of knowledge, wisdom and innovation and are essential in enabling every player to maximise their potential in solving climate change. So what can you do to help us save our planet? This will depend on your circumstances, but simple things can make a difference and make you healthier and happier. Switch to a renewable energy supplier. Use public transport more, and if you need a car, get an electric/hybrid version. Switch to a more vegetarian or vegan diet. Stop flying – but if you must for work, then get fully verified carbon offsets. Divest your pensions from fossil fuels. Live by the five Rs – refuse, reduce, reuse, reclaim and recycle.

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And finally, talk to everyone about this crisis and the positive things we can all do, protest to make your voice heard and vote for politicians who take saving our planet seriously.

Read on for our expert overview of what’s happening at UCL.

UCL is leading by example with ambitious plans to be Carbon Neutral in the next five years – and Zero Carbon by 2030. Richard Jackson, Director of Sustainability explains how

A futuristic illustration of UCL building with solar panels and wind turbines

We have developed a new Sustainability Strategy for UCL which is bold and ambitious, building on the work which we have done to date to tackle carbon emissions, reduce our waste and create a more sustainable campus. At the centre of the new Strategy is our goal to be zero carbon by 2030, arguably the most challenging climate-change target in the sector. Our target reflects the challenging times that we face and the unique position in which universities find themselves to respond to this challenge.

UCL wants to take a leadership role – using our scientific knowledge and our community of students, researchers, experts and innovators to tackle our own impacts on climate change. To deliver this target, we will need to tackle how much energy we use, how we travel and what we purchase.

UCL currently uses electricity and gas on campus which is the equivalent of around 58,000 tons of carbon (the fourth highest in the sector). We’re working towards carbon neutrality for our energy use by 2024, firstly by looking at efficiencies within our energy systems (making our buildings more energy efficient and producing renewable energy from solar panels and other exciting technologies), and then by buying green electricity from the grid. However, to go zero carbon will be even more challenging, as it includes the carbon related to business travel, about 40,000 tons, and the indirect carbon emissions related to the goods that we purchase and use. We’ve estimated that the carbon emissions associated with the manufacturing and transportation of all these goods (which includes construction materials, lab equipment, stationary, etc) is the equivalent of 200,000 tons of carbon!

So we have a number of initiatives under way:

Green Impact is an ongoing programme where we give all departments a set of basic sustainability measures that we want them to apply across their area. At the end of the year, we reward them based on how many measures they’ve achieved. Through the programme, our staff have reduced energy use, created innovative ways to make events more sustainable, pledged to only eat vegetarian food and tackle the (un)sustainability of labs.

We’ve been working to make sustainability a key requirement within the Transforming UCL building programme. This is exemplified by the new Student Centre, which recently achieved a BREEAM Outstanding award for building sustainability. One of the few buildings in the country to achieve this level.

We’re also piloting a carbon-accountability scheme, which will incentivise energy saving – and potentially penalise those areas of the business which have increasing energy use. We’re launching the scheme with 10 to 15 departments, so that we can assess what works best. Both Yale and Cambridge have successfully introduced accountability schemes. At UCL, I think it really helps that attitudes to climate change, especially in light of recent weather events, have convinced our community that they want to take action.

How do we keep the country moving without polluting? Professor Paul Shearing and Professor Dan Brett of the Electrical Innovation Lab are working on the answer

Illustration of a smart car recharging

The Electrochemical Innovation Lab (EIL) focuses on the next generation of energy conversion and storage, from a battery small enough to power a pacemaker to one that will store the energy from a wind-farm and everything in between. When it comes to saving the planet, they’re at the cutting edge of initiatives working on the challenges of decarbonising transport. As academic co-founders of the Faraday Institution they are trying to push back the boundaries in terms of making transport batteries last longer, give a greater range and bring the costs down.

“The lithium-ion battery was primarily commercialised for people using consumer electronics like camcorders back in the early 1990s,” says Professor Shearing, “and broadly speaking, the same building blocks that went into those batteries are the same that go into electric vehicles today, except that now we’re now asking them to do so much more, for example, could we use batteries in electric flight?”

Professor Brett explains: “With a vehicle, you’re working with quite a small space so the volume of the battery is important but with planes it’s all about weight”. In September the Faraday Institution announced that they’d funded a £10 million project, led by UCL, to develop lithium sulfur batteries which are significantly lighter. “These new chemistries will allow applications for batteries in areas like aviation where previously you would have thought it was impossible,” he adds. The aerospace market is increasingly diversified, with companies developing small aircraft that look like quad-copters, powered by a combination of electrochemical technologies like batteries and fuel-cells. Don’t expect an electric long-haul flight any time soon but Professor Shearing believes that there is the potential to decarbonise the short hop flight. “The more we can do to chip away the overall carbon footprint in the air industry the better”, he says.

Advanced batteries are not the only trick up their sleeve. “The next wave of innovation is the hydrogen fuel cell, says Professor Brett. “At UCL we’ve collaborated with Hyundai and Toyota in showcasing cars where the only emission is pure water.” Hydrogen fuel cells are going to be especially useful for heavier vehicles, like buses and lorries which struggle to carry enough energy on board. Although refuelling remains a challenge as relatively few forecourts have a hydrogen pump, the tide is turning as the benefits are obvious. The hydrogen is made on site removing the need for tanker transportation. “If you look around the streets of London,” says Professor Shearing, “you’ll see that there is increasing adoption of hydrogen fuel cell cars, including taxi firms and the Metropolitan Police. When we open the Advanced Propulsion Lab at UCL East, we plan to continue to support the roll out of hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure because we want to use that as part of our research while also acting as a hub within the local community to encourage more people to move to hydrogen fuel cell cars.”

“Decarbonising transportation is an acute problem”, says Professor Brett, “it’s an international race and despite the UK inventing the lithium-ion battery, we have fallen behind in terms of the scale of our current battery industry. By working collegiately within the Faraday Institution, we are delivering on a national need.”

Professor Henrietta Moore is convening a global team of experts to help crack the climate emergency and find ways to regenerate the planet

Illustration of houses with wind turbines

At the Institute for Global Prosperity, we are building big trans-disciplinary teams that tackle really difficult challenges like climate change. I think we already have the technology to solve the problem of the climate emergency and yet we can’t do much with it unless we find the social, economic and political innovations to build societies that do things differently. That’s why we’ve launched the Transforming Tomorrow Initiative (TTI); to find the ideas, experiences, experiments and success stories to get us on the road towards post-climate emergency and thinking about how to regenerate the planet.

We have a core group of 200 experts based in all parts of the world who will provide the best evidence of social, economic and political transformation. This mid-generation group will convene on a knowledge-sharing platform to create a series of provocations. These will be designed to encourage people to develop new lines of research, ideas and business opportunities that force us to be truly innovative. We’re not looking for a one size fits all answer. The purpose of it is to say, if this kind of thing worked here, would you like to take it over there, give it a good shake and see what falls out.

Small scale, local level activities are hugely important to the TTI because they kickstart the process of regeneration and improving the quality of people’s lives. Here are a few examples:

In African prisons they are using a very simple structure (it looks a bit like a beehive) to convert human waste into bio-gas. This solves several issues not least the challenge of connecting the prison to the sanitation grid. It saves on resources as wood no longer needs to be collected or chopped and reduces emissions as they are no longer burning wood for energy – and the bio gas is clean energy. The remaining effluent is then used to fertilise the prison gardens where they now grow all their own vegetables. There are already discussions in the UK and Scandinavia about how to replicate this and run a hospital on fully recycled waste.

The beautiful island of Tiree in Scotland is tiny and very windy. The locals installed one wind turbine, the energy from which they return to the National Grid. This simple innovation makes the island about £150,000 a year which the community uses to support their elderly and support early childhood development for all resident families.

In India they trained women to be renewable energy engineers with great success. Putting women in charge of energy was an astute move because women had always been responsible for collecting firewood and water for cooking food and running the home. As the energetics were always controlled by women, it made the country’s transition to renewables easier.

In Birmingham, the Afro-Caribbean community took the lead in transforming a derelict area of land by the canal, locally known as ‘The Centre Of The Earth’. They applied the farming lessons for regenerating soil that they’d learned in the Caribbean to transform this toxic spot into a biodiverse sanctuary. It’s now run by The Wildlife Trust as a centre for learning about wildlife, the environment and sustainability.

At the IGP, we have the Fast Forward 2030 Knowledge Network which finds and encourages young entrepreneurs who are using new technologies in new ways to create new business models that deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We are not waiting for things to change, we are driving the transformations that will shape tomorrow. Initiatives like Fast Forward 2030 and TTI are key to doing this, and creating the different kinds of social contracts between people, planet and government that we need. It is this collaborative, interdisciplinary working that we believe will help us create real impact.

Find out more at

As pupils strike for action on climate change, Dr Alex Standish, Senior Lecturer in Geography Education thinks it’s time for more optimism when teaching children about climate change

Illustration of a classroom with wooden desks and a chalk board

If you’re going to stand in front of children and teach them, even when there are bad things going on in the world, you still must inspire them and give them hope. However information about climate change whether from the UN, media and even the geography curriculum is increasingly filled with doom and gloom and I think that schools need to think more carefully about how they handle it.

I believe some messages are being exaggerated. Earlier this year, the UN suggested that a million species were threatened with extinction. It grabbed the headlines but if you look more closely at the data and research on species at risk it is an exaggeration. Professor Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at Cambridge University, wrote a brilliant blog piece about being a ‘human extinction denier’ in response to the growing narrative of extinction. As well as the lack of factual evidence, I worry that the extinction narrative doesn’t help us politically, morally or psychologically. It’s very misanthropic and leads us nowhere. The language that the media use compounds the problem. Just look at how much publicity Extinction Rebellion are getting. They can have their point of view, but I’d say that their message is being amplified by the media when the media should be offering a more balanced view on the issue.

I believe that children need to hear a more positive narrative in which humanity can be a force for making things better. Schools should get children involved in the narrative about what is being done and how we can find a way through that. We need to share with pupils the positive stories of mitigation and adaptation that are going on, engage them in the conversation so that they can find a role and see a brighter future. One of my favourite sources for a more positive outlook on the world is in the work of the late Hans Rosling. His website Gapminder and his posthumously published book Factfulness, gather huge amounts of global data to demonstrate the progress and patterns of development and improvement, particularly in the developing world.

As teacher, are you there to educate children about the world and its issues and share knowledge? Or are you trying to change their attitudes to make the planet, in your view better? If it’s the latter, then in my mind, you’ve crossed a line towards politics and schools should be for education not politics. It’s fine for schools to encourage kids to cut down on plastic waste, recycling and so on but teachers should be mediating the discussion. During our teacher training, we spend time on weather, climate and global warming but we also encourage students to think about the line between education and politics and where that is. We talk about not being morally careless in the classroom, about not crossing the line to moralising to children about how to live their lives. So an issue like the use of plastics should be explored from all sides. It’s about approaching issues carefully, managing them in an educational context where you explore them and examine them to understand them better.

At the Institute of Real Estate, Professor Yolande Barnes is getting everyone involved in improving land value in its broadest sense

Real estate is at the heart of environmental issues, because if we talk about real estate, we’re talking about land and everything that goes on that land. So we’re thinking of sustainability not just in an environmental context, but also in a social and economic context because achieving environmental sustainability is impossible without it. Most practitioners in real estate operate in one area and tend not to know much about other places and other ways of doing things. They have a local silo mentality which is compounded not only by industry specialism (architects, planners, developers, etc) but also use class (residential, retail, industrial, etc). At the Bartlett Real Estate Institute (BREI), we are tempting people out of these silos, showing them how much richer, more varied, interesting and productive a world can be if they operate in concert with others.

Some of the key issues that we’re addressing are:

We predict that there is not going to be the same automatic capital value growth from land that we’ve became used to in the late 20th century. If going forward, the only way you get capital value growth is by increasing net income streams, one of the things that everyone involved in real estate will have to be very conscious of is how popular, sustainable and efficient to maintain the buildings are.

Towers of concrete, glass and steel are very costly to run in the long-term, especially if you’re not reaping the rewards of land appreciation. But that’s only part of the problem. If their location is fundamentally unsustainable, i.e. there are too many similar buildings in the area, or the area itself falls out of favour then you’re looking at a broader effect; not just one building needing to be knocked down, but the whole place effectively becoming obsolete.

London and other large cities such as New York and Sydney are beginning to see de-population as people are priced out of the area. We’re seeing millennials and younger people voting with their feet, moving to smaller, liveable cities like Bristol, Guilford and Oxford. These places have access to a big city but technology, changing working practices and social change mean that people don’t have to commute every day.

BREI is gathering experts to look at these issues together and influence changes to government policy. A lot of well-meaning initiatives and policies have had unintended consequences on the built environment by failing to recognise how each player fits in with the others. Even things like planning guidance, policy and building regulation and so forth can be highly prescriptive of an outcome – or highly prescriptive of the way to achieve an outcome – rather than allowing for innovation, collaboration and imagination to achieve the desired end goal, be that lowering pollution, reducing carbon and so on.

BREI at Here East and UCL East is the perfect place to be talking about these things because we’re at the cutting edge of London’s real estate story. As part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics, it’s a great place to be able to see what’s going right and wrong. We need new types of gathering places that aren’t as exclusive as we’ve made the existing towns and cities. There’s a real economic, social, environmental need for inclusivity in the very broadest sense. The spaces and places that provide that are the ones that will win.

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Portico Issue 6. 2019/20