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Raimund Bleischwitz, Deputy Director at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources.

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Illustration Lucinda Rogers

It’s counterintuitive, but energy-intensive companies have a role to play in creating a sustainable future

Research. Newspaper articles. Hand-wringing. Getting worked up about climate change is all well and good, but at some point it is vital that we actually do something about it.

That’s why, when the mining company BHP Billiton offered UCL a donation of $5m to establish a partnership back in 2011, and UCL appointed me to a professorship, I was determined that such a founding partnership for our new Institute should yield tangible and positive results.

The implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 – such as setting up sustainable energy for all people, affordable housing and managing access to water among many others – will require future investments in infrastructures and is likely to increase the demand for materials. I’m particularly interested in the duality of the role resources play – both in driving the degradation of the environment and as part of a solution to it.

Research into a sustainable supply of materials for green economies requires funding, of course. It may be counter-intuitive, but energy-intensive companies have an important role to play in creating a sustainable future. Our collaboration over five years has shown the value of such a university partnership with companies such as BHP Billiton.

Ours has been an almost unique partnership between a mining company and a university, and I’m proud that we did not offer to spend their donation on research, but on setting up the Institute and running a PhD programme. We felt encouraged to think out of the box, and designed a research programme on sustainable resources, indicators and policies for resource efficiency. More recently, we have set up a macro-economic model to assess economic impacts. Now we realise this kind of industry-university partnership can be powerful in supporting new streams that are more difficult to fund via traditional academic sources. Crucially, the donation came free of any intervention.

My involvement as a professor has included a series of symposia on what UCL calls ‘Grand Challenges’, with large events on sustainable cities, Earth stewardship, sustainable food and water security – all issues that we look at in terms of interlinkages of resources (called the ‘nexus’) rather than following the more conventional silo approach.

Our cohort of 20 PhD students is finishing exciting research, collaborating across UCL departments to study topics such as resource policy in Australia, informal waste structures in Mexico and removing fossil fuel subsidies in Nigeria. I’m also pleased to see how quickly they move on along their career paths.

I’m determined to maintain and strengthen the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources as a world-leading research hub on sustainable resources.

Our work on the circular economy in China, for example, is important, because while China is the largest CO2 emitter in the world – and Beijing’s serious challenges on air pollution and general health issues are well known – our collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University gives evidence of real opportunities for the country to pioneer a green shift for economies around the world.

Finally, I hope that the new Master’s programme – an MSc in Sustainable Resources – will attract young talents from around the world and help tackle resource governance in the future. We look forward to more students coming into this programme, complementing a parallel MSc programme on energy issues, and building up their skills and capabilities toward sustainable resources.

The UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources is a cross-disciplinary hub of world-leading research, teaching and enterprise. For more, visit: www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/sustainable

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