Reaching net zero carbon emissions will require a new energy-industrial revolution, but this needs to focus on reducing energy demands alongside a rapid expansion of low-carbon energy supplies.
Following the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change, the United Kingdom’s government has endorsed a legal target of reducing the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. This aims to meet the UK’s commitments under the Paris Agreement, with a goal of keeping global temperature rises to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
As we have seen from the recent wave of climate protests, even one individual – a 16-year old Swedish girl called Greta Thunberg – can make a huge difference when it comes to tackling climate change. If every household contributed to emissions reductions by making certain lifestyle changes, we could reach the temperature reduction targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement. So why is behaviour change not receiving more attention from policy makers?
Noam Bergman reports back from eceee 2019 Summer Study on energy efficiency
The eceee 2019 Summer Study had the title Is Efficient Sufficient? This, in itself, was exciting. In previous years, this biannual conference of the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy focused on energy efficiency, from the technical to the systemic to the behavioural. This theme, however, indicated a change, finally putting centre stage the question many of us have been asking for years: whether energy efficiency is in itself enough to substantially reduce our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr Marie Claire Brisbois, Lecturer in Energy Policy at SPRU, joined us in 2018 and runs Powershifts, a project investigating the impact that decentralised renewable energy initiatives are having on existing policy decisions.
We sit down to have a chat on a sunny Friday on the occasion
of her appointment as new Co-Director of SEG. I am interested to hear what made
her want to join the Energy Group and why she came to SPRU in the first place.
“It made sense to join the
group as I wanted to be involved in the wide range of areas they are working on
from energy efficiency, energy justice, finance and politics. It is a dynamic
group that is very well connected externally”– she explains.
She has definitely not just been sitting at her desk.
“It is nice to be here also
from a social academic point of view. You get to talk to people about their
research, but also about the reasons why they are doing it. A lot of people
here are intrinsically motivated to try to make the world a better place. It is
She tells me about how she initially contacted Andy Stirling and Adrian Smith, when she was looking for a post-doc, but then ended up first working for the Canadian government and taking a post-doc position at Utrecht University before, eventually, ending up at SPRU.
I am eager to hear more about what Marie Claire is working
on. With a background in physical science, she spent most of her academic
career looking at water, rather than energy. Working on water drainage projects
in Guatemala made her realise she needed to look at the bigger picture and
switch fields. She then focused on issues of power and politics in water
governance decisions, specifically looking at the Alberta tar sands and at
petro-chemical processing factories in the province of Ontario, Canada.
The common thread through her work, she explains, is that the way our economy is set up and the way we use resources has implications for political decisions and policy decisions; which often end up prioritising profit over other things that are important and make life worth living.
“Money is important, but it is
not everything. You need the full package: things like social and environmental
outcomes have to be taken into account,”-she adds.
When she moved into the energy space, she started looking at
the political implications of energy choices we make and how we can go about
changing the negative power structures and relationships that lead us to the
climate situation and the social situation we are in, in terms of poverty,
equity, justice and ultimately, who has access to resources.
“I tried to be productive, not
just critical,”-she says.
Her work as part of the Powershifts project looks at
decentralised energy movements and how they are impacting policy arenas.
“I am interested in groups
like community energy or municipal groups that are not solely focused on
profits; and how they are working together to participate in policy processes.
In some countries, like the Netherlands, you are starting to see policy shifts
as a result. In other places, like the UK, where supportive policies are
lacking, people are doing whatever they can, working around the policies and
regulations,”– she explains.
It sounds like a very timely topic and the results will be
coming out soon. I want to know more about her plans as the new co-Director.
Marie Claire, unlike co-Director Karoline Rogge and Director Professor Benjamin
Sovacool, is based full time in Brighton. She has already shown how important
it is to have a connection to the local community and what is going in the UK,
by inviting representatives of the student movement, Fridays for the Future for
“There is a lot of motivation
among SEG staff to be involved in the climate discussions and what is going on,
so I am here to facilitate that for the people who are interested. My goal is
to make sure these people have a pathway through which they can pursue this
interest and be involved”– she says.
Her energy and enthusiasm for action are apparent and not
accidental. Marie Claire spent time between her Masters and her Phd working as
an environmental activist for the Sierra Club of Canada. She knows how
important small wins are and that we need to celebrate them.
“I got disillusioned for a
while and left activism for ten years. There is so much energy right now that I
don’t have to self-motivate anymore. There is a feeling that things can change,
so it feels like I am not doing it all on my own anymore. I am happy to get
back in and support others in any way possible”.
There is also a lot going on within the University right now
– including conversations about rewilding, a transportation strategy and
discussions about the general carbon budget – that it is great to have somebody
who can link the group into these processes.
There probably isn’t a better person to talk about the
recent wave of protests and how academics can take part without compromising
their duty to stay politically neutral. Marie Claire doesn’t beat around the
“Pretending that science is
neutral is ridiculous. As scientists, we make decisions on what we think is
important every day and these decisions reflect our values, ideals and how we
were raised. There is no manual or objective truth, especially when you get
into questions like energy, where people have very different ideas”.
How about party politics? Can we call the government out, I
“We need to look at the
reasons why decisions are made and have a wider assessment of the conditions
behind them. I believe that as academics, it is our role to be critical, but
also constructive. There should always be space to speak truth to power”.
I am truly inspired to hear this. Marie Claire will be
getting the results of her project out soon. She says she is excited to publish
work that shows that things are substantially changing. We are living through
difficult times and this is something that we all want to hear. She is hopeful
about the future, and as a researcher, of course, she wants to understand what
it will look like going forward from an energy perspective. And in general.
I, for one, am looking forward to a SEG pub night – which,
as the new co-Director, she has been tasked with organising – where I can pick
her brains further about activism, politics and power.
Dr Marie Claire Brisbois was appointed co-Director of SEG in May 2019, alongside co-Director Dr Karoline Rogge and Director Professor Benjamin Sovacool.
Another climate report and another urgent call for action, along with a dizzying array of graphs and figures. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), who advise the UK government on policies and planning for a low carbon economy, have produced their analysis and recommendations on how to stop UK’s contribution to global warming by 2050. This follows the “Paris Agreement” signed in December 2015 where the UK, along with 196 other countries, agreed to reduce their nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.