Skip to main content

Climate conundrums & how to solve them

From lab-grown meat to tackling eco-anxiety, our researchers are solving some of the biggest challenges around climate change.

The world is getting warmer.

Earth’s average temperature has gradually increased since the Industrial Revolution, when fossil fuels were burnt on an unprecedented scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s top climate scientists, has drawn the line at 1.5°C to avoid the worst effects – and it already stands at 1°C. We’ve seen a rise in extreme weather events, including wildfires in Australia, floods in Indonesia and record-breaking temperatures across Europe.

Carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 50% since 1990, and grew faster in the 2000s than in any of the three preceding decades. What’s more, it’s predicted that sea levels could rise by more than 60cm by 2100, putting coastal cities at risk.

It’s clear that radical changes are needed to the energy we use, the foods we eat, the cars we drive and even the way we think. Here are just five ways our researchers are bringing a greener future within our reach.

Illustration of a thermometer

One cow produces up to 120kg of methane per year

Is going vegan our only option? Cultured meat could be the answer.

Close-up shot of a cow

Methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat within Earth’s atmosphere. With an estimated 1 billion cows on the planet – roughly one for every seven people – that’s a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Your Friday night burger habit may be part of the problem, but we’re also going to need an additional 60 million tonnes of protein to feed the world’s growing population by 2050. “The huge advantage of eating something like cultured meat is that it addresses our global needs and the challenges of both food security and climate change,” says Dr Marianne Ellis from our Department of Chemical Engineering.

To produce cultured meat, muscle cells are grown in a laboratory using biopsy samples taken from an animal. These tissue samples are then submerged in a solution of nutrients, including glucose and amino acids, to encourage them to multiply. The texture of the resulting meat is best suited to burgers at present, but scientists hope they’ll eventually be able to recreate other items, such as steaks and bacon.

The process involves using cell-friendly materials formed into porous hollow fibres on which to grow the muscle cells and to provide the nutrient solution – much like blood vessels would in the body. This is much cheaper than current methods, which means it could be well suited to industrial production if it can be scaled up successfully. Marianne hopes you could be slapping one of these eco-friendly beef burgers on the barbecue in three to four years’ time.

She explains: “This method compared to traditional beef production has much less greenhouse gas emissions, has much less water use, has much less land use and reduced energy use, so it really addresses those key global challenges.”

79% of plastic ends up in landfill or the environment

New ways of recycling could increase how many times plastics can be reused.

Waste plastics in landfill

Cheap, lightweight and versatile – it’s easy to see why plastic is so widely used. However, while many of us are avid recyclers, reusing plastic isn’t a simple like-for-like replacement. Most plastic is mechanically recycled, a process that degrades the quality of the material and means that it can only be used a limited number of times.

Dr Paul McKeown from our Department of Chemistry is developing new ways of recycling polylactic acid (PLA), a more sustainable type of plastic made by fermenting starches such as corn. The process involves using metal catalysts to break down the material into its component chemicals, including lactic acid and methyl lactate. This can be done at temperatures as low as 50°C – far lower than those used in other types of recycling, which can reach up to 200°C.

“While PLA is biodegradable under industrial conditions, it doesn’t biodegrade with home composting. But we’re trying to maintain some of its usefulness,” he explains. “We want to break down plastic polymers into their chemical building blocks so they can be used to make plastic again.” This breakthrough means plastic could be recycled hundreds of times without losing the quality of the material.

Thanks to its plant-based origins, PLA is more environmentally friendly than many other plastics, but it’s also more expensive to produce. “If you can break down PLA into monomers again, the idea is that the overall cost of the plastic will go down,” says Paul. “It’s a loop, but it’s not going all the way back to the start.”

At present, PLA is mainly used in food packaging and disposable tableware, but the hope is that lower costs and more efficient recycling processes could lead to an increase in its use. “We can’t make people recycle more,” he adds, “but what we can do is make sure that there are pathways for these plastics to go down at the end of their life.”

45% of children suffer depression after a natural disaster

Working through our emotions towards sustainable activism.

Landscape shot of flooding

If you were to close your eyes and think about climate change as a living thing – whether that’s animal or plant – what would it be? And if it had a voice, what would it say? If you conjured up some variety of predator, uttering ominous threats, you’re far from alone.

This is one of the key themes of Caroline Hickman’s research into the ever-growing phenomenon of ‘eco-anxiety’. Caroline, from our Department of Social & Policy Sciences, has been interviewing children and young people in the UK, as well as in communities affected by sea-level rises and natural disasters in the Maldives, Vanuatu and Bangladesh. It’s these young voices that she believes should be at the centre of discussions around our impact on the planet.

“When I speak with children in the Maldives, for example, they say things to me like, ‘You know the world doesn’t care about us’,” she explains. “They say things about how climate change is like Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, with his ideologies to kill off half the world’s population so the other half can thrive.”

When things are laid out in such stark terms, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us are concerned about the future of the planet. Caroline, who has worked as a psychotherapist for 25 years, believes that these feelings can inspire effective action on climate change. The key to this, however, is ensuring that emotions are processed in a healthy manner, rather than jumping straight into anxiety-based activism, which can quickly cause burnout.

“Anxiety is great because it shows you care, and then we can work from that feeling of care towards connecting with people,” she says. “This is a global problem and we need global solutions. You move from the anxiety into caring and then what generally happens is there’s some sadness and depression, because we’re waking up then to the fact that we haven’t cared. And the grief of what we’ve lost. Then acceptance is possible. Then we can take action.” Caroline is working with the Climate Psychology Alliance and organisations around the world on raising the issue of eco-anxiety.

Fewer than 10% of EU citizens prefer to cycle

Tapping into the three Ps: personal, people and place.

Photo of a man and a woman on bicycles

We all know that public transport, walking and biking are far better for the planet than driving, yet in 2018 these only made up just over a third of all journeys made in the UK. So how can we encourage people to make greener choices? According to research by Dr Alina Mia Udall as part of her PhD in the School of Management, we need to tap into one of the many ‘identities’ people hold.

“If people identify as being an environmentalist, that makes it easier for them to act pro-environmentally, because it’s in the forefront of their minds,” she explains. “People like to act in line with how they see themselves, because if there’s a conflict between how they see themselves and how they behave, that can cause discomfort, which people usually try to avoid.”

We each hold multiple identities, and Alina says they can be split into three categories: personal, people and place. These refer to how we see ourselves as individuals, as a group and in relation to places, respectively. So, for example, you could encourage somebody to choose cycling over driving by reinforcing their view of themselves as a cyclist, prompting them to recall how they feel when cycling as a group, or to imagine what it’s like riding through beautiful Bath.

Alina’s hope is that identity theory could be used by policymakers to nurture community-focused behaviour – particularly at a local level. “We know that if you’re talking about policy for a country, that’s not so effective,” she says. “But if you talk about social identity and policies on a smaller level, such as for a city, you can get people to respond more positively to the ask of a policy.”

A soft touch is necessary, as Alina – who won the Journal of Consumer Behaviour's 2020 'Best Paper' award for her research – explains that people react negatively when they’re prompted too explicitly. So, next time you’re weighing up whether you can be bothered to walk to the local shops, stop and consider whether you think of yourself as an environmentalist. Just forget we told you so.

Cars are responsible for over 60% of EU road transport emissions

Speeding ahead with increased efficiency and beefed-up batteries.

An electric car plugged in to charge

To combat air pollution and reduce carbon emissions, the UK government plans to ban the sale of new cars with petrol and diesel engines by 2035. This may sound a long way off, but the road to exclusively electric vehicles will need some pitstops along the way.

The Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems’ Professor Sam Akehurst is the principal investigator in a partnership between Bath, the University of Oxford, Jaguar Land Rover and Siemens Digital Industries. Its goal? To develop a plug-in hybrid car that can run on liquid fuel at a lower environmental cost than charging from the grid.

“Most of the inefficiencies in an engine lie in the heat rejected via the radiator. That’s waste heat that we normally don’t do anything with – actually, we struggle to get rid of it. We also have heat that goes down the exhaust pipe and typically not a great deal of it is recovered,” he explains. “We’re looking at the whole systems integration, effectively trying to minimise energy losses in the propulsion unit so that we can get a global, highly optimised efficiency.”

This energy could then be reused as electricity, or to heat the vehicle’s cabin on cold days. Sam hopes we could see some of this technology in use in Jaguar Land Rover vehicles as early as 2027.

Longer-term, one of the biggest obstacles electric vehicles face is battery capacity. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries – the same tech used to power your mobile phone – are key components in an electric car, and increasing their capacity will increase their range, but also drives up cost.

Materials chemistry lies at the heart of battery performance. Professor Saiful Islam from our Department of Chemistry is aiming to find new materials to replace cobalt – which is pricey, environmentally toxic and has ethical concerns – in the positive electrode (cathode) of the lithium-ion battery. “Cathodes are one of the hurdles to storing more energy, basically, to allow the cars to go further,” Saiful explains.

As part of a large Faraday Institution project that he leads, the team uses powerful computer modelling to understand and design new cathode materials. “Computer modelling is like a virtual microscope,” Saiful says. “We can develop sophisticated atomic-scale models of battery materials and predict promising candidates that can be tested in experimental labs. Our team is working with collaborators to speed up the transition from fundamental research to real devices for electric vehicles that will help to lower carbon emissions and improve air quality.”

Going green on campus

Here on campus, we’ve been taking significant steps to reduce our environmental impact. We have developed our Climate Action Framework as a whole-institution response to the challenge of climate change. This includes commitments to impact the agenda through our core mission – developing our research work and learning and teaching activities – alongside an ambitious plan to dramatically reduce our operational carbon emissions by 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2040.

Through a variety of measures we have already reduced our carbon emissions by 35% since 2005, despite growth in the campus building space of over 40%. At present, 10% of the electricity we use is generated on campus, and the remainder comes from renewable sources.

Find out more about the Climate Action Framework
Illustration of a wind turbine

Help us research towards a greener future

Make a gift today

This article was written by Emma Davies for BA2 Issue 28, published in August 2020.