Keeping Sustainability Local: Energy Innovation & Food Waste

By Anna Hardisty, GLOBUS Correspondent

Global warming is often presented as a global problem with only global solutions: the UNFCCC and its Conference of Parties negotiations serve as prime examples. However, it’s become apparent that a surprising proportion of the proposed solutions require a local, or ‘bottom-up’, approach, in combination with worldwide action.

Cast your mind back to your university hall’s kitchen: past the bottles lining the window ledge, the dubious green-white substance growing on a scarcely-used IKEA pan, and the constant accusations of whose milk was leaking in the fridge. Focus on the bins. The likelihood is that you had two of them – for recycling, and landfill – and, along with the rest of the general waste, you dumped scraps of mouldy pesto pasta and carrot peelings into the landfill bin.

Unfortunately, around 40% of food waste in the UK is sent to the landfill.  Once there, it decomposes in an anaerobic environment, which produces large quantities of methane gas. Methane gas is approximately thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its heat-trapping capabilities, contributing further to the global warming crisis. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, landfill accounts for 34% of US methane emissions. On the other hand, when properly composted, food scraps decompose to produce carbon dioxide and fertiliser, as well as a habitat for many small wriggly organisms. In-vessel and anaerobic digestion composting techniques are applied in food waste recycling schemes in many UK districts, yet aren’t available to all households, such as in Leamington Spa and on Warwick campus.

Conversely, it’s unlikely you need to cast your mind back far to remember the last time you had to make the journey to or from campus during rush hour. While buses can often be the bane of a Leamington-residing student’s existence, public transport is a key component in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As overall emissions fall (2017 greenhouse gas emissions are down 43% on 1990 levels) transport has now become the most polluting sector in the UK, with only a 1% decrease in emissions since 1990 (UK Department BEIS, 2017). The main culprits here are diesel and petrol cars. As each bus or train carries many passengers as opposed to one, public transport reduces the total number of vehicles (and therefore vehicle emissions!) on the road, with further indirect emissions reductions gained from reductions in congestion. Buses carrying just seven passengers have a greater fuel efficiency than the average single-occupant car – so how is public transport not a no-brainer?

The issue is that cars are still needed to maintain the lifestyles that we choose for ourselves (a separate issue outside the scope of this article): the key, therefore, is to figure out more sustainable ways to run them. The new NAIC (National Automotive Innovation Centre) building on Warwick’s campus aims to further develop ‘smarter, greener and lighter transport.’ Their research into autonomous vehicles, energy storage and alternative fuels in partnership with the neighbouring Energy Innovation Centre and Advanced Propulsion Centre will provide new advances in technology to reduce carbon emissions in transport.

Alternative energy supply stretches further than just cars. Decades of research point to the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels as the ‘traditional’ source of electricity, and towards cleaner, renewable sources. Yet, these fossil fuels companies hold a great deal of money, power and influence, making it difficult for this transition to occur. In the mid-2000s, in Boulder, Colorado, the campaigners attempted to persuade their privatised power utility provider to transition to more renewable energy sources – a move that ultimately proved unsuccessful. As a result, Boulder’s residents concluded that they would need to take back their grid into public control – a battle that is still ongoing to this day. There is, however, an increasing number of examples of private power utilities being ousted by the public in a bid to change their sources of fuel: Hamburg in Germany stands as an exemplar.

In Coventry, there exists an opportunity for a similar move to cleaner energies: introducing the ‘EIZ’, or Energy Innovation Zone. The EIZ is a defined geographical area in which restrictive national regulations can be waived (where permissible legally), thus enabling the deployment of clean, low carbon energy solutions at a reduced risk (for more info check out University of Birmingham’s report here). The zone’s proponents hope to see new business models trialled based on an understanding of previous barriers to change, which are often specific to the local area. Different municipalities have different challenges and resources and therefore require unique solutions: an understanding of the region’s identity allows for greater account to be taken of this, as opposed to blanket national policies. It would be a waste of resources for Argyll and Bute, one of the windiest places in the UK to focus on solar power over windfarm development.  For example, Coventry is one of the four potential EIZs in the West Midlands-wide proposal, due to its high levels of fuel poverty and lack of spare capacity in the local electricity network as demand continues to rise.

Much of our world’s future rests in the hands of governments and large organisations, but we should underestimate the difference that we, as individuals and communities, can make on a local or regional level by campaigning for our own futures: whether that be buying back the grid, writing to the local council about recycling options or signing the PROJECT: Climate Emergency petition for a carbon neutral campus by 2030, we should continue to push for change.

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