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Food for Thought Lent 2013 Termcard

….is now available!

Here it is in pdf format: Food for Thought Lent 2013 Term-card

Here it is without the formatting for those who want a quick glance:

Week 1 – 23rd Jan: ‘Biofuels, indirect land use change and greenhouse gas emissions: A perfect storm of incomplete science and irresolvable politics?’ – James Palmer, PhD Student, Department of Geography

Week 2 – 30th Jan: ‘The Eating Local Challenge: Thinking about the contribution food makes to climate change’– Helen Karapandzic, Cambridge Carbon Footprint

Week 3 – 6th Feb: ‘Thinker-doers: Adding value in a climate crisis’ – Gracen Johnson, MPhil Student, Land Economy Faculty

Week 4 – 13th Feb: Is black the new green? The potential role of biochar in climate change mitigation’ – Laura Plant, MPhil Student, Land Economy

Week 5 – 20th Feb: Translating knowledge about climate change into policy: Lessons from the use of climate science in biodiversity conservation policy in England’ – David Christian Rose, PhD Student, Department of Geography

Week 6 – 27th Feb: ‘Agricultural adaptation and crop diversity: How developing countries can adjust to climate change’ – Stella Nordhagen, PhD Student, Department of Land Economy

Week 7 – 6th Mar: ‘Mitigating the effects of methane and manure: A small insight into reducing emissions in UK agriculture’ – Emily Scott, MPhil, Land Economy

Food for Thought Michaelmas 2012 powerpoints

Hey everyone,

See the Food for Thought” page for the full summary and powerpoint links, but this is just a quick alert that the powerpoints are now all up on the website, very kindly donated to us by the speakers.

Soren Lindner: The Gigatonne Gap in China’s Carbon Dioxide Inventories. – The Gigatonne Gap_Soren Lindner

Denis Garber: Shallow Geothermal Systems for Space Heating and Cooling. – Food for Thought_Denis Garber

Uven Chong: The Air Quality and Climate Tradeoffs in Road Transportation. – Road Transportation_Uven Chong

Marta de Olazabal: Transitions to Climate Change Resilient Cities. – Zero Carbon_MOLazabal

Aiora Zabala: Ecosystem Services & Sustainable Land Use Practices in Social-Ecological Systems. – zabala_zerocarbon

David Turner & Jon Coello: Carbon Footprinting – Measuring the invisible. – Carbon_Footprinting_Measuring_the_invisible

Emma Cross: Ocean Acidification – Emma Cross Zero Carbon Talk Ocean Acidification

Food for Thought will be returning for Lent 2013 – we’re just in the process of finalising the programme, so watch this space…

Food for Thought 07/11/12 – further info links


Many thanks to Marta Olazabal for such an informative and thought-provoking talk today!

For those of you who wanted to read further, the links are:

More info: (you can sign up to the mailing list here)


See you next week!


The Zero Carbon Society are recruiting committee members!

Join the Zero Carbon committee!

Want to get more involved in the society? We are recruiting two new committee members!
– Speaker series co-ordinator: As one of two co-ordinators, this involves planning and over-seeing our weekly talk and discussion group ‘Food for Thought.’ What do you think needs to be talked and thought about? See your ideas come to fruition with a series for Lent Term 2013.
– Campaigns co-ordinator: Does running a university-wide campaign in Lent 2013 appeal to you? We have had the idea that vegetarianism might be a good direction to go in (Be Vegetarian for Lent (term)?) – but what do you think?

Both positions also allow you to be involved in directing other areas of societal activity – development of GreenZine, attending local events eg. meeting with Julian Huppert MP last week, working on a green internship network and involvement with the University’s Living Labs Project, engagement with the university policy campaign group Energise Cambridge.

To apply, email by Wednesday 14th November with the following information:

*Who you are: name, college, subject

*What role you are applying for and why you think you’d do a good job.

Food for Thought Review: The Gigatonne Gap in China’s CO2 Inventories.

Food for Thought Review: The Gigatonne Gap in China’s CO2 Inventories.
by Mya Goschalk

‘Food for Thought’ is a weekly discussion group led by PhD students, the first of which was Soren Lindner who wrote an influential research paper on the gap between China’s officially stated CO2 emissions, and the reality. They came to the conclusion that China released 1.4 gigatonnes of CO2 emission higher than officially stated by the government, which amounts to 5% of global output. When prompted to make a press statement on these findings, the Chinese climate minister suggested that we should to look at historic accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from industrialised nations such as the UK.

This ‘gap’ in the data has been explained by problems in methods of collection by the Chinese government. The national bureau of statistics develops surveys for households and industries which is then conducted by the local authorities in thirty provinces. The report found that the biggest gap is from misreporting in raw oil consumption, and that yearly data shows this gap getting bigger since 1997. Soeren put forward two main reasons for this discrepancy. The first is the fact that in the last ten years the big industries came together to form industrial parks whilst the smaller firms relocated to less developed provinces which lack some of the institutional resources to record correctly. The second main reason is that there is competition between the provinces as they are competing for growth. Each province over-reports regional GDP, which in order to fit the data means that energy data also needs to be over-reported. In contrast, national data is under-reported in order to please the international community.

What becomes increasingly important now, are the implications of this ‘gap.’ Firstly, within China there is a plan for an emission trading scheme between provinces, but in order for this to be established there must be reliable data. Secondly, for countries in the West this has a large effect on trying to calculate their own carbon footprints when taking imports into account, as the data on the production side will be incorrect. And finally, arguably most importantly, is the effect that these huge uncertainties will have on climate models.

It is clear that what must be done now is to look for solutions to avoid these discrepencies, and make it increasingly aware that this type of CO2 ‘gap’ may also be occurring in other countries.

Food for Thought Week 2’s topic will be ‘Shallow Geothermal Systems for Space Heating and Cooling’ – Denis Garber, PhD Student, Energy Efficient Cities Initiative. Wednesday 17th October, Wordsworth Room, St. John’s, 1pm-2pm. The talk will start at about 1:10 so don’t worry if you’re a little late. Bring your lunch and munch as you listen, then we’ll have a relaxed discussion/Q&A session. We hope to see you there!

Food for Thought Week 1

Don’t miss Food for Thought (our lunchtime lecture and discussion group), which kicks off this Wednesday – the topic for this week is ‘The Gigatonne Gap in China’s Carbon Dioxide Inventories’ – Soren Linder, PhD Student, Dept. of Land Economy.

Wordsworth Room, St. John’s, 1pm-2pm. The talk will start at about 1:10 so don’t worry if you’re a little late. Bring your lunch and munch as you listen, then we’ll have a relaxed discussion/Q&A session. See you there!

**Freshers’ Squash 2012**

This week, make sure to come along to our *FRESHERS SQUASH* which will be held on Saturday (6th October) at 1-2pm in the Dirac Room (which is in the Fischer Building) at St. John’s College. We will be presenting our activities and plans in more detail, and would like to find out what you want to see happen and what you want to get involved with. We really hope to see you there for the launch of an exciting year!

Freshers’ Fair Information (but not just for freshers!) – This Year’s Plans

Here’s the main bits you need to know about this year’s plans (I stress the ‘plans’ part, as we also want your ideas and involvement to shape what happens).

Freshers’ Fair Info

Remember that the Freshers’ Squash will be held this Saturday (6th October) at 1-2pm in the Dirac Room (which is in the Fischer Building at St. John’s College). The idea is that you can get a feel for the society, and how you can get involved in a way that suits you. I look forward to seeing you there! Grace (current president :) ).

PS. If you can’t make it to the squash – don’t worry! Drop me a line at and I’ll give you a rundown of what happened and what you can do next!

The Cambridge Summer Programme in International Energy Policy and Climate Change Risk Assessment

The Cambridge Summer Programme in International Energy Policy and Climate Change Risk Assessment is run by the Institute for the Environment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States in collaboration with the E3 Foundation and Cambridge Science and Policy Consulting.

Through tutorials on energy, sustainability, risk, decisions and community design, and a set of team-based projects chosen by the students in collaboration with programme sponsors, students learn about ways to bring sustainability, carbon dioxide reduction practices and climate change resilience to individuals, institutions, communities and nations, using the City of Cambridge and the UK as the core examples but with principles that can be applied world-wide.

From start to finish, the entire programme lasts 5 weeks, usually beginning in the first week of July. This year a group of undergraduate students from various academic years and disciplines from the University of Cambridge attended the programme. The places were generously granted by Professor Douglas Crawford-Brown to the Zero Carbon Society, who duly advertised the opportunity.

Here is what two attendees said about their experience:

Katherine Howell, 2nd year, Geography at St. Catharine’s:
I felt the programme was a really constructive use of five weeks – part
course, part research project. The classes raised questions, approaches and
concepts that lie outside my subject but are really important to climate
change mitigation – like Doug’s mantra ‘run the numbers’. Working with the
UNC students and students from a huge range of disciplines definitely
helped broaden perspective too. The project involved producing, in a small
group, a package for Cambridge City Council including a literature review
and recommendations for a guidance for retrofits in conservation areas.
This was particularly rewarding, knowing that our work will feed into
something concrete, practical and exciting. This should be a good CV-boost
as it ties in both with academic research and environmental consultancy.

Charlotte Rogers-Washington, 1st year, Geography at Girton
Applying for this summer programme was a very last minute decision for me
but I am extremely glad I had the opportunity to be involved in such a
programme. The specific project that I worked on was titled ‘You-Gov
Incentives Survey’. The main aim was to help You-Gov create questions for a
survey that would find out what incentives residents (occupant owners,
landlords, tennants etc) needed in order for them to retrofit their homes
or properties. This process took the form of email correspondence and a
conference call. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions, during the course
of the summer programme we only managed to create a draft for the survey
although we will hopefully continue to stay in contact with You-Gov.
However, my group did run our draft survey independently from You-Gov to
give ourselves an idea of how the questions we created would be recieved
and of the sorts of answers we could expect.

This programme was a very positive experience. It was mostly self motivated
and as we were in direct contact with official and respected organisations
it felt very much like a real world experience. It has made me realise I
definitely want to do something environmental in the future and it helped
me create potentially valuable connections with You-Gov Cambridge.

More information about the programme can be found at:

Keep in touch with the Society to hear about more great opportunities like this one!

Book review: Limits to Growth, the 30‐year update

Book review: Limits to Growth, the 30‐year update, By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

Review by Alex Coulton

The content of the 30 year update is well researched and rich in detail. The scrupulous approach aimed at achieving complete transparency clearly illustrates the boundaries of the arguments and theories advanced. Today we have irrevocable proof that limits to growth do exist; fish stock depletion, hole in the ozone layer, depletion of conventional oil reserves and Climate Change are but a few examples. Whilst reading this book I had a recurring feeling of three scientists, who are tired of repeating themselves, tired of hearing the same criticism and frustrated by the inaction of world’s leadership. Looking back in time, the amazing success of the original publication is made clear by the vehement criticism that is received (Eastin, J & al, 2010; Turner G. 2008; Wendy, B. 1998, Aligica, P.D. 2009). It seems that the critics are split in two categories. Most were based on an incorrect portrayal of the content of the book and revolved around short‐term validation of predictions (Eastin, J & al, 2010). For others, Limits was an attack on the existing paradigm and became a deep ideological struggle.

What was very clear to me was that this book and the World3 model are an exercise in futures studies using predictions based on what the authors perceive as being critical trends. This has often been used by critics to discredit the theories put forth in the book. In response, the authors refute that they make any predictions. Wendy, B (1998) highlights this beautifully: ‘The authors of Limits struggled mightily to objectively justify their conditional predictions even as they denied that they were making predictions’ even though he refers to the original publication, this still holds true today. What is more important to me, and a belief to which I abide, is Wendy, B’s (1998) explanation that validates the use of predictions as a necessary and unavoidable tool in futures studies and that these predictions cannot be taken as factual. ‘To test the accuracy of a prediction by whether or not it turns out to be true is often misleading as an indicator of the validity of a prediction.’ Hence even though the book does make broad predictions these are not to be taken literally. They are an indication of the plausible future; they highlight trends and their possible outcomes. Another common critic is about the choice of boundaries. The highly aggregated nature of the World3 model lumps a lot of parameters in five key categories: population growth, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, pollution generation and agricultural output.

Additionally, no effort was made to model other factors such as politics or international relations and for instance makes no allowance for wars, regional or cultural differences. The authors highlight all these ‘caveats’ and the reasons for their decisions in depth. I will pursue my argument along other lines. In Scenario Planning it is critical to identify: the driving forces and the trends that respond to the precise questions that you are exploring (Lindgren, M., Bandhold, H. 2003). This process is limiting, it is not designed to be all encompassing or all knowing, on one hand because that is not possible and on the other because it would make the scenarios too complex to build and communicate. So as system scientists, the Authors and modellers have very astutely and successfully identified key trends and key driving forces in order to explore human growth. I personally support this approach for another reason. Complexity rarely brings clarity; the IPCC’s climate change model is not more able than World3 in predicting the future (even though, as we have seen above, the aim is not to actually predict the future) and the IPCC’s work has come under much criticism as well. By limiting the scope of the World3 parameters that affect our growth the authors have to clearly communicate the notion of exponential growth, and the underlying problems it represents. Foresight, scenario planning and other such techniques are now widely used by government, corporations and institutions and I feel that understand these tools adds a lot of credibility to the Authors’ approach revealing much of the criticism to be nothing more but detraction. This distortion of the Authors’ message by critics as well as proponents was illustrated when ‘Ecologist Paul Ehrlich wagered with economist Julian Simon that, with 1980 as a baseline, by 1990 market prices for cooper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungstend would dramatically increase, while Simon predicted that they would fall. Ehrich lost the wager (…)’ (Eastin, J & al, 2010).

The problem with my ‘world view’ is that although it is closely aligned to ‘Limits to Growth,’ I am very detached from the Authors’ realities and consequently the struggle that they have been involved in over nearly 40 years. Aligica, P.d. (2009) allowed me to gain a better understanding of the ‘competing perspectives’: The bi-polar ideologies held by the Limits to Growth Authors (Neo-Malthusianism movement) and the ‘free market supporters’ amongst who’s ranks Julian Simon’s figures prominently. Aligica, P.D. (2009) states: ‘With it [Limits to Growth] a new tradition was born. And in this respect it is no exaggeration to say that Simon [James] (…) with authors such as Herman, Kahn, created a counter-tradition by reaction systematically to what they considered to be the errors and even fabrications (…).’ Two points are worth highlighting here. The ‘systematic’ nature of the criticism and the reference to traditions. Lines were being drawn in the sand and you were either on one side or the other. Suffice to say that it does not set the scene for an objective analysis of the issue and therefore did not promote a constructive debate. This does great injustice to all the great minds involved. In many ways one could equate the ‘counter-tradition’ as a repeated misinterpretation of the message and vice versa. A positive feedback loop? ‘The limits to growth’ discourse about resources and population has been dominated by the concept of fixity or finiteness of resources (Aligicia, P.D 2009), in this Simon James is correct. The discourse has been dominated by resources limits however; this was only a small part of a much larger message which mostly got lost in the entrenchment. The authors of Limits to Growth do not suggest that humans do not have the creativity to overcome the stated limits (that are more than just resource based) as James suggests, but that within the current system structure they will not have time to overcome these due to the nature of the speed of exponential growth rates and the inherent delays in the system. To put it simply, market penetration of new technologies is measured in decades as does, for example, brokering international agreements to tackle pollution problems. Hence our Authors are indirectly rooting for many of James’ theories by advocating for time for them to prosper. Another key contention surrounds the ‘free market.’ James’s views are again well portrayed by Aligica, P.D (2009): ‘many people resist the idea that markets are the best mode of coordination and social distribution’ and these inadvertently link back to accusations of Marxism. Ironically, Karl Marx’s just so happened to be one of the most vocal critics of Malthus (Schoijet, M., 1999). Our Authors do not dismiss markets as the best mode for coordination and social distribution. Markets are an integral part of their strategy however they were, and still are, incapable of safeguarding us from the relationship between exponential growth rates and system delays that create overshoot. As our Authors highlight, even economists have been clamouring for many years for ‘internalizing the externalities’. Again, we can see that the opposing factions have much more common ground than they themselves perceived or where maybe willing to admit to. Another point of critique was the proposal of a ‘preferable’ future. This is unavoidably a subjective process which in the words of Wendy B (1998), ‘it (Limits to Growth) is an effort to better the human condition, to help create a human future more desirable than the future that probably would occur if humans keep doing what we were then doing.’. This introduction of values into the scientific method was highly criticized by James who says ‘Science, in the measure it deals with facts and nor with values, can hardly decide where there is a case of overpopulation or one of under-population (…) whether the growth rate is too fast or too slow’ Aligica P.d. (2009). It is unlikely that objectivity can ever be reached in the context of social sciences however putting forth a ‘preferable’ future is part of the ‘futures’ exercise (Wendy, B. 1998)!

Finally, Ekins, P. (1992), states ‘one of the most comprehensive rebuttals came from a team at Suisse University’s Science Policy and Research Uni (Cole et al., 1973). They criticised the relationships in Meadows’ model, the assumptions on which model was based and the emphasis on purely physical parameters.’ I would argue that in doing so they inadvertently validated the work of Limits to Growth, a work that did not just attempt to put forth a new vision for the world but to stimulate debate and reflection about how we intended on pursuing our futures. The Suisse team mitigated the limits to growth with ‘exponential increases in available resources (through discovery and recycling) and the ability to control pollution’ (Ekins, P. 1992). Recycling and introducting pollution control measures is vindicating the need to mitigate against uncontrolled growth again, time is the issue. Evolution? The incompatibility of the perceived message of Limits to Growth and the ‘free market’ proponents were brought together in the Brundtland report and the concept of ‘sustainable development.’ In my view the actual message in the 30 year update advocates for just that and so it seems did the original book (even though the terminology did not exist at the time). One could have imagined that this middle ground, a combination of sustainability and development, would settle the matter. This has been far from the truth. The ideological divide was brought into the very definition of ‘Sustainable development’. Schwarz, P.M & al. (2009) do a brilliant job at highlighting these entrenched views whilst Wilson, E.O. (2002) depicts the rift between environmentalists and economists. These deeply entrenched views are well ingrained in society and have been shaping the world of politics since the first publishing of Limits to Growth but are in fact part of a much larger debate.Today the climate change science denialists who dominate the Republican Party in the United States are the latest development in this war. In a recent article entitled Capitalism vs. The Change, Klein, N. (2011) reports that for the Heartland Institute’s president Joseph Bast ‘Climate change is the perfect thing…its the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway’ revealing the bigger picture in which this struggle is set.

Concluding remarks.

The first edition of Limits to Growth has had a deep seeded impact on society. On one sidethere has been a gradual shift in society’s perception towards a long term reflection on our actions as the principle of ‘sustainable development’ gains ground. On the other, the rift between the Authors (and their proponents) and their critics could hardly be more dramatic. Klein, N. (2011) highlights this wonderfully in the following sentence: ‘Many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable. These are profoundly challenging revelations (…) This is the crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real world implications of those facts’ and although this is specifically about climate change, the arguments are one and the same. Hence, those who oppose it, oppose it despite the clear and concise argument because they are emotionally predisposed to disliking it even though as we find more and more evidence that limits do exist resistance to change only intensifies. Because of this, the 30 year update completely falls short of its aim although this does not reduce the importance of the Author’s message or their impact on society.