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The ASSIST project is researching public attitudes and community responses to shale gas development.

Transitioning to sustainability

Decarbonising the global economy, and shifting to sustainable practices are multiple elements of sustainability transitions. The collective effort to research the cross-scale dynamics of this challenge involves new social science and creative practice. The research reveals equity, security and community acceptability dimensions of decarbonising energy systems in the UK and globally.

Catherine Mitchell is a Convening Lead Author on the assessment of national climate policies and Patrick Devine-Wright is a Lead Author on energy demand and social aspects of mitigation for the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Research from the team is integral to the Exeter Energy initiative.

Current research highlights

Do countries learn from each other on energy transitions, how to regulate them and how to evolve new markets? Catherine Mitchell and Iain Soutar are now addressing the international evolution of governance and innovation for sustainable energy systems through their New Thinking for Energy iGOV consortium.

Many cities, particularly those with a legacy of under-investment and inequality, are struggling with the transition to more sustainable and inclusive energy systems. Federico Caprotti’s research with Zonke Energy in South Africa focuses on issues of access: a large majority of the population is already urban and cities are characterized by inequitable, fragmented, and carbon-intensive energy systems on the one hand, and largely off-grid informal settlements with little or no access to formal energy services on the other.

A key challenge for urban futures is tackling the widening gaps between those who can access energy and other infrastructures and those excluded, while also including affected communities’ views on what services need to be improved. Federico Caprotti’s Newton Prize interventions examine expands the notion of vital off-grid infrastructures past energy to include refrigeration based on solar minigrids.

Tomas Chaigneau is part of a team at the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics exploring the relationship between environmental sustainability and social inequalities. They seek to identify synergies and trade-offs between reducing inequalities and safeguarding the biosphere.

Emerging efforts for decarbonisation include shale gas and carbon capture and storage. Patrick Devine-Wright researches sustainable energy transitions with an emphasis upon concepts of ‘place’ and ‘participation’. These cut across research projects on smart local energy systems, shale gas fracking, renewable energy, hydrogen and carbon capture. The research reveals how people’s sense of place is relevant for understanding how new technologies can be deployed in society, impacting upon landscapes and requiring participatory processes – including public deliberation using techniques such as citizens’ assemblies – to ensure fairness and justice in decision-making.

On the back of widespread mass climate protests, governments and local authorities have been declaring Climate Emergencies and setting target dates to reach net zero emissions. This has led to the adoption of Climate Assemblies at national and local authority levels internationally in order to deliberate how to meet these targets.

The Devon Climate Emergency Response Group lead this process for the county. Rebecca Sandover and Patrick Devine-Wright are working with Alice Moseley (Politics, Exeter) on the Devon Net Zero Assembly Research Project involving a targeted, multi-stakeholder analysis of the value of public deliberation on climate change. They are undertaking evaluation of the impacts of the online Devon Citizens’ Assembly on pathways to net zero and co-creating a toolkit on online and digital methods for deliberative democratic processes.

Stewart Barr is leading an ESRC-funded project working with regional and national partners to transform environmental education practice (Education at a Time of Emergency), applying innovations in behavioural research to embed engaged environmental citizenship.

Research on transforming personal mobility to reduce carbon emissions and improve urban wellbeing is being led by Stewart Barr, who is questioning the effectiveness of behavioural change policies (Personal Mobility and Climate Change).

Are smart cities the answer to sustainable urban form? The international UK-Europe-China ‘Smart Eco-Cities for a Green Economy’ (SMART-ECO) consortium, led by Federico Caprotti, looked at the implications of data-driven urbanism for environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Using participatory research approaches, Rebecca Sandover has also been collaborating with partners on strategic and community level action on sustainable food networks in Exeter and Devon. The Devon Sustainable Food Networks funded by the Wellcome Centre for the Cultures and Environments of Health joins up disparate actors working independently for sustainable food policy and programme change. This project has influenced the establishment of the new Devon Sustainable Food Partnership of Devon County Council.