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Interview with Professor John Barrett

26 February, 2019

Jenny Crawley

Reading time: 4 minutes

CREDS researcher Jenny Crawley interviews Professor John Barrett (who leads our materials and products work) on the focus of his research and his work with policy makers to ensure research findings are disseminated.

CREDS researcher Jenny Crawley interviews Professor John Barrett about his work in materials and products.

Could you tell us a bit about your research?

Our research recognises that every ‘item of consumption’ – for example, a piece of furniture, an item of food, or a house – has a supply chain associated with it which results in energy being consumed. We don’t see energy demand solely as the gas and electricity households use but as that embedded in every product that we buy or consume.

This has global implications – in fact, increasingly our energy consumption does not actually occur in the UK. So we have developed modelling approaches to understand the energy demand and global impacts of the UK’s consumption.

Which products used in the UK are associated with the largest greenhouse gas footprint?

Infrastructure has a huge materials and CO2 footprint. We estimate that building the UK’s infrastructure – roads, railways etc – has as large a CO2 impact as UK car travel. This is primarily due to the energy intensive materials involved. However very little is being done in terms of how to reduce this impact.

If you could change one thing to make our products less energy intensive, what would it be?

Actually there is not one answer; each sector needs its own specific plan for energy intensity reduction.  So for clothing it’s increasing longevity, for food it’s addressing waste and reducing meat consumption and for construction it’s using steel and cement more efficiently and a substituting these materials for less carbon intensive options like timber.

How do the outputs of your research inform policy and practice?

We provide two national official indicators. One is how materially efficient the whole economy is, and the other is a measure of consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions. The former is also used by other countries but to date no one else has adopted the latter – my team helped push this through.

We also advise the government on resources and waste strategy, and support the CCC on their net-zero scenarios on the topic: “what does the industrial sector look like and how does resource efficiency play a role?”

We aim to help other researchers think about where they are affecting the flows and products in their sector. We will be doing this within the CREDS consortium in the near future using input-output models to understand the supply chains of all activities.

You are known for your policy engagement. What advice would you give to other researchers for making contacts in government to disseminate your research?

We create opportunities to talk to government, and after a while start to get contacted by people due to word-of-mouth recommendation. This is a team effort: my team between us hold a lot of contacts.

Engaging with government takes a lot of time and effort. I dedicate as much time trying to turn research into outcomes as I do research itself. I personally come to London about once per week. You can try to be strategic about who you talk to in government but at the end of the day you never quite know which conversation will lead to a useful outcome so you have to invest in a lot of conversations.

And a difficult question to finish: do you think we should be reducing demand for energy services, or simply increasing the efficiency of delivering them?

There is actually limited debate worldwide on how we might reduce our level of energy intensive services. For example, 70% of flights are taken by 15% of people: it seems that we should be flying less but this is not debated as much as it should be.  Similarly, construction is one of the biggest users of energy through the use of materials: should we be carrying on with our current level of infrastructure development in light of incredibly challenging carbon targets?

As the CREDS team, we need to come together to form an opinion on what energy demand looks like in a world which meets the 1.5°C objectives for global warming. The IPCC have produced a scenario in accordance with these goals with a deep demand reduction, and the key question is what happens to the level of service demand. Some of us in CREDS are starting to put our heads together on this topic and we would encourage more people to get involved with this difficult question.