I have a secret. I’m a climate change researcher that doesn’t think we need more research into climate change. It’s not that I question the accuracy of the findings or the value of the research per se. I just think that we have enough.
To my mind, we have long since crossed the threshold beyond reasonable doubt about whether climate change is a threat and what we should do about it. We also have enough research on why so little progress on decarbonisation has been made despite the mountain of evidence showing how to do it and why it is necessary. I’m sure new discoveries will improve understanding of our collective peril or make parts of our decarbonisation journey easier. But when it comes to climate change, humanity no longer needs to ‘reason why’ but instead ‘do or die’.
This belief leaves me in a quandary, being an Early Career Researcher aspiring for a long career in academia while simultaneously wishing to be an active participant in change rather than just observe. I’m not unique in this desire, as evidenced by my colleague’s many and varied contributions in outreach, campaigning, policy and more. But I’d argue that the urgency of the crisis requires us to go beyond the usual “extra-curricular” activities and make immediate climate action the primary goal of our research.
Academics often seek to produce abstract and generalisable conclusions, yet people and policymakers respond to clear guidance that is personally relevant. Therefore, we should personalise climate research and make it accessible to the masses. One way we can make our research more personalised is to make the results more localised. Local results are intrinsically more relevant to people than national averages. For example, that 2.4 million people in the UK are at risk of being flooded is a statistic; whether your home is at risk of flooding is personally relevant. Historically academics have produced reports and papers, which had to be generalised and applicable to a broad audience due to their static nature. However, we can now use the internet to give people the same research as a personalised experience.
PBCC – climate information in action
The CREDS Place-Based Carbon Calculator (PBCC) is the embodiment of this idea. The original idea was to produce a middle ground between two existing types of carbon calculator. At one extreme are the accurate carbon calculators that require you to gather detailed data about your life. At the other extreme are the simple carbon calculators that ask a few multiple-choice questions and give a vague indication of your carbon footprint. The PBCC instead uses pre-existing data to calculate a local average carbon footprint for each neighbourhood in England. This approach removes the need for the users to answer complex questions while still providing a detailed carbon footprint, which, if not personalised, is at least personally relevant. By providing accessible local data, the PBCC provocatively asks, “what are you going to do about your neighbourhood?”
I was fortunate that the CREDS Impact Acceleration Award provided the opportunity to create the PBCC. Initially, I was unsuccessful, but unlike many funders, CREDS provides ECRs with detailed feedback on unsuccessful bids. They encouraged me to revise and resubmit my application and supported me through the process. I have to thank my colleagues for their support through a process that is, at least for me, unfamiliar and stressful.
As an impact acceleration project, I was free to focus on impact rather than publications. Nevertheless, I did have to bend the rules a little. The PBCC contains new data and new analysis and thus is really a mini-research project in disguise. None of this analysis led to revelations that are not well established in the academic literature. But it can lead to impactful local revelations. For example, a journal paper about car ownership in Birmingham can easily be ignored in Brighton. In contrast, a new national map of car ownership patterns is locally relevant to everybody and is much harder to ignore.
With the help of CREDS colleagues and partners, I produced an estimate of the average per person carbon footprint for every neighbourhood in England. We could then present this data on an interactive map at www.carbon.place. As well as the carbon footprint, we also added a selection of new and existing data, which provided context and made the variation in carbon footprints easier to understand. The end result was a map that allows you to zoom in and get local personally relevant insights or zoom out to see regional and national patterns. Something that would have been impossible to convey in the traditional academic paper.
We launched the PBCC at the end of June in an online event with over 300 participants from local government, consultancy, NGOs and academia. Since then, the website has had about 30,000 visitors. The feedback has been extremely positive and has led to a steady supply of newspaper articles and TV reports. Even more excitingly, several community groups have picked up the tool and independently organised events using the data to formulate plans and advocate for local change.
My journey with the PBCC is far from over as I’m exploring opportunities to extend and improve it. But I think there are some valuable lessons that I’ve already learnt. Firstly, feedback on applications is vital. Grant writing is a skill with plenty of unwritten rules, and how you are expected to learn it without feedback is a mystery. Secondly, despite the importance that funders put on impactful research, it is still a second-class citizen. Impact is largely viewed and funded as a small add-on to the traditional research process of ‘get funding, make a discovery, publish journal articles.’ The PBCC doesn’t fit that mould as there are no big generalisable discoveries. See my points above about already knowing enough about climate change. Instead, the PBCC has thousands of small, personal, impactful revelations. It’s currently hard to find funding for research that seeks to create impact over research outputs, especially if it cannot be commercialised.
I was, in many ways, lucky. I was employed on other CREDS projects, which gave me the time to apply and reapply. I got the valuable feedback I needed to make a successful application. Also, CREDS has the foresight to offer a reasonably large pot of funding (£20,000) without too many strings attached, which gave me the flexibility to do something different. There should be more space for this kind of research, especially in the climate and energy fields, due to the urgency of the situation. Not least because our research budgets are no better insulated from a climate catastrophe than the rest of society.
Morgan, M. 2021. Enough is enough – the time for climate action is now. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Oxford, UK. CREDS case study.
Banner photo credit: Alireza Attari on Unsplash