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Creating a sustainable future

When it comes to tackling climate change, the choices we make today will determine the future of our planet. 

Across a broad interdisciplinary spectrum, Northumbria researchers are investigating new ways to address the challenges we face in living sustainably, whether that be in responding to issues arising from climate change, making changes to policy and legislation, or how we work more effectively with business and industry. In this special edition of Northumbria University News, we look at some of the work the University is leading on.

The future of clean energy

The world is facing an unprecedented energy challenge. While many countries have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the current global demand for energy is expected to double in this time. There is therefore an urgent need for sustainable energy solutions and technologies.

Experts at Northumbria are leading the way in developing new, more energy efficient forms of batteries, photovoltaics and thin film materials used in the production of solar cell devices and finding greener ways to produce chemicals used in manufacturing. And Northumbria’s scientists are also looking at the importance of sustainable design to improve our engineering and construction sectors, as well as examining the impact of wind farms on the tourism sector.

“Renewable energy technologies are hugely important,” says Professor Neil Beattie, Director of the Energy Futures research group. “They will enable us to generate electricity cleanly and with reduced emissions so we can combat climate change directly.”

Improving our built and natural environments

The balance between natural environment and man-made environment has always been a challenge for decision makers, but modern living and environmental pressures are placing even more demands on planners, infrastructure, services, and assets.

Climate change is leading to geohazards such as landslides, earthquakes, and coastal and cliff erosion, all of which can have a devastating impact on communities. Experts from Northumbria are collaborating with national agencies, local authorities, and industry to find new ways of responding to urban and environmental problems and reduce risk from natural disasters and emergencies. This includes finding new ways to remotely monitor potential land hazards, such as eroding cliffs and slopes which could collapse and endanger lives, and through the University’s Disaster and Development Network, Northumbria academics are contributing to the development of global policies designed to help vulnerable communities facing emergency situations.

Northumbria is also recognised for its work to encourage government and the construction sector to integrate green spaces and infrastructure into planning policy to bring nature back into cities and urban spaces. Professor Alister Scott, whose research addresses problems concerning policy and decision-making across built and natural environments, has championed the benefits of including green infrastructure in urban areas. These benefits include improved health and well-being of urban dwellers, as well as biodiversity and flood risk regulation. Professor Scott is now working with governments and planners, both in the UK and internationally, to ensure that green infrastructure is considered as part of planning policies and decision-making in the future.

Environmental justice

Unsustainable practices and over-exploitation of natural resources threatens the planet and therefore the security of people, species and food and water supplies. Researchers from Northumbria have joined forces to tackle green crime, address injustices and promote environmental cooperation. Their work ranges from investigating new ways to combat wildlife trafficking and corruption, to helping countries create their own environmental courts and tribunals with the power to expedite legal cases on environmental issues.

One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure secure access to clean water and sanitisation for everyone. In the coming decades water shortages caused by climate change could affect as many as five billion people worldwide. As a result, cooperation between nations which share access to, or have boundaries with, rivers, lakes and seas is essential. Professor Alister Rieu-Clarke, an expert on international water law, has been working with the UN to find ways for countries to work together to manage this critical resource explaining: “Safeguarding the equitable and sustainable management of the world’s shared rivers, lakes and groundwaters is key,”.

“Over 150 countries share these waters, which include great rivers such as the Amazon, Nile, or Mekong. Use of water in one part of a river basin can have knock-on impacts across other parts of the basin and this can lead to tensions. Cooperation between countries offers the potential to ensure that waters are used in an optimal manner for the benefit of the widest range of water users.”

Extreme environments 

From thawing permafrost releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to melting ice sheets causing sea level to rise, global warming is already causing major challenges for the planet.

Northumbria academics are world-leaders in creating models to assess the impact climate change has had on our environment and how it will impact the future. With what is believed to be the largest group of glaciologists in the UK, Northumbria University’s Cold and Palaeo Environments research group is creating models that enable us to observe current behaviours, to monitor changes over the short and medium term and importantly, to predict how these changes will develop in future years, helping to inform planning and policies for businesses, lobbying organisations, and international governments.

Populations around the world are also dealing with the consequences of space weather storms affecting the operations of satellites and impacting our lives on earth. Professor Clare Watt, a space plasma physicist in the University’s Solar and Space Physics research group explains, “Most of us do not realise it, but we are using space every day. Location, communication, entertainment, and financial services all use satellites. Our ability to know where we are, to connect the world and to monitor the world to look at how oceans, ice sheets, forests and land use are changing – these are all things we can do from space. Understanding more about our space environment means we can use it safely and protect better the precious planet that we have.”

Find out more about the Doctoral Training programme as part of the ESPRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Renewable Energy Northeast Universities (ReNU) here.

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