Scientists for Global Responsibility

Sophie Hebden reports on technologies and simple lifestyles

“If you take this seriously you will not be driving home tonight, you will not be turning on your central heating before the temperature falls to 17 degrees, and you won’t be taking foreign holidays.” Maria Sharmina, Manchester University, SGR conference 2014

On Saturday 4th October I joined members of the organisation Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) for their annual conference, ‘Living within sustainable limits: from science to practice’. The organisation has a membership of about 900 natural scientists, social scientists, engineers, IT professionals and architects based in the UK, with roots in the campaign against nuclear arms. It has published a number of high profile reports on the UK’s defence spending and more recently, a report on fracking. “SGR steers a difficult line between campaigning and researching,” says Martin Bassant, a retired physics teacher who is on the SGR committee. “As such it’s quite unique.”

He thinks SGR’s focus on sustainability and climate change is now eclipsing its original anti-nuclear focus, and as I discovered at the conference, many of its members are taking the science of climate change very seriously. Philip Webber, a physicist who chairs the SGR’s committee, told me that he hasn’t flown for 10-11 years, and has cut down significantly on his meat consumption. “It’s definitely made a difference in my life,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about the big changes – although we have recently had solar panels fitted. It’s all the little choices: what you buy, whether you buy second-hand or not, I’ve made these changes because of the shocking reality of climate change.”

The conference’s first speaker, Maria Sharmina from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, made that shocking reality clear: emissions of greenhouse gases are continuing to rise worldwide by 2-3% each year, and the most likely outcome, without a legally binding agreement by 2015, is that global temperatures will rise by 4-6 degrees by 2050.

“A 4-degree future should be avoided at all costs,” Sharmina told the meeting. “It would be devastating, and incompatible with a stable global community. Maize and wheat yields near the equator would drop by 40%, and ecosystems would be wiped out. Scientists agree that this sort of temperature rise is beyond our adaptation capabilities, and is unlikely to be a stable – it could be a tipping point into even more rapid temperature rise.”

She went on to explain the problem of energy system ‘lock-in’, because of the design lifetime of technologies. If you build a coal-fired power station it operates for 30-50 years. Ships and planes have an approximately 30-year lifetime. “The only thing we can work on right now is reducing energy demand,” Sharmina told the conference, “and this has implications for everyone of us: if we take this seriously we won’t be driving home tonight.”

Sharmina explained the enormous scaling-up effect that reducing demand has due to losses in the energy system, taking an ‘A’ grade fridge as an example. If you use 10 units of electricity keeping your food cool, the inefficiency of the appliance means it actually requires 50 units of electricity. There are electricity transmission losses, and losses due to inefficiency at the power station: you can’t turn all the energy in your fuel into electricity. So to make your 10 units of electricity you need 130 units of fuel at the other end of the chain. There were a number of surprised comments from the audience on seeing how steeply any energy savings we can make scale-up.

Sharmina told the conference that the UK and other wealthy nations need to decarbonise by 70% over the next decade to make a fair contribution to cutting global emissions. And that part of the solution is in stepping away from economic growth as a proxy for social ‘goods’. “Economic growth has no meaningful value,” she says. “We need to escape the dogma of finance as the principle mechanism for delivering emissions cuts.”

Sue Riddlestone from the charity BioRegional described the ‘One Planet Living’ framework, which is based on the concept of a person’s ecological footprint and the impact that our consumption has on the planet. Scientists at the Tyndall Centre have shown that if everyone on the globe has the same consumption levels as the average British person, we would need three planets to support us. The One Planet Living framework is a set of principles that helps focus efforts to reduce this impact down to a one planet-level, and is designed for use by community groups worldwide. For example, Sutton council in London have achieved a 19% reduction in its ecological footprint over a five-year period.

After a suitably vegan and vegetarian lunch, delegates discussed the practicalities of sustainable living and visited the nearby, newly built cohousing project and community hydro-electric power station under construction. Stuart Parkinson, SGR executive director, highlighted the lifestyle changes that can be made to cut personal carbon emissions from the UK average of 12 tonnes to 3 tonnes per year. “A few of us are doing this in the cohousing, and I want to say how nice it is!” he says. His low-carbon lifestyle has cut his emissions by 70%, and includes belonging to a car club (cheaper and no maintenance responsibilities); going on holiday by rail instead of flying (more fun and you see more of the countryside); eating fewer animal products (cheaper and healthier); and sharing large items like washing machines with neighbours (more sociable and cheaper).

The Lancaster Cohousing is 42 dwellings that are largely passively heated, with solar hot water and a small sustainable biomass heating system. Electricity is supplied from the photovoltaics and the hydro scheme is due to be completed in December. Jan Maskell, an occupational psychologist who lives at Lancaster Cohousing, let us look around her cosy house with its view over the River Lune. She thinks the biggest change to her lifestyle has been in cutting down the amount she drives, from 25k per year to 1k. “Living in the cohousing community has also had a big impact on my carbon footprint, and it is great in terms of the sense of belonging I get from living here,” she says.

Sophie Hebden is a freelance science writer and editor with a PhD in space physics, and worships at St Mark’s Church in Mansfield. Her interests range from Palestine to quantum physics, which she writes about on her blog at



Author: | Date: 17 November, 2014 | Category: Climate Change | Comments: 2

Comments on "Scientists for Global Responsibility"

Louisa Radice:

November 26, 2014

Why no foreign holidays? What's wrong with trains and ferries?

Phil Kingston:

November 17, 2014

Thank you Sophie, very helpful information and a joy to know that there are so many scientists out there who are voicing their concerns. I find their facing of reality very hopeful, compared with the tenor of the debate at the House of Commons recently which Colin reported on in a blog to celink.

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