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Tackling the climate crisis to safeguard human health: how to solve the problem

Dr Daniel Koch, Dr Joseph Ng

Post-doctoral Researcher, Research Associate

16 November 2021

The complexity of the climate crisis requires actions at different levels - ranging from the individual to societal levels - which we will discuss in this last part of our series.

Individual level

There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint (many of which are beneficial for your health and budget too), including using public transport, adopting a plant-based diet, getting a renewable energy provider or insulating your home. That said, the impact of individual lifestyle changes on global carbon emissions is very limited. Despite an almost complete shutdown of public life during 2020, global CO2 emissions only dropped by less than 10%.

It is also important to note that the concept of the carbon footprint was popularized by BP in an attempt to distract from their corporate actions and shift responsibility onto individuals. The Carbon Majors Report estimated that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even now, the influence of fossil fuel companies on politics remains obscenely high: at COP26 alone the number of delegates with ties to the fossil fuel industry was reported to exceed the number of delegates from any single country – including those worst affected.

Institutional level

Actions at the institutional level, such as our workplaces, have the potential for considerably larger impact than any of our individual lifestyle changes. This is particularly true for biomedical research. Laboratories consume 3-10 times more energy than other academic spaces, such as offices. At King’s, 2/3 of all energy consumption is caused by our laboratories. Speaking from our own experience, there’s often scope for improving energy efficiency. Amongst the largest devourers of energy in biomedical research are:

  • Ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers: while essential for storing precious samples, a ULT uses about 16 to >30 kWh per day. Unnecessarily, many ULT freezers run at -80°C or lower although there’s plenty evidence that sample quality is not compromised when storing at -60°C or -70° Running your ULT freezer at -70°C requires 30% less energy than at -80°C. Assuming a baseline of 25 kWh/day for moderately well maintained ULT at -80°C, that would save about 2700 kWh annually (which makes £405 at a price of 15p/kWh ) – more than 2/3 of the electricity consumption of the average UK household. Keeping the filter units clean and the sealings ice-free are simple measures that further improve efficiency.
  • Tissue culture and chemical fume cabinets are certainly one of the biggest energy consumers in biomedical research, with a single cabinet using more than the average UK household. To minimize flow rates and energy use when no work is performed in the cabinet, it’s important to keep the movable sash as low as possible and to convert/replace constant air volume (CAV) with variable air volume (VAV) cabinet. In a King’s case study conducted at multiple centres except the Randall, these measures reduced the energy bill by about £3800 annually.
  • Computational research, too, plays an important role: data centers and IT services are operating 24/7 around the world and contribute significantly to carbon footprint. A growing number of researchers are becoming aware of computation’s potential to exacerbate the climate crisis. You can help making your research more sustainable by measures such as wiser choice of hardware and software, and minimising electronic waste.

The large amount of data to be evaluated in developing sustainable approaches implies that human intelligence must be combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI). We can capitalise on the increase of computer and algorithms power, developing machine learning techniques to deliver the rigorous and unbiased evidence necessary for future decision making. These technologies will be instrumental in monitoring environmental changes and revealing factors contributing toward progress in aligning with the Paris agreement 2015 and COP26 resolutions.

For more information and suggestions of how to make your research green, check out the “resources” section provided below.

Societal level

The most effective way to respond to this problem is to exercise your democratic rights and demand political action. While the outcomes of COP26 are regarded as insufficient by many, it delivered some important progress on, for example: methane emissions, deforestation and the statement explicitly mentioned the need to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. With the technology available today (and is constantly under improvement), the targets agreed upon at the Paris agreement and COP26 could limit temperature increase below 2 degrees - with the optimistic assumption that the promises made are being kept. To make sure implementation and progress are not further impeded by lobbyists who act in the interest of companies rather than wider society, it’s now more important than ever that a sufficient number of people generate political support for effective climate action. Apart from making sustainability a major factor in your voting decision, there are many other ways to channel your support ranging from writing letters to your MP, connecting with others at your workplace and community or even joining a political party yourself. There are also plenty of opportunities to get involved in climate actions at King’s, which we have summarized for you below.

Summary

We hope you enjoyed our Randall Special Series on climate, health and biomedical research. If anything, the importance of the climate crisis will only become more apparent. Getting involved will not only give you the satisfaction of meaningful action and connecting with others, but is also likely to provide you with valuable experiences, networking opportunities and career options.

Resources

Getting involved at King’s

Tips and guidance how to reduce your individual carbon footprint

Making your research greener

References

  1. Liu, Z. et al. (2020). Near-real-time monitoring of global CO2 emissions reveals the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature Communications, 11(1), 5172. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18922-7
  2. Supran, G., & Oreskes, N. (2021). Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications. One Earth, 4(5), 696–719. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2021.04.014
  3. https://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/publications/pdfs/alliances/ulf_freezer_user_guide.pdf
  4. https://www.ovoenergy.com/guides/energy-guides/how-much-electricity-does-a-home-use
  5. https://www.csuohio.edu/sustainability/shut-sash
  6. https://tools.thermofisher.com/content/sfs/brochures/Univ%20of%20Michigan%20Energy%20Field%20Study%202008.pdf

In this story

Joseph Ng

Joseph Ng

Research Associate

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