Environment and Sustainability

Research themes

1. Limits to climate change adaptation

Our research on climate change adaptation has focused upon the theoretical and empirical basis for identifying the limits to climate change adaption, and has helped underpin new analysis for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. Our research on this theme has been funded by a range of institutions, including the European Commission (e.g. the FP7 CLICO project) and the UK Research Councils (e.g. NERC through the Tyndall Centre; ESRC Future Leader Fellowship for Dr. Saffron O’Neill). Outputs linked to this research theme include the book ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ (Adger, 2009) published by Cambridge University Press, papers on avoiding maladaptation (O’Neill), solving governance dilemmas (work by Adger, runner-up for the 2013 Lloyds of London Science of Risk Prize) and highly cited work identifying social limits to climate change adaptation (Adger, 2009; 202 citations).

2. Ecosystem services

Research at Exeter on ecosystem services has uncovered processes constructing well-being and resilience. These have been tested globally in variety of spatial contexts, including marine, coastal, delta and forest environments. Highly cited publications have demonstrated limits to the neo-liberal construction of markets for ecosystem services (see publications by Brown, Adger and Adams). This work is cross-disciplinary and has been funded by institutions such as NERC, ESRC and DFID including theoretical work on resilience by Brown within an ESRC Professorial Fellowship award.

3. Sustainable energy transitions

Our research has focused upon governance and public engagement aspects of the low carbon transition, and again has underpinned IPCC contributions. It has revealed important equity, security and community acceptability dimensions of decarbonising energy systems in the UK and globally (see publications by Bickerstaff, Devine-Wright and Mitchell). A major EPSRC Fellowship (iGov - Mitchell) is now addressing the international evolution of governance and innovation for sustainable energy systems. Work under this theme has had significant policy impact, for example via Devine-Wright’s membership of the DECC/Defra Social Science Expert Panel. Research on this theme has been funded through two RCUK strategic energy network initiatives on security and equity (led by Mitchell and Bickerstaff), research projects funded by the Norwegian Research Council and EPSRC (Sustainable Urban Environments and People Energy and Buildings research programmes), and co-funded PhD studentships (ESRC/National Grid/Guernsey Government).

4. Sustainable consumption

Research on this theme has shaped international debates on social and ethical dimensions of sustainable consumption (Barr), and demonstrated the role of materiality and responsibility in transforming home energy, travel and waste practices (Barr, Bickerstaff). It has been funded by the ESRC, EPSRC-EDF/-Eon (People-Energy and Buildings programme), AHRC, Leverhulme, AXA, and Coca-Cola Enterprises). Research led by Barr and Bickerstaff has focused in particular on the ways in which social practices are implicated in so-called pro-environmental behaviours (such as energy saving and waste management practices) and the ways in which both scholars and practitioners can engage with such practices through innovative methodologies. Research funded by the ESRC on social practices, climate change and mobilities has been translated into impact through collaborations with behavioural change agencies and policy makers to influence the policy making process, change business practices and engage publics.

Cross-cutting themes

Our research on these four themes is connected in several ways, notably a cross-cutting interest in issues of place and identity. This has informed our work on climate change adaptation (see Adger and Brown’s work on place and transformation in collaboration with Dr. Nadine Marshall of CSIRO, Australia) by revealing how ‘excessive’ attachments to particular places or occupations can obstruct transformative adaptation amongst resource-dependent communities (e.g. fishing; peanut farming). It also underpins work on sustainable energy transitions, notably community acceptance of low carbon energy projects, such as wind farms. Devine-Wright has proposed a novel approach to ‘NIMBY’ (Not In My Back Yard) opposition to technology siting that views public opposition as a form of ‘place-protective action’. This idea has been empirically supported by research on offshore and onshore wind farms, wave and tidal energy, nuclear power and electricity power lines.