1 August 2013 11:16

Cost effective, alternative makeovers for old technologies may well be the key to a brighter, greener, low-carbon future for China and, ultimately, the rest the world.

Sociologists at Lancaster University are to lead a £500k international research project which will focus on the extent, nature and social implications of low-carbon ‘transitions’ in China.

The aim of the 30-month project is to plug a knowledge gap by offering in-depth academic analysis of several key areas of low-carbon innovation.

And it seeks to inform policymakers and stakeholders on opportunities for future low-carbon transitions.

News of the Economic and Social Research Council grant, which will see a December start on the project and a new research post created at Lancaster, has been warmly received.

“We want to explore routes that may be more successful,” said Dr David Tyfield, a sociologist from Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe), who is leading the research project with Distinguished Professor John Urry.

“Simply put, sometimes the most productive innovations do not involve high-tech. What they may involve is a ‘recombination’ of existing technologies in ways that change our understanding of what the technology can do and this can have a radically disruptive effect.

“For example, electric vehicles are a top government priority in China but they’re just not selling. Conversely, putting an electric motor on a bike is cheap available technology but it’s a runaway success. It’s not new technologically but it’s potentially transformative at a societal level.”

The project will compare high-technology indigenous innovation approaches with emergent lower-technology social innovations in the crucial fields of agriculture, energy and mobility.

It will focus on high and low technology in three crucial fields:

  • Mobility: comparing electric vehicles and electric bikes
  • Energy: comparing solar photovoltaic electricity against solar thermal
  • Agri-food: comparing genetically modified maize against agro-ecology

The qualitative project will speak to product users, non-users, innovators and policy-makers in a bid to identify what is succeeding and, in the case of inventions, who might use them.

Dr Tyfield and Professor Urry worked together on a previous ESRC-funded project which focused on low-carbon innovation networks (of innovators, scientists and business) in China.

“That was the starting point for a longstanding interest in low-carbon innovation for both John and me,” added Dr Tyfield.

“What has become clear since that project is that low-carbon innovation in China is a crucible of key issues facing the world.”

Dr Tyfield said that if China did not ‘decarbonise’ there would be no hope of doing anything about global climate change.  But, conversely, China has the potential to establish a low-carbon model that leads the world.

“With the sheer size of China (1.3 billion people), were it to follow the US development model, it would not just be irresponsible (as is the West’s position now), it would be catastrophic,” added Dr Tyfield.

“The weight of the environmental pressure would be enormous in terms of pollution and greenhouse gases. Their cars alone would exhaust the demand for world oil.

“China is developing and industrializing, a process that, by its very nature worldwide, has involved an enormous increase in emissions and it is now (since 2009-10) the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.”

“So it’s China’s challenge but it is a challenge for the world. This is not about finger-pointing. They are not ‘the villains’ and we all have a stake in assisting China to decarbonise.

“Low-carbon transition in China is essential. But how do we make it happen? That’s the question. Since 2009 there’s been a flourish of interest in this area but the vast majority of this focuses on technology, and that isn’t working or it’s working too slowly.”

This project aims to offer a different perspective and open up new possibilities and pathways to sustainability.

  • The project team includes the School of Oriental and African Studies, Sussex University, Tsinghua University in China, the Chinese Academy of Science’s Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy and the Work Foundation.