Sustainability with Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs

Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs

In the lead-up to COP27 in November, and with the imperative climate emergency, we thought we would speak to some of the talented minds at Lancaster about their areas of research within sustainability, and what they would like to see focused on in this wide-reaching topic.

This week, we have spoken to Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, a Senior Researcher in Sustainability.

Can you give me a brief overview of your role at the University?

I am a Senior Researcher in Sustainability in the design research centre, Imagination Lancaster, which is part of Lancaster’s Institute for the Contemporary Arts.

What areas of sustainability are you currently focused on in your work?

My research is centred around:

- Working with businesses on mainstreaming environmental sustainability into their practices and policies. The main project I’m working on currently is creating systems for reusable packaging.

- Social climate communication, translating key ideas in energy research through narrative non-fiction, fairy tales, and children’s books

- Exploring how Life Cycle Assessments can be used to evaluate more systemic interventions to reduce absolute impact rather than product-by-product assessments that focus on relative impact.

What has been your biggest achievement this year?

You probably are asking about my research achievements, but I want to tell you about my allotment. I grew peas and cucumbers from seed all by myself for the first time in my life. I’m enjoying the connection to place and nature that having an allotment within 10 minutes of my home has had. I miss my peas and tomatoes when I am out of town and it has made me very happy to stay local for the year. That’s a big achievement when we’re talking about sustainable lifestyles, being happy where you are, rather than wanting to travel as much.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in the work that you do?

The biggest challenge I see is communicating what the sustainable consumption research community knows well, we have the solutions but us social scientists are communicating these well enough outside the Academy. So what I want to focus on is offering evidence-based solutions to communities, organisations and keystone actors in a way that is engaging, clear and inspiring people to take action.

Did you always want to work in the area of sustainability?

I was never one of those kids who knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, like friends who resolutely declared “I’m going to be a doctor” from the age of 5. Yet, I always loved reading and writing and grew up in the Pacific Northwest where being outdoorsy is in our DNA. So in that way, I suppose I have always wanted to work in an environmental sustainability capacity. I looked at undergraduates in Forestry and then found the Sustainable Development programme at the University of St Andrews. I studied there, stayed for a PhD and lectured on that same degree programme for three years.

COP27 is in November 2022 in Egypt, what area(s) would you like to see being talked about more in order to help the climate emergency?

- Climate finance for loss and damages, or the idea that high-income countries should be paying repatriations to low and middle-income countries that have produced the least emissions and yet suffer more, already as a result of extreme weather events and climate change.

- To meet climate targets we need to tax flying more, this is one of the less regressive options compared to taxing home energy or motor fuels. Taxes on air travel, while often portrayed as unfair in public discourses, raise fewer fairness concerns than other types of carbon taxes. Also in high-income countries, even the UK, frequent flyer levies are discussed in Citizen’s Assemblies demonstrating there is much more public support than we might suspect.

- The effectiveness of Citizens Assemblies, where these have been organised we see that people are willing to take more drastic action than governments often suspect is politically viable. Recent studies show that more people are worried about this, for instance in the US, than they think others are.

What do you think is the role of Universities in sustainability and addressing the climate emergency?

Universities often play the role of critical friend and should also be demonstrating best practice in their own management. One starting point would be to challenge the ‘international, global-leading’ emphasis for research and teaching, not only does this encourage and provide a huge amount of funding for travel (generally by air) it also distorts the valuing of local economies and local knowledge. A simple first step would be to divert funding for travel to conferences to slower trips or local climate just projects. The bigger, longer, messier answer is that sustainability must be mainstreamed (perhaps in a similar way to EDI policies in the past decade - into all degrees and policies - so that it is not the responsibility of the Environment Team or environmental champions – but all staff and students' concern to take action.

Explore our sustainability pages to learn more about Lancaster University's work in this area.

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