Sustainability with Professor David Tyfield

Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs

In the lead-up to COP27 this month, 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 Professor David Tyfield, Professor of Sustainable Transitions & Political Economy at Lancaster Environment Centre.

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

I am Professor of Sustainable Transitions & Political Economy at Lancaster Environment Centre, and Director for the LEC departmental research theme on ‘Science for the Anthropocene’ (S4A), for which I also host a podcast (on Spotify) called ‘Learning to Fly’:

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

My work is divided between three major themes, which also overlap. First, I have had a longstanding research interest in the way in which China is approach sustainable transition and its global contribution to this urgent goal, which goes under the slogan of ‘ecological civilisation’. More recently, this has also involved a greater interest in China’s operations overseas, e.g. through the Belt & Road Initiatives. Secondly, as an Associate Director of Lancaster’s Centre for Mobilities Research and editor of Mobilities journal, my specific interest in green transition is focused on issues of urban mobilities (personal and freight) and infrastructure, including their respective digitalization. This has included work both in China and much closer to home, in major cities in the North of England. Finally, I am also interested in the growing body of work exploring so-called ‘inner transitions’, and have developed a methodology for participatory research called ‘Collective Mindfulness’. This also includes work on a broader perspective, looking at how the climate challenge is transforming human civilisation and, indeed, our very concept of ‘civilisation’.

What has been your biggest achievement this year?

I have been Lancaster PI on a couple of important projects exploring how to decarbonize freight associated with the Port of Liverpool and the recently designated Freeport, of which the port itself is merely one part. This has developed strong contacts for future collaborative, place-based and participatory research on a key hurdle for sustainable transitions in mobility systems.

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

Apart from the obvious – time! – the biggest challenge is probably juggling between different perspectives, all of which are crucial to making meaningful progress on the urgent issue of global transition. For instance, one needs to become very closely acquainted with the on-the-ground detail and everyday experiences of those associated with a particular case study; but it is also crucial to keep a broad and systemic perspective, and one capable of seeing the challenge imaginatively.

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

I don’t see the challenges of sustainability going away any time soon, unfortunately. So even if I move around different aspects of the issue, I think I will always be working on sustainability in one way or another. It is certainly where I feel I can make the biggest contribution with my work.

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?

The difference in the world and geopolitics between Glasgow COP26 and this year’s meeting is enormous. Progress was already difficult last year, given existing tensions. But the outright fissure in the world given the Russian war on Ukraine will doubtless make negotiations even harder. The most pressing issue, given the current context, must surely be to prevent any backsliding on net zero commitments and decarbonization of energy. A serious round of talks would admit that there is inevitably going to be a short-term (re)turn to some fossil fuels – most problematically, coal – in the context of the current energy price spikes, but then reassert and even accelerate commitments to decarbonizing energy, if only as a matter of national energy security in the medium-term (i.e. 3 years plus). The discussions must start by admitting and seeking to work with the manifest lack of global unity and huge energy challenges of the moment, and then build in some robustness to the momentum of global net zero anyway.

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

As collectives of research expertise, universities (and science) obviously have a crucial role to play in identifying and clarifying the problems of climate emergency and where priorities lie. However, as LEC’s S4A initiative argues, there is also an increasing need for universities to play key roles, in collaboration with multiple stakeholders, in actual construction of the changes to society needed to effect a deep and expedited transition. This is, in fact, something of a paradigm shift in science because the current lack of progress on this agenda makes all too clear that we will not ‘solve’ it insofar as proceed along existing lines in which science defines the problem and then hands it to policymakers to draft grand, national interventions. Transition is too complex, contested and place-specific for this approach. Instead, it needs actors with some relevant expertise to act as honest brokers in bringing together new forms of participatory, collaborative and experimental collective learning – and, as public institutions, universities and academics are amongst those best placed to fill this crucial role. No one has (all) the answers, including academic experts, and it is unfair and self-defeating to proceed on the basis that anybody does; but everyone has a bit of the puzzle, and only working together over time will work out what is the best way forward.

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

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