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Bristol's green light (Nonesuch spring 2015) (Part 2)

Nick Lowndes

Nick Lowndes

15 May 2015

This year, Bristol is the first UK city to hold the title of European Green Capital. But what does this actually mean – to the University, to the city, and to individuals? Nonesuch spoke to alumni, students and staff to find out.

Sam Harris (BSc 2013)

Biology graduate, Sam Harris, set up Pedal Power Transport when he realised working as a cycle courier meant he’d be paid both to keep fit and help reduce CO2 emissions.

In 2008, Bristol became England’s first cycling city, but I still want more people here to take bikes seriously: they’re the perfect way to get from A to B. At Pedal Power Transport, we offer a local taxi service, ferry goods between small businesses, and help organisations dispose of cardboard, plastic and used coffee grounds. We also pick up 'last mile' deliveries for national couriers, who would otherwise waste time and fuel negotiating the city centre. Completing these deliveries by bike is not only more efficient, but also helps keep polluting vehicles off the streets too.

My business has more goals than just making a profit. Last year, we created four local jobs and saved 18.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions. We’re on track to save a lot more in 2015. That saving includes the number of miles we travelled (that would otherwise have been covered by cars and vans), how much waste we helped businesses recycle, and the difference in fossil fuel consumption needed to produce bikes locally compared with cars.

Bristol attracts people who want to live in a more relaxed environment and together, the mayor, George Ferguson (BA 1968, BArch 1971, Hon MA 1999), Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership are helping provide facilities for start-ups. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak, so running my own company made a lot of sense. When I won a University entrepreneurship award, I had the incentive I needed to get started. It was a huge learning curve, but I learnt a lot of valuable business skills through Basecamp, the student start-up support service.

Bristol 2015 European Green Capital is a great opportunity. Let’s talk about how great we are, and how much fun we have, to inspire more innovation. For me, success will be more bikes, less traffic, and a happier, healthier city. 

Adela Simonova (LLB 2013-)

Adela Simonova admits that her incentive to get involved with the Students’ Union (Bristol SU) Get Green programme was free ice-cream: the reward for signing up everyone in her hall to Student Switch Off, an NUS energy-saving campaign. She’s now a Bristol SU Get Green Student Ambassador.

The more I learnt about Bristol SU Get Green, the more I enjoyed all the different projects, and the more I got involved. One of my main roles is encouraging first-year students to think about the energy they use, and how much they can recycle – habits they can take with them when they move into private accommodation. Different countries and cultures have varied approaches to recycling, so I also try to make things less confusing for overseas students.

Last year, I organised a candlelit concert for Earth Hour, and worked as a Project Assistant for Bristol’s Big Give. We filled the Victoria Rooms with more than 80 tonnes of unwanted goods – kitchenware, clothes and books – from students moving out of accommodation and raised more than £200,000 for local charities. Both projects were great fun, and I’ve definitely got to know the city, not just the University. Bristol’s a great place to get new projects off the ground – I’ve found most people here understand the importance of sustainability, and admire the way students engage with the community.

Our Bristol SU Get Green team has really grown this year – there’s so much going on. We have lots of local student-led projects, including a community garden where we intend to grow our own food, as well as a national campaigns team that organises events like Fairtrade Fortnight and Global Divestment Day. 

Sarah Butler-Sloss (BSc 1986) and Mark Sainsbury (BA 1991)

Further afield, Sarah Butler-Sloss and her brother, Mark Sainsbury, will be watching Bristol with interest this year. Sarah founded the sustainable energy organisation, Ashden, in 2001. Eight years later, Mark founded the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Together, through the Ashden Trust and the Mark Leonard Trust, they support environmental programmes and public policy research, as well as community-led projects.

Mark (M) When I heard Bristol had won the title of European Green Capital, I was delighted. I’m a firm believer in shining a light on good practice and rewarding achievement, and know that was Sarah’s motivation for setting up the Ashden Awards – to showcase and celebrate pioneers of sustainable energy. Though I’d prefer her not to know, she’s probably been my biggest influence. I’m ashamed to say that, at Bristol, I didn’t do much more than recycle empty bottles of Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon and vote Green.

Sarah (S) When I set up Ashden, I wanted to talk about solutions to climate change, not focus on 'doom and gloom' stories. In 2001, our first award focused on the developing world, where 1.5 billion people still don’t have access to electricity and three billion people cook on open fires and smoky stoves. Clean, modern energy is crucial for helping people out of poverty. Light helps children do their homework after dark, and shopkeepers stay open in the evening. Electricity enables fields to be irrigated and medicines to be refrigerated. When our winner, from India, made the front page of the national and regional newspapers, we knew we were on to a good thing. We also help our winners grow and share their expertise: together, they now reach 45 million people and save more than eight million tonnes of CO2 each year.

M I'm very aware of the 'power of the showcase'. Bristol is unique in the UK – cultural change towards sustainable society has already taken root. The challenge now will be for other cities, including London, to relate to that, and understand that sustainable development is the most effective way to improve living standards.

S It would be wonderful if Bristol could show that 'being green' delivers real benefits to the city and its people. Whether it is the health benefits of reduced air pollution or the economic benefits of using energy more smartly, 'being green' can be a great win-win. If Bristol can demonstrate this, it will encourage others to follow.

Through the Ashden Trust, we’re supporting organisations that highlight the relationship between the financial sector and the fossil fuel industry and put pressure on the industry to clean up their act. In addition to making grants, we’ve divested all our assets away from fossil fuels, and invested in clean technologies instead.

M I'm certainly curious to see how willing major institutions in Bristol, including the University, are to show leadership in areas like divestment. I know first-hand that doing things on your own can be lonely and overwhelming. When I set up Moro [restaurant], I found it hard to find guidance about being sustainable. That’s why I founded the Sustainable Restaurant Association: a members’ organisation that offers sector-specific advice, puts you in touch with like-minded businesses and helps you draw a road map of priorities. There’s no magic bullet to creating the sustainable, equitable societies most of us want. It takes grassroots action, leadership, research and, often, brave individuals prepared to make a stand.  

Read views from Liz Zeidler (BA 1991, MSc 2002), Professor Rich Pancost, Martin Wiles and Aisling Tierney (PhD 2011-)

Listen to audio version (mp3)

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Further information

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