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Out and about!

quantocksThe Department is planning a 4-day field class to Somerset and the Quantocks in the middle of the Autumn term for all first year students in Geography & Environmental Science. The focus will be on flooding – prediction, monitoring, social and economic impacts etc. with lots of opportunities to get out into the field to observe and record. There will also be plenty of opportunity  for students to work together in groups and to get to know each other and  staff during an interesting and varied week in  the beautiful landscapes of this part of part of Somerset.

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Sarah Duddigan poses with tea bags-smThis week University of Reading and Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) PhD student Sarah Duddigan has been filmed for an Austrian children’s science TV programme, talking about her contribution to a decomposition rate citizen science project, known as the Tea Bag Index – UK.

The Tea Bag Index is a novel method to measure decomposition rate in soil. Decomposition (the breakdown of organic material into its smaller constituents) is an important process for the release of nutrients into soil for plants to use. Therefore gaining a better understanding of decomposition in soil will be of great value to gardeners in the UK. The method is simple, UK participants are recruited through the RHS and posted some tea bags to bury in their garden. After three months they dig them up and send them back, along with a soil sample.

Decomposition of organic matter (i.e. dead plant and animal remains) in soils is an important process in any ecosystem.

Decomposer microorganisms feed on the organic matter and break it down into its simplest components. As organic matter is decomposed, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients are released. Meaning that, any excess nutrients are released and are available for plants to use to grow.

Maintaining a healthy and vibrant garden is the aspiration of most gardeners and healthy fertile soil is a key component of this. Therefore, a better understanding of decomposition rates in garden soils will be of great value to gardeners across the UK.

While having an active microbial population decomposing organic matter is important for soil health, they are not without their problems. While organic matter is decomposing, it releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. A fast decay leads to more CO2 in the atmosphere and slow decay could lead to a greater proportion of carbon remaining in the soil. It is estimated that soils store a gigantic 2,300 billion tons of carbon worldwide; triple the amount than all the worlds plants. Therefore in order to gain a better understanding of global CO2 emissions from soils it is vital to know more about the rate of decomposition.

The data from the UK therefore can also be combined with data being collected across Europe (or across the world in fact) in order to gain a better understanding on the role of decomposition in global carbon emissions and the contribution to climate change.

This seems to be a contradiction, on the one hand decomposition is good for plant health, but on the other has the potential to contribute to climate change. This is why projects such as this, which aim to gain a better understanding of decomposition rates in soil, are so important.

For more information, and updates on the progress of the project, see the links below:





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BSSSdissprizeCongratulations to Rosie Everett, winner of the 2015 BSc BSSS Dissertation Prize for her project on ‘Reconstructing Late Würm Late-Glacial and Early Holocene environmental changes in the Corsican uplands and evaluating the response of human groups to climate change and vegetation succession’ supervised by Dr Nick Branch (presenting the award).


Rosie’s project used the sedimentary records from Lake Creno, Corsica as an archive for past environmental conditions.  She analysed the pollen stored in the sediment to reconstruct past conditions to see if there was a relationship between past climate during ate Wurm Late Glacial and Early Holocene period and human settlement on Corsica.


She has been putting her paleoecological skills to practice as a Forensic Researcher Intern at the James Hutton Institute, looking at rates of recovery of diatoms, taken from lake samples from pig liver tissues, as an analogue from human drowning cases.  Rosie graduated this summer with a BA in Archaelogy, and is currently working with a forensics company, assisting with field work.  Her ambition is to build on this experience and skills base to pursue post-graduate study in ecology.


We’re extremely proud of Rosie and all our students’ fantastic achievements this year.  Competition for the prize this year was tough with many strong entries.  We wish everyone from the Class of 2015 the best of luck with their future endeavours.

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Private Sector Resilience

Photo Peter McMannersPeter Mcmanners, who is a member of the HERG Resilience Research Cluster, presented a seminar to geography students on private sector resilience. He outlined the significance of sustainability in the context of a business response. The underlying rationale for the private sector to engage with sustainability was explained. He also pointed out the limitations on business to apply their capabilities to fashion significant change to the way they operate. Business is constrained by investors with short time horizons and an overall expectation placed on business to focus on bottom-line performance. Many of the changes required in society and the economy, to deliver sustainability and resilience, have the characteristics of long-term systemic change. This is something we are not very good at. The culture of short-term results is not conducive to the long-term strategic planning required to deliver a resilient economy alongside a sustainable society.

Current research into sustainability in aviation was used to discuss private sector resilience within a particular case study. This exposed a policy stalemate where the aviation industry is held back and unable to advance towards a low emissions future. There is the potential for a bright future for aviation but it requires radical change. In a global highly regulated industry with substantial sunk costs there is little appetite for transformational change. Current research into a new model for aviation was outlined and discussed with different passenger segments based on the premise that flying slower could be the catalyst to develop a new generation of low-carbon air vehicle.

Finally, the seminar returned to the big picture of the global economy and an examination of the macroeconomic policy which sets the context within which business operates. Discussion was around whether economic globalisation will continue of whether the imperative of resilience will be the driver towards a more proximized economy. The seminar did not arrive at a definitive conclusion but raised the possibility of a transformation in macroeconomics to provide business with a different macroeconomic framework within which to operate.  As sustainability and resilience rise up the policy agenda, we are likely to see much more consideration of transformational change as policy makers accept that the current state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. If the private sector is to play an active role in such a transformation, it will have to be part of a wider initiative orchestrated by politicians and policy makers.

The seminar was a thought provoking session which produced lively discussion and debate.

For further information: McManners, P. (2014) ‘Reframing economic policy towards sustainability’, Int. J. Green Economics, Vol. 8, Nos. 3/4, pp.288–305.

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This term, students taking the ‘Resilience for Sustainable Development’ Geography module participated in a stakeholder role play activity, to understand how multi-stakeholder decision-making processes are used to establish conservation goals. The purpose of the activity was to demonstrate the complexities and politics inherent in stakeholder deliberation processes.  The activity used the specific example of standard-setting in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) production certification standard.  The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder initiative in which business and civil society actors are integrated into the governance process to address the negative social, environmental and economic impacts of palm oil production on a transnational scale.


Students took on the roles of different stakeholders, including international environmental NGOs, large palm oil companies, smallholder producers, and retailers.  A hypothetical scenario was given, that these stakeholders were taking part in the revision of the RSPO standard.  This scenario was adapted to the lecture room using a “debating class” format.  A conservation requirement, which would need to be followed by plantation companies, was proposed by the convener (who represented the RSPO Secretariat).


Firstly, groups were required to construct key arguments to convey how they wanted to shape the standard.  They needed to consider the interests and strategic positions of the stakeholders they represented.  Speaking to the individual groups, the NGO group considered whether they represented NGOs who lobbied companies, or worked with companies in a more collaborative way.  They recognized the trade-off that exists between how stringent standards are, and implementation of the standards’ requirements by companies. The large companies were content with the vague standard as it allowed them to define their own version of what constitutes sustainability, and the retailers had varying views of how strict the standard should be.  These varying views demonstrate the heterogeneity of interests, values and within stakeholder groups.  The group representing smallholder farmers felt that their voices and power were weakest out of the stakeholder groups.


The second part of the task involved the groups debating their positions in the wider group setting.  The retailers wanted to demonstrate Corporate Social Responsibility commitments to their customers, so pushed for the standard to be tightened, to reduce reputational risk.  The smallholders called for financial support from plantation companies to support their conservation efforts.  They also called for more options, to allow them to diversify their income and limit the impacts of monoculture cropping. NGOs showed a willingness of compromise, they encouraged more detail in the standard but were cognizant of the potential barriers this would impose for companies to adopt or comply with the RSPO’s requirements.  The large companies were willing to absorb some of the costs, support the smallholders in some of their demands, but also make minimal changes to their operating procedures so not to stray too far from “business as usual.”


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Following the larger debate, the group went on to reflect on what they learnt from different actors’ perspectives, and whether they agreed or disagreed with other stakeholders’ perspectives.  They considered what can be learnt about stakeholder processes from undertaking this activity, and also raised questions about the challenges associated with such processes.  These included: (i) Multi-stakeholder processes are complex and political, they take time and effort; (ii) Can the term ‘stakeholder’ be used to categorize such heterogeneous groups? Is it representative?; (iii) The more powerful voices will be heard, and the perhaps the voices that “better fit” with the design of the multi-stakeholder process; (iv) Compromise and consensus are needed, but this is not necessarily the most appropriate option for sustainability; (v) Some important stakeholders are excluded from the processes (the group identified these as being governments, and consumers), and some stakeholder groups are under-represented e.g. NGOs from developing countries, (vi) Implementation of requirements is crucial, highlighting the need for effective enforcement mechanisms or sanctions for non-conformance.


When taking on the roles of various stakeholders involved in the RSPO’s standard-setting processes, students expressed divergent views and interests, demonstrating the intrinsic politics of deliberative multi-stakeholder processes.  Students conveyed the complexities of understanding the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder initiatives as an emerging governance mechanism.

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Geography students studying ‘Resilience for Sustainable Development’ had a change from their normal lecture format recently and instead played a game. This wasn’t just for fun though, as ‘serious gaming’ is becoming a popular way of sharing complex information with a range of potential users and giving them opportunity to discuss its use. The students played CAULDRON, a game developed by members of the ACE-Africa project (University of Reading (Parker, Cornforth and Boyd) and Oxford University) together with the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre, who have lots of experience designing games to communicate climate information. This game was developed to present the science of extreme weather event attribution in an accessible way, and provide space for discussion about whether it could be used in climate policy.

CAULDRON stands for Climate Attribution Under Loss and Damage: Risking, Observing, Negotiating. This reflects the fact that loss and damage due to extreme weather events is occurring all over the world and people are taking an interest in whether this is due to climate change. Negotiations are also currently taking place to work out how to address this loss and damage under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The game gives players the chance to experience having to make decisions under uncertain climate risk, something many people have to do in reality every day. They also have to analyse changes in risk with only limited data and deal with the difficulties of negotiating with other players with different interests.


The game began with players given the role of farmers who had to plant crops each season. They were each given beans to symbolise their crops and a ‘rainmaker’, which was a small pot containing a dice, to shake to determine their rainfall each season. Players who had good rains gained more beans, while those with drought years lost beans. Some players ended up in crisis with too few beans to be able to plant, so had to try and strike up deals with fellow players to be lent beans so they could keep playing!

Climate change can affect the probabilities of extreme weather events occurring, so for the next part of the game players were given new rainmakers. Some of these contained dice with increased probability of drought which would ruin crops, but players didn’t know which! Suddenly, there seemed to be more droughts happening and more players getting into crisis.

Players try to figure out their best farming strategy

Players try to figure out their best farming strategy

For the next part of the game, players became scientists. Using new rainmakers as ‘climate models’, they produced more statistics to help them work out whether their risk of drought had been altered by climate change. How trustworthy were the results provided by their models though?

Players became negotiators at the UN climate negotiations for the final part of the game. They had to work out how they were going to deal with the fact that some players had collected more beans than others. Some players had been acting as developed countries and so, along with fewer losses, they had greater historical emissions. Were they to blame for losses in the developing countries? After much debate, each group managed to come up with an agreement that all players were happy to sign. However, some players did say they felt they had been bullied into making agreements and noted that the develop countries were denying that climate change had happened at all! Solutions presented to address the loss and damage at the end of the game included clearance of debts that had accumulated between players, rules on farming strategies that would be used in the future, and agreements on transfer of beans for when players got into crisis. With such a range of ideas diplomatically expressed, maybe we have uncovered some of the negotiators of the future!

A spokesperson reads out his region's signed agreement to address loss and damage

A spokesperson reads out his region’s signed agreement to address loss and damage


By the end of the game, all the players said their knowledge of extreme event attribution had been improved. One player said their understanding had been improved ‘by creating a situation where extreme events had ‘real’ consequences and a political ‘reality’’. This is the key feature of participatory gaming, that players can experience the emotions involved and have to act under uncertainty rather than just learning about it theoretically. Furthermore, it provides insights into the challenges of climate negotiations and the inequality between developing and developed countries, along with the difficulties in separating the impacts of climate change from other factors.

This has been just one of the many times the CAULDRON game has been played, which have included players from sectors ranging from climate science to civil society. Each time the game has prompted lively discussion about event attribution science and dealing with the impacts of climate change and demonstrated that ‘serious gaming’ can be an effective, but also fun, way of sharing climate research.

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Lorna Zischka, a HERG PhD student, has been selected to attend the Tuscany Quality of Life Global Laboratory in February 2015. Only 15 early career researchers from across the world were selected to attend this event.


Lorna is supervised by Marina Della Giusta (Economics) and Steve Musson (GES). Her PhD  focuses on the relationships between charitable giving and social cohesion and makes use of experimental micro data, international large survey data and case studies including South Reading.

Lorna said, “My work focuses on evaluating community relationships by the time and money that people invest into them. The more ‘giving’ our society, the better our joint quality of life. I’m delighted to be offered this opportunity to discuss these things at the Tuscany network and to learn from others researching this topic.”

Congratulations, Lorna!

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