COP21 guest blog – Robert White, PhD student

Rob White is a first year PhD student in the Bioenergy Centre for Doctoral Training, and his work is focusing on biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a renewable transport fuel which is mainly produced from plant oils or vegetable fats. Nearly all heavy duty industrial machinery and some civilian cars utilise diesel engines, resulting in a global dependence upon fossil diesel. Significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are observed when biodiesel is used as a transport fuel when compared to the equivalent of fossil diesel. By utilising more sustainably produced biodiesel, the contribution to climate change from the transport sector can be reduced1.

A current issue with biodiesel is the by-product glycerol. Fats are reacted with methanol over a catalyst to produce biodiesel and glycerol. For every ton of biodiesel 10%wt of glycerol is produced. Since biodiesel production has increased from ~one million tons in 2007 to five million tons in 2015 and is set to rise there is an excess of glycerol. Consequently the price of crude and refined glycerol has fallen to the point where it is unprofitable and a waste product in the current market. This increases the price of biodiesel make it a non-competitor for higher GHG producing fossil diesel.robs diagram

Figure 1 –  Trans-esterification of triglycerides (fat) to produce biodiesel and crude glycerol where R1-R3 are long chain hydrocarbons 2.robs graph

Figure 2 – World biodiesel and glycerol production from 2007-2023, adapted using data from the OECD biofuels outlook 3,4

A proposed solution to this problem is using glycerol as a feedstock in a reforming method to generate syngas. Reforming methods break down carbon rich feedstocks into more useful gases such as hydrogen. Investigations on the use of steam reforming have been popular to generate hydrogen rich syngas because it is a method with a strong industrial background from coal, methane and heavy oil reforming.

On the other hand, my work is focussed on generating a methane rich syngas from steam reforming of glycerol. This method requires different catalysts and supports at lower temperatures to favour the methane producing thermodynamics. The proposed syngas can be burned in the refinery to lower operating costs. This area has received little attention as hydrogen has many industrial applications such as the Haber process to generate ammonia and the promise of hydrogen fuel cells and a hydrogen economy in the near future.

To generate a methane rich syngas a thorough understanding of the steam reforming, water gas shift and methanation reactions is required (1) – (5).


robs reactions

Utilising Le Chatelier’s principle, the endothermic and exothermic reactions and appropriate catalysts will be crucial in manipulating the equilibrium to give the desired methane rich syngas. My current focus is determining which catalysts to use for my project by literature review.


  1. Basha, S. A., Gopal, K. R. & Jebaraj, S. A review on biodiesel production, combustion, emissions and performance. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 13, 1628–1634 (2009).
  2. Encinar, J., Gonzalez, J., Pardal, A. & Martinez, G. Transesterification of rapeseed oil with Methanol in the presence of Various co-solvents. Proc. Venice (2010). at <>
  3. Biofuel Systems Group Ltd. Biodiesel Standards. (2013). at <>
  4. OECD. OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2014. (OECD Publishing, 2014). doi:10.1787/agr_outlook-2014-en
  5. Azizan, M. T. Steam Reforming of Oxygenated Hydrocarbons for Hydrogen Production. (Imperial College London, 2014). at <>

COP21 guest blog – Christine Foyer

Christine Foyer is a Professor of Plant Science at the University, and leads the Human Health and Food Security project.

Seeds of Change

Seed quality is crucial to agriculture, food security and the conservation of wild species. Currently, significant economic losses result from poor seed performance, which also undermines food security and threatens livelihoods. Seed quality and hence performance is strongly influenced by the environmental conditions experienced by the mother plant.  Climate change is therefore predicted to exacerbate economic losses and decrease the predictability of seed yield and quality for the farmer. The looming challenges of climate change and food security require new knowledge of how stress impacts on seed quality, as well as a re-appraisal of optimal storage conditions. The EcoSeed network addresses these challenges by bringing together teams of leading experts in seed science and converging sciences, including two teams in the Centre of Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds, to diagnose how climate change will alter seed quality and the resilience of seeds to climatic perturbations. EcoSeed combines state-of the-art “omics”, epigenetics, and post-“omics” approaches, such as nuclear and chromatin compaction, DNA repair, oxidative and post-translational modifications to macromolecules, to define regulatory switchboards that underpin the seed phenotype. EcoSeed is proactive in finding solutions to problems of ensuring seed quality and storability and plays a leading role in enabling associated industries to capture current and emerging markets. Special emphasis is placed on the stress signalling hub that determines seed fate from development, through storage, germination and seedling development, with a particular focus on seed after-ripening, vigour, viability and storability. A key facet of EcoSeed research is the translation of new knowledge gained in model species to crops and wild species.  Our goal is to create a step-change in understanding of the regulatory switchboards that determine seed fate. Ecoseed not only assists plant breeders to address the challenges of climate change on seed performance but also provides useful advice to the seed trade and conservation groups.

COP21 guest blog – Prof. Andy Gouldson

Andrew Gouldson is Professor of Environmental Policy and Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor. Andy’s research is interdisciplinary, and he works with governments, NGOs, community groups and other organisations to create impact-oriented research; and he has a special interest in the role of cities in mitigating climate change.

Cities have to be central to the fight against climate change. Currently, they are home to more than half of the world’s population and they generate more than 80% of all GDP. As they consume nearly 75% of global energy, they are responsible for a similar share of the world’s energy related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And they are growing at a staggering rate. Worldwide the urban population is growing by more than 1.2 million people a week and enormous levels of investment are flowing into urban expansion and the underpinning infrastructure. These investments will lock cities – and therefore the world – into either a higher or a lower carbon development path for decades to come.

But climate negotiations in Paris are focused on securing an agreement between national governments. Thus far, these national governments have tended to overlook the significance of cities and the role that they could play in tackling climate change. This isn’t to say that national governments are not important – they need to play a leading role in tackling climate change, but it is questionable whether they can do this effectively unless they involve cities more centrally. This is reflected in the pledges that almost all national governments have made to reduce their emissions in advance of the Paris talks. Analysis shows that when added up, delivery of these pledges would not fully close the gap between ‘business as usual’ emissions and the levels required if the world is to have a good chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change. More needs to be done – and cities could be the actors to do much of it.

Recent analysis for the Global Commission on Economy and Climate has explored the potential for cities around the world to adopt a number of already available low carbon measures in the buildings, transport and waste sectors. These measures include things like promoting more efficient buildings with more renewables and better appliances, more compact cities that generate less transport demand and that have more public transport and more efficient and lower emission vehicles for the demand there is, and more recycling and better waste management. None of this is rocket science – the technologies are already tried and tested, they just need to be much more widely adopted.

If national governments have overlooked this potential in the pledges that they have made, and if these national pledges only add up to half of those required to avoid dangerous climate change, then the analysis suggests that cities could deliver up to 40% of the difference just by adopting these readily available measures. Critically, it also shows that adopting these measures in cities around the world makes sound economic sense. Under realistic conditions, these measures would generate enormous reductions in the energy bills of cities and the people and businesses within them. The analysis estimated that the stream of savings for the world’s cities would have a current value of US$16.6 trillion in the period to 2050. As impressive as this figure is, it is important to note that it excludes the multiple social benefits that could also accrue – relating for example to reduced congestion, reduced air pollution and improved public health.

Support is needed as cities – and especially those in lower- and middle-income countries – frequently lack the powers and the capacities needed to steer their own development. The policy levers needed to do so tend to be found in for example the economic, energy, transport, housing and planning departments at the national, regional and local levels. Tackling the issues requires a coordinated, cross-sectoral, multi-level approach that is frequently absent. However, providing a compelling economic case for urban action on climate change can help to move the issue from what unfortunately are often weak and peripheral environmental departments into the mainstream of policy making.

The barriers to change can be formidable – but international and national action is helping to create a context in which they can be more readily overcome. The support is not only top-down – city-to-city learning is playing a major role, and success stories and best practices are frequently being scaled up and rolled out. But if an international agreement between national governments in Paris recognized and supported the potential for climate action in cities more effectively, then the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change could be brought within reach.

COP21 guest blog – Prof. Keith Hamer

Bio-climate models highlight winners and losers among British seabirds

Prof. Keith Hamer is a Professor of animal ecology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, where he focuses on trophic ecology – the relationship between animals’ food sources and environmental change and wider ecosystem processes.

guillemots Staple closer
A group of Common Guillemots at a breeding site in NE England.

If climate change makes life difficult for species, they can respond in three ways; by moving, by adapting or by going extinct. One way that researchers can gauge how difficult life might become for different species as a result of climate change is to construct bio-climate models that describe the range of climatic conditions under which species currently occur. These models can then be used to predict how species would need to alter their geographical distributions in future to keep pace with climate change, and to identify parts of a species’ current range that may not be habitable in future. One limitation with this approach, though, is that it examines only occupancy (the presence of a species in some places and its absence from others) whereas it’s changes in abundance that are often most important from a conservation perspective. For instance, if a formerly large thriving population were reduced to just a few individuals eking out an existence, that wouldn’t be any change in occupancy.

With this in mind, we’ve been developing the use of bio-climate models to examine impacts of climate change on species abundance as well as occupancy. The group we’ve been studying most to date is seabirds breeding in the British Isles (the UK and Ireland), for which there are excellent supporting data. The British Isles are also of international importance for seabirds, supporting >50% of the world population of several species.

A close-up of a European Shag at its nest.
A close-up of a European Shag at its nest.

Our models have given us important insights into why different species of seabird in Britain have shown contrasting population trends over the past 30 years, when climatic suitability seems to have decreased for all species. Those species whose geographical distributions and local population sizes were not greatly constrained by climate in the mid-1980s have typically increased in abundance since then, continuing the long-term trend observed for most seabirds in the UK over much of the 20th century following legal protection from exploitation. In contrast, those species whose distributions and abundance conformed closely to climate have reversed this trend and gone into decline, by as much as 80% in one case.

These findings highlight the potential for bio-climate models to elucidate impacts of climate change on species abundance as well as occupancy. They also reveal a pervasive influence of climate on the population sizes of seabirds across the British Isles. We’ve not directly examined the mechanisms driving these changes. However we did find that the ability of our occupancy models to predict local population sizes of different species was related to species’ foraging ecology. This finding suggests a tighter relationship between climate and population size among those species most affected by changes in food availability at sea, supporting a link between seabird populations and bottom-up processes affecting prey quality and availability.

You can read about this work in more detail here: Russell et al (2015) Diversity and Distributions and Russell et al (2015) Diversity.

COP21 guest blog – Prof. Tim Benton

Professor Tim Benton works on  food security and the environmental challenges associated with agriculture, and is the Global Food Security Champion.

Rarely a week goes by without there being news of weather records being broken.

We have recently had the hottest June recorded across four continents. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) trumpeted that in a single week, in February 2185 local weather records were broken as an unmoving ridge of high pressure kept the US west coast unseasonably hot, and the east coast unseasonably cold.

In 2012, a seminal paper ‘A decade of extremes’ tied events such as heatwaves to the human influence on climate, and the incidence of extremes continues to accelerate.

The figure below shows data from the ‘disasters database’ and shows the exponential increases in weather-related natural disasters. Associated with these trends, of course, are the mounting toll of human costs in terms of damage, displacement and death.

The extreme team

A couple of years ago, the UK’s former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington asked us to consider the resilience of the UK food system to weather impacts. It was a very timely request because the report was written during the wettest summer ever when the weather’s impacts on UK agriculture were obvious.

Our previous report stimulated some considerable debate and discussion as it highlighted the growing trends in extreme weather and the way that it could impact upon agriculture – in the field and in the supply chain. Furthermore, we pointed out that the globalised food system meant events elsewhere in the globe can create impacts on our food system just as much as events in the UK.

Colleagues in the Climate Change team in the UK Foreign Office asked me to pop in and discuss the way that food, food prices and climate could interact to affect life in countries around the world. This is a topic of crucial interest given the plethora of analyses that have linked food price rises to civil unrest in unstable economies. They provided money through their Science and Innovation Network (SIN), with close involvement of Dr Jack Westwood from SIN at the UK Consulate in Chicago, to set up a working group to examine the issues in a bit more detail.

We brought together a team from industry, policy and academia, with specialists on climate, trade, international development, the food system and the environment. Over six months and with two meetings in London and Chicago, the UK-US Taskforce developed a conceptual framework for thinking about the resilience of the global food system to extreme weather.

The risks are increasing

Firstly, we looked at the way weather impacts on food systems and asked “are the risks increasing?”  We found evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of the limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year event acting on agriculture is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. A 1-in-100 year event is about the equivalent of loss of 5-10% of the world’s calories.

diasters-diag-big (1)

We then developed a scenario for a plausible worst case. From a climatological perspective, two years stand out in recent years for being very high impact: 1988/9 where maize and soybean was seriously affected by drought in the US mid-West, and 2002/3 when rice and wheat were affected in Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

Our plausible worst case scenario was built around both these events happening together. Given this potential for a food production shock, we then catalogued how different stakeholders in industry and different countries might respond.  From this, we could flesh out a scenario of production shocks and market and policy responses. This was then used to stimulate thinking about how the responses would lead to impacts on people through changing prices and availability of food.

This article was originally posted to the Global Food Security programme blog, where Tim Benton is the Champion of the programme:

COP21 Guest Blog – Prof. Chris Dent

Chris Dent is a Professor of East Asia’s International Political Economy at the University. In this blog he speaks about how his work relates to climate change.

I am an international political economist whose prime interest centres on the impact of East Asia’s economic development on the global system. In recent years, I have become increasingly interested on the region’s energy issues and challenges in this regard. Last year my book on renewable energy development in East Asia was published, which explained how the region had become the world’s largest producer and consumer of renewables, and what the implications of this development are for the rest of the world. For example, China now makes around 60 to 65 percent of the world’s solar panels, and has made solar PV more affordable for us all.

East Asia consumes more energy than any other region as well as being the world’s largest carbon emitter by far. It is also very susceptible to climate change risk. For example, much of the Chinese economy is concentrated in its coastal and river delta cites, such as Shanghai. Rising sea levels would have a catastrophic effect on those cities, and thereby China’s economy. As energy is core to negotiated solutions and agreements on climate change at the Paris COP21 talks, the commitments made by East Asian states at the meeting on decarbonising their energy systems are of global significance. Earlier this year, the Chinese government announced a ‘war on pollution’. A recent report published by the World Health Organisation estimated that 1.3 million people were dying prematurely as a result of air pollution in China’s cities. Extreme weather events have caused thousands of deaths in Taiwan, the Philippines and other countries. The human and environmental costs of East Asia’s carbon-intensive economic development continue to rise, and its governments have been compelled to take these matters more seriously. It is not only other nations that are closely looking at what East Asian governments to commit to at Paris but also the peoples back home who they represent.

Cities Energy and Climate Change conf - CMD 2 - Copy - Copy

COP21 Guest blog – Prof. Christine Foyer

Christine Foyer is a Professor of Plant Science at the University, and leads the Human Health and Food Security project.

Modelling European Agriculture with Climate Change for Food Security (MACSUR)
-A FACCE-JPI Knowledge Hub

Evidence of climate change will be observed more and more frequently in the coming years. These changes are likely to be only the precursors of even worse changes that will affect almost all aspects of our society, including the environment, industries, economics and even our culture. Agriculture is one of the sectors that is most exposed to the negative impact of climate change. As the global population is expected to top nine billion in 2050, the demand for food and animal feed is likely to increase by up to 70%. To keep up with population growth, more food will have to be produced worldwide within the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years. To meet this challenge even more difficult, the agriculture-related effects of climate change are predicted to be mainly negative. Together with likely decreases in crop yields, the predictability of yields and crop quality will be adversely affected, and new pests, weeds and diseases might threaten plants in all habitats. The projected increase of extreme rainfall events will increase the risk of soil erosion and nitrate leaching. A wide spectrum of mitigating factors, comprising soil conservation techniques, alternative agro-management practices, plant breeding, innovative ICT control and monitoring systems and simulation modelling tools, has to be employed to meet these challenges.

The University of Leeds plays an important role in the MACSUR Knowledge Hub, which comprises over 300 scientists from 80 research groups across Europe promoting Climate-Smart Agriculture. MACSUR is a nexus of capacity building, analysing how crops, livestock and the economy of Europe will be affected by Climate Change in order to address environmental, socio-economic and policy issues. MACSUR improves and integrates models of crop and livestock production, farms, and national & international agri-food markets through interdisciplinary collaboration. The hub not only builds research capacity and hands-on-training in integrative modelling for junior and senior researchers; but it also demonstrates integrated model-based analysis for representative farming systems in selected regions through case studies; analyses effects of climate change on the major farming systems in Europe; identifies climate-induced risks to farming, and develops effective adaptation and mitigation options together with different stakeholders. MACSUR uses regional case studies to assess the consequences of adaptation and mitigation measures for farming competitiveness, the environment and rural development at multiple scales (farm, regional, national and European).

Teams in Earth and Environment and the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds are involved in project co-ordination and they also lead the UK regional case study, within the MACSUR project. The case studies facilitate the interlinked development of a conceptual framework of actual models and model links to assist policy makers and actors in the agri-food chain to identify effective and efficient adaptation and mitigation measures and potential consequence scenarios, e.g. impact on food yield, quality, nutritive value, disease load etc. in perceived hotspots of climate impacts. The studies are geared to answering key questions, such as “What would be the different contributions of different European adaptation strategies to global food security until 2050 at different scales (farm to EU) while keeping the GHG targets? What investments are necessary? What are the implications?”.

An inventory and evaluation of current UK Climate Change-related research activities will also help to identify gaps in our Climate Change adaptation methodologies, highlighting new or neglected research areas and strengthening the collaboration between UK research groups as well with other research organizations in Europe and beyond. Crucially, this work will help the exploitation information and prediction for the benefit of a diverse range of stake holders particularly farmers and policy makers.

Fodor Nandor and Christine H. Foyer, Centre for Plant Sciences

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MACSUR methodology: Interdisciplinary and multi-scale integration of models for sustainable food and feed production.

COP21 Guest blog – Dr. Chris Hassall, evolutionary ecologist

Chris Hassall is an evolutionary ecologist working on human impacts on ecological systems (with a focus on freshwater ecology and climate change) and large-scale evolutionary patterns (with a focus on invertebrates as model systems to look at ageing and mimicry) at the University of Leeds.


The focus of the negotiations at COP21 will be on avoiding dangerous climate change to ensure the planet remains suitable for people. However, in striving for this goal we will also provide a wide array of benefits to the other biological organisms with which we share the world. My research over the past decade has focused on trying to understand the biological implications of climate change, and I have focused on the role that changing environmental temperature plays in driving changes in insect populations.

Insects form a significant percentage of all animals. Indeed, as Robert May, the former President of the Royal Society once quipped: “…to a first approximation all species are insects“. We are fed upon by mosquitoes, our crops are munched by caterpillars, and our homes are gnawed by termites. However, we are also reliant upon bees and other pollinators for our food, and many other insects consume the pests that would otherwise damage our crops. Understanding this complex network of beneficial and malefic species requires not only an understanding of how they interact, but also how climate change will influence their distributions, numbers, and behaviour.


Early on in my career I became fascinated by one group of insects in particular: the dragonflies. These animals have been considered traditionally to be indicators of clean water by Native American peoples – a link that has also been made through the use of various dragonfly groups as barometers of ecological water quality in the Water Framework Directive. Dragonflies are an important part of the environment as they live for most of their lives in the water as predatory larvae (sometimes up to four or five years) before emerging as the winged adult with which most of us are familiar. This means that their health reflects the quality of aquatic and terrestrial environments. The dragonflies evolved in the tropics and so are well adapted to warmer temperatures, meaning that as the environment becomes warmer under climate change they are one of the first groups that are able to take advantage. My work, published in 2007, was the first to demonstrate that aquatic species are emerging earlier in the year in response to climate change. DRAGONFLY

Since then I have worked on species that are expanding their ranges under climate change, particularly the small red-eyed damselfly.  Work in which I was involved has suggested that the number of animals coming into the UK is far greater than expected, which runs counter to our earlier assumption that species extend their ranges through the colonisation of new habitats by a small number of pioneers. I have also demonstrated in a number of species that the animals at the leading edge of an expanding range tend to have far more developed flight equipment (wings and muscles). This sort of information is important in our understanding of how other species might respond to climate change, and how animals may evolve in a dynamic world.


A second group of insects with which I work is the hoverflies.  These small flies are often seen buzzing around flowers in our gardens where they pollinate plants, and there are around 270 species in the UK. My current research, funded by an EU Marie Curie Fellowship, is investigating the consequences of climate change for this group of insects, with a focus on when they emerge. This is particularly important in the case of pollinators like the hoverflies because if the pollinator does not emerge at the same time as the plant that requires it then both the plant and the insect may suffer. We call this problem “decoupling”, and we know that it is already happening in other species such as birds that rely on particular caterpillars, and aquatic crustaceans that rely on particular algae.hoverfly

Along with pollination, hoverflies are also known to mimic various species of stinging wasps and bees. In the group of photos to the right there are five stinging insects and seven harmless hoverflies. As you can tell, this mimicry poses a problem for the animals that eat hoverflies, as those predators need to be able to distinguish the harmless hoverflies from these stinging insects. My EU-funded research is investigating how the relative changes in the distributions of the wasps, bees, and hoverflies might further confuse predators by altering the locations and times of year when the different species occur. Hence my current work focuses not only on the environmental and conservation aspects of climate change, but also uses climate change as a “natural experiment” to explore more fundamental evolutionary processes.


Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Volunteer Days

University staff and students regularly take part in volunteer days with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in the Leeds area each year. These activities bring together staff and students from a number of University managed sites across both Central and North West Leeds. So far this year, groups have undertaken hay meadow management at Kirkstall Valley Nature Reserve, and willow coppicing at Esholt, near Rawdon.

The Kirkstall event saw the volunteers helping to clear cut hay in October, thereby preventing the nutrients from returning back in to the soil. This action limits the growth of invasive or dominant species, and allows the natural wild flowers to grow and prosper, thus encouraging further insects and bird life in the hay meadows, and broadening the reserve’s biodiversity. The team were supervised by two members of staff from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and one was even a graduate from the University.


The work at Esholt in November consisted of coppicing or cutting three year old willow stems, and sorting them by thickness, for subsequent use as posts, or willow whips. The willow will then be transported for use at either Meanwood Beck in Leeds, Pudsey Beck near Bradford, or Otterburn Beck near Skipton, all located in the River Aire catchment. The willow will be used in a process called spiling, whereby the posts are driven in vertically along the water’s edge, and then the whips are woven or laid as fascines between the posts. The final structure acts as an initial barrier to erosion, but the beauty of the willow is that it will grow again in spring. The new roots will help to anchor the riverbank, provide habitat for water larvae, and reduce silt/improve the water quality. The new shoots will also help provide extra cover for insects and bird life along the becks, thereby helping to expand the existing biodiversity.

Kirkstall Valley 2015 (5)


Further events are planned for spiling at Otterburn Beck; tree planting at Water Haigh Woodland Park; and scrub bashing at Ledston Luck Nature Reserve in the New Year.