The challenges and realities of implementing compulsory language learning in schools

René Koglbauer is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences (ECLS). He is also Deputy Head and Director of Operations of the School and Director of the North Leadership Centre. In this blog, he argues that the proposed changes to the teaching of modern foreign languages in our schools should not be rushed, and that we should engage in active discussions with practitioners, school leaders, researchers and subject associations to make this a successful change.

Two schoolgirls concentrated on their task with notebook

What’s the problem?

Since the majority Conservative Government were elected in May, there has been more discussion on the role of languages in schools. Most recently, Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP outlined proposals to reintroduce compulsory language learning in schools. It’s positive to see that the Government are recognising the importance of language learning and to re-position the unique knowledge and skills it brings to the secondary school curriculum. However, should this policy go ahead, we must ensure this isn’t rushed.

There has been a shortage of language teachers in recent years. In the last two years alone, recruitment targets for teacher training places haven’t been met, with 16% going empty for the 2014-15 cohort and the forecast for the coming academic year suggesting a continued decline in applications and consequently in filling allocated training places.

There is also the problem of resources. Recent and proposed cuts mean that an average school will likely struggle to fund the facilities and materials needed. With Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw calling for text books to ‘re-enter’ classrooms, there is further pressure on resources.

We also need to consider whether a single, more rigorous GCSE exam is the right way forward for this policy. Nicky Morgan announced last week that EBacc students will have to gain a grade 5 – equivalent to a low B or high C. What is seen as a ‘good mark’ has therefore risen further. It’s time to get more creative with assessment, looking at how we can keep diverse learners motivated and supported throughout their learning journey.

What’s the solution?

The Government has suggested that where language participation figures don’t improve, schools won’t be able to achieve top grading. Is this really the best approach to motivate and encourage a positive working culture? To get teachers and school leaders on-board, we must not force this onto them too quickly. We need a slower, step-by-step approach, ensuring that change is fully understood, embraced and driven by the school, its culture and its communities, rather than being imposed from outside.

Unless the right implementation is put in place, we risk losing these valuable opportunities to get languages back at the heart of the school curriculum. If we rush and use the stick rather than the carrot, we will simply see demotivated and frustrated teachers, pupils, parents and school leaders. We must engage in active discussion with practitioners, school leaders, researchers and subject associations to make this a successful change.


A healthy diet for sustainable development

The United Nations proposed Sustainable Development Goals include ending hunger, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture (Goal 2), healthy lives and well-being (Goal 3) and sustainable consumption and production patterns (Goal 12). To achieve these goals we need to move towards a diet that is adequate, healthy and sustainable for all, argues Dr Wendy Wrieden from the Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society. Part of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Many public health organisations emphasise a healthy balanced diet consisting of at least two-thirds fruit, vegetables and whole grain cereal products, with smaller amounts of meat, fish and dairy. This model has also been adopted to create a more sustainable dietary pattern (see for example the New Nordic Diet [1], and the Double Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian population. It is well established that consumption of meat and animal products use proportionally more resources than plant foods in both land and energy and generate more greenhouse gases [2]. Therefore to realise the sustainable development goals that address diet, plant-based diets should be emphasised as a healthier more sustainable option.

Lessons from the UK on diet and sustainability

A move towards a more plant-based diet (i.e. fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereal products with minimal processing) would be good for population health and the environment. A plant-based diet is likely to be lower in calories [1] which should alleviate the obesity epidemic as well as prevent chronic diseases such as cancer.  Researchers in Scotland have shown that the ‘Livewell Diet’ can be achieved which meets the recommendations for health  (as displayed for example in the eatwell plate and the UK Dietary Reference Values [3] ) and results in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.Eatwell plate diet

The Livewell Diet is characterised by five main sustainable diet principles: waste less food, eat less processed food, eat more plants, eat less meat and buy food that meets a credible certified standard.  However, convincing consumers of the need to change their diet is not easy and our work on the Scottish Diet [4] using UK food purchase survey data, with adjustment for waste showed that there has been little change in the diet over the period 2000-2012.

Make access to fruit and veg-based diets a priority

Vegetable diet

While eating fruits and vegetables is the basis of a healthy, sustainable diet, the daily average fruit and vegetable consumption has shown no change since 2000 i.e still less than 2.5 portions per day (5 a day recommended). There were similar findings for fibre intake which remained low and only equated to around two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance. Red and processed meat consumption did reduce slightly, but processed meat was around two-thirds of total meat consumption thus adding to energy costs due to processing.

What was apparent from this study is that there are clear socioeconomic differences as those who consume large amounts of meat and sugar, and less fibre, fruit and vegetables tend to be more from deprived groups. However, even for the least deprived fifth of the population the goals for fruit and vegetables, fibre and free sugars were not being met. Using the UK as an example, to meet target 2.1 creating access to diets mainly based on fruit, vegetables and fibre is necessary for ending hunger by 2030 and for 2.2 in ending malnutrition.

Is a healthy diet more sustainable?

We should not assume that a healthy diet will always be more environmentally sustainable. The general public have different ideas as to what constitutes a healthy diet such as the current trend for low carbohydrate which could reduce the plant contribution to the diet even more. Plant-based diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates and lower in proteins [5].  The environmental impact of diet to date has been restricted to considering the greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions up to the time the food reaches the regional distribution centre (RDG), often termed pre-RDG GHG.

This does not take into account the post RDC GHG of aspects such as refrigeration and transport of fruit and vegetables and the waste generated (25% of avoidable household waste compared with 6% for meat and fish). Broader environmental issues need to be considered such as land use change, use of water resources, seasonality of food production, pollutants and biodiversity [6], not to mention the actual cost of the diet to the consumer. In addition there is evidence that organically produced food is not necessarily “environmentally superior”- this appears to be the case for poultry, eggs and milk [1] [7] [8] and is of particular relevance to target 12.2 in achieving “…sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources”.

There are plans for these aspects to be incorporated into further work at Newcastle University in the coming years building on the current Life Cycle Analysis work carried out on eggs, poultry and pork in the School of Agriculture Food and Rural Development [7] [9] and expertise in dietary assessment  and survey methodology in the Human Nutrition Research Centre [9] .

Reduce dependence on animal-based diets

We need to define healthy and sustainable diets that are culturally and financially acceptable across the globe, especially in meeting targets 12.2-12.5 in reducing food, energy and chemical wastes at all levels of the food production chain. Most of the diets designed to date are for developed nations but what about the developing nations aspiring to a more Western diet and increasing the demand for animal products. There are no targets for reducing dependence on animal-based diets which is interconnected with achieving less energy intensive and low-carbon economies.

High consumption of red meat (particularly processed meat) is widely known to be poor for health and production is resource intensive.

Inequalities in dietary intake occur within countries and health and social inequalities are a contributing factor as well as an outcome. The problem will not be solved by health and agricultural scientists alone, but requires combining expertise from a range of relevant disciplines.  We need to also understand the causes of poor dietary intake and work with social scientists to address the economic and cultural reasons for inequalities that will ultimately allow us to achieve Goal 3 to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everyone.

[1] SAXE, H. (2014) The New Nordic Diet is an effective tool in environmental protection: it reduces the associated socioeconomic cost of diets. Am J Clin Nutr, 99, 1117-25

[2] MILLWARD, D. J. & GARNETT, T. 2010. Plenary Lecture 3: Food and the planet: nutritional dilemmas of greenhouse gas emission reductions through reduced intakes of meat and dairy foods. Proc Nutr Soc, 69, 103-18

[3] Department of Health (1991), Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom.  Report of the Panel on Dietary Reference Values of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) Department of Health report on Health and Social Subjects 41. London: HMSO

[4] Wrieden, W.L., Armstrong, J., Sherriff A, Anderson, A.S., Barton K.L. 2013., Slow pace of dietary change in Scotland: 2001-9. British Journal of Nutrition, vol 109,pp.1892-1902

[5] TURNER-McGRIEVY et al (2015). Randomization to plant-based dietary approaches leads to larger short-term improvements in Dietary Inflammatory Index scores and macronutrient intake compared with diets that contain meat

[6] MACDIARMID, J.  et al. 2012. Sustainable diets for the future: Can we contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by eating a healthy diet? Am J Clin Nutr, 96, 632-9.

[7] LEINONEN , I.,WILLIAMS, A.G , J. WISEMAN,  J.,GUY , J. & I. KYRIAZAKIS. I. 2012a.Predicting the environmental impacts of chicken systems in the United Kingdom through a life cycle assessment: Egg production systems. Poult. Sci. Vol. 91:pp26-40:

[8] LEINONEN, I., WILLIAMS, A.G. AND KYRIAZAKIS, I. 2014. The effects of welfare-enhancing system changes on the environmental impacts of broiler and egg production. Poultry Science. 93, 256-266.

[9] FOSTER, E & ADAMSON, A. (2014) Challenges involved in measuring intake in early life: focus on methods. Proc.Nut.Soc, 73 (2), 201-9

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

Universal access to water is about democracy


Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals aims to ensure ‘availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. This is in line with the notion that access to water is a human right, which was approved in resolutions by the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council in 2010. Ensuring that access to water and sanitation is provided for all is not merely a question of technical accessibility, but about democratic politics. However, if this is to be achieved, especially in the developing world, we need to critically examine the dominant international trends that treat water as a commodity as this is a major impediment for achieving Goal 6. Professor José Esteban Castro writes as part of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This post is also available in Spanish.

Water bottles

The challenge

The 2014 UN report on the progress made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that despite considerable advancements, access to safe water and sanitation services continues to be a major concern. Although the report celebrates nominally reaching the target for reducing by half the proportion of the world’s population that do not have access to “improved” water sources, it predicts that 45 countries will not meet the target. Moreover, the report recognises that people with improved water sources “may not necessarily have safe water” [1]. In short, if we consider water quality and safety, we are far from meeting the MDG target for water.

The situation is even direr in relation to sanitation services. The MDG progress report confirms that one billion people worldwide still practice open defecation, and that we are very far from meeting the MDG target of halving the world’s population without sanitation by 2015 [1]. We must remember that the MDGs aim at halving the proportion of the world’s population without access to these essential services. A very large number of humans will continue to suffer from preventable diseases and early death even if the targets were met. This means, according to probably too optimistic official figures, that 0.7 billion people would still lack access to water even if we meet the MDGs, and 1.73 billion people would still lack access to some form of sanitation after 2015.

Water commodification

In recent years, water has been declared the “next commodity” [2] by financial experts worldwide and a process of massive water (and land) grabbing is taking place now in Africa, Asia, Latin America, but also Europe [3]. This includes different forms of commodification, including privatisation of water resources and water-based services. Privatising water is an example of the more general process of commodification of life in general, turning natural goods into marketable private property.

In urban areas, the key expression of water commodification is the rise of the bottled water industry, and bottled water has been called by some the “ultimate” commodity. We have already excellent examples of how to tackle this latter threat, as shown by the ban on plastic bottled water in favour of publicly-provided tap water adopted by the governments of leading world cities like San Francisco and New York. Similarly, many world cities, including Atlanta, Berlin, Jakarta, and Paris, among many others, are cancelling the privatisation of water and sanitation services and returning these services to the public sector [4]. These examples of de-commodification are paving the way forward.

If we are to achieve “available and sustainable drinking water and sanitation for all” as stated in Goal 6, we will need to guarantee access to safe water and sanitation infrastructure even for the large share of the world population that cannot afford to pay the full cost of these services. The countries that have managed to provide universal access to these services, such as most of Western Europe or the US, achieved this during the 20th century because they accepted that these services are not a commodity, but a public good that must be universally available to everyone. This historical lesson needs to be taken seriously into account if we are truly committed to achieving Goal 6. The indicators to be adopted for measuring progress in relation to Goal 6 must contemplate relevant economic, political, and social factors that have an impact on access to water and sanitation services.

Water as a human right

In making essential water services accessible to all, the main confrontation is between exclusionary and inclusionary societal projects. The former produce inequality and injustice by treating water as a commodity that must be available only to those who can afford to pay the market cost. Inclusive projects are grounded on the principles of equality and substantive, material democracy, and conceive access to these services to be a public good that must be guaranteed by the state. The confrontations between these divergent societal projects can be exemplified with the debate about the human right to water. This debate focused on access to small amounts of water needed by human beings for a dignified life, estimated by the World Health Organization at roughly between 50 and 100 litres per person, per day for domestic needs.

Protest against water privatisation in Brazil at the World Social Forum in 2003. Credit: WATERLAT GOBACIT

For many years a large number of countries involved in this debate rejected the possibility of sanctioning access to water as a human right, with highly divergent arguments. Finally, in July 2010 122 countries voted in favour of the UN resolution and sanctioned the human right to water, but 41 countries abstained from the vote while 29 were absent. [5] Global society, or at least the governments representing their people, does not have an agreement on something as basic as granting an essential amount of safe water to every human being on the planet as a right, just for being human. It is a clear example of the social, political, and ethical dilemma that we face.

Implementing the human right to water in all countries should be a target for Goal 6. However, the target must be specified with relevant indicators. Countries should put in place legal and policy mechanisms to prevent the commodification of water resources and services. If countries continue to allow the control of water resources and services by private companies and wealthy individuals, the human right to water will be no more than a romantic idea never put into practice.

Implementing the human right to water also requires tackling the world’s water crisis, particularly the pollution of water bodies and the human-driven processes of desertification and desiccation. These are enormous tasks that many governments in the developing world, including those already committed to the human right to water, will find extremely difficult owing to financial restrictions, lack of human resources, etc. The indicators for this target must take into account the need for international co-responsibility in this matter.

The role of democracy

A large share of the global population continues to lack adequate access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities, which is the result of structural social injustice and inequality. Policy decisions in relation to water and sanitation services worldwide, including Europe, have almost always been implemented in the absence of democratic public debate. Water politics and management are seldom transparent to citizens, largely unaccountable, and tend to be openly authoritarian and top-down. There are currently no effective mechanisms to enable common citizens to exercise democratic control over these activities. In deciding on indicators for Goal 6, there are two main aspects to foster the democratisation process in relation to water:

  • Democratisation of access to safe water and sanitation designed to promote substantive democratic practice in the water sector, based on the principle of equality.
  • Policies that make the activities of government and management of water and sanitation services subject to citizen scrutiny and control.

Summary of action points for reaching SDG 6:

  • Realise the causes of failure to meet adequate access to water and sanitation are multidimensional, involving natural, social, and individual processes and factors that require systemic solutions drawing on interdisciplinary expertise and inter-sector collaboration in policymaking and implementation.
  • The water sector must be subject to democratic control that democratises water politics and management, which requires putting in place effective legal and administrative mechanisms for meaningful citizen involvement.
  • Governments, international financial institutions, aid agencies, and other relevant actors must abandon their support for water commodification and privatisation. Policies of water commodification that prevailed for the last three decades failed to contribute towards the MDGs, and have created widespread social conflicts.
  • Support the development of public-public and public-community partnerships to make universal access to water and sanitation a public good and a human right in practice. Rebuild the policy and planning capacities of the public sector at all levels, with emphasis on local authorities.

Despite significant improvements towards achieving the MDG on reducing the deficit of water and sanitation services coverage, there is still an enormous gap to achieve the goal of universal access to these services. The Declaration of the Human Right to Water by the UN in 2010 provides an opportunity to rethink and reconfigure the priorities and the mechanisms to be adopted in the post-2015 development strategies. However, the process leading to that declaration also contains a warning: dozens of countries did not support the notion that there is a universal human right to have access to essential water and sanitation, and the reason for many is that they consider that these services must be commodified, not treated as rights or as public goods.

Achieving universal access to essential water and sanitation services is an inclusive political project, which by definition cannot be achieved through exclusionary politics, such as the commodification of water and water services. It will require long-term planning, not just to build the necessary infrastructures and extend coverage, but also to make the systems sustainable over time and the services available to all, independent of their capacity to pay. The public policies required to achieve the universalisation of essential services must be grounded on the principle of equality, and must subordinate economic efficiency and private profit to the higher goals of democratic wealth distribution and civilised well-being.

Esteban Castro is a professor of sociology at Newcastle University in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. His research focuses mainly on Latin America and Europe, especially Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. He coordinates the international research network WATERLAT-GOBACIT ( dedicated to research, teaching and practical action in relation to the politics and management of water. He is also doing research on the interrelation between socio-ecological inequalities and injustice and the democratisation process in Latin America.

[1] UN. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014. New York, United Nations, 2014, pp. 44-45. MDG report/MDG 2014 English web.pdf.

[2] Castro, José Esteban. Water is not (yet) a commodity: Commodification and rationalization revisited, Human Figurations, 2013, Vol 2, Issue 1;rgn=main

[3] Mehta, L., G. J. Veldwisch, and J.r Franco (Eds.), Special Issue: Water grabbing? Focus on the (re)appropriation of finite water resources, 2012, Vol. 5, Issue 2

[4] Kishimoto, S., E. Lobina, and O. Petitjean (Eds.). Our public water future. The global experience  with remunicipalisation. Amsterdam, London, Paris, Cape Town, and Brussels, Transnational Institute (TNI), Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), Multinationals Observatory, Municipal Services Project (MSP) and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). 2015,

[5] Amnesty International and WASH United, Recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation by UN Member States at the international level. An overview of resolutions and declarations that recognise the human rights to water and sanitation. 2014,

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

The North and Northness

What creates a place? In May 2015, Newcastle University’s Cultural Significance of Place Research Group (CSoP) held an event exploring ideas of Northness in culture. The contributions ranged from reflections on the mythical, literary and musical construction of the North, to analyses of the modern romance of the North of England through the eyes of a Sunderland AFC fan. Across disciplines, the question was asked: who created our region? Whether they call up a lost past, or hint at a new political future, ideas of the North are as important today as ever.

Firth of Forth

Different ways to carve up the map

One of the most striking things to be learned from the various studies presented at this event is that there have been many different ways of conceiving of the geographical entity that is the North, whether that be a selection of four towns in England that aren’t London, or a transpennine dragon whose nose points towards St. Petersburg. When we see the geographical uncertainty involved in identifying this region, it helps us to understand the extent to which art and culture have been the agents in forming this space. In fact, as keynote speaker Professor Penny Fielding reminded us, this has had a long history, from the eighteenth-century conceptions of Northern democracy and social unity to nineteenth-century literature of the Industrial Revolution. As such, the associations of the North with these ideas are the product of centuries of story-telling.

North as opposed to South

The strength of Northern identity has by no means diminished, however, which is significant in an age of globalisation and technological advance. The explanation offered at ‘North and Northness’ was that the North has strengthened because it is increasingly defined against the South. In an analysis of Mackem linguistic purism, it was demonstrated that the North is often set against perceived Southern softness and femininity, in the context of a burgeoning capital city. Most starkly, however, North is conceived of as ‘home’ in the very tonality of North East folk:

‘The North Country Maid’ is bi-tonal, offering a sense of hope and joy in the chorus, which is in a different (major) key to the verse. Visit the North East Folk website for more examples from the Social Renewal funded project by Dr Simon McKerrell.

Where next for the North?

This is a pertinent question, given the debates surrounding devolution and decentralisation in the United Kingdom as a whole. Taking even the #takeuswithyouScotland trend as an example, the conversation is on-going. The political, legal and cultural future of the North is by no means certain, given how disastrous attempts to define it have been in the past. Evidence from the attempted artistic construction of the North in Artranspennine98, and from the current confusion over which cities in the UK deserve more devolved powers, suggests that it’s not so easy to make the North in your own image. The conclusion that must be drawn from  the ‘North and Northness’ discussion is that although we can trace its construction, it’s a complicated task to re-mould it now.

Contributors to the North and Northness event:

Professor Penny Fielding, University of Edinburgh – Curating the North
Dr Simon McKerrell, Newcastle University – Musical Metaphors of the North
Derek James, University of Exeter – Can the concept of ‘northness’ be applied to tea smuggling in the eighteenth century?
Dr Michael Pearce, University of Sunderland – Anyone from the North East who says ‘mum’ should be shot
Dr Peter O’Brien, Newcastle University – Decentralisation and devolution in the UK: where next for the North of England?

For more information about the Cultural Significance of Place Research Group, please see their website or email Chris Whitehead.

By Fiona Simmons, NISR

Solving the energy trilemma

The world faces steep challenges in meeting current and future energy demands with low-carbon energy sources. How can Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals: ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all’, be achieved? Written by Professor Phil Taylor, Director of the Institute for Sustainability, this is the third post of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, providing recommendations for the SDG targets and indicators that will be officially decided in September 2015.Big truck on pipes background

Achieving universal access to secure, sustainable and affordable energy is known as the ‘energy trilemma’. If SDG 7 is to be realized it requires an approach to energy that is customer-led — a society pull rather than a technology push. Access to energy is important for a variety of reasons including health, economic development, education, and communications, but target indicators need to identify what kind of ‘modern energy’ is required and for what purpose.

SDG 7 needs to define what is meant by the term ‘modern energy’. If it means high power quality, then the standards used in Europe or other developed parts of the world may not be appropriate for countries that do not require the same level of power quality to meet their needs. High power quality also means higher infrastructure costs and higher levels of carbon in the energy system. We must be careful in assuming that all people, all cultures want the same type of access to affordable and reliable energy. Simply because richer nations have energy infrastructure everywhere doesn’t mean that other countries want the same, which is why ‘energy for all’ should be attuned with local cultural values and needs of individual countries.

Price carbon and boost low-carbon energy 

Target 7.2 is about increasing the share of renewables, but does not mention the amount of renewables or the role of other low-carbon sources of energy such as nuclear. In order for countries to make the transition to low-carbon energy nuclear should also be an option, especially in eliminating dependence on coal. There should be a target in place that increases renewable energy generation specifically. While much progress has been made in the deployment of renewable energy technologies, there is much work to be done in increasing generation of renewable energy itself.

If for example China and other countries continue to build coal fired power stations how can the share of renewables be increased? And if renewable energy generation increases there will need to be a reduction in non-renewable energy sources if benefits are to be realised. Decommissioning (or reducing the running time) of fossil fuel-based energy sources cannot take place all at once, but needs to be planned carefully, which requires a ‘system architect’ [1].

Indicators for Target 7.2 need to address the actual cost of carbon otherwise it will be very hard for countries, especially low-income economies, to invest in renewables instead of fossil fuel based sources of energy. Countries need appropriate costing and taxation of carbon. Transparent and appropriate costing of carbon through carbon trading or taxation schemes will ensure access to sustainable energy supply for all by taking revenues generated and reinvesting them into the low-carbon transition.

There are currently smart grid technologies and electrical energy storage options [2] for increasing access to renewable energy, but the share of renewables will never change significantly unless the balance sheet or investment proposition is changed for fossil fuels. An indicator that looks at the costing of carbon in relation to increasing the share of renewables would help set countries on track for a low-carbon future. As renewables continue to penetrate the global energy market all countries will start to run into energy balancing problems for the grid and issues with stability.

Energy storage test bed at Newcastle University

This is why energy storage is vital to making clean energy resources available to all. While energy storage is viewed as too expensive for wide scale deployment now, it is only a matter of time before it becomes widely available as the cost of carbon increases and the cost of renewable energy supply goes down. Demonstrations in the UK have shown the viability of electrical energy storage and the valuable impact it has on energy efficiency and distribution [3].

For developing and developed economies there is also potential for using recycled batteries from electric vehicles to provide on or off-grid energy supplies. This prospect is of special interest to isolated rural or urban communities who do not have access to reliable energy infrastructure. Community-led off-grid sources of electric power, mainly from renewables, need to be seriously considered for target 7.b as this would likely help countries save considerable capital by using microgeneration instead of centralised services. There is evidence that community-led energy projects can build stronger communities and reduce costs and off-grid communities in developing countries, such as Malawi, have improved health outcomes [4]. Therefore an indicator for off-grid energy services is needed.

Aside from the problems with generalising “modern energy” to all countries and cultures, the proposed indicators do not specify whether developments emerge from centralized electricity grid infrastructure, or from customer-driven, off-grid supply. These need to be considered seriously within the indicators, particularly as a way of accounting across cultures and needs.

Community-led power schemes, mainly from renewables and supported by technologies such as second-life electric vehicle batteries will meet the needs of both rural and urban groups – and, driven by user needs, add “appropriate” to affordable, reliable and low-carbon energy solutions. The speed of deployment and capital requirements of microgeneration and local delivery also compare favorably to centralised services as well as embedding energy-sector economic activity within communities.

Increasing energy efficiency

There is a problem with the way we buy and sell energy in European countries such as the UK. There is a set of generation-obsessed national and international energy policies in place that provide rewards, targets and incentives for renewable energy generation, but little for energy savings. What underlies all of this is the ‘unbundled’ [5] energy market that separates energy supply from transmission and distribution.

In terms of profit, the energy supplier has little value in increasing energy efficiency in an unbundled market because they simply sell electricity, and have nothing to do with the wires that deliver it. When you have a split between supply and assets you break the link between consumption and infrastructure savings, which makes energy efficiency hard to get off the ground. However, this is not the case in all countries.

For example in India the supply company and the utility are part of the same business. In the case where they have overloaded grid infrastructure and don’t want to make costly upgrades to the grid, they could decide to put energy efficiency measures in place instead. Since the supplier and utility are bundled together this can be done easily and the savings from energy efficiency could outweigh costs of investing in more infrastructure. However, we also need to encourage efficiency at the level of the end-user which smart grid technologies play an important role in allowing energy users to monitor their energy usage and identify potential savings.

An indicator for Target 7.3 should address specifically what business models countries are using to increase and deliver energy efficiency. If they are using bundled models this is more likely to increase efficiency overall than if the supply and transmission were separate. Other countries that are beginning to establish or increase accessibility to electricity should avoid having an unbundled market. Instead they should look at developing a system that sells energy as a service [6] rather than by the kilowatt-hour.

Smart grid lab at Newcastle University

When considering energy, similarly to dealing with hunger, cities and urban energy systems must be given due attention for Goal 7 as the majority of populations will increasingly live in urban areas. While the goal focuses on global access to sustainable energy supply the largest energy demands come from cities, to balance supply with demand requires digitally-enabled solutions to providing sustainable energy, which are being tested at Science Central in Newcastle, UK. In making the low-carbon transition cities will not only be able to increase energy efficiency, but reduce air pollution, improve public health and well-being, and create new forms of economy based on innovation.

Summary of action points for reaching SDGs on energy:

  • Support bundled instead of unbundled energy markets as a way to increase energy efficiency and ensure sustainable energy supply for all.
  • Account for off-grid solutions as part of user-appropriate energy provision and promote community-led energy provision to unlock non-centralised energy supply.
  • Set a target for not only increasing the share of renewables but total renewable energy generation as part of a low-carbon transition plan.
  • Cost carbon appropriately as it is mainly a ‘hidden cost’ in most countries’ energy balance sheets and diverts attention from the actual cost of fossil fuel dependence.
  • Define what is meant by ‘modern energy’ in the targets and indicators for Goal 7, helping countries define their own energy needs and values, which should be led by community initiatives.

[1] Taylor, P. ‘We need an independent architect to redesign the UK energy industry’. The Guardian.

[2] Taylor, P. Energy Storage – Sheltering networks from the ‘perfect storm’

[3] Lyons, PF, Wade, NS, Jiang, T, Taylor, P, Hashiesh, F, Michel, M, Miller, D. ‘Design and analysis of electrical energy storage demonstration projects on UK distribution networks’, Applied Energy, 137: 677-691

[4] ‘Evaluation of Off-grid Community Managed Renewable Energy Projects in Malawi’. IOD PARC

[5] Anuta, OH, Taylor, P, Jones, D, McEntee, T, Wade, N. (2014) ‘An international review of the implications of regulatory and electricity market structures on the emergence of grid scale electricity storage’, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 38: 489-508

[6] Hinells, PBM, Rezessy, S. ‘Liberating the power of Energy Services and ESCOs in a liberalised energy market’.

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes: