The inaugural Churchill College Decarbonisation for Net-zero Forum was held in Churchill College on Friday 16 June. Devised by Churchill College Sustainability Fellows; Dr Ramit Debnath, Dame Polly Courtice and Dr Fanran Meng, the Forum has an over-arching aim to encourage sustainability thinking among the Churchill community and have a larger impact across the University.

The event was opened by the Master of Churchill College, Professor Dame Athene Donald and attended in-person and online by members of the Churchill College community and wider university. Attendees were able to enjoy a series of talks from a diverse range of speakers including a student panel discussion on decarbonisation at a local scale.

As noted by Athene, a couple of years ago the College decided to appoint two By-Fellows with a specific remit in sustainability; Ramit Debnath and Fanran Meng, joined by Sustainability Fellow Dame Polly Courtice. This year alongside its selection of Post-Doctoral By-Fellows it will appoint a third Sustainability By-Fellow to further strengthen this aspect of the College’s mission.

The opening talk, ‘Zero emission aviation by 2040? was led by Professor Rob Miller, Chair in Aerothermal Technology and Whittle Laboratory Director. Dr Ronita Bardhan, Associate Professor and Sustainable Design Group Director at the Department of Architecture discussed ‘Decarbonising affordable housing for health and well-being‘, Dr Aleks Berditchevskaia, Principle Researcher, Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta explored ‘Collective intelligence and climate action‘. Michael Doyle, discussed ‘Grounded sustainability efforts at Churchill College’ and the need to work together in a participatory manner to address local sustainability issues. This point was further explored in the panel discussion by the JCR representatives. You can find out more about the different talks and points raised below.

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Rob illustrated the Cambridge and the Whittle Lab’s leadership in creating a low-carbon future for the aviation sector. He began by mentioning that one economy flight uses 143% of an annual electricity bill in the UK for a single passenger and highlighted the Aviation Impact Accelerator project based at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership that is creating simulation tools for the industry and the public to make informed decision on choosing low carbon flying options. Rob demonstrated the web-version of the tool that was able to show the impact of battery technologies, sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen energy on reducing the carbon and environmental impacts of aviation industry.

Rob was cautious that while the simulations showed the most optimistic scenarios, with the first zero carbon flight possible by 2035, its scaling was a serious market challenge. Moreover, he discussed that while it was obvious that flying less could reduce aviation-related emissions, it should not be done at the cost of reducing access and freedom. While quoting Sir William Hawthorne, Master of Churchill College from 1968 – 1983, Rob stated that ‘the finest minds needed to work together to solve these challenges’.

Ronita explored the grand challenges associated with the sustainable and affordable housing sector, especially for the most vulnerable populations of the world. Ronita demonstrated her ongoing efforts establishing living labs in Ethiopia, India and Kenya to study the link between built environment decarbonisation and health outcomes. Taking examples from her research, she illustrated how indoor overheating was directly affecting public health in some of the poorest regions of the world which was a direct outcome of poor design and urban planning of the buildings. She showed how her work had led to changing government building bye-laws and regulations in establishing a minimum standard of ventilation and design guidelines for some of the poorest communities living in slums.

Ronita ended her talk by illustrating her ongoing work for improving the energy sustainability and retrofitting capabilities of council houses in the UK, which could result in improving health outcomes and saving up to 40% energy bills through design-led strategies.

Michael Doyle, aptly connected Ronita’s point by detailing success stories from Churchill’s sustainability and conservation initiatives including the rooftop solar panel and heat pump projects, and the College’s biodiversity project. He ended on a strong note of participatory action and leveraging the voices of the College community for sustainability action. For example, the temperature and energy sensors being installed in College buildings to track energy losses and optimise electricity use while minimizing energy bills.

Scaling up the participatory action, Aleks demonstrated her ongoing efforts at NESTA in leveraging collective intelligence for climate action. She highlighted key results from community engagement at a large-scale across the UK that showed people wanted climate action at grassroots level and were keen on engaging with the stakeholders. Her examples also highlighted how NESTA was leveraging digital technologies to generate a new form of behavioural datasets that could help policymakers in context-driven decision making.

Aleks also highlighted the need to harness human wisdom in addressing climate challenge, which they are doing by developing custom mobile phone applications enabling people to register their voices. She ended her talk on a high note, stating that the nature of policymaking was changing, and it was high time to link local actions and global vision of addressing the climate crisis.


There then followed a panel discussion led by members of the Churchill College JCR Green Officer David McIntosh and Equal Opportunities Officers Duaa Elfaki and Nihar Lohan. The JCR representatives supported the above narratives in making a systematic positive change and provided distinct examples of how diversity and inclusion lay at the heart of Churchill community and creating newer ways of engaging students in addressing local sustainability challenges. The event ended with a way forward that the College could do even more, and such forums were critical in spreading this message.

We are all aware of the criticality of the climate crisis and the JCR are keen to encourage micro actions that will make an impact

David McIntosh (JCR Green Officer)

The programme was closed by the College’s Vice-Chair Adrian Barbrook.

Title image left to right: Churchill College JCR Equal Opportunities Officer Duaa Elfaki, Dr Ramit Debnath, JCR Green Officer David McIntosh and JCR Equal Opportunities Officer Nihar Lohan