Co-designing water-energy-food nexus policies for a low carbon and just future of Bristol

PhD researcher

Ola (Aleksandra) Michalec


  • UWE Bristol
  • Bristol City Council
  • International Water Security Network


  • Bristol City Council
  • Bristol Energy Network


Professor Jim Longhurst and Professor Enda Hayes


The impact of climate change on tangible and current issues provides an argument for action regardless of the complexity of the challenge. Thus, urban areas are an appropriate starting point for the introduction of policies targeting the levels of GHGs (Compact of Mayors, 2014). In the UK, cities emit over 2/3 of total GHGs and are homes to over 80% of the population (ONS, 2015). Cities are small enough to introduce measurable and tangible local low carbon actions (e.g. energy co-ops, congestion charges, waste collection services, discounts on local procurement) which can collectively work towards the national targets (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2005). The city-scale actions can contribute to the empowerment of the residents as they participate in decision-making and are directly impacted by the actions (Bulkeley and Mol, 2003).

Numerous practitioners from across the public, private and charity sectors have been working on low carbon transitions in cities for decades. They have been applying policy-, design- or market-based solutions, enacting what academics theorise as “sustainability” (Luke, 2005). However, practitioners often overlook the academic discourses on “sustainable development applying own definitions of terms like “green”, ”fair”, “smart” (Finger and Razaghi, 2017; Brown, 2016). This indicates a need for investigating the formation of the discourse in the cross-sectoral “sustainability” praxis. Similarly, social science research ought to create a space for transdisciplinary epistemologies – where both the academic theories and policies are co-created together with the non-academic actors (Stirling, 2015).

On a strategic level, it is evident that the challenge is complex and transdisciplinary. The state of the cities is very much intertwined with the way their inhabitants access environmental resources. Hence the need for an integrative approach which would acknowledge the above. An urban climate change framework together with specific policies should account for all basic resources and their relationships with the citizens, not simply quantify selected GHG emissions (Griggs, 2013).

An increased academic interest in the research on cross-cutting issues is often framed as “nexus”, with the most popular formulation being the “Water-Energy-Food Nexus” (WEF Nexus). There is no single definition of the WEF Nexus, however, in the broadest sense, it is understood as the focus on trade-offs, synergies, metrics, organisational practices, and policies relating to the relationships between water, energy and food resources (Hoff, 2011). The WEF Nexus approach is operational and popular at the global scale (e.g. at the strategic level in UN frameworks; Hoff, 2011), however not yet widely applied in cities.

Last but not least, climate change scholarship seeks to generate answers about the governance of urban transition to sustainability such as "How will the residents be affected by the transition – who will benefit, pay, decide, be excluded or included?" As the residents of the UK cities are subjected to the high levels of social inequality, the 80% GHG reduction target cannot be applied to everyone in the same way (Adger, 2001). Therefore, the differentiation of responsibility and capacity to change is essential. (Ibid.).

Research questions, aims and objectives

The research seeks answers to the following questions:

  1. How do sustainability practitioners discuss local complex issues?
  2. How can the co-design approach contribute towards Bristol’s low carbon targets?
  3. How can the co-design approach contribute towards climate justice in the city?

Addressing the above questions helps to meet the overarching aim of the research, which is to co-design local policies related to the complex environmental issues in Bristol.

Three objectives have been determined to achieve the research aim:

  1. To examine the discourse on the selected environmental policies, technologies, campaigns, and challenges in Bristol.
  2. To quantify the environmental impact of selected policies indicating the potential to mitigate climate change.
  3. To critique the co-design approach as a way of informing policies related to climate justice in Bristol.

The main contribution of this thesis lies in creating a space for a dialogue where participants from the public, private, charity and academic sectors have the opportunity to both create a theory and improve their professional practice. This is done by drawing from the WEF Nexus and climate justice scholarship and discussing applied policy issues of smart metering and food waste recycling in Bristol.


Michalec et al. 2018, Co-designing food waste services in the catering sector, British Food Journal (in press).

Please email Aleksandra Michalec at for more information.

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