Sustainability, Decarbonisation and Plastics

In a rapidly changing world, industry and government hold a responsibility towards shaping a sustainable economic recovery. At the University of Birmingham our leading academic experts are taking the sustainability challenges faced by the UK and globally into industry collaborations that intend to transform business and build back better.

Cities of the future

Everyday living is supported by a complex web of inter-connected critical infrastructures. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some of the more fragile elements in our chains of economic and social environment as well as in the natural world itself. The coronavirus outbreak has both established us as physical, vulnerable beings in the world at risk of contracting disease and has simultaneously propelled many of us in to a tech driven, virtual world socially distanced and isolated in our bubbles.

Cities could become congested, polluted and a trigger for stress and poor mental health without a shift in thinking towards how space is utilised. Applying engineering ingenuity to the more extensive use of underground space holds importance for cities of the future: with potential to free up the surface to allow space for green corridors for walking and cycling, or relaxation by communing with nature, while utilising its ‘built-in’ resources such as groundwater, heat and minerals. Burying some of our cities’ functions could therefore increase our quality of life.

In the National Buried Infrastructure Facility (NBIF) being developed at University of Birmingham new techniques for underground detection, tunneling and trenchless technologies will be explored. 

What does this new approach to how cities operate mean for the office of the future and the urban workforce that cities depend on for trade?

It can be argued that a greater alignment for businesses towards a sustainability focused approach to how they operate is more essential than ever to assure the future health of the business and workforce. Businesses need to get behind the responsible practices and behaviour changes that the climate crisis demands to shift the balance of recovery towards a greener, cleaner more sustainable future for the economy. A scoping report on future graduate skills by Change Agents UK and EUAC recommends that courses equip students with the “cross-cutting skills necessary for addressing sustainability challenges.” In a global economy the importance of place is growing, and city-regions are the drivers of change


Profesor Chris Rogers talks sustainable cities and creating more resilient conditions

Technology enabled sustainability

More workers doing their professions from home as a result of the measures put in place globally during the coronavirus pandemic impacted on daily use of transport, lowering carbon emissions and sparking debate around the purpose and necessity of an office space. Allowing us to reflect on how we use the land in our urban spaces as well as the spaces inside buildings. Employers improved the tools and support available to homeworkers during lockdown with 41% noting they had appropriate tools for homeworking pre-lockdown rising to 62% during lockdown. 

Professor Kai Bongs, Director of Innovation in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences leads on the UK Quantum Technology Hub research consortium work looking at new innovative applications for sensors and timings in a range of sectors from marine navigation to robotics. Robotics and automation have the potential to revolutionize the UK economy and the productivity of our current and future industries with a focus on sustainable growth and reducing the waste of industrial processes.

Decarbonisation of Transport and Energy

In May 2019 the UK government declared a climate emergency and set targets to reduce carbon emissions by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050 with many councils including Birmingham City Council committing to making reductions sooner (setting a target of a 60% reduction in total CO₂ emissions by 2027, against 1990 levels).

The Birmingham Energy Institute and Birmingham Centre for Rail Research Education are working at the heart of industry to advance the decarbonisation of global transport and energy sectors.

We are pioneering the transition to Hydrogen-powered transport – the first mainline testing of HydroFLEX has taken place as a partnership between the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook. 

Unlike diesel trains, hydrogen-powered trains do not emit harmful gases, instead using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water and heat. The ground-breaking technology behind the trains will also be available by 2023 to retrofit current in-service trains to hydrogen helping decarbonise the rail network and make rail journeys greener and more efficient.


Professor Stephen Jarvis

Head of College of Engineering and Physical Sciences

“BCRRE is setting the pace for rail innovation both in the UK and globally. The HydroFLEX project is a great example of how world-class R&D, together with the right industry partnerships, can deliver decarbonisation technologies that are both innovative and practical.”


National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat

The air we breathe - Reducing carbon emissions and tackling air pollution

Cleaner air is essential for a healthier, happier planet and population. Poor air quality is a leading cause of premature death and infant mortality in Africa. Interdisciplinary approaches are key to delivering clean air - for example, pairing the atmospheric science data with the work in urban planning which draws out the importance of the built environment and the local urban context in assessing such environmental and public health issues.

Our academics are leading two vital UKRI funded research projects to tackle future air quality challenges:

Air Pollution Solutions for Vulnerable Groups (CleanAir4V) led by Christian Pfrang at University of Birmingham aims to develop innovative and cost-effective behaviour and technology interventions to reduce further air pollution exposure and improve the health of vulnerable groups and implement these interventions through policy advice, planning and business innovation.

Dr Suzanne Bartington within the University of Birmingham's Institute of Applied Health Research leads on a project looking at optimising air quality and health benefits associated with a low-emission transport and mobility revolution in the UK. The aim of the TRANSITION network is to identify, prioritise and tackle indoor and outdoor air quality challenges linked to the UK low emission mobility revolution, bringing together academics, researchers, policymakers, business, civil society and the wider general public.

Plastics and a circular economy approach

Birmingham Plastics Network is an interdisciplinary team of over 40 academics, set up to explore the fate and future of how we use, reuse and recycle plastic commodities and materials both prevalent and pervasive in modern society.

The network aims to create a sustainable future for plastics that enhances the positive contributions they make to our social, economic and environmental well-being without negative impacts across their life cycle. We are interested to work with industry partners to explore faster adoption of new chemical recycling technologies and processes to reduce plastic waste and develop new products and uses for new materials that can feed a more circular economy approach to plastics manufacturing.

Researchers at University of Birmingham are looking at the plastics ecosystem to tackle pollution and waste in the plastics industry