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Incorporating social justice into environmental decision making

Project Topic Overview

The transition to a low-carbon economy is well underway and accelerating across the globe. However, within the western world, many of the low carbon technologies being implemented to accelerate this transition, such as electric vehicles or solar energy from photovoltaic cells, are more material-intensive compared to their fossil-fuel counterparts, particularly with regards to identified ‘critical raw materials’ that are often acquired from the most vulnerable places on Earth. Significant rises in the consumption of these materials are predicted, which will increase the associated stresses further and potentially exacerbating the already well recognised socio-economic and environmental disparities that exist.

Companies and service providers are under increasing pressure from consumers and legislators to be able to understand and minimise the environmental impact of their supply chains both backwards and forwards over a product or service life cycle. However, it is now clear that future decisions for the supply chain will also need to factor in much wider economic and social factors, which may have difficult and/or unforeseen consequences, particularly in some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems and communities.

Manufacturing processes need optimising, materials need ethically sourcing and products should be built using circular economy principles. Life cycle assessment (LCA) can look at the environmental effects of a system but is currently unable to consider socio-economic factors in any meaningful way. The United Nations Environment Programme has published guidelines on social life cycle assessment (S-LCA), but has identified within those guidelines that data availability, particularly in the areas where qualitative assessments are currently conducted, is lacking.

As a result of this, decisions being taken in this critical space often do not consider factors that might influence or impact communities such as delocalisation, living conditions, corruption or the promotion of social responsibility. This topic looks at introducing a new framework for data capture & analysis in the context of critical raw materials with a particular view to generating implementable assessments of the social impacts arising from decisions made within the supply chain, whilst also examining whether the value of a supply chain can be more equitably distributed across all stakeholders so that socio-economic justice can be achieved alongside the environmental considerations.

Applicant Profile

Standard requirement for all projects: A good first degree (2:1 above or equivalent), a postgraduate degree/ or equivalent professional or research experience.

The scholarship is offered to applicants with outstanding academic profiles and research proposals. It normally includes UK fees and stipends.

Applicants are required to develop their own research proposals under this thematic topic. Please get in touch with the supervision team before submitting an application.

As the project aims to investigate sustainability from a holistic economic, environmental, and social perspective, this project would be suitable for applicants from either a STEM or Social Science background. Applicants would ideally have a strong interest in researching and communicating about sustainability, specifically surrounding the use and interpretation of large data sets. Some specific experience in any of the following would be of use, but is not essential:

  • Big Data/AI
  • Global Sustainability
  • Industrial Ecology
  • Life Cycle Assessment
  • Life Cycle Costing
  • Multi Criteria Decision Aiding

Supervisory Team

Dr Stuart Coles, Warwick Manufacturing Group

Dr Coles is Reader of Sustainable Materials and Manufacturing at WMG, University of Warwick (UK). His main research interests are geared towards quantifying impacts surrounding the environment and broader sustainability, particularly when applied to the use of critical raw materials, waste products and recycled materials in industrial products and processes. Dr Coles is also the Deputy Director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Materials and Manufacturing.

Prof. Alice Mah, Sociology

Prof. Mah is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, with expertise in environmental and urban studies. Her research focuses on environmental justice, toxic colonialism, corporate power, and the politics of just transformations, across multiple contexts and scales. Professor Mah is also Co-Director of the Warwick Environmental Systems Interdisciplinary Centre.

Prof. Kerry Kirwan, Warwick Manufacturing Group

Prof Kirwan is Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) for the University of Warwick, a Trustee of The Alan Turing Institute and Chair of Sustainable Materials and Manufacturing at WMG. He is a specialist in Circular Economy, sustainable materials and industrial applications with extensive experience of developing environmentally friendly solutions for global application within numerous sectors