Academic spotlight: Professor Ian Bailey

Ian looks back at his career, reflecting on his achievements and love for geography as we celebrate 50 years of geography at Plymouth

5 min read

Ian Bailey is a Professor of Environmental Politics, and a specialist in the governance and politics of climate change and other sustainability issues.

A geography graduate from the University of Birmingham, Ian’s connections to Plymouth date back to 1996 when he enrolled on an MSc in Social Research, before he completed his PhD in 2000.

He moved into full-time academia after working in industry, and now teaches undergraduates and postgraduates at the University on modules including sustainable futures, global environmental politics, and sustainability: science, governance and society.

As a researcher, he has studied the politics of carbon markets, political strategy in national and international climate politics, the politics and practices of the green economy, public engagement with marine and onshore renewable energy, and smart eco-cities. His recent projects include collaborations with Fridtjof Nansens Institute, Oslo, on the politics of designing emissions trading scheme, and with Exeter and UEA on Intelligent Community Energy.

Earlier this year, Ian became an advisory member of the Net-Zero Task Force, established by Devon County Council, to help the county move towards carbon neutrality.


Can you explain what makes you passionate about the subject of geography?

“I’d describe myself as an instinctive, almost compulsive geographer. I’ve always been fascinated by places: their splendour, their distinctiveness, and the processes that contribute to their character. It’s a mixture of fascination and inquisitiveness. As a child, I read maps like books, everything from finding all the Greater, Upper, Middle and Lower village names in Britain to counting the number of Ben Mores in Scotland.”


You’ve made a career out of geography – what inspired you to want to teach that subject?

“I like exploring and sharing ideas with students and colleagues through research and discussion. It’s about mutual learning and revealing new perspectives and insights. My motivation for taking up an academic career was a deep concern about the environmental and social effects of human activities and a desire to contribute to addressing these issues. My inspirational book is still E.F. Schumacher’s Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered.”


Is there a piece of research that you have undertaken of which you are particularly proud?

“I prefer the thought that my work has been useful, whether in informing government policy or just helping someone to understand an issue or a new perspective. One vital aspect of research on energy and climate issues is the connections it makes between issues.

“Research on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions inescapably draws in questions about the way energy is produced and consumed, people’s values and attitudes towards environmental issues, fair access to energy and resources, and how climate and energy issues are portrayed and debated. Then there are further questions about the politics of achieving just transitions to a low carbon world. The World Commission on Environment and Development summed it up well when it said that there are not separate environmental, development and energy crises. They are all one.”


Where is the most special place you have visited on this planet and why?

“Different places are special for different reasons and I’m not sure how to compare them. What starts to make a place really special for me is when I get a sense that I’m really beginning to understand it. That might involve its natural landscapes or understanding how a society or its politics works. The pictures aren’t always pretty.

“This year, I visited South Africa 25 years after the dismantling of apartheid. It gave me a chance to see how the country was changing and the challenges it faced. Some of it was very sobering but it’s an important story to understand.”


Do you think studying geography is especially important given the current state of the planet? And do you think that might change over the next 50 years?

“I hope so. It’s very difficult to see solutions to many of the world’s current problems unless we continue to deepen our understandings of the physical and human geographies of environmental change.”

Plymouth students and Cape Point African penguins during South Africa fieldwork module (1995)


Celebrating 50 years of geography

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of geography as a degree subject at the University of Plymouth.

In the last half century, 6,394 students have graduated from our geography programmes and 154 staff have worked with us, supporting and carrying out world-class research and teaching.