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Climate action

Sarah Stevens argues that universities will be crucial to delivering on COP26 promises

Governments around the world have recognised that research and innovation are essential to tackling climate change. R&D solutions will be key to everything: from delivering the technological innovations needed to achieve net zero to helping communities adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

The dedicated science and innovation day at the COP26 climate change conference saw a raft of announcements on programmes to develop clean energy, with a focus on decarbonising cities and heavy industry as well as scaling up renewable fuel and carbon capture technologies. The UK’s universities are already playing a central role in delivering on these priorities, leading to local and national policy changes.

Research at Queen Mary University of London linking air pollution to a range of serious long-term health conditions influenced the introduction of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, making London’s air healthier. The University of Birmingham’s Tyseley Energy Park is helping to develop the regional infrastructure for renewable heat and power, energy storage, clean transport fuels and advanced waste processing that will be needed to make the government’s net zero ambition a reality.

Science and humanities

But while science is helping to shift the dial in terms of our ability to reduce emissions and deliver clean economic growth, it’s no use having new clean energy options if we can’t persuade people to use them. Researchers working in the social sciences and the arts and humanities are helping us to understand how we can harness these technological advances and work towards major, sustainable shifts in human behaviour that will ultimately provide the foundation for the road to net zero.

The Shape disciplines (social sciences, humanities and the arts) are also key to understanding how climate change could deepen structural inequalities that are already present in our society, and to finding ways to empower those most affected by climate change and help turn the tide.

Projects such as the Generate programme at the University of Leeds are mobilising social science and the arts to consider how inequality and climate change can be tackled simultaneously in marginalised communities in countries on the front line of the climate emergency.

Universities are in a unique position, drawing on their research expertise and broader charitable mission to pursue solutions to climate change that also deliver on the other UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What universities can do

All of this work needs to continue over the coming decade and beyond if we are to succeed in curbing the worst effects of climate change. As a global leader in climate science, the UK needs an agile and resilient research base, capable of delivering groundbreaking basic research and developing this at pace through to application across a full range of disciplines. The scientific response to the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated what universities can achieve when working together with businesses and charities that share a purpose, delivering vaccines and treatments in record time.

The government’s recent commitment to increasing public R&D investment to £20 billion by 2024-25 will see the UK’s research capacity grow substantially in the coming years and enable research and innovation focused on delivering net zero to be further ramped up.

As this topline spending review announcement is translated into specific budget allocations over the coming weeks and months, policymakers should consider how to ensure the UK has a sustainable funding model for research. A little-appreciated quirk of research funding policy means that, because the full economic costs of research projects are not supported, increasing public investment means deficits within research-performing organisations, especially universities, will deepen.

Balancing the books

Research council funding has become less sustainable over the past decade, with the average grant now covering only 71 per cent of the full economic cost of research. For universities, balancing the books and securing the pipeline of high-quality R&D that will be fundamental to meeting our climate goals requires juggling multiple and uncertain income streams around international student flows, commercial partnerships and donations.

Addressing this R&D sustainability challenge will be crucial to ensuring future resilience and adaptability as the effects of climate change become better understood.

As the COP26 summit draws to a close, the world will be watching to see how far the negotiations in Glasgow help to limit the damage wreaked by climate change. Nobody underestimates the difficulty of delivering on the commitments being made through continued global cooperation and collaboration in the years to come. But it is clear research will be key to identifying solutions and showing how to overcome the climate emergency.

In the aftermath of COP26, local and national governments will be relying on universities, working together with businesses and public sector partners, to deliver on these commitments and protect our planet for future generations.

Sarah Stevens is director of policy at the Russell Group.