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What role for science and innovation in COP26 and Net Zero?

2021-10-29

By Professor Paul S. Monks  

CSA BEIS and Professor at the University of Leicester 

In the run-up to COP26, I have given many short-talks on the COP and the role that science and innovation will play in achieving Net Zero by the mid-century. It is self-evident that Research and innovation will be an essential part of the drive to decarbonise global economies. Indeed, when the UK Net Zero strategy was released a companion Net Zero research and innovation framework was also published. The research and innovation framework recognises that the Net Zero transition will involve a complex interaction between technology, infrastructure, people, data, institutions, policy and the natural environment. 

Research and innovation has much to offer in, for example, the enhancement of renewable power, industrial energy, heat and buildings, transport and natural resources facilitated by development for example in  hydrogen and carbon-capture and storage. Innovation requires an integrated approach with the key enablers supporting key system and sector linkages. Innovation is not an excuse for inaction, the next decade is critical to achieving the goals of Net Zero.  The scientific evidence is unequivocal as to that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. With respect to innovation, there is clear recognition of the need to deploy at speed and pace mature technologies, while as the same time accelerate emergent ones.   

Beyond innovation there are wider challenges for the science and research that underpins it. Often in recent times climate science has been about measuring and predicting impacts.  Now there is a need to move, in my opinion, to science for solutions. Science can embrace the wider challenge of accelerating the social, economic, cultural and political change to reach net zero.  We can in my view take a too technocratic view of the transition to Net Zero, but the required research and innovation has to be centred in the framework of people.  It is people that will make the changes, often adopt the technology and drive the consumer or industrial requirement to change. We do need solution-oriented research that embraces adaptation and mitigation (not or), a recognition that the climate is changing and resilience to that change is important. The solution-oriented approach can embrace the need for a systems approach as we have in Net Zero a system of systems problem from the underlying physical climate system to the science of mitigation and adaptation in a full socio-economic framework. 

As we move to COP26 in Glasgow, there should be recognition that research and innovation is a global endeavour that works best when ideas can be pooled, and insights come from a wide disciplinary base.  The greater the international scientific consensus the more effective the solutions are that can be generated.   Each county will require innovation pathways that reflects its experience and readiness for the Net Zero transition.  Those innovation pathways will require academia, NGOs, industry and the public to work together. I do believe there will be a green dividend for the economies that embrace Net Zero, where the savings will in time exceed the costs of the transition.  Further, there will be tangible health and environmental benefits enabled by a well implemented transition alongside new jobs. 

There won’t be a magic bullet to reaching Net Zero, but research and innovation can help us make real progress in many crucial areas in the UK and globally.  

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