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How can we work towards a low carbon transition?

23 January 2020

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This is our opportunity to come together and turn what might otherwise be a nightmare of a future into our mission to shape a proud legacy for future generations, declared Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero.

Gathering for the first event in the 2020 Christ’s Climate Seminar Series, Dr Shuckburgh and Simon Sharpe, Policy Lead for COP26 at the Cabinet Office, reflected on the steps we might be able to take in industry, government, and academia to make progress in combatting climate change. They were joined on stage by Professor Charlie Kennel of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who emphasised that this is a liminal moment for the University’s and the country’s contributions to combatting climate change, as the UK prepares to host COP26 in November.

At this critical juncture in the UK’s climate change response, Professor Kennel asked those present to consider what the responsibilities of universities might be in this space. Universities were subsequently presented as institutions which can support climate action through generating ideas and articulating solutions while facilitating training and convening a range of actors interested in addressing this systems-wide challenge. The impact universities can also extend beyond academia into industries, the legal field, and NGOs, through the propagation of students and alumni who will take what they learn during their time at school with them in their careers. Meanwhile, from a research perspective, discussion participants emphasized the need for more research and information on how to implement a just transition.

Much of the seminar’s discussion focused on what it will take to result in a system transition towards a greener future, with a paper on accelerating transitions written by Mr Sharpe in conjunction with Dr David Victor and Dr Frank Geels serving as a touchstone throughout the evening. This report emphasizes that systems transition happens in stages – emergence, diffusion, and reconfiguration. Here, lessons from how governments supported previous transitions, including the transition from horses to cars in the transportation sector via the development of road infrastructure, may prove to be useful guides for policymakers seeking to support a low carbon transition. Meanwhile, building the institutional infrastructure to support coordination action in industries such as shipping, the automotive sector, and agriculture was another suggested avenue for pursing sector-specific approaches to lower carbon emissions.

In terms of international cooperation, international agreements were described throughout the evening as iterative processes, which have historically been most successful in cases such as the Montreal Protocols, where coordinated R&D and coordinated international deployment of solutions in affected product sectors have preceded successfully implemented agreements.

As we look to the future, discussion participants reflected on work to combat climate change thus far. Some of the evening’s speakers described themselves as having dedicated their careers to researching and combatting climate change, but left the audience with a sobering thought: while academics and policymakers been talking about climate change for 40 years now, over that period the rate of greenhouse gas emission growth has increased.

Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Climate Impacts to Arctic Coasts (Collapsed Permafrost) - https://flic.kr/p/RN3Xer