Restraint and Opportunity – technology and behaviour change for climate mitigation

8 March 2023


Restraint and Opportunity – technology and behaviour change for climate mitigation

Reported by Meg Groom and Caitlin Kearney, Policy Interns at CSaP

After a morning of individually tailored meetings with Cambridge academics, senior members of CSaP’s network convened for lunch on 18 November, at Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge. Julian Allwood, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge, presented around the theme of the day: “innovation in materials”.

Viewing the climate crisis as an issue of health and safety rather than an economic one

Professor Allwood started his speech by highlighting the urgency of achieving zero emissions and emphasising the crisis. Explaining that rising temperatures are placing 1 billion people at risk of starving within this century, Allwood asserted that no technological solution was going to overcome the effect of rapidly rising temperatures on crop yields.

Referring to his UK FIRES report, Absolute Zero, which is the second most downloaded item from the University of Cambridge Repository, Professor Allwood mapped out what he assessed is the only viable zero emissions future. Based on the findings of the Absolute Zero Report, citizens should stop using fossil fuel powered boilers, using fossil fuel cars, flying and eating beef and lamb.

Professor Allwood and his Absolute Zero co-authors did not believe that other resources like biomass and carbon capture and storage (CCS) would have significant roles to play. Within this context, he suggested that we must electrify everything possible, close what cannot be electrified, and use non emitted electricity largely sourced from renewables for power. He further argued that even then, we will be limited by renewables generation capacity to using 60% of the electricity we would require.

The polarisation of either technology or behaviour change as a solution is not helpful

The participants also agreed with Professor Allwood's emphasis on behaviour change being critical and asked questions about how to shift public sentiment in line with the citizens' actions. Although they felt that electrifying cars and boilers were possible, they discussed the possible policies or public communication that disincentivised flying. One participant suggested that flying and meat eating were currently harder behaviours to change, because there was a material difference in experience when you give up meat or air travel. They also discussed that people are drawn to the solution of technology for behaviour change as well as to innovate until finding an alternative to meat and flying.

At the end of the seminar, the participants agreed with Professor Allwood on the urgency of action for achieving zero emissions. They discussed that more work needed to be done to better understand behaviour change triggers and embed the findings into governance and policy.

Image by Tyler Casey from Unsplash