Published on 27/08/2021

Professor Patricia Thornley

Tackling climate change: why we need to commit resources across geographical and professional borders

By Professor Patricia Thornley
Director of Energy and Bioproducts
Research Institute (EBRI)
August 2021

 

Achieving our climate targets requires total transformation of our energy system. Doing that in a cost-effective manner that maximizes environmental and social benefits requires mutual understanding of what different technologies can deliver, so that we can prioritize the most strategic options for the UK and beyond.

With COP26 due to take place this autumn in Glasgow, the very best of the UK’s energy research base, alongside representatives from over 200 countries, will be brought together with a focus on how existing knowledge and research innovation can be leveraged to help deliver a sustainable future for all.

In academia, and especially in bioenergy, scientists can be found guilty of getting bogged down in ‘analysis paralysis’, that is, looking for the perfect solution and ignoring the gains that can be made with existing knowledge and data. But in reality the climate crisis requires action now. We need to have the bravery to push forward with imperfect solutions. We need to act immediately if we are to stave off the worst effects of climate change. For example, taking appropriate action in the next year to deliver an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases is far better than waiting ten years for something that delivers an 85 per cent reduction.

The role of researchers in the push to net zero - which is also the theme of an upcoming energy conference at Aston University in Birmingham - is in providing robust independent scientific data to support evidence-based policymaking, as well as working with industry, academia and society to address the whole range of problems relating to tackling climate change.  Here, the role of policymakers should be to engage with each of these groups in order to understand the systems that are most sustainable and to provide the most potential with the biggest impact.

Across the West Midlands we support organisations get to grips with their sustainability goals and solve energy, waste and environmental challenges.

 

At the Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute (EBRI) based at Aston University, we not only carry out fundamental scientific research but also integrate interdisciplinary insights to provide an holistic overview of the sustainability (environmental, economic and social) of the systems we are developing.

We are proud that we work at the local level alongside companies to provide advice and support to conduct their businesses in a more sustainable way. We offer practical solutions to help businesses explore the expanding bioeconomy and the wealth of opportunities it offers.

Across the West Midlands we support organisations get to grips with their sustainability goals and solve energy, waste and environmental challenges. Over the past decade we have helped more than 300 companies to develop new, environmentally friendly products and services from a whole host of unwanted materials such as food, wood and plastic waste, redundant car and bicycle tyres and brewers’ spent grain.

At the national level, our staff are deeply involved with providing scientific advice on climate change and renewable energy to various government departments, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Treasury.  We also use our expertise to navigate the policy complexities around sustainable energy on the Trees and Woodlands Scientific Advisory Group (TAW-SAG), The Green Technical Advisory Group (GTAG) and the biomass strategy review.

Of course, achieving all the reductions we can in the UK won’t make much of a difference to global levels of greenhouse gases if we don’t collaborate with international partners and share knowledge and resources. The Global North is responsible for the vast majority of emissions, while the consequences of climate breakdown fall disproportionately on the Global South. If we are to achieve a truly just transition to net zero, we must support developing nations to adjust to the changing climate and do what they can to keep emissions to a minimum.  

At EBRI we are proud that we are able to fully leverage our international connections and our shared cultural heritage, to carry out world-leading research into innovative ways of providing sustainable energy and products in low- and middle-income countries. We don’t just deliver greenhouse gas reductions; we develop technologies, supply chains and business models that support livelihoods, food security, energy access and resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

At Aston University we take a holistic approach that embeds sustainability through all our external activities at local, national and international level in order to deliver real impact from our research.

 

For example, in rural Pakistan we use filters made from agricultural wastes to deliver a filtered water supply. In the Philippines we have produced sustainable business models around a pilot plant that turns problematic rice straw into biogas for rural energy. Meanwhile, waste tyres and plastics are being pyrolyzed (to decompose through heating) to produce a safe, practical and efficient solid fuel used for heating in the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees.

This work with local communities, businesses and global partners is vital, as it not only addresses environmental sustainability, but supports social and economic needs in developing nations.  

At Aston University we take a holistic approach that embeds sustainability through all our external activities at local, national and international level in order to deliver real impact from our research.

As we recover from COVID-19, we are offered a window of opportunity to change policies and plans in such a way as to build a cleaner, greener and more resilient world.  This is why COP26 couldn’t come at a better time, as a chance to reflect and reassess. We also have an opportunity to do things differently and create real change.

Researchers already have much of the information needed to help policymakers make decisions and take appropriate action. Therefore, we must keep working together and committing resources across geographical and professional borders - if we are to make the change that is so drastically needed.

Sue Smith, Head of Press and Communications
    0121 204 3521
    s.p.smith@aston.ac.uk

Sam Cook, Press and Communications Manager
    0121 204 5065
    s.cook2@aston.ac.uk

Rebecca Hume, Press and Communications Manager
    0121 204 5159
    r.hume@aston.ac.uk

Alternatively, email pr@aston.ac.uk

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