Chuka Umunna's speech on higher education - full transcript

The Lib Dems must not let Michael Gove seize control of higher education policy, says the shadow business secretary.

Thank you to the IPPR for hosting this event. Your Commission on the Future of Higher Education is well timed given the huge changes being put through by this Government. We are paying close attention to your work and we will consider your findings in the context of Labour’s Policy Review – our biggest since Tony Blair became leader in 1994.

I want to start by paying tribute to Nigel, his fellow Vice Chancellors, and all who work tirelessly to make our university sector the success story it is. The facts in this respect speak for themselves:

We have nearly a tenth of the top 100 global universities (including my university – Manchester) in the UK, second only to the US; the sector is our seventh biggest export industry; and, you are a force for economic progress the length and breadth of our country.

In my last major speech on Higher Education, I lamented the massive and unnecessary disruption to the sector by this Government, and the huge uncertainty for students and institutions. This pre-dated the Budget, so before the concept of ‘omni-shambles’ came to prominence. But, in many ways, H.E. was the original case study in shambolic policy making and execution. It revealed the Government’s misplaced priorities and unnecessary, unfair and unworkable proposals.

This administration has shown a degree of carelessness with a sector which is a proud part of our national heritage and essential to our future. It is easy to launch ‘Maoist’ revolutions. It is much harder to build constructive and considered processes of change that address real challenges that the sector faces.

For me, the starting point must be clarity of purpose which is why last year I set out four principles to guide our policy development:

  •   Fairness for students;


  •   Autonomy for universities;


  • Sustainable funding; and,


  •   Universities playing a central role in our economic as well as cultural life, and in our regional and national economies.

Today I want to focus on H.E. in the context of the long term challenges facing our economy and to explain why our universities are so central to Labour’s vision for the future. It is why Higher Education must remain at the heart of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Speculation on the location of H.E. policy in Whitehall is rife. The Education Secretary Michael Gove has made no secret of his desire to launch a land grab and acquire H.E. for his department – which some of you have told me fills you with dismay. Vince Cable has told me in Parliament that H.E. will remain within BIS. It needs to.

Moving H.E. will cause another layer of disruption and uncertainty. A time of stalled growth is not the time to break up the so-called ‘Department for Growth’, with H.E. treated as a political football by the Lib Dems and the Tories, and the sector’s future being dragged into an internal battles of egos and political turf warfare.

For Vince Cable, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, this is a test. If they let BIS lose responsibility for Higher Education, it would provide more evidence of them being in office but not in power.

And it would be the wrong change to make. BIS is the right place for a university sector deeply engaged with industry; it is the right place for a university sector developing the people that our economy needs; it is the right place for a university sector at the heart of the economy we need, as we seek to meet the big long term challenges facing our country.

What are those challenges? They are to:

  • Build a more resilient economy where growth is more broadly based – across sectors, and between and within our regions.


  • Build a more competitive economy, given the challenges and opportunities that arise from the pace and extent of technological change, and fundamental shifts in the global economy.


  • Build a more inclusive economy, where the benefits of future growth are more widely shared – an economy that can underpin the kind of cohesive, inclusive society that we want to see.

These are the big issues we need to tackle.

And the waters are very choppy. Our economy is in a recession of the Government’s own making. The full impact of the troubles in the Eurozone have yet to feed through. And the rise of the emerging economies is massively increasing competition. It is worth noting that the increase in the number of Chinese graduates in 2020 compared with 2010 is almost as large as the total number of expected graduates in 2020 in the US and the EU combined.

But, that said, I am optimistic about our national future. We will have to raise our game to compete - but we can do it. I see huge opportunities for us - within the next two decades, the size of the global middle class will almost triple to 5 billion people. That’s a whole lot of new demand we can meet if we start to prepare our economy to do so now.

There is one view about how to do this advanced by our political opponents and well captured by Adrian Beecroft in his report, now being promoted by the Prime Minister. This view says employees are costs to be minimised, not people with potential to be realised. Whatever the question, the unfettered free market answer is the right answer; government is the problem and should get out of the way. This offers only a destructive race to the bottom.

The alternative is bolder and far more ambitious - it is, as Ed Miliband and I have argued, to build a more productive and responsible capitalism:

  • Encouraging business to focus on long term value creation, not short term profit extraction.


  • Engaging employees as partners in business success and investing in their skills.


  • Giving employees the security to invest in the future success of businesses by developing their own skills, and offering fair rewards to those who do.


  • Fostering strong independent institutions, like our universities, that can strengthen collaborative ties.


  • Viewing active government as a partner and an ally in this endeavour, not an enemy across the water.

This path sees the solutions to the challenges for our economy – of resilience, competitiveness and inclusiveness – as intimately related, and replete with opportunity.

No one can predict the future with certainty. But there is value, both social and economic, in having a clear view of the kind of economy we need, making the most of the talents of all. Just as we need productive businesses to succeed, so we need active government to back their ambitions, foster shared visions, and build the national capabilities we will need to succeed. This is what I mean when I talk about a modern industrial strategy.

I have no doubt the successful societies of the future will be those engaged in a constant process of learning; developing and applying new knowledge; adapting organically to the challenges they face. They will be the societies that view social and economic progress not as separate projects, but as mutually reinforcing goals.

These are big ambitions to transform our economy, and they raise big questions. With the quality of our universities we start from an enviable position of strength. I want – with you and others– to develop a compelling story about our national future, of rising and shared prosperity, with an ambitious role for H.E. We need you to be both the authors and agents of change.

So I will divide the remainder of my remarks into three areas on this theme, and lay out some of the difficult questions I hope the Commission will address.

First, on the importance of the H.E. sector as a successful world beating industry in itself;

Second, on the role of H.E. in equipping our nation with the knowledge, skills and capabilities we need; and

Third, H.E. as a direct driver of our economic success in specific sectors and regions, technologies, materials and applications.

The H.E. sector is a global success story, as the rankings show. As well as its role in the success of other sectors, it must also be recognised as a successful sector in its own right, with its own development needs.

Its success reflects the quality of the ‘product’ itself, but also builds on our rich heritage and takes advantage of important national advantages - like the English language, our culture of openness, tolerance, and diversity. And it can be a significant source of our future influence in the world - the ‘soft-power’ that comes through making others familiar with our culture and our values. Critically, every overseas student that studies here is paying fees and contributing to UK Plc - H.E. is one of our main export industries – and it brings spending to local economies too.

The chaos and uncertainty this Government has caused is damaging enough to domestic students, but it also sends out all the wrong signals to students from abroad. It is a testament to the quality of the sector and its reputation that the number of students from abroad is still up on last year. But, this is a growing market, with demand likely to explode in the coming years.

Instead of supporting the growth of the sector, this Government is creating unnecessary obstacles. More than 60 Vice-Chancellors have argued that Government changes to immigration policy are impacting on legitimate students who contribute billions to the UK economy and help support jobs. Bogus colleges and fraudulent student visa applications should not be tolerated and there are important issues which need addressing – like the numbers of people on student visas who are not enrolled on courses. So address this problem. Stop the abuse of the system; don’t stop its legitimate use, jeopardising jobs in this country.

We want to work with you to actively support the global success of the sector. I hope the Commission will add to our understanding of what we must do to keep our universities in the top rank globally. What further support is needed from government? How is the sector adapting to technological change, such as on teaching and learning methods? And how can we ensure that this focus on global success doesn’t unbalance or undermine other important domestic objectives for the sector? Big ambitions, big questions.

I will turn now to H.E.’s role in developing the people our economy needs, and extending opportunity.

If we want an economy based on high value, long-term wealth creation, and a more cohesive society, we must make the most of the talents of everyone. Extending opportunity to everyone is an economic imperative and a social goal.

That’s why the Government’s changes to student finance are so damaging. Applications are down 10% in England with worrying falls in many STEM subjects and from students over the age of 21. The core and margin system means that good courses are being cut, with their replacements allocated on price not quality. We’ve been told it also works against the provision of courses that could cost more and need long term certainty so universities can make the investment in things like laboratories or training facilities.

So the Government’s reforms are going in the wrong direction on extending opportunity, are jeopardising the progress made on access, and are risking collateral damage to local economies where universities provide an important boost to local demand.

Given where we are now, our alternative would preserve the principle that H.E. is a social as well as a private investment, giving universities the certainty they need while doing the most to extend not limit opportunity. If we were in government now we would cut fees to £6,000, with an additional £1.1 billion paid to universities to make up the difference. It is costed, with around half coming from students who subsequently earn above £65,000. It would be fairer to students; it would preserve the autonomy of universities; and it would be sustainable. It could be implemented now, avoiding the uncertainty of the core and margin system.

As I have laid out, we are looking at the whole university sector as part of our review and will be drawing on your thinking as we move forward.

We want to maintain the distinctiveness of universities but we need to forge closer links between H.E and F.E. at the level of policy as well as in practice too. We need what both H.E. and F.E. can bring, but within a coherent framework, based on a parity of esteem. This must facilitate learning throughout life – in later life as well as youth, post-graduate as well as undergraduate, technical and academic. My recent fact finding visit to Germany further reinforced my view on this.

There is much to be gained from encouraging greater cooperation and coordination between different types of institution. This is territory ripe for innovation.

My predecessor, John Denham, used to point out that in the USA, his local universities - Southampton, Solent, Portsmouth and Winchester - would almost certainly be the State University of Hampshire. Still with Southampton as the centre of world class research, Portsmouth of applied science and technology, Winchester the liberal arts college, and Solent the vocationally focussed and widening participation college. Such a university would enable students to study across the sites with a degree tailored to their talents; it could enable students to study at home and more flexibly, and, surely, enable the offer to business to more flexible and varied.

So the challenge is this: how can we establish a greater coherence – both in policy and practice – between H.E. and F.E., enabling us to do more with the money we have? What is the role for other models like co-financed degrees with savings on maintenance costs as students are employed and courses are tailor made for business? How can we create a more seamless approach to the development of all– our national human capital – while maintaining institutional distinctiveness and reputational autonomy? How can new technologies be harnessed to help? Again, big ambitions, big questions.

Third and finally, I turn to the role of H.E. as a direct driver of our economic success in specific parts of our economy.

I know I’m not the first to talk about this, with reports going back to the early 90s, including the testimonies of Sir Richard Lambert, Lord Sainsbury, and just this year Professor Tim Wilson.

This focus has made a huge difference, both to our understanding of the roles that universities can play within innovation systems, and in starting to realise that potential. As Prof. Wilson has said, in the last decade “there has been a huge change in both the quantum and quality of business-university collaboration”.

HEFCE recently highlighted the excellent examples in both research and teaching universities, with commendations for Cranfield, Exeter, Hertfordshire, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, and Staffordshire Universities.

Every £1 of Higher Education Innovation Funding creates returns of £6 of additional KE income, a proxy for impact on the economy. I saw the value with my own eyes at the Warwick Manufacturing Group. Shabana has been singing the praises of UEL’s efforts to promote entrepreneurship.

So I come not to criticise, but to encourage. My sense though, in talking with business and industry, is that we are still only scraping the surface of what could be achieved.

I want universities to be seen – and to see themselves – as embedded parts of regional economies, hubs around which industry can thrive, connecting smart people and good ideas, critical to the continuing success of our strongest sectors, and constantly pushing at the knowledge frontier. This is not to distort from your mission to educate, but to extend it – to increase the flow of good ideas into industry, as much as the flow of good people.

And with RDAs gone and LEPs still maturing, there is a vacuum at the heart of many regional economies. As much as we need your ideas, we need your leadership too.

For the Commission, I would ask: What has made the big difference to the increased level and quality of business-university collaboration? What is holding it back? How can we align the levers that government controls so that all reinforce this goal – the performance metrics and other rewards, the way money is allocated and so on? How can we improve the alignment with the needs of business, and the ability to leverage private resources? Big ambitions. Big questions.

So, in conclusion, today I’ve tried to outline the longer term issues facing our economy, the approach Labour will take to shaping our nation’s future, and the central role of you and our universities within it.

Rather than disruption induced uncertainty and as you argue, an immigration policy that puts a ceiling on your success, you are entitled to a government that will listen to you and put its weight behind you. We should be proud of your industry and back your ambition.

You hold the keys to developing the people our economy will need. You have shown what can be achieved and in these examples we can see glimpses of the future, but we need this future for all.

With your ideas and leadership, we need you to write yourselves into the story of our nation’s economic future as central characters in a tale of research led competitiveness and innovation led growth.

This is a big ambition, and it raises many questions. I wish the IPPR’s Commission every success in trying to answer them. It is a debate for us all, and I look forward to working with you all in the sector in shaping our national future.

Students at the University of Birmingham take part in their degree congregations as they graduate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.

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Moonshots for the Earth: are there technological fixes for climate change?

As the world gathers in Paris for the latest UN climate change conference, are there technological solutions for global warming? And where are the tech-utopians working to find them?

This article originally appeared in The Long + Short

At the end of August, as the northern hemisphere’s hottest summer on record drew to a close, a group of inventors, designers and engineers assembled in a grand stone castle an hour’s drive west of Paris. Château de Millemont was hosting a five-week ‘innovation camp’ for the pioneers behind 12 new projects, chosen for their contribution to achieving a world without fossil fuels. POC21 (Proof of Concept) was set up as an active, grassroots foil to cop 21, the 21st UN Climate Change conference in Paris, which begins at the end of November.

“Global emissions have doubled since the first UN climate summit in 1995,” says the POC21 video, amid images of environmental catastrophe, so “Let’s move from talking to building a better tomorrow.” The objective was to create workable open-source technology in the fields of energy, food and waste – life, basically.

Products that made it to the final 12 included a pedal tractor, a smartphone-controlled greenhouse and an antibacterial water filter. Daniel Connell, one of the chosen inventors, travelled to Paris from the UK for the event. He was picked because he’d created an impressive cost- and resource-efficient wind turbine design. You can make it for about £20 out of aluminium sheets, a bike wheel, rivets, washers and nuts and bolts.

“It’s entirely built from recycled or upcycled materials, and can be assembled by anybody with basic hand or power tools,” says Dominik Wind, core organiser of POC21. “While this makes his design a perfect fit for the people that need it most (the poor, the marginalised around the globe), it’s also the perfect design to build upon: it’s the basis to start from with more customised, possibly also more complex and more expensive iterations.”

Connell has been creating prototype technologies and tutorials for solar and wind designs while moving around the world over the last 10 years, traversing Canada, France, India and Spain. A 3D animator by trade, he is self-taught – he describes the Solar Flower, a DIY solar energy collector he created, as “my degree” – and set out to make an existing design for a wind turbine cheap and easy for people to use. “Technically, it could be $5 if you just pay for the rivets and get plates and a bike wheel for free,” he said.

A seasoned squatter, Connell made his project possible by sifting through scrap heaps, fixing up bikes and living on a few pounds a day so he wouldn’t have to work and could devote his time to the wind turbine. Connell’s ethos is inspired by the self-sufficient communities he grew up in as a child in New Zealand, and that country’s culture of ingenuity and making stuff. Since POC21, his product has improved and he’s showing it to students, retirees and other people who want to get off grid via workshops.

Connell is one of a number of green inventors working to ease the world’s transition to climate change. As wildfires spread, countries sink, species go extinct, floods and drought increase, seas rise, storms devastate, glaciers melt, crops fail, pollution decreases life expectancy and the potential for conflict grows, eyes look to the inventors, geniuses and entrepreneurs who surely can figure out a way of saving the planet.

When Pope Francis, in an unprecedented speech earlier this year, rejected market solutions for climate change, attacked “unfettered capitalism” and made a forceful moral plea, it raised the question: if individual behavioural changes aren’t realistic or enough, can’t technology provide a route out of the problem? Where is that technology? And is ‘techno-utopianism’ realistic in the context of the climate crisis?

Major companies are already divesting from fossil fuels – most recently the Rockefeller Foundation, the Church of England and Norway’s £900bn sovereign wealth fund – as burnable reserves run out and the climate change threat becomes more apparent; but local attention is also turning to how to transition to a greener world.

In the bowels of an east London theatre on a foggy Sunday afternoon a month or so after POC21, a panel discusses whether Hackney Council should divest its pensions away from fossil fuels. “There is an energy transition happening,” says Carbon Tracker’s Luke Sussams. Dr David McCoy, an expert in global public health, says, “We face an existential threat in terms of eco collapse… My 14-year-old daughter’s future does not look good.” He explains how global warming will affect disease patterns and prompt conflict over scarce resources. Yet there is some optimism about green developments in electric cars, renewable energies and Tesla’s new battery technology.

Bill McKibben, the campaigner and author who brought global warming to public consciousness with his 1989 book The End of Nature, and more recently the founder of international pressure group, is positive and excited about innovation in the green world. “The price of a solar panel dropped 75 per cent in the last six years,” he said, speaking from his home in Vermont. “The world’s engineers are doing their job; and doing it extraordinarily well.”

The move to renewable energy is under way. An Apollo-style research programme to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels recently won the backing of Sir David Attenborough and high-profile businesspeople, politicians and economists. Even Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has warned that the “vast majority of reserves are unburnable” if global temperature rises are to be limited to below 2C. But others think that it’s not enough, and consider geoengineering to be the grand techno-fix.

First presented as a big-idea solution to climate change in the 1960s, geoengineering proposals range from the seemingly fantastical – brightening the clouds; stirring the seas to change their temperature and cool the Earth; turning the ocean into a gigantic bubble bath to reflect the sun; covering the deserts in mirrors and sending parasols into space; mimicking the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo – to the more mundane: removing carbon from atmosphere and storing it somewhere else.

Although a number of scientists and researchers – including the Royal Society, which held a geoengineering ‘retreat’ in Buckinghamshire in 2011 – think geoengineering is an option worth considering, no one is actually doing it yet. Well, apart from Russ George, the businessman, entrepreneur and “DIY rogue geo-vigilante” who dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific ocean, triggering a 10,000-sq-km plankton bloom (plankton blooms suck carbon out of the atmosphere). Though the efficacy of his actions is still unclear, George was criticised for eco-terrorism, and was said to have contravened UN conventions.

The big problem with DIY geoengineering, and any geoengineering for that matter, is its potential for danger: we don’t know what would happen. David Keith, a professor of engineering at Harvard who developed a giant air-sucking wall to capture carbon, told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter, “It is hyperbolic to say this, but no less true: when you start to reflect light away from the planet, you can easily imagine a chain of events that would extinguish life on Earth.”

On the other hand, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) doesn’t seem, on the face of it, like playing god with our weather systems or trying, fruitlessly, to find a dimmer switch for the sun. A company called Skyonics claims its Skymine process can capture harmful pollutants and turn them into marketable products such as baking soda and bleach.

But to what extent can sucking carbon out of the air work? Sabine Mathesius, a climate modeller at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, wanted to see what CDR could achieve if five gigatons (an enormous, hypothetical amount) of carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere each year. Simulations found that the impact of this level of removal would not be significant at all, especially in terms of protecting the ocean, which is acidified by human-produced CO2.

“In the beginning I was surprised,” she said. “Like many people I also hoped that geoengineering could be a way to undo the harm we did with our CO2 emissions. But if you see how much CO2 we can get out of the atmosphere with the current technologies and what we are expected to emit in a business-as-usual scenario, you can already see that the impact of CO2 removal cannot be that big.”

CDR could be used as a supporting measure to avoid the worst scenario if emissions are reduced at the same time, Mathesius concluded. “What is not possible is just emitting the CO2 as usual and further expanding our industries and then using CDR to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Reducing emissions is the cheapest way to keep the CO2 levels low; and also the easiest way.” More promising technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture or artificial trees, would also require fertile land or would cost astronomic amounts, Mathesius says. So where then would she place her hope in terms of a techno-fix to solve climate change? “Clean energy to make it easier for people to emit less CO2.”

Carbon capture and storage gets short shrift from McKibben. “If you step back and think about it for a minute, it’s silly,” he says. “You can do it, obviously, but can you do it at a cost that makes any kind of sense? You can’t. No one’s been able to yet. You’re way better off just building the windmills in the first place. All it is is a solution designed to try and appease the power of the coal industry and offer them some kind of future.”

Those looking into this techno-fix are quite clear that solar radiation management or carbon capture is no substitute for reducing carbon emissions anyway. Bodies such as the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) and the Royal Society contain wary caveats, that geoengineering is not an alternative to reducing carbon consumption. McKibben calls them an “absurd set of ideas where people throw up their hands and say, ‘There’s no way we can solve this problem, so instead let’s fill the atmosphere with sulphur’.”

On the last day of April, Elon Musk entered the stage at his Tesla Design Centre in Hawthorne, California to thumping dubstep, whoops and ripples of applause. The billionaire business magnate nodded to the crowd of adoring fans and set out his vision for a complete transformation of how the world works. His 20-minute speech explained how a new invention – the Powerwall battery – would advance a complete overhaul of the world’s energy infrastructure. “This is how it is today… it sucks,” Musk began, gesturing to slides depicting factories belching out smoke.

The solution to getting from fossil fuel hell to a renewable-powered future, he explained, was his new product. Because “existing batteries suck,” he had developed the Tesla Powerwall: a wall-mounted, household battery on sale for $3,500 (£2,300). His statements were punctuated by cheers and screams from the crowd, especially when he revealed that the whole event had been powered by solar and Powerwall.

Musk believes that transitioning to electric cars and solar energy will contain the worst effects of climate change. His electric cars are improving all the time; the mass-market model is expected to be ready before 2020. Tesla open-sourced all its patents and technology in 2014 to encourage other people to advance the electric vehicle industry; and lots of major names in the automobile world have followed with designs for electric cars. “We need the entire automotive industry to remake, and quickly,” said McKibben. Musk has also proposed the Hyperloop, a new transport system he describes as “a cross between Concorde, a railgun and a hockey table”.

Advances in batteries radically change the picture of renewable energy, electric cars and transport systems; and important improvements are happening. At the end of October 2015, a group of Cambridge scientists made a major breakthrough with a rechargeable super-battery that can hold five times more energy as those we’re used to and can power a car from London to Edinburgh on a single charge.

Improved battery storage will change everything for green energy enthusiasts like Daniel Connell in the next few years. “This is why, apart from [a lack of] political will, we don’t have renewable energy: because storage levels don’t reach grid level. But before the end of the decade they will,” he explains.

One of the projects chosen for POC21, the French eco-castle retreat, was a design by a team from Berlin. Sunzilla, a diesel generator without diesel, fuelled by the sun, can be assembled by anyone. Germany is leading the way in the energy revolution with its energiewende, driven by Green politicians and the support of local citizens. In 2014, just over a quarter of German energy came from renewable sources; in 2050, the goal is 80 per cent. The German Green Party politician Ralf Fücks, author of a new book called Green Growth, Smart Growth, is a techno-optimist with faith in society’s ability to find a way out of the ecological crisis, although he cautions against the hubris of large-scale techno-fixes. Investment in green technologies and renewable energies are more realistic, he writes, than carbon capture and storage.

Fücks speak slowly, carefully and with an obvious delight in the natural world. “Spider silk is a wonderful substance,” he says at one point. “It’s more flexible than rubber and more solid than steel and we now have the skills to discover [its] molecular composition.” He cites the smooth skin of the shark and the self-cleaning surface of the lotus blossom as examples of biological productivity we can learn from and use for our own purposes, while decreasing CO2 emissions.

But biomimicry is in its early stages, and renewables have already crossed to the point of no return, as Fücks puts it. On the plus side, though, costs for solar and wind power have decreased considerably over the last five years.

Fücks sees opportunities for young entrepreneurs and startups in a world without global celebrities such as Bill Gates or Richard Branson. The environmental reform of industrial society, in his view, demands a combination of big and small. There is room for more Elon Musks.

The world of food is fertile ground for big ideas and green tech innovation. Last summer saw the publication of new technology proposals to turn the waste shells of prawn, crab and lobster into nitrogen-rich chemicals for use, say, in pharmaceuticals, carbon sequestration and animal feed, which would avoid industrial production using fossil fuels.

Farmers, too, are innovating worldwide. In Devon, Rebecca Hosking is using new land management techniques to make a contribution to fighting climate change. She uses a grazing method that purposely locks atmospheric carbon back into the soil. Instead of ploughing, her long-grass grazing technique keeps carbon in the roots, ploughing release-carbon from soil into the atmosphere. The more organic matter there is in the ground, the more it can trap in the carbon.

“Once you lock it in, and as long as you don’t plough or let your grassland dry out, then the carbon stays in the soil,” she says. “You know that climate change is happening, we do our bit and suck out as much carbon as we can.”

This method, which French farmers are also keen to implement, is similar in the way it works to a new, low-methane, genetically modified rice. SUSIBA2, the new rice, uses smaller roots, and produces less methane, one of the chief greenhouse gases. Scientists have also developed a feed supplement for dairy cows that could reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent.

Global warming is posing serious challenges to water supply; and we all know that the melting of glaciers is one detrimental effect of climate change. Cue another climate hero: Chewang Norphel, an 80-year-old retired civil engineer, has made 12 artificial glaciers in the last 30 years to provide water for the people of Ladakh, India. The Ice Man, as he is called, realised he could divert water through canals into frozen ice sheets, which would melt in spring and provide water for irrigation, agriculture and general local use. “Getting water during the sowing period is the most crucial concern of the farmers because the natural glaciers start melting in the month of June and sowing starts in April and May,” he told online news portal the Better India.

Ocean farmers are also growing kelp again to encourage a move away from environmentally costly meat-based diets. Indeed, 3D ocean farming proponents GreenWave quote a study that found a network of seaweed farms the size of Washington state could provide all the dietary protein for the entire world population.

Pope Francis’s recent address sounded a note of caution around technology as a solution to climate change. “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience,” he said.

Bill McKibben believes the key is solving the “structural systemic problem rooted in the balance of political power on our planet.” To make a difference, he says, an individual must “join with other people to build the kind of movement that can change those balances of power.” In Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, she writes about the Hollywood action movie narrative that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us are going to be saved: “Since our secular religion is technology, it won’t be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.”

But, while some techno-fixes recall the Greek hubris myth of Icarus, there is work to be done and hope to be found. Around the world, people are working to improve 3D printing technology and the usability of tutorials to explain how to make Connell’s DIY wind turbine or the German Sunzilla. Demand Logic, a company based in London, is using data to sweep big, commercial buildings in the city and work out where energy savings can be made.

Of the UN Climate Conference in Paris, McKibben says it will be most interesting to see whether countries will come up with the money to help poor countries leapfrog technologically. But he maintains that engineers and innovators are focusing their efforts in the right place, speeding up the transition from fossil fuels. Despite the Pope’s cautionary note, the industry of technology is crucial in the shift to a newly balanced planet. McKibben praised the good, cheap solar panels we already have, but said they could be much more efficient and easier to adopt. “There’s no shortage of crucial and interesting work for architects, engineers and financiers, and none of it requires telling yourself science fiction stories, the way that you have to if all you can think of is, ‘Let’s put a giant piece of film in space to block the sun’.”

This article originally appeared in The Long + Short, Nesta's magazine of innovation, new ideas and how the world is changing. Follow them on Twitter, @longshortmag.