Technological optimism will not deliver our climate commitments

The Director of Tyndall Manchester at The University of Manchester says that rather than relying on technology, we need to look to the solutions that are ready now

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As co-hosts of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, the world is watching the UK to see how we will show our commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. It may be tempting to talk about new technologies that demonstrate our engineering prowess. But the scale and urgency of the challenge means it is technologies we already understand well that can make us “world-leading” on climate action. Where will world leaders be taken to see row upon row of deep retrofit terraced houses, car-free cities where walking and cycling dominate, new onshore wind farms delivering cheap electricity?

The Climate Change Committee shows that most changes needed to get us to net zero require active engagement of citizens. Surveys of UK public attitudes by the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation show over 70 per cent think climate change needs addressing with an “extremely high” or “high” level of urgency. This has actually increased during the Covid pandemic. Results from the UK’s Climate Assembly show support for changes across our lives, such as a frequent flyer levy and changes in diets.

Because carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, our path to zero carbon matters more than the date we hit zero. Immediate emissions reductions are essential. Let us not look only to technologies that may provide elegant solutions in the future (“jet zero”, zero carbon hydrogen for home heating, direct air capture, small modular reactors) but to low carbon solutions we have ready for mass deployment now. We know old houses need retrofitting to reduce heat demand, this creates jobs and can address fuel poverty. Onshore wind energy is among the cheapest forms of new electricity. We know capturing the carbon and health benefits of a shift to walking and cycling needs new infrastructure and approaches to urban design. If the UK wants to lead the way to a net zero future, we have to embrace the ways there right now.

We stand at a point with high levels of public support for action, enforced disruption to our lives and previously unthinkable government investment to create jobs and address “levelling up”. The evidence is clear that green stimulus policies outperform traditional approaches. The scale of the challenge means decarbonisation must be central to all that we do, not just a few shiny initiatives. Government of all levels, business and organisational leaders, should be asking how does every activity, every investment, assist the transition to net zero, and how do our processes ensure this? If we get this right in the coming months, that field trip for leaders in Glasgow next year could be quite something.

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