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In building a strategy to reach net zero emissions by 2050, we need to rigorously test future scenarios and new technologies. Rosie Helson speaks to Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, about the latest science and why innovation isn’t the only thing needed to help us reach this target.
In this Climate Leadership Series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practice, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. You can read more about Alyssa at the bottom of this article.
Rosie Helson (RH): Can you explain your title at Grantham (www.imperial.ac.uk/grantham) and tell us a bit about your work?
Alyssa Gilbert (AG): There’s plenty of knowledge on climate solutions in the academic space and for plenty of valid reasons it doesn’t always leave that bubble. The “Translation” part of my title means taking knowledge from the language and context of academia and sharing it with people outside the academic realm, most importantly with influential decision makers who can use it to help us tackle climate change and other environmental issues effectively. I act as a two-way bridge between science, and both policy and business.
I spend a lot of time engaging people in the decision-making sphere: people working in parliament, in Government departments like BEIS and Defra, local governments, NGOs, trade bodies or businesses. We hold small closed-door meetings, big public events and panel discussions. I want to understand the questions they have about climate change; what are the questions we’re going to need the answers to in two, three or four years’ time? That helps us be more targeted in our research and helps us communicate the most useful parts of it to the right people, at the right time, in the right language. Each year we ask “what’s relevant and timely for key actors?” and that dictates where we focus our attention.
At Grantham, we’re trying to take the climate debate right up to the edge of what we know and what we can do about it. Overarchingly, we have a mission to deliver net zero carbon in the UK. We support that by training the leaders of the future, and informing and inspiring strong, well-thought-through, effective policies. We upskill academics in communication, media training and understanding how to engage with policy makers. We’ve started using online education to share our messages because that has the potential to scale up. We’re creating an open online course on cleaning up the power sector. It looks at why it’s a good idea to use renewable power, the policies that can stimulate that, and how to deal with integration challenges.
RH: In your previous role with Ecofys, you focused on carbon markets. How do you anticipate carbon markets will develop under the Paris Agreement?
AG: We’ve seen significant growth around carbon pricing. The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition has really taken off in the past two years, while we’re seeing a continual, gradual growth of jurisdictions with localised pricing which will mature to help these countries deliver on their NDCs*. There also seems to be a rising interest in taxation and a kind of hybrid tax-trading approach, which I think could also get traction.
We’ve seen a price increase in trading systems, which is a good sign, because it makes for a healthier market that can actually deliver emissions reductions and start to stimulate some of the more expensive things that we need like carbon capture and storage (CC&S). For that you’d need a significantly higher price than we have now, although you often need other complementary support beyond carbon pricing.
RH: You track some of the most innovative and potentially disruptive technology developments in the climate space. Do you think that such technologies will “crack the code on climate” with or without coordinated climate policy under the UNFCCC?
AG: Political cooperation and drivers are two of the factors considered in the future scenarios described in the IPCC 1.5 degrees report. The report shows it’s much easier to deliver climate change mitigation when you have cooperation. It doesn’t mean reductions wouldn’t happen otherwise, but cooperation at all political levels helps speed things up, and that’s important given the urgency.
The technology we need to make dramatic emissions reductions and the context which would help scale that is also best delivered through cooperation. There’s lots of research showing the process required to get from a deployment-ready technology (and we’ve got a lot of that) to deployment at scale. Policy needs to incentivise and enable deployment so that the commercial dimensions line up and it gets widely adopted.
We can talk about how the costs for renewable technologies are so low that now the uptake of solar and wind energy is happening by itself, but the important thing to remember is what that sector went through to get to that point: 30-40 years of R&D and financial support for deployment through mechanisms like Feed in Tariffs.
RH: What are some of the most innovative technologies in the climate space?
AG: Industry is traditionally one of the hardest sectors to crack and I think there’s been some exciting research done on low carbon cement and steel. Heavy industry is responsible for producing products that we need, and a significant percentage of our global emissions, so these technologies are important.
There are a lot of things that aren’t necessarily ground-breaking, but they’re ready to go, and we need to deploy and improve them. We’ve been talking about CC&S for years. If we could use it effectively then that would and should feel exciting.
However, it’s not just about technology but about processes, replacement materials, resource and energy efficiency. We can harness the reduction potential of building materials and design, for example, but we’re not doing that well enough. There are simple things we can do like orientating houses to maximise natural heating and cooling, otherwise using renewables. People may not find energy efficiency exciting but it’s important.
There’s discussion about behaviour change and the extent to which we can help modify people’s behaviour, for example by using smart systems in people’s homes. You may have seen the likes of Nest or Hive which allow you to control your home electronic devices and heating or cooling from your phone and see how much energy they are using. At the grid level, a smart grid is able to match demand to supply. We won’t need as much storage if we’re better at matching supply and demand and that would be especially powerful as we start using higher amounts of renewable energy. That “smartness” and the ability to share resources in a different way could be applied to how we use transport, how we process waste, and more.
RH: What do you think is the most important message coming from the IPCC 1.5 degree report and how should businesses develop appropriate responses?
AG: It gave us an additional sense of urgency and showed that climate impacts get worse, by a significant amount, as the temperature increases. You can really see a difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees, and again between 2 and 2.5, etc, although not all of those increments have been studied in detail. If we want to stay at 1.5 degrees and minimise those impacts, we must do everything we can to decarbonise our economy, immediately, everywhere around the world. We must mobilise the technologies and systems changes that will most capably achieve reductions.
The impacts are geographically dispersed, so if I were a business I would be checking the resilience of my supply chains and looking at how those changes are likely to affect me and the people who work for me, who are perhaps vulnerable people in certain areas.
I’d ask what I can do as a business to make sure I’m not leading us towards this warmer world. Businesses need to look at responsible product design, thinking creatively about inputs, production, and indeed whether it is the right product.
For the first time, this report showed how climate change links to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), demonstrating that a mitigation strategy delivers more benefit than disadvantages. Businesses should take a holistic view: let’s try to do everything within our power now to deliver on 1.5 degrees, reduce our emissions to net zero, and contribute to the SDGs.
This requires a rethink of business strategy, thinking 5, 10, 20 years ahead. They need to ask: what are the core strengths of the business and how could that fit into a lower carbon world? Or how could it drive and deliver a low carbon world? Can it help steer people and other organisations in that direction?
RH: What is the role of academic research in reaching net zero by 2050?
AG: We must continue to deliver ground-breaking research into new solutions and technologies, but we know that those won’t all deliver on the timescales that we need. Universities are often involved in testing new technology in the early stages, including on a larger scale, for example we’ve got a pilot CC&S platform on our campus. Scenario building is a valuable way to understand what the future could look like and how much we need of certain things. It can help governments and businesses plan strategically.
At Grantham we’re testing what could modify peoples’ behaviour and we need to better understand what inspires political will. We usually study natural sciences and engineering but at universities where they study social sciences, it’s about understanding how climate change impacts people’s lives and bringing narratives out of that. This is an important part of encouraging all kinds of actors to take action and helping them understand how they can do so in a way that’s positive for their business, for their country, and for individuals.
*Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) embody efforts by each of the 196 signatories of the Paris Agreement to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement (Article 4, paragraph 2) requires each country to prepare, communicate and maintain successive NDCs that it intends to achieve. See: https://unfccc.int/process/the-paris-agreement/nationally-determined-contributions/ndc-registry
About Alyssa Gilbert
Alyssa Gilbert is the Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute - Climate change and the Environment at Imperial College London where she connects relevant research across the university with policy-makers and businesses. Prior to joining the university, she worked at the specialist energy and climate consultancy Ecofys for over eleven years researching a range of topics including Emissions Trading policy and market-based mechanisms, broader carbon pricing developments, Forestry and REDD+, adaptation to climate change and climate finance. She has worked with government clients at the international level, in the UK and for other national governments. She is also a member of NERC’s Strategic Programme Advisory Committee (SPAG). Alyssa has also worked as a researcher for the Deputy Mayor of London and as a journalist on Environmental Policy in Brussels. Alyssa has a degree in Natural Sciences.
About The Grantham Institute
In 2007, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment made the visionary decision to support an Institute at Imperial to provide a vital global centre of excellence for research and education on climate change. Today, the Grantham Institute is established as a leading authority on climate and environmental science.
The Grantham Institute is Imperial College London's hub for climate change and the environment, and one of Imperial's six Global Institutes established to promote inter-disciplinary working and to meet some of the greatest challenges faced by society. It drives forward discovery, converts innovations into applications, trains future leaders and communicates academic knowledge to businesses, industry and policymakers to help shape their decisions.