The sector’s role in addressing climate change is crucial – and varied

From researching microalgae to evaluating and contributing to climate policy, universities have a significant job to do, says Lucy Meredith

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8 Jun 2022
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Universities and their researchers have a key role to play in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

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We can already feel the impact of climate change across the globe. Extreme weather events are becoming a more regular occurrence, and global warming is causing destruction and tragedy within our local communities, from vicious forest fires to devastating floods. And, sadly, this is just the start.

There is no doubt that the higher education sector has a greater role than most to play in addressing the climate crisis. This goes far beyond the need to ensure that green skills and relevant career pathways are embedded within our programmes or ensuring a reduction in the carbon footprint and sustainability of our own institutions. In fact, the University of the West of Scotland, where I am interim principal and vice-chancellor, is already creating energy-neutral sites, with one campus powered by 100 per cent renewable energy from a nearby wind farm.

Nonetheless, these measures should be a given.

Universities are innovation juggernauts, home to pioneering researchers who seek to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. This means we have a significant job to do.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) played a part in inspiring momentum within the political and business landscape, energising efforts and a commitment to more funding for low-carbon technologies. However, focused research is now crucial. It will play a vital role in providing solutions that will mitigate the impacts of global warming on the communities we serve.

Renewable and clean-energy solutions will not be enough on their own, and we need more innovation, offering a range of different outcomes, which include carbon capture technologies.

As just one specific example of how researchers are required, consider microalgae, which supply more than half the world’s oxygen and have a significant capacity to reduce atmospheric CO2, capturing carbon dioxide and converting it to high-value bioactive materials, which can be used for food, in pharmaceuticals and as a sustainable fuel source.

There is significant potential for microalgae to be a major natural resource in our efforts to capture carbon dioxide – and its waste product is a prime candidate for biofuel. It is perfect circular economy.

However, if existing production bottlenecks are to be addressed, feasibility relies on researchers developing novel technologies that can drastically enhance carbon capture capabilities as well as significantly enhancing cultivation and extraction processes.

Researchers are already studying which species of microalgae are the most suitable for “milking” – removing numerous substances without killing the algae after the first extraction. This method could help address some of the current challenges, but if existing small-scale pilots are to stand a chance of advancing to industrial-scale manufacturing, we must work to find a range of suitable solutions to alleviate production limitations.

Looking at the environmental sustainability of industrial-scale factories will also be crucial, and thorough research is needed to provide innovative solutions that will negate environmental impact.

Research in this area is already under way, too, with one study looking at targeting hydrogen and heat systems in a refinery. Initial findings highlight that through remodelling, a significant reduction in energy consumption can be achieved.

Other clean and renewable power sources, such as using by-product gases, are also showing promise in reducing the environmental impact of factories. Nevertheless, further research is needed across the sector to ensure that our factories of the future have minimal impact on our fragile environment.

Existing green energy technologies, such as wind and solar power, are growing at an impressive rate. Innovation is bringing down costs, and we can now see renewable power sources being integrated into the national grid. However, more work must be done to secure permanence.

Adequate and affordable energy storage is now more important than ever, and the continuous increase in demand requires adaptable systems. This is also true if the government is to meet its target to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2030.

Aside from the obvious infrastructure issues, one of the problems we currently face is that electric vehicles remain expensive in comparison to their fossil fuel-powered counterparts, and the life of their battery charge can be limited. If we are to make the switch, we must work to address these issues and make electric vehicles an attainable, viable option for everyone.

Fortunately, yet again, a wide range of research is under way to develop new materials for batteries that are safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Much of this work seeks to significantly extend the life of batteries, to make electric vehicles more efficient in terms of miles covered and make them more affordable in the future.

In addition to facilitating innovation, as a sector we have significant influence, and we have an important role to play in evaluating and contributing to climate policy, helping to ensure that the commitments made by government and industry are being accomplished.

The words of Barack Obama ring true: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”

Rigorous research, offering ways to protect our fragile environment and cut greenhouse gas emissions, must be a priority within all our institutions. 

Lucy Meredith is interim principal and vice-chancellor at the University of the West of Scotland. 

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