Universities must embrace technological solutions to climate change

Gradual changes to lifestyles will not save the planet. Universities need to go beyond Cambridge's recent lead and think bigger, says Peter Harper

June 13, 2019
Climate change and university illustration
Source: Pierre-Paul Pariseau

The University of Cambridge’s recent headline-grabbing announcement of a new research lab to develop radical scientific solutions to climate change is a welcome development. But it is only the beginning of what is needed.

Everyone knows that our responses to climate change must be speeded up. Generations of propaganda from the green movement have argued that the answer must lie in better personal behaviour: more bikes and plastic recycling, thick sweaters, holidays close to home. But while personal change is admirable, it is slow. The situation now demands very rapid, mostly technological, top-down changes.

It is similar to the difference between routine healthy living and emergency medicine. They are both useful, but healthy living will not fix a broken leg. We now need emergency climate measures.

Three types of processes are required on a large, corporate scale. All sectors must improve efficiency and reduce their emissions, largely through reducing demand for energy. Energy supply must switch comprehensively from fossil fuels to zero-carbon sources. And we need to maximise negative-carbon processes.

These three items are hardly surprising, but need to happen very quickly indeed. It is striking that, on the whole, they are background engineering processes that do not affect everyday life. Still, there are vested interests that will work vigorously to prevent such developments, and ordinary citizens will feel the impact through taxes and prices. It will not happen without a determined effort.

The problem is how the process gets initiated. Currently there is something of a logjam. Government, business and civil sectors all have reasons to keep their heads down and confine themselves to small, cosmetic changes; there are very large “stranded assets” at risk from the necessary changes. Meanwhile, the emissions mount and the threats multiply.

There is, however, one sector with more freedom of movement: higher education. Universities can teach any material they wish, provided they have students willing to learn it. With respect to research, they are more constrained by established patterns of funding, but would be in a good position to push for rapid evolution of research policy. This is the kind of thing that governments could easily and cheaply respond to, while claiming credit for “doing something”.

In the case of the UK, for instance, it is not too big a stretch to envisage an entirely new research council dedicated entirely to the needs of a rapid decarbonisation programme. This would coordinate relatively pure research with extremely vigorous learning-by-doing within the appropriate industrial sectors; universities and the business sector would have to work hand-in-hand.

Specialist universities are a common phenomenon in many countries, and the situation surely demands the creation of specialist climate change universities. There are already many research centres doing crucial work on the topic, but, like Cambridge’s new centre, they do not teach. It would be appropriate, given the severity and urgency of the situation, for forward-thinking universities to establish dedicated new faculties that will initiate both teaching and research programmes.

Teaching is probably easiest. A university might cut its teeth in this area by immediately offering a taught postgraduate course while it plans a series of undergraduate degrees in various aspects of the problem. It is an excellent topic for a modern interdisciplinary degree: visiting all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, with endless quantitative problems to solve, while reaching into economics, politics and the social sciences. There would be no problems with take-up: every idealistic young student would want to be part of it.

Funding might be problematic at first but, as Cambridge’s example shows, universities generally have money for new, potentially profitable initiatives. Alternatively, such programmes could be crowd- or donor-funded. There would be early mover advantage for the universities quickest off the mark.

Of course, universities are famously conservative, and many will find that their internal structures preclude such initiatives. Paradoxically, though, perhaps the biggest blockages will be from the traditional green thinking that eschews technical fixes. This is strongly represented in academic communities that regard sustainable development in terms of full-spectrum improvements in the quality of life. They will not like it!

Universities that go beyond Cambridge’s lead will encounter a great deal of opposition both from outside and in, yet they have the data to back up their proposals and the social prestige to be listened to, by government, business, media and the electorate. They can provide cover for all manner of new initiatives that might have been considered too speculative or controversial hitherto.

Then, the great corporate forces will need to be engaged, guided by governments newly confident that the public is behind them. That support will only increase as the public sees that the solutions to climate change are really not so bad after all. The logjam will be broken – and the environment will heave a sigh of relief.

Peter Harper is an independent environmentalist and a visiting lecturer in the department of natural sciences at the University of Bath. He writes as a member of the COP21 Group, a climate change discussion group at Bath.

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