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Sustainable futures

Research lights the path to net zero, but it is people who make the journey

Inevitably the focus in the debate about net zero is on the big things: the scale of the challenge, the size of the commitments, and the radical technological innovation that we all hope will help control global heating and create a sustainable, liveable world.

And rightly this means there will be a particular focus on the research to deliver those technological leaps that will tackle the challenges, for example, of net zero aviation, green and renewable energy generation, cleaner maritime trade, and of keeping businesses running and homes warm (and cool) in a sustainable way.

However achieving net zero isn’t just about technology. Uncomfortable as it might be for politicians and public, it is going to ask a lot of us as individuals and communities. Politicians may hope – most of us hope, if we are honest – for some techno-deus ex machina to come and save us from having to make hard choices, but it would be foolhardy to bank on a Hollywood ending.

If we are going to reach net zero we are all going to have to live differently – eat differently, travel differently, consume differently. The world of work will change, with some jobs disappearing and new ones being created. And if we are honest with ourselves, deciding not to aim for net zero isn’t a vote for the status quo but will be every bit as disruptive of the way we live (if not more so).

Many of us get frustrated with politicians who appear reluctant to take action when the long-term consequences of not doing so appear obvious. However politicians are not re-elected by the grateful citizens of 2050, but by populations now comprising people who will be variously in denial, overwhelmed, hopeful and/or keen to do something. People who will be struggling with the trade-off between the cost now and benefits that are abstract and a long way off, at a time when everything else is getting more expensive. And where the consequences of many of the choices at stake are borne, in the short and medium term at least, elsewhere.

So as well as focusing on the vital grands projets, researchers have a role to play in understanding how to manage 30 years of change: both the changes we will see even if we cap the rise in global temperatures, and the changes we will need to make if we are going to cap it. Crystallising the challenges, opportunities and benefits and identifying realistic steps we can take to address them is going to be vital to build the coalition of support needed to make possible the bold decisions needed now and for the foreseeable future.

The blogs and podcasts we shared during the COP26 conference showcase some examples of the work researchers at Nottingham are doing to understand and address these challenges. To give a snapshot of a snapshot:

  • Understanding the unequal impact of climate change and the measures to tackle it, nationally and internationally, is already important and will only become more so. These are considered in Murray Lark’s blog on food and water security, Bin Wu’s on smallholder resilience in Africa and Arabella Fraser’s on urban resilience in lower income countries
  • Charles Ogunbode’s work considers how the communities in the UK that bear the brunt of climate change aren’t engaged in the debate about how to address it
  • Matthew Rendall considers the issue of inter-generational inequality – should our children and grandchildren pick up the bill?
  • Chris Ives writes about the role of faith in mobilising climate action
  • Simon Mosey writes about the need for responsible entrepreneurship, and Arijit Mukherjee considers what a fairer global economy will look like
  • David Salt looks at the future of agriculture, and Mike Clifford explores clean cooking, kitchen culture and climate change
  • The award-winning Trent Basin development in Nottingham, the subject of Eldar Naghiyev’s blog, is at once a sustainable housing development and a laboratory for understanding how to build viable net zero communities

Alongside COP26, we worked with our local councils and other partners to deliver a regional roadshow and a pop-up space in Nottingham city centre to share research that helps individuals and communities understand not just the scale of the challenge but also the possibilities for viable, liveable change, and the difference they can make now.

As I have said, the challenge of net zero isn’t just a challenge for the physical sciences. Technology will be a massive part of the solution, but it won’t on its own make the difference because we – unpredictable, emotional, not always rational human beings – will need to change.

"Research can help people envisage a different but viable future toward which they walk rather than have to be dragged."
Stephen Meek

Research helps us understand how and why individuals and populations behave as they do, what makes people embrace or reject change, how that varies across cultures, generations and classes. It helps anticipate the collateral impact of climate change and measures to tackle it to ensure that the burden and benefits are shared fairly. It helps break what can look like an insuperable challenge into a series of viable, tangible steps that start now. It can help people envisage a different but viable future toward which they walk rather than have to be dragged.

We rightly look to politicians to take the big choices, but politicians can only march so far in front of the people they lead. Our universities, and our researchers here at Nottingham, are in the vanguard of developing the technologies we need to reach net zero. But they are also play a vital role in shaping the multitude of smaller changes in the way we live as we move toward net zero, and in making that different world and the journey toward it tangible and liveable.


Stephen Meek 

Stephen Meek is Director of the Institute for Policy and Engagement at the University of Nottingham.

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