Right here, right now
Post-COP26, it’s clear the time to make a difference on climate change is now. We speak to the people providing real world solutions to the future of the planet.
Words: Kat Brown / Photography: Dan Burn-Forti
At Imperial, everyone working on climate change has one not-so-humble aim in mind: to stave off global disaster. So says Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation at Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment.
The College is a hive of research and innovation. “But we’re greater than the sum of our parts,” says Gilbert. “Our overall objective is to find uses for that raw knowledge to bring about a net-zero, climate resilient world.”
The Grantham Institute’s five focus areas are: new research; cross-curricular teaching (including an oversubscribed MSc in Climate Change, Management and Finance); innovation (including an accelerator programme, now part of the new Centre for Climate Change Innovation, nurturing more than 130 green businesses in ten years); informing climate change discussions; and bridging the gap between Imperial researchers and decision-makers.
“How does public awareness, innovation, funding and policy come together to change the world?” Gilbert asks. “That’s where our work at the Grantham Institute – building relationships, networks and dialogue – can make a difference.”
And so, as the world prepared for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, we asked some of the Grantham Institute’s key researchers to share their latest work and thinking.
#1 CLIMATE SOLUTION
Exploring innovations in systems, policies and business models to achieve cost-effective decarbonisation
Assistant Professor, Centre for Environmental Policy
My vision is to make decarbonisation of hard-to-abate sectors like industry cost-effective for government, industry and society.
Imagine a pen – if the entire process of manufacturing that pen is decarbonised, releasing no greenhouse gas emissions, my research will ensure that the increase in the pen’s price would be from 99p to £1, and not £5.
I lead research activities looking at developing pathways to support integration and increased adoption of concepts such as energy and material efficiency, fuel and technology switching, and carbon capture and storage in industrial systems. These pathways combine technologies and interventions via policies and business models to show how costs reduction can be achieved until a technology is market driven, with the timelines required.
To accelerate the transition to net zero, industry, systems, policy and business model innovation (i.e. the innovation trilemma) is important. Systems innovation is defined as marrying multiple industrial decarbonisation concepts hierarchically. A hierarchical ordering of concepts for any site beginning with material and energy efficiency can reduce the associated costs by at least 20 per cent. The innovation trilemma is important to accelerate adoption of these industrial decarbonisation concepts, and at the same time, maintaining industrial competitiveness.
#2 CLIMATE SOLUTION
Using data and modelling to design successful interventions to maximise potential of carbon abatement
Dr Drew Pearce (MSc Physics 2014, PhD 2019),
Research Associate, Department of Physics
My background is in computational physics, using computer simulations to predict and understand how materials behave. More recently, I’ve turned to look at how data and computer modelling can more directly address climate change.
There’s often a disconnect between blue sky research and direct application-focused research, but because of the drastic and difficult situation we face with climate change there is a need to bring these two together – although the timeframe is the biggest challenge.
Take an intervention like decarbonising the transport sector: you have to marry novel engineering systems with an on-the-ground understanding of how people will use them. That’s where data and modelling can add huge value; even with technological advancements, large amounts of mitigation will still need to come from behaviour change.
We know every car on the road needs to be electric, but we also need far fewer cars, and the intersection between research and policy is keyto this challenge. When researching my latest report, I was surprised how difficult it was to find granular data linking human behaviours and motivations at the systemic level of how many emissions they incur. From a policy perspective, you need to look from the top down and identify the behaviours that are causing those emissions in order to meaningfully address them and meet net zero.
#3 CLIMATE SOLUTION
Using research to develop key economic factors that drive behaviour, to lead to a zero-cabon society
Assistant Professor in Economics, Imperial College Business School
I’m working with a team of researchers to understand how economic decisions are made that lead us to a zero-carbon society, with a particular expertise in carbon markets. Our recent research found that firms that work with strategic energy consumption targets are more likely to respond positively to carbon pricing. The EU carbon market has so far not affected employment or profitability, so it’s a positive outlook that we hope can encourage other countries to think innovatively.
We’re also interested in understanding how willing people are to shift the time of day that they use electricity or gas, as there are times when the carbon content is different. We’ve implemented a framework called POWBAL, where we look at what type of incentives make people flexible and ready to consume electricity at another part of the day. That involves giving people in our trials smart plugs that might turn off at certain times, and rewarding them for their flexibility. In a future energy system, they would contribute to a more low-carbon energy system.
The question is, are people more willing to participate in this experiment if they are made aware that they are contributing to the public good, or because of economic incentives? And what is the degree of tolerance to having appliances switched off? Am I more likely to keep participating if the switch-off is less frequent but longer? It seems a precise exercise but it is crucial. Technology alone is not sufficient – it needs to be adopted, and behavioural change incentivised.
#4 CLIMATE SOLUTION
Translating complex scientific insights about our planet into simple concepts to drive better policy decisions
Director of Research and Reader in Climate Science and Policy, Grantham Institute and Centre for Environmental Policy
My research explores how societies can transform towards more sustainable futures by connecting Earth system sciences to the study of societal change and policy.
For example, if we want to limit global warming to any level, what do we need to do? That might seem a difficult question but, ultimately, the many different factors boil down to a couple of simple messages. Every tonne of carbon dioxide adds to global warming, and if we bring emissions down to net zero, we won’t see further warming. That means that we have a total carbon budget within which we have to keep our carbon dioxide emissions.
Even once these broad physical principles are understood, research continues – to understand exactly how much we can still emit to keep warming to specific levels such as those included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, or how to distribute this global budget fairly among individual countries.
A last important step is to translate these carbon budgets in pathways that describe how our society could transform while keeping global warming in check. Here, I have always been interested in describing how we can reduce emissions as deeply as possible.
Climate risks are already accumulating today, and we are not prepared. Even with drastic emissions cuts in the next decade, the projected climate impacts are dire, and so we need to get on with it, and start preparing to clean up afterwards through sustainable removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
#5 CLIMATE SOLUTION
Dr Ana Mijic (PhD Earth Science and Engineering 2013)
Reader in Water Systems Integration and Co-Director of the Centre for Systems Engineering and Innovation
My research is in water management: how we can develop land, manage flooding and – the biggest challenge – improve water quality. We develop simulation models that capture historical behaviour, but we can also simulate future scenarios which helps us decide the way forward, and how that information can be used by water utilities, governments and citizens. We use water quality in rivers as the key information to understand key land use pressures and where we need to intervene.
The major work we’re doing right now is linked with the CAMELLIA (Community Water Management for a Liveable London) project, looking at integrated water management with different components and technologies, such as rainwater harvesting. We can model the whole water cycle of London and incorporate the role of green spaces and sustainable systems and other natural ways of protecting the environment.
Climate change is one factor in understanding the future, but there are also issues of policy, decisions, behaviour and infrastructure. An interesting element of how water engineering links to climate change is in how we have learnt to deal with systems – wastewater, supply, climate processes, infrastructure – as separate things. The problems we are currently experiencing are really problems of how all these interact, and it inspired us to think of the whole, integrated model.
If you'd like to hear more from Imperial academics explaining why their research matters when it comes to tackling global issues like climate change, check out our Imperial voices on climate and environment playlist.