Frequently Asked Questions

When it comes to sustainability, what are your thoughts on small impact initiative versus large impact initiative? What should students aim for?

We will need coherent action on climate change if we are to make a meaningful impact on the challenges we face. The human world is built around complex interconnected systems. Local action can 'fix' things in one location but make things much worse elsewhere. Similarly, a big technical 'fix' that works for one set of social and economic constructs may well not work elsewhere. We need to make the small and local work with the big and system-wide innovations. So, we will need a generation of students who have learned the tools that allow them to design and operate systems that scale from the local to the global.

How can we ensure we have teams with interdisciplinary skills but also specialised knowledge when it comes to climate innovation?

Education and training of interested individuals with strong core expertise who want to apply this expertise to climate change innovations. Imperial has a long track record of doing this successfully, but there will need to be significant scaling up, across the UK and indeed the world. The point is we know you can do it, we just need a whole lot more.

How can we encourage re-skilling of workers towards greener employment following the impact of the pandemic? What are the most important skills?

This is terribly important. Recovering from the pandemic demands that we grow back green. In the short to medium-term government interventions are required to drive green growth and thereby create green jobs. The training will follow. One can see this already for the automotive sector, where the clear move to electric vehicles has prompted professional training bodies to gear up to train mechanics in servicing electric motors, etc. In all probability patience and persistence would be the top two things. Beyond that the ability to apply the tools of analysis that we use for climate change and sustainability to complex policy issues and knowledge of the sort of innovation that is being pursued to solve major challenges.

How do we get much more rapid and effective take up of innovation in construction and development, which are industries that are fairly conservative?

Here is where we need policy and regulation interventions allied to ambitious decarbonisation targets. The government needs to step in and step up. A good example of this sort of process can be found in California, where the State mandated improvements in refrigeration efficiency in the mid-70s. Companies had to make improvements in order to sell in the State and over a period of a decade the energy consumption from fridges and freezers plummeted.

Are there any key metrics we should be pushing corporates to report on, and should a link to executive pay be enforced to help?

Yes, stewardship of the corporation must include its long term environmental impact. There are corporations who are already reporting their triple bottom line (people-planet-profit) and they are the companies that are attracting the best staff and performing well in the stock markets.

How do we instigate immediate global change/reset? Do we have until 2050 and how will this be sped up to meet that requirement?

As scientists, we do not have the evidence that says we have gone through key climate tipping points… yet. However, we are hugely concerned that without picking up the pace of decarbonisation that we will blunder through them. In the case of the changes we need to make for climate action, the scale of infrastructure manufacture and deployment makes it impossible to change our energy supplies instantly. Indeed there are many things that we will need to do in addition (decarbonising heating and cooling for example) that we know will require more innovation. So we need to speed up a lot but we will not be able to fix all our climate change challenges in a year or even ten.

Do you think that current public engagement practices are sufficient to tackle a challenge that every individual must take responsibility for?

Almost certainly no. It is an area that we are concerned about and will seek to improve. I am not sure we have the right answers to hand, but we will have a strand of our work that concentrates on communication to the public (at all ages). I suspect that we will need to be really creative to make the science and solutions to climate change accessible and engaging.

Do you see hydrogen as an economically, safe and viable green energy for the future?

The renewable grid will generate excess energy at various points and an obvious way of storing that energy is in molecules such as hydrogen. So I expect to see a proliferation of energy storage media that go beyond batteries and pumped-hydro. On the other hand, I would also expect innovators to be looking at producing hydrogen purely using sunlight. Time will tell.

Do you think that synthetic aviation fuel, hydrogen propulsion and new wing technology will be enough to make air transport meet the Paris target?

Aviation is investing a lot in innovation at present (you mention some of these). None of these come free - they all require additional renewable power, land, etc. As we undergo this decarbonising transition we will have to chart a course that achieves emissions reductions that avoid climatic tipping points. During that period it is almost inevitable that we will have to make choices with respect to non-essential human activities.

What best possible options are there to reduce the large CO2 output from the generation of steel?

Recycled steel has a lower carbon footprint than steel from ore. Hydrogen smelters will reduce the footprint for steel from ore. There will still be a residual footprint and if we continue to use steel (it is a wonderful material) then we will need to remove CO2 emitted during steel manufacture and store it indefinitely.

What is the next energy innovation paradigm that will disrupt wind/solar/battery in this coming century?

Great question and a thankless one to answer, but let's give it a go. My suspicion is that new materials will be important and we see this already in photovoltaics with perovskites. The other area I would focus on is the engineering of better surfaces. Electrodes that are engineered for better performance at the nanometre scale for example.

What is the estimated impact of UK net zero emissions on still rising total global emissions trends?

The UK contributes a modest proportion to global emissions, but climate change is by nature a global phenomenon and every nation has to contribute to emissions reductions. Our historical contribution (even though unwitting) to climate change suggests that we should be pioneering solutions. Our future prosperity (and that of all nations) will rely on our leadership in decarbonising human activity. Climate change innovation both addresses a real and existential threat as well as grasping the opportunity to shape our future for the better.

How can we adapt through development towards this rapid climate change?

Adaptation to the weather extremes driven by climate change is an underdeveloped area for innovation. The best solutions that we have seen combine approaches that simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase extreme weather resilience. For example, using grey wastewater to irrigate plant life in cities causes natural cooling thereby reducing the use of energy for cooling, but also puts less load on drains thereby enhancing drain capacity during heavy rain.