In the run up to COP26, ten Oxford academics outline the key issues that will be debated at the conference, and how their research feeds into global policymaking.
10. Professor Lavanya Rajamani - What do countries need to agree to at COP26?
‘How can we meet our long-terms goals, when our short-term targets fall radically short of what is necessary?’ asks Professor Lavanya Rajamani, the international legal expert with first-hand experience of the complicated world of international climate negotiations.
Oxford Professor Rajamani is a specialist in international environmental law and an expert in all things COP26. Not only does she understand the international legal architecture, she is also an authority on the complex interactions and negotiations that will dominate the climate conference.
Pointing out that national pledges to cut emissions do not put us on track to even meeting a 2C temperature limit, she says, there will be two main areas to watch at COP26:
- The final elements of the rulebook under the Paris Agreement which are expected to emerge from the negotiating process
- The updated and revised short-term emission reduction pledges from States, and associated financing support for developing countries
In relation to mid-century Net Zero GHG targets by states, she asks "are these pledges credible, accurate and fair?’ and, ‘Are short term actions [by Governments] in line with their Net Zero GHG pledges?’
Professor Rajamani has an impressive track record in the field of climate negotiations, having tracked discussions both as a negotiator, for the Alliance of Small Island States and as a legal adviser to the UN Climate Secretariat, the Danish Ministry of Climate Change and the Indian Minister of Environment. She was also part of the UNFCCC core drafting and advisory team for the 2015 Paris Agreement.
9. Professor Jim Hall - How will we live in the future climate?
With uncertainty over the impacts of climate change – and the need to prepare - it is essential to accurately understand the threats; for governments, populations and for investors. At the centre of this research is Jim Hall, Oxford Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks.
Using big data sets and satellite imagery, they are creating simulation models which deliver some of those answers, ‘we’re looking at where the impacts will be greater in future.’ These will allow governments, peoples and businesses to prepare and to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change.
A key theme of COP26 is the need for adaptation and resilience. The work being carried out by Professor Hall and his team will have a direct impact on safeguarding people and livelihoods. Right now, they are providing evidence to help the UK Government and governments around the world to make their infrastructure systems more resilient to the inevitable impacts of climate change.
An engineer, with expertise in water resource systems, flood and coastal risk, Professor Hall is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and an Expert Adviser to the National Infrastructure Commission. His methods have been used internationally.
8. Professor Nathalie Seddon - What can nature offer for COP26, and what can COP26 offer for nature?
‘Nature is our life support system,’ says Professor Nathalie Seddon, an expert on Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and one of around 30 official ‘friends’ of COP26.
Her research into ways of working with nature to help address climate change and other global challenges has played a key role in moving NbS up national and international policy and business agendas, putting biodiversity at the heart of the debate.
Professor Seddon’s Nature-based Solutions Initiative, based in Oxford, researches the effectiveness of nature in fighting the impacts and drivers of climate change. Her advice is sought by governments, UN agencies and businesses.
COP26 ask: Professor Seddon calls on signatories of the Paris Agreement to adopt four policies:
1. NbS are not used to substitute the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels
2. NbS must involve a broad range of ecosystems on land and in the sea, not just forests
3. NbS should be implemented by or in partnership with local communities
4. NbS should provide measurable benefits for biodiversity.
Organisations can find out more about these Nature-based Solutions guidelines at www.nbsguidelines.info
7. Professor Henry Snaith - Can solar save us?
Developments in solar power are set to offer cheaper, better energy, reducing the impact of climate change, says Oxford solar expert, Professor Henry Snaith.
The Binks Professor of Renewable Energy, who specialises in photovoltaic research, maintains that the move to 100% renewable energy sources is achievable. He insists, ‘there exists vastly more capacity than is currently required from solar and wind technology...the cost of solar power is already cheaper [in some regions] than traditional sources.’
And, he says, current research in the Photovoltaic and optoelectronic device group, will bring down costs still further – while producing much more efficient renewable energy. At the moment, according to Professor Snaith, up to 80% of solar energy is ‘wasted’.
‘In Oxford [University and Oxford PV Ltd (a spin-out from the University)],’ he says, ‘we’re working with a new material... it is already demonstrating 30% efficiency and within 10 years this could go up to 40% efficiency.’
COP26 ask: ‘With investment...effort and ambition to scale, these technologies can mitigate climate change and deliver a cheaper power source for our future generations.’
6. Professor Myles Allen - Why Net Zero (and what is it?)
‘There is no way we are going to be able to ban the entire world from using fossil fuels in time to meet our climate goals,’ warns Professor Myles Allen, the Oxford expert credited with first demonstrating, 15 years ago, the need for ‘Net Zero’ carbon dioxide emissions to stop global warming.
A physicist, Professor Allen is Professor of Geosystem Science in the Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and Director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative, informing effective and ambitious climate action among those setting net zero targets in institutions, corporations and governments across the globe.
He says investment is urgently needed into safer, permanent CO2 disposal, to reduce the burden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and limit warming. While planting trees and restoring ecosystems has a vital role to play, he warns: ‘We can’t keep turning rocks into trees forever.’
COP26 ask: ‘That the leadership stand up...and say ‘we get it. We have to stop fossil fuels from causing global warming – before the world stops using fossil fuels’’
Oxford is leading a £30 million UK-wide research project to develop carbon capture, whereby greenhouse gases will be drawn out of the atmosphere and permanently stored. https://netzeroclimate.org/greenhouse-gas-removal/
5. Professor Cameron Hepburn - Can we remove carbon from the atmosphere?
There is no ‘magic’ technology to solve climate change, says Professor Cameron Hepburn, Director and Professor of Environmental Economics at Oxford’s Smith School and director of the University’s Economics of Sustainability programme.
‘I wish there were,’ he says. ‘But we have to use all the existing tricks we have in the book as fast as possible to reduce emissions.’
Professor Hepburn emphasises there are some really interesting new technologies – and he thinks we should work to scale these up. In the meantime, he says, we already have some very old technology – the humble tree, which has been doing an important job for millennia – and is making a real contribution to reducing climate change. But Professor Hepburn says that right now, far from rewilding and restoring our ecosystems, we are deforesting and damaging nature with harmful agricultural practices. That needs to change.
‘Used together these various techniques...are going to make quite a big contribution to addressing climate change...what’s stopping us?’
Part of the problem, he says, is that somebody has to pay – and we need to talk about how to achieve that, without relying entirely on the taxpayer. But economics is only part of this, he says. We also need to think about a range of complex issues from politics to equity and beliefs – but, critically, the public needs to be on-board.
COP26 ask: In addition to talking about the technologies...we also need to start a detailed conversation about how to take CO2 out the atmosphere and lock it away.
4. Professor Susan Jebb - How can we eat without cooking the planet?
Oxford’s diet and population health expert, Professor Susan Jebb maintains that ‘we cannot meet Net Zero targets without changing our diet.’
Agriculture accounts for more CO2 emissions than transportation says Professor Jebb and ‘it is the single biggest cause of harm to nature.’
We need governments to make some structural changes in the food system, but meanwhile we can all make a start by doing three things:
- Reduce consumption of meat and dairy
- Avoid eating too much
- Cut down on food waste
Some people, she says, have given up meat altogether but, Professor Jebb says, ‘although animals produce emissions, they are an important part of our agriculture eco-systems and provide important nutrients’. But we need to reduce the global demand for meat, so countries that currently eat a lot of meat need to cut down. That would be good for health and the environment.
‘Eating less meat will be a win for people and the planet,’ she says.
COP26 ask: We need policymakers to agree on ways to reshape the food system.
3. Professor Tim Schwanen - Is the future of transport electric?
Transport is the third largest source of greenhouse gases in the world, says Professor Tim Schwanen, director of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit, and there are no easy answers.
‘The move to electric vehicles is not a silver bullet,’ he says. ‘Transport is going to be a source of emissions for a long time.’
Professor Schwanen emphasises that electricity cannot be the sole route pursued to mitigate CO2 in the atmosphere - especially since some electricity still relies on coal-fired power stations and not all vehicle types, such as lorries, can be converted.
He insists that, in the longer term, research into Hydrogen fuel offers an opportunity to avoid CO2 emissions. But in the present, we need to move away from large heavy SUV-type vehicles in favour of smaller, lighter, more efficient cars.
But all motorised transport currently involved emissions and he argues for more ‘active’ transport – by bicycle or on foot or lightweight electric transport. And, he says, more use needs to be made of public transport.
COP26 ask: Address transport holistically – focus on technological change but also behaviour. That means more walking, more cycling, more e-scooters and less flying... We need to redesign our public spaces and connect them with attractive and affordable high speed rail networks.
2. Dr Nicola Ranger - Can finance help the climate?
‘Finance matters,’ says Dr Nicola Ranger, head of the Oxford Sustainable Finance Programme’s climate and environmental risk research, about why finance is one of the core themes of the COP26 conference.
Dr Ranger is deputy director of the UK Centre for Greening Finance, a Government-backed organisation established to provide up-to-date analytics on the risks to the financial sector and investment of climate change. One of the biggest challenges for the investment community in future is understanding the risks and recognising the potential opportunities.
‘Investment needs to flow where it is needed,’ she says. ‘[Green investment] is the biggest investment opportunity in history.’
At Oxford, she says, we have brought together experts from across the disciplines and from a dozen universities to provide information and advice for investment, ‘enabling countries and governments to see the risks and the opportunities’.
COP26 ask: We need policymakers to set the right environment.
1. Dr Fredi Otto - How is climate changing our weather?
Working at the forefront of cutting-edge climate science, Oxford expert Dr Friederike Otto has seen rapid advancements in her team’s ability to determine the extent of climate change and its impact. She says, ‘In the last five years, we have developed the tools and understanding of how climate change affects us.’
Not only can they now say how likely extreme events are to take place, Dr Otto and her team, can determine to what extent this has been affected by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Dr Otto, associate director of the Environmental Change Institute, uses mass computer modelling to calculate the likelihood of extreme events and of climate change in different regions.
She says with assurance, ‘We know how much greenhouse gas is in the atmosphere...Climate change is a real game changer when it comes to heat waves, making them 100 times more likely in some places.’
COP26 ask: I hope this evidence is used to really up the game on adaptation and adaptation finance.
Fredi, as she is widely known, is the co-lead of World Weather Attribution (WWA), an international effort to analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events.