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.

5. Professor Cameron Hepburn with: 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 with: 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.