As the world’s leaders look to tackle climate change this week at the UN Climate Change Conference, Dr Andy Kemp gives us his perspective.
This week marks the beginning of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP26. The questions around sustainability and climate change have rightly been becoming more and more central over recent years. The early implications of the damage we’ve done to the planet are just starting to be seen by regular people in the form of the increasing number of freak weather events taking place around the world. We can only experience so many ‘once in a generation’ events in short succession before we are forced to recalibrate and accept that something else is at work.
When it comes to discussing the solutions to climate change, there tend to be two differing perspectives: those who argue that the only way to prevent a climate catastrophe is to change our actions (for example by recycling more, going vegetarian, travelling less, removing single use plastics, etc); and those on the other side who argue that science will come to the rescue and fix all our problems so there’s no need to change what we are doing.
From my perspective, particularly as the Principal of a specialist STEM college, I think both sides have it right, and have it wrong, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I have confidence in human creativity and scientific endeavour to find solutions to many of the problems facing the world today. In my lifetime, we’ve seen massive progress in the production of clean energy, to the extent that green electricity is now priced in the UK at almost the same price as non-green providers. Solving the green energy question is at the heart of many other problems which sit at the heart of decarbonising our lifestyles. When we have abundant supplies of green energy, electric or hydrogen powered vehicles can go about their journeys without damaging the planet. Electric heat pumps can then heat our homes without polluting the skies. With light enough batteries, electric aeroplanes become a possibility.
Lab-grown meat, and plant-based meat alternatives are already becoming a real way in which we can reduce the amount of methane released into the atmosphere without changing our diets completely.
The permanence of plastics, one of their great strengths but also at the heart of the problem with them, is now becoming a problem that we might be able to solve. Scientists have been exploring various plastic-eating bacteria and mushrooms which may help us stop some of the incidental damage done by our wonder-material plastic.
But our problem is that we are on the edge of a precipice, and whilst I have confidence solutions to many of the problems are achievable in my lifetime, there is a real danger that we will have done irrevocable harm which cannot be repaired before we find and implement these solutions in an affordable way.
To find our way through this mess we find ourselves in we must both: continue to invest in our sciences and have confidence in their ability to do the impossible; and at the same time act now in every way we can to slow the pace of the damage we are doing to our world to give our current and future scientists the time they need to find the necessary solutions.
With the passion I see in our young people to make a meaningful difference in this critical area, I remain optimistic that their voice and their scientific endeavours will help us find a way through.
Dr Andy Kemp
November 1st, 2021