Ten years on: reflections from the Grantham Institute on a decade of climate change research

180228-Prince_Albert-Grantham_Lecture-028.jpgThis post is by Martin Siegert, co-director of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. He reflects on a decade of research and education in climate change and the environment as the institute celebrates its tenth anniversary.

 With a climate sceptic in the White House, record sea ice loss and atmospheric carbon dioxide at levels not seen for 3.5 million years, it is easy to feel that attempts to curtail climate change and safeguard the environment have failed. However, reflecting on the past decade, it’s clear that we have come a long way in that time.

The foundations for the Grantham Institute were laid down in 2007-08. The Institute was established to mobilise the science and engineering expertise at Imperial College London; to tackle the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including climate change. We are a hub creating strong connections to academics in each of the university’s departments and faculties to stimulate new multi-disciplinary research. We also train the leaders of the future, stimulate innovation and, crucially, make sure the knowledge goes beyond academic circles.

Legislative underpinning is now in place
Unlike ten years ago, the formal, international legislative ingredients for a global low carbon future now exist in the shape of the Paris climate agreement of 2015. While President Trump may have taken an isolationist stance, 61 US city mayors, several states and many leading American businesses have emphasised their commitment to take action on climate change. Meanwhile, China, home to the world’s largest energy market, is stepping up its plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the past six years, the Grantham Institute has worked closely with China’s Energy Research Institute (ERI) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) on reforming international energy governance. China and other developing countries are now a step closer to being admitted as members to the IEA, paving the way for a truly global body for international energy policy and progress on climate change mitigation.

Closer to home, the UK government passed the Climate Change Act in 2008. This seminal piece of legislation set legally binding emissions reduction targets for successive governments. More recently, the Clean Growth Plan, Industrial Strategy and 25 year environment plan have been published, all of which pledge government support for addressing climate change and environmental issues. In fact, Theresa May’s environment speech in January, while not exactly ground-breaking, was notable for the fact that it was the first prime ministerial pronouncement on the environment for 17 years.

Low carbon is mainstream
Last year, a report from Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Institute explored the impact of cost reductions of low carbon technologies for fossil fuel demand. Models showed that solar panels could potentially supply 23 per cent of global power generation in 2040 and 29 per cent by 2050, contributing to the total phase out of coal by 2050.

Although the UK still has a long way to go to reach its emission reduction targets, low carbon technologies are having a significant impact. In 2017, Britain achieved the greenest year for electricity ever, with generation from renewable energy sources outstripping coal power more than 90 per cent of the time.

Admittedly, sectors like aviation and heavy industry are making slower progress. But fledging technologies could make all the difference in the years to come. At the Grantham Institute, we have been analysing a variety of next generation mitigation technologies, from aviation biofuels to solar thermal heat and electrical energy storage. And, last October, the government founded the Faraday Institution, a new independent, battery technology research institute supported by a number of universities, including Imperial. Technologies like these are at their earliest stage of development, but could make significant contributions to reducing emissions in the future.

Big change is coming
The next ten years will see a period of massive change. We can perhaps predict the demise of the internal combustion engine over this timescale, given pledges by big names in the automotive industry to ‘go electric’. The shift in investments away from those related to coal is well underway. And the revolution in battery technology is set to challenge the dominance of other fossil fuel-based power, as the success of Tesla’s mega-battery in Australia testifies.

At the Grantham Institute we aim to provide an entrepreneurial ecosystem to incubate the smart ideas that can translate into successful businesses through our Centre for Cleantech Innovation. Take Oorja for example, a startup that uses locally available crop waste and solar energy as resources to power rural communities in India. Or Polymateria, an innovative plastic waste reduction company that develops additives to promote biodegradability in plastics. Meanwhile, researchers from Imperial and 10:10 are working to make solar powered railways in the UK a reality. And another Imperial alumnus is piloting a fascinating project with Crossrail to generate electricity from wind produced by trains.

Despite these exciting developments, we can’t afford to be complacent. We have only just begun the transition towards the low carbon future. Everything must change in the coming years to make our future different to our polluting, resource intensive past. The future we see at the Grantham Institute, is a sustainable, resilient, zero carbon society. It won’t be easy to achieve but, looking back on the progress made over the past ten years, we have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

On 18 June, the Grantham Institute is hosting a special event to mark its 10th anniversary year. Guests will have a unique opportunity to hear from former Grantham Institute Annual Lecturers reflecting on ten years of environmental and climate action, and looking to the future. Find out more and register for a ticket here.

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