From Ambition
to Action

Annual Report Cambridge Zero
December 2021

Welcome from the Director

Welcome to the Cambridge Zero annual report.
This report represents the huge amount of work done by our growing team across the University in 2020–21. It also reflects the strong partnerships we have built with a broad range of local, national and international thinkers and doers during our first full year of operation.

For the University, the UK and the world, the 2020–21 academic year was dominated by twin global challenges:  the pandemic and climate change. To respond to these challenges and build resilience for the future we must take a whole systems approach. And to bring about change, we must move beyond ambition to action. 

For Cambridge Zero, the past 12 months show that our strength lies in enabling this systems approach and translating ambition into action across our four pillars – from research and education to engagement and decarbonisation.

By joining up University departments which have not previously collaborated, connecting researchers nationally and internationally, integrating research with policymaking, business and local government, engaging with students of all ages and supporting the collegiate University’s decarbonisation and divestment agendas, Cambridge Zero is bringing a fresh, new approach to bear.

We made a major contribution to the debate about recovery from the global pandemic. COVID-19 has taken an enormous toll on lives, livelihoods and the economy. But we must take urgent action to prevent an even more destructive environmental future. How we choose to prioritise economic and societal recovery will dramatically affect future generations.

Cambridge Zero responded to this challenge by bringing together senior academics from across the University of Cambridge to develop concrete recommendations for policymakers and industry. Published in an ambitious report – A Blueprint for a Green Future – we argue that the UK can emerge from the pandemic stronger and more resilient if we take appropriate action to address the triple challenge of growing social inequality, the destruction of nature, and climate change.

We can make this a story of hope and of opportunity, and one of shaping a future that is better – for everyone. However, to realise these aspirations we need a coherent and effective action plan based on our best evidence and knowledge. This is what lies at the heart of Cambridge Zero’s work. 

Emily Shuckburgh

Our Mission

Cambridge Zero exists to maximise the University of Cambridge’s contribution towards achieving a resilient and sustainable zero-carbon world. By harnessing the full breadth of the Collegiate University’s capabilities, both in the UK and globally, we are developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our economy.

We do this by acting as both a hub and an umbrella, integrating and enhancing the University’s activities, in particular through:
research and innovation to drive technological and social change, 
education and training to provide the skills needed to deliver a different future,
engaging with a broad coalition of stakeholders to develop solutions collectively, and
leading by example by supporting ambitious decarbonisation.

Our Achievements
in 2020-21

During 2020-21 Cambridge Zero focused on four strategic priorities:

Kamaal from Somalia speaking in the ActNow film.

The East Anglian Fens, one of the landscapes considered in our proposal to NERC's Changing the Environment programme. Photographer, Julian Anderson.

Kamaal from Somalia speaking in the ActNow film.

The East Anglian Fens, one of the landscapes considered in our proposal to NERC's Changing the Environment programme. Photographer, Julian Anderson.

1. Engaging with COP26 – the UN’s major climate summit and focal point for the international climate agenda:

  • played a leading role in the COP26 Universities Network, collaborating with universities across the UK
  • hosted and organised Climate Exp0, which was attended by more than 5,000 people from 150 countries
  • a lead partner on UK Government COP26 flagship science initiative Visions for a Net-Zero Future
  • helped involve youth climate voices from around the world through ActNowFilm 
  • appointed a full-time COP26 Coordinator to ensure that Cambridge’s voice and expertise was heard in Glasgow

2. Exploring and co-ordinating new funding opportunities and partnerships:

  • developed a fundraising strategy and secured £250k core team funding in our first full financial year
  • built relationships with funders and business partners, securing £100k through grants and tenders
  • helped coordinate a response to 10 major funding calls including a £10m proposal for NERC’s Changing the Environment call
  • explored new opportunities for academic partnerships, including working with the Technische Universität Berlin to support the establishment of the Einstein Center for Climate Change and Public Policy 

3. Building a team with skills and experience to deliver a broad and ambitious programme of activity:

  • created the systems and approach to deliver our mission – putting in place operational structures to support the core pillars of research, education, decarbonisation and engagement
  • developed a wider cross-institutional community and team, including colleagues in the Centre for Science and Policy, the Maxwell Centre, Centre for Climate Repair, and Hughes Hall Centre for Climate Change Engagement 
  • grew from 2 to 8 core members of staff, extending our reach and increasing our activity

4. Developing the foundations for its core pillars of Research, Education, Engagement and Decarbonisation:

  • created a programme of impactful policy-facing activities through the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum, and published A Blueprint for a Green Future 
  • undertook a large consultation exercise to create our six core research themes 
  • launched the future leaders programme and supported the launch of the climate literacy project
  • launched Cambridge’s first global climate change festival
  • worked closely with Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate (CPICC) to develop a regional climate risk assessment

Our Progress

This annual report illustrates the huge progress we have made during our first full year. It describes ambitious and innovative new projects and partnerships within the University, the region and globally, and outlines our ambitious plans for the year ahead.
These four pillars remain our priorities as we transform our ambition into action: research, education, engagement and decarbonisation.


Pioneering Research: Research and innovation to drive technological and social change

By drawing on and leveraging the most innovative research across the collegiate University, Cambridge Zero is now tackling the most pressing intellectual and technical challenges in transitioning to a climate-resilient zero-carbon future. 

During 2020/21 we:

  • Undertook a large consultation exercise to develop six core research themes in order to generate ideas for large, high-impact, innovative research proposals. We held four large workshops, each with 50-100 academic representatives from across departments, and conducted surveys of current and future research interests.
  • Launched a research symposia series on our six research themes. Held in summer 2021, our six events drew more than 650 attendees to hear 62 academics present research, discuss findings and develop new cross-disciplinary links.
  • Formed a new partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) bringing together expertise on climate change, climate solutions, biodiversity and nature-based solutions. A work plan will be developed for 2021/22 focused on exploring and highlighting the interconnectedness of these crucial issues.
  • Helped coordinate a response to 10 major external funding calls and new research proposals, including a £10m proposal for Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC)  Changing the Environment call developed in partnership with CCI. The project on using cost-effective nature-based solutions to regenerate landscapes will bring together University expertise in hydrology, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and environmental history.   
  • Advanced our energy transformation theme via the University’s Energy Interdisciplinary Research Centre. Its work includes Cambridge-led UK roadmapping on materials, and industry-academic discussions on batteries and energy storage. Over the last year it has organised or participated in nine external UK-wide events, forged links with six sustainable energy industry partners, coordinated Henry Royce Institute funding for Phase 2 of operations (including £1.35m to Cambridge), and was awarded £10k seed funding to pump-prime short energy-related research projects. 
  • Advanced our climate repair theme via the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge (CCRC). CCRC has grown significantly during the year, appointing Director Dr Shaun Fitzgerald in November 2020, a Project Manager and an Engagement Manager. A significant donation of £2.1m was received in May 2021 from Downing alumnus Jamie Arnell to fund a Fellowship in Climate Repair, two PhDs, and a postdoctoral research associate. A donation was also received by Dr Robert Sansom in September 2020 for recruitment of the new Director. 

Cambridge Zero Research Themes

Zero-carbon energy transformation: 
Accelerating the clean energy transition through development of innovative technologies and policy tools to deliver next-generation power systems, batteries, photovoltaics, and alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, bioenergy and ammonia. 

Health and society: 
Exploring the role of society and societal change in achieving net zero. Using research on topics ranging from public health to behavioural science and the empowerment of young people and indigenous groups to support evidence-based policymaking and law. 

Resources and production: 
Creating a zero-carbon circular economy through demand reduction, recycling and resource efficiency, incorporating sustainable industry and agriculture. Developing solutions for hard-to-abate sectors such as self-healing concrete and using sunlight to produce sustainable chemicals and fuels.  

Resilient futures: 
Working with communities globally to understand and design place-based solutions for climate adaptation and resilience. Incorporating climate risk assessment into financial and governance processes, and rethinking prosperity in terms of social and natural capital. 

Transport, cities and infrastructure: 
Reimagining mobility and the built environment through active travel solutions, decarbonisation of vehicles, road freight and aircraft, and by developing sustainable architectural design, natural construction materials and living infrastructure. 

Carbon drawdown and climate repair: 
Developing innovative solutions to sequester and store CO2, through carbon capture and storage, nature-based solutions and chemical looping, and exploring the legal, ethical, socio-economic and technological dimensions of climate repair and negative emissions technologies.

These themes are strongly supported by a number of the University’s Strategic Research Initiatives and Interdisciplinary Research Centres, in particular Energy Transitions, Conservation Research Institute, Cambridge Global Food Security, Cambridge Public Health and Cambridge Global Challenges.

The new Whittle Laboratory will house the National Centre for Propulsion and Power.

The new Whittle Laboratory will house the National Centre for Propulsion and Power.

Decarbonising aviation and power generation

Modern aviation and power generation have brought many benefits – connecting people across the world and providing safe, reliable electricity to billions – but rapidly decarbonising these sectors is one of today’s greatest challenges. The Whittle Laboratory at Cambridge believes that a key part of the solution is to re-engineer the development process itself – accelerating the transformation of new ideas into new technology.

“We are at a pivotal moment in Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power,” says Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle. “Fifty years ago, the Whittle Laboratory and its industrial partners faced the challenge of making air travel efficient and reliable. Now the new Whittle Laboratory will enable us to lead the way in making it green.”

Accelerating technology development is key to successfully achieving an aviation sector which is climate neutral. Recent pioneering trials, undertaken in the Whittle Laboratory in Cambridge in collaboration with its industrial partner Rolls-Royce and funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute, have seen the time required to design, build, test and learn from a concept cut from months to days, a factor of between 10 and 100.

The New Whittle Laboratory, which will house the National Centre for Propulsion and Power, is designed to scale this capability, cutting the time required to achieve zero carbon flight by years and to give the UK a unique competitive advantage in the race to zero carbon flight. The New Whittle Laboratory will act as a demonstrator, of both rapid technology development and whole system modelling, spreading good practice across UK aerospace, and to other hard to decarbonise sectors. 

Strong industrial partnerships with Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens and Dyson have helped the Whittle to be the world’s most academically successful propulsion and power research laboratory. These deep, enduring relationships continue to provide a source of ‘real’ high-impact research projects and will be key to decarbonising aviation and power generation.  

Cambridge’s vision is to build a cutting-edge laboratory, transforming propulsion and power research and education, and to create a space for industry leaders and academics to come together to develop cleaner and more sustainable aerospace and power sectors.

Partnering on Research

Over the past year Cambridge Zero has built many successful collaborations with new partners within the University and externally. Together, we have worked on key areas, from space telescopes for energy efficiency monitoring to the national security risks posed by climate change. Much of this research has already been published, enabling government, industry and communities to put new ideas into action. In total, the core Cambridge Zero team has authored or directly contributed to 23 research publications.

Partnering with the Institute of Astronomy, we participated in a UK Space Agency National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP) project exploring how we can use thermal infrared telescopes in space to monitor energy output of buildings, and how governments, businesses and citizens can use this data to meet carbon emission goals. The results were presented at a major international conference in Switzerland in September 2021. 

In research commissioned by UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Cambridge Zero staff explored public attitudes to the behaviour changes needed to achieve net zero by 2050. Working with Newgate Research, we held a series of deliberative discussions, presenting material on the changes likely to be required to meet the net zero targets. This work led to the report Net Zero Public Dialogue, published in March 2021.

Cambridge Zero was a partner in the Standard for Environment Risk and Insurance (SERI) project. Funded by Innovate UK and led by Icebreaker One, the project designed and tested ‘climate-ready’ financial products ahead of COP26. The Cambridge Zero team and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) provided climate risk expertise, connected the project with our wider networks, and helped develop the use case for climate-ready building passports. The report is available here.

Cambridge Zero – together with the Alan Turing Institute, University of Exeter, British Antarctic Survey and Imperial College London – coauthored the pioneering report Climate aware and resilient national security: Challenges for the 21st Century. Commissioned by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the report assesses the risks climate change poses to the UK’s security and describes opportunities to develop better tools to forecast and measure climate risks. The work has led to ongoing collaborations on the topic, including a joint funding bid to NERC.

Cambridge Zero led a policy briefing paper for the COP26 Universities Network on Net-Zero Solutions and Research Priorities in the 2020s. The paper, published in August 2020, identifies the key net-zero policy actions that can be taken now, as well as priorities for future research and is based on the work of 26 contributing authors from 10 UK universities, 14 of whom are from Cambridge.

The Cambridge Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas) brings together leading researchers working to find innovative solutions to the problem of plastic waste. Here, they've decorated a bedroom fully in plastic as a demonstration of thinking creatively about plastics.

The Cambridge Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas) brings together leading researchers working to find innovative solutions to the problem of plastic waste. Here, they've decorated a bedroom fully in plastic as a demonstration of thinking creatively about plastics.

Reducing waste and creating a circular economy

Cheap, durable and lightweight, plastic is one of humankind’s greatest inventions. It’s also one of our greatest challenges. Every year, more than 8 million tonnes of the plastic we discard ends up in the ocean, which by 2050 will contain more plastic than fish.

That’s why the Cambridge Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas) is bringing together leading researchers to find innovative solutions to the problem of plastic waste. Together, they want to transform our view of plastic – not as rubbish to be thrown away but as a valuable resource that’s rich in energy and chemicals – reducing waste and creating a more circular economy.

“Plastics have transformed our lives but we’ve been dealing with them in a terrible way,” says Dr Erwin Reisner, director of CirPlas at the University of Cambridge. “Of the 8 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s, more than 80% goes into landfill or is incinerated. This is not sustainable.”

Established in 2019 with funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), CirPlas has grown into a global network of projects and people, enabling chemists to collaborate with economists and engineers to engage with Japanese scholars to address a complex, multifaceted problem.

CirPlas projects focus on a plethora of possible solutions to our plastics problem. In the Department of Biochemistry, Professor Paul Dupree is taking cells from birch trees to make films that might one day replace non-recyclable food wrap, while Dr Brigitte Steger, a Japanese scholar in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, is studying beliefs and behaviours around waste to find out what different cultures can learn from each other.

Dr David Aldridge in the Department of Zoology is applying his research on invasive Zebra mussels to the problem of microplastics, hoping to use bivalves to monitor and reduce microplastics in aquatic environments. And Dr Khaled Soufani, director of the Circular Economy Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School is working with Cambridgeshire packaging company Charpak to pioneer the UK’s first localised circular economy.

“Plastic is just one example of how we must find ways to use resources without irreversibly changing the planet for future generations,” Reisner says. “Working on a shared problem has united us in our work. It’s brought together Cambridge academics, businesses and councils and it works brilliantly.”


Inspiring Leadership: Education and training to provide the skills needed to deliver a different future

Inspiring leadership is at the heart of our education work. Cambridge Zero aims to enhance lifelong education in a holistic way so that education and training provide the skills people need to deliver a different future.

The programmes, projects and events we established and supported over the past 12 months are creating change and transforming society by inspiring leadership. 

  • Our Future Leaders Programme developed skills and created meaningful impact through 14 paid internships.
  • The Cambridge Carbon Literacy Project provided climate training for 128 students.  
  • Engage for Change equipped 60 students with the skills, tools and confidence to lead environmental change. Students engaged with or influenced over 650 participants, dedicating approximately 1,400 hours to environmental action in the University.
  • New public courses are being developed with Cambridge Advance Online and the Institute for Continuing Education.  
  • A new book series from Cambridge University Press is inspiring visionary new thinking in – and about – education.

Cambridge Zero Education Activities

One of Cambridge Zero’s major successes over the last year was the creation of the Future Leaders Programme. This leadership scheme emphasises professional skills development and meaningful impact through project-focused internships. The 2021 cohort comprises 14 paid summer internships, including four as part of the Cambridge Zero core team, three in partnership with the University’s Sustainability Team, one at the University Investment Office and six at the Centre for Climate Repair.

We have also helped facilitate the expansion of Engage for Change, an innovative programme that equips students with the skills, tools, and confidence to be leaders in environmental action within the University of Cambridge. We have worked with the Cambridge Hub and the University’s Sustainability Team to double the size and duration of Engage for Change, so that the programme now accepts 60 students a year and runs for 12 weeks. 

We supported the launch of the Cambridge Climate Literacy Project – a new climate training programme that delivers the free-to-access Manchester Metropolitan University Carbon Literacy for Higher Education course. A group of 10 Cambridge students were trained by Manchester Metropolitan over four webinars and self-study modules to deliver the Higher Education toolkit at the University. After completing their training, these ‘student trainers’ have gone on to train their peers. In the past 12 months, Cambridge Zero has supported more than 130 students to gain certification.

Working in partnership with the University’s Careers Service, Cambridge Zero helped organise and deliver a Green Careers Fair to highlight career opportunities in environment and sustainability within a wide range of sectors. The Green Careers Fair took place in March 2021, and involved 22 employers and 245 registered students. 

Cambridge Zero worked with Cambridge Advance Online to develop a range of cross-disciplinary, climate-focused online courses. The first courses are planned for launch in 2022. We are also working with the Institute for Continuing Education to develop a new climate-related course for alumni, also due for launch in 2022. 

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, our Director, is co-editing a new book series with Dr James Biddulph, Executive Headteacher of the University of Cambridge Primary School, to be published by Cambridge University Press. Called Educational Visions, the series will inspire the visionary new thinking we need to enable teachers, schools and students to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the future. The first book in the series – Surviving and Thriving on Planet Earth – is already in development.

The Living Lab internship scheme helped fund the development of a carbon footprint tracker for virtual versus in-person events.

The Living Lab internship scheme helped fund the development of a carbon footprint tracker for virtual versus in-person events.

Living laboratory for sustainability

The Living Lab brings together students, academics and staff to test new ideas, put research to practice and find new ways to enhance sustainability across the University.

The Living Lab internship scheme was heavily oversubscribed in its first year and received 298 applications for four available positions. From a carbon footprint tracker to Cambridge’s first Climate Festival, the 2020 interns worked on diverse projects across the University:

  • Nathaniel Wright’s project focused on student introductions, designing and developing new induction materials for Colleges and Departments to use with students arriving in Cambridge for the first time.   
“Having intern catch-ups and group chats on Teams have been really, really useful. One of the most unexpected but valuable things was working together closely with other interns, it’s been really nice to have someone to bounce ideas off.”
Nathaniel Wright
  • For her project, Rebecca Ige helped set up the first Cambridge Climate Festival, where she helped curate 82 events which reached an audience of over 3,000 people, and the Green Careers Fair which was attended by 22 employers with 245 students registering for the fair. 
  • Ella Palmer opted to focus on Cambridge Zero’s research, taking a detailed look at our six research themes to identify areas where we had strong links and areas which could usefully be built on in future.
“This was a very exciting opportunity to be part of a new, evolving organisation. I really enjoy research and summarising large bodies of information so this appealed to my skill set. I’m very passionate about climate change and wish to pursue a career in this sector so it’s very useful to develop relevant skills and relevant knowledge through getting to explore the University’s climate change research.”
Ella Palmer
  • Rachel Stoner’s project involved developing a carbon footprint tracker for events. Designed to complement the COP26 Universities Network Climate Exp0, the tracker enables organisers to compare the carbon footprint of virtual versus in-person events. This page received 367 hits during Climate Exp0.

As well as supporting students’ development through the Engage for Change and Carbon Literacy projects, the Living Lab also supported two new projects taken on by recent PhD students – a climate risk assessment of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region for the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate, and the University’s sustainable business travel consultation. The regional risk report has been viewed on the Cambridge Open Engage platform 78 times and was cited as an example of best practice work between a local authority and university by Baroness Brown of Cambridge. The University’s sustainable business travel consultation began but was not finalised during the reporting period.


Accelerating Solutions: Engaging with a broad coalition of stakeholders to collectively develop solutions

Cambridge Zero is generating the ideas and solutions that are helping make our vision a reality. By working collaboratively with stakeholders outside the University – in government, industry, the third sector, at local, national and international levels – University insight is helping address real-world needs.

In 2020/21 we worked with a wide range of partners within and beyond the Collegiate University to translate our ambition into action.

  • We led Cambridge’s work on COP26 and ensured that the University was at the heart of the academic sector’s engagement through the COP26 Universities Network and Climate Exp0.
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum delivered a wide-ranging series of policy events and published A Blueprint for a Green Future, an ambitious, multidisciplinary report on how we can ensure a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Together with Darwin College and the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), we launched the MacKay Research Associates programme and appointed our first three research associates in 2021.
  • Working closely with the Maxwell Centre and Cambridge Cleantech, we delivered a series of events to aid knowledge exchange between academics, business solutions providers, policymakers, and the wider community.
  • We created the Cambridge Zero Demonstrator Lab at the Maxwell Centre using the Research England World Class Laboratories Fund.
  • We developed a new local business engagement strategy with local business networks, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and the Cambridge City Council climate leaders’ group.
  • Launched our first Climate Change Festival – developed and delivered with Cambridge University Press – including 82 free online events for all ages.

Policy Engagement

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum is at the heart of our policy engagement activity. It was set up by Cambridge Zero and CSaP at the beginning of 2020, bringing together more than 80 senior academics from across the University to address climate change through a multidisciplinary lens.

Now in its second year, the Forum is an engaged, high-energy policy-facing group, and a key element of the broader Cambridge Zero community. During 2020-21, the Policy Forum held a series of six workshops with subjects ranging from UK climate leadership post-Brexit to discussions on UK government department calls for evidence. The Forum also published A Blueprint for a Green Future, an ambitious, multidisciplinary report on how we can ensure a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To support and enrich the work of the Policy Forum, Darwin College and CSaP, Cambridge Zero launched the MacKay Research Associates programme, named after Professor Sir David MacKay. The programme provides early-career postdoctoral students working on topics related to Cambridge Zero’s research agenda with opportunities to engage with – and benefit from – the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum. We appointed three Research Associates – whose work spans the Department of Plant Sciences, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and the Department of Public Health and Primary Care – for one-year posts in 2021.

Cambridge Zero also worked closely with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) to amplify Cambridge’s policy impact. Over the past 12 months, this involved close cooperation around support for COP26, aligning planning and exploring opportunities for partnering on projects including collaboration on research proposals, Policy Forum events, educational initiatives, and engagement with businesses and relevant trusts and foundations. 

The Cambridge Zero Director made significant contributions to UK government policymaking, in particular through membership of the Treasury’s Net Zero Review Tech and Innovation Advisory Group, BEIS’s Net Zero Expert Group, and as a ‘Friend of COP26’ advising the COP26 President. She provided oral evidence to the Treasury Select Committee inquiry on Decarbonisation and Green Finance and the BEIS Select Committee inquiry on Net Zero and UN climate summits.

She serves on many other climate-related commissions and advisory boards, including the Institute for Public Policy Research's (IPPR) Environmental Justice Commission, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Climate Commission, Fenland Peat Commission, Green Finance Institute Advisory Board, Accounting for Sustainability Advisory Board, Disasters and Emergency Committee’s Climate Change Group, and the UK National Health Service (NHS) Net Zero Advisory Board. 

Eliot Whittington speaking at CISL's Centre for Sustainable Finance event 'Delivering the Climate Transition: Implications of COP26 for finance'

Eliot Whittington speaking at CISL's Centre for Sustainable Finance event 'Delivering the Climate Transition: Implications of COP26 for finance'

Cambridge Zero policy forum

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum is a flagship initiative from Cambridge Zero and CSaP, with secretariat support provided by CSaP and the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall. The Forum brings together 80 senior academics from across the University with policy stakeholders from local and national government to address climate change through a multidisciplinary lens.

During 2020/21, we appointed the first three Cambridge Zero Policy Forum and Darwin College MacKay Research Associates. Dr Angie Burnett from the Department of Plant Sciences, Dr Luke Kemp from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and Dr James Smith, Assistant Director of Public Health Studies, Public Health Education Group, from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care are working on projects on food security and net zero, worst-case risks of extreme climate change and decarbonising healthcare.

We published A Blueprint for a Green Future, a major new multidisciplinary report on how to ensure a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Forum hosted several events and piloted new ways of engaging with the critical policy challenges posed by climate change. Events during 2020/21 included:

  • A Blueprint for a Green Future launch event as part of the Cambridge Zero Climate Festival, November 2020
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum and CISL discussion on UK climate leadership post-Brexit, November 2020
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum discussion on the call for evidence on national risk assessment and risk planning, with opening remarks from Lord Martin Rees, Prof Dame Theresa Marteau and Prof Danny Ralph, January 2021
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum discussion on the BEIS tender, January 2021
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum discussion on potential areas of focus for the year ahead with opening remarks from Niva Thiruchelvam, Deputy Director, Net Zero at HM Treasury, January 2021 
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum discussion on the BEIS and HM Treasury call for evidence on greenhouse gas removals, February 2021
  • Cambridge Zero Policy Forum discussion with Baroness Brown and the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate, May 2021

We set up a new internal Offsetting Reading Group (with the Hughes Hall Centre for Climate Change Engagement) exploring the science and policy of offsetting. The first three sessions in 2021 explored questions arising from the COP26 Universities Network Briefing on offsetting, emerging technologies and offsetting, and funding nature-based solutions with climate finance.

Industry and business engagement

Over the year, Cambridge Zero has worked closely with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), and with the Maxwell Centre on industrial engagement and knowledge exchange.

Together with the Maxwell Centre and Cambridge Cleantech, we worked on a series of three events and workshops for academics, business solutions providers, the broader community and policymakers, to facilitate knowledge exchange. 

We created the Cambridge Zero Demonstrator Lab at the Maxwell Centre with £50k UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) World Class Laboratories Fund allocation for 2020-21 and in-kind support from the Maxwell Centre. The Lab will recruit interdisciplinary cohorts of researchers to work part-time on challenge-led sprintshop projects. Crucially, the new Lab will enable us to speed up the demonstration of new technologies developed through University research and pilot new solutions to help meet the University’s 2038 zero carbon commitment.

Cambridge Zero staff have also worked on a new local business engagement strategy, consulting with local business networks, Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce and the Cambridge City Council climate leaders’ group.

We have collaborated closely with the Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) at Hughes Hall to engage with non-executive directors (NEDs) on strategic climate action at board level. The CCE provides the secretariat for the Climate Governance Initiative (CGI) in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and hosts Chapter Zero in the UK, a membership network for NEDs on climate engagement.  During the past year, CCE also helped to deliver a successful CGI Global Summit and produce a briefing paper on greenhouse gas removals with the Centre for Climate Repair and CSaP.

Encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation 

To build our support for innovation and enterprise, Cambridge Zero presented to the Judge Business School’s Enterprise Tuesday. We are working with Carbon-13 to develop a carbon challenge competition and, at national level, the Director of Cambridge Zero sat on the steering committee of the Tech for Our Planet challenge programme for start-ups. 

We also facilitated several nominations for the Earthshot Prize, which is awarding five, £1m prizes each year for the next ten years, providing at least 50 new solutions to the world’s greatest environmental problems by 2030.

Public engagement

In November 2020, Cambridge Zero launched Climate Change Festival

Developed and delivered with Cambridge University Press, the Festival’s 82 free online climate-themed events for all ages spanned eight days and included live panel sessions, pre-recorded talks, demonstrations, stories and games led by leading thinkers from science, academia, policy and community groups from around the world, reaching an audience of more than 3,000 people.

We have grown a dynamic social media programme to engage with internal and external communities. With more than 5,000 followers across platforms (not including YouTube), we have used our social media platforms to promote Cambridge Zero’s activities and develop conversations with stakeholders around climate-related news, developments and events. 

Preparing for COP26

COP26, the UN’s major climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021, has been an important focal point for the international climate agenda and for Cambridge Zero during the year. The Cambridge Zero Director is an advisor to the COP26 President and member of the steering group for the Cabinet Office-led COP26 showcase Tech for our Planet.

Through the COP26 Universities Network, Cambridge Zero hosted and organised Climate Exp0 in partnership with Cambridge University Press. Held in May 2021, this open week-long virtual conference focused on five themes: green recovery, nature-based solutions, mitigation solutions, adaptation and resilience, and finance and regulation. More than 5,000 people from 150 countries attended Climate Exp0 to hear 500 speakers from 43 countries present their work. Social media channels gathered over 500,000 impressions.

It also provided an opportunity for a team of researchers to compare the carbon savings of virtual events. While Climate Exp0 was always planned as a virtual event, its carbon footprint was some 582,000 kg CO2e less than a physical event – a saving of around 85%.

We led the COP26 Universities Network work on international engagement, supporting the Cabinet Office to build its international academic networks, coordinating a partnership between the Network and the Singapore High Commission to deliver four policy papers, and working with embassies and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office to promote international academic collaboration around COP26.

Together with the Centre for Climate Repair and the University of Bath, Cambridge Zero also supported the Network’s youth engagement work. The result – ActNowFilm – brings youth climate voices from around the world to negotiators and the public at COP26.

Cambridge Zero won the contract with Deloitte to deliver BEIS’s Vision for a Net-Zero Future. This new global project – one of three UK Government COP26 flagship science initiatives – brings together academics and citizens from across the world to look at ways to deliver a greener, carbon-neutral society. The project will develop six visions, each focusing on a different region around the world – the UK, Jamaica, Brazil, Kenya, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and India. It will be presented at COP26 and support UK Government climate diplomacy.

We are also leading work for the COP26 Universities Network on better quantifying and communicating climate risk – one of the other UK Government COP26 flagship science initiatives.

Cambridge Zero worked with the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science to deliver Pathways to Net Zero Emissions – an international virtual conference in September 2020. Our Director provided closing comments to the event, which included presentations from Xie Zhenhua, Special Envoy for Climate Change, China.


Leading by example: Supporting ambitious decarbonisation

Cambridge Zero works with the University’s Sustainability Team, the University’s Colleges, the local councils and local interest groups to help coordinate, facilitate and champion a rapid transition to a zero-carbon future.

In July 2019, the University of Cambridge became the first university in the world to announce a 1.5°C Science-Based Target for carbon reduction. This commits the University to reducing energy-related carbon emissions to absolute zero by 2048, with a steep 75% decrease on 2015 emissions by 2030. The ambition is to always be 10 years ahead of this and hence to reach absolute zero by 2038.

Since this announcement, a huge range of sustainability actions have been taking place across the University to reduce carbon and enable delivery of this commitment. 

Over the last year the University has:

  • Completed a major project to build an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant at Cambridge University Farm. The AD plant uses slurry to produce methane which is burnt to generate electricity.
  • Completed stage three of a project to switch to energy efficient LEDs in the Botanic Garden Growth Facility, replacing the lights in five chambers, adding to six already changed. In total, the eleven chambers fitted with LEDs will save over 100 tCO2e per year, compared to the old fluorescent tubes.
  • Increased the proportion of the University’s energy demand generated by renewable energy to just over 17%. This was achieved through the implementation of the University’s first Power Purchase Agreement – a deal to buy energy directly from British wind farms. 
  • Commenced work on an exemplary deep retrofit project at the Entopia Building at 1 Regent Street – set to be the headquarters of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. The retrofit is projected to achieve an 80% saving in whole life carbon emissions compared to a standard office refurbishment.

More details can be found in the University’s 2020-21 Annual Environment Sustainability Report.

Supporting the University's Carbon Reduction Strategy

Cambridge Zero worked closely with the University Sustainability Team and Colleges to deliver the Carbon Reduction Strategy and advance the Collegiate University’s carbon reduction ambitions. 

We worked together on a range of engagement activities, including how to give students more engagement opportunities and how to address students for whom sustainability is not a primary interest.

As part of his annual address in October 2021, the Vice-Chancellor announced the University’s aim to divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030 as part of the University’s plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2038. Cambridge Zero helped the Investment Office to develop net zero investment proposals; these were endorsed by the University Council. 

Supporting the City and the Region

Cambridge Zero worked with the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate (CPICC) to produce a risk assessment of the future impacts of climate on the region. Published in March 2021, the CPICC Report provides an important overview of risks to the region including extreme heat, drought, and flooding due to changes in summer temperatures and seasonal precipitation. 

The report was published alongside the CPICC’s initial recommendations for the region. Cambridge Zero also organised a workshop with emergency, social, and infrastructure service providers in the region to help better plan for the impacts of climate change, which informed a response to a recent Government consultation on the development of a new National Resilience Strategy. Our partnership with the CPICC was highlighted by CPICC Chair Baroness Brown of Cambridge as an example of best practice in local adaptation planning during the launch of the UK’s third climate change risk assessment.


Looking Forward:
The next twelve months

Cambridge Zero plans to continue its growth across the four pillars, and extend its influence. 

On research we will build and expand on the core research themes, identifying and developing new strategic priorities and nurturing internal research collaborations, including with other cross-institutional initiatives. We will foster and support funding applications and develop the Cambridge Zero research community by delivering a programme of thematic and cross-cutting flagship events and activities. 

On education we will grow our education output, developing new educational programmes and help embed sustainability in the University curriculum. We will work with the Institute for Continuing Education (ICE) and Cambridge Advance Online (CAO) to develop a portfolio of new climate courses. We will extend our student engagement work to ensure their voice is properly represented and to help mobilise the broader student community in support of climate action.

On engagement we will build on Cambridge’s successful engagement with COP26, developing our relationship with national and international policymakers, exploring opportunities to demonstrate leadership through our research and expertise. We will also begin the implementation of our industry and business engagement strategy and support institutional partnerships where relevant to our activity. 

On decarbonisation we will continue to support decarbonisation of the University’s operations and estate, for example by supporting the development of a new sustainable business travel policy, and we will work with local authorities and businesses to develop projects to improve environmental sustainability across the region. We will also launch Net Zero by 2038, a new education programme developed in collaboration with Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Cambridge Investment Management Limited for the Cambridge University Endowment Fund.