Professor Simon Redfern, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences, discusses his work tackling climate change and why mining companies like BHP are vital in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. 

By Professor Simon Redfern

One of the most pressing tasks that I and colleagues in the Department of Earth Sciences and others in the University are focused on is in finding routes out of the climate crisis that faces us all. It is clear, for example, that negative emissions may well be needed if we are to stabilise global climate change to Paris targets. 

Long-term, that means sucking carbon out of the air and putting it back in the ground.

One way to do this is via plants and photosynthesis.

Another is to accelerate the natural processes by which CO2 is regulated in the planet’s atmosphere geologically, and I am engaged in a project using waste generated from mining to do just that. A further requirement is to ensure that we do not emit ever more CO2 into the atmosphere in the future, which will be difficult in a world that still uses concrete and steel to build its cities, railways and bridges.


We have been working with companies such as BHP over the last few years to understand how to pump CO2 back into the ground securely, in ways that will give society the breathing space to transition to a zero carbon future. At a time when some of our public partners have been unable to support plans to develop carbon capture and storage, commercial partners such as BHP have continued to provide us support for this work. That is why we are working with them.

It is worth noting that BHP is principally a mining company - its main business is mining copper and iron ore, plus coking coal as a chemical agent to make steel. Copper is essential if we are to transition to a dominantly electric energy system in our quest to switch to renewables.

Transmission of that power also demands steel for many of the key components of a sustainable future, such as wind turbines. Working and engaging with partners like BHP is going to be key if we have any hope of using renewables in the future, and eliminating or even reversing carbon emissions wherever we can.


During the work of the Divestment Working Group (DWG) and the wider discussion of the pros and cons of divestment from fossil fuels across the University, it seemed to me that the debate extended beyond simply investment practices. Many who were calling for divestment clearly also saw any engagement and collaborative research activity with partners in the traditional energy sector, or even mining in this case, as something to be shut down immediately.

In the light of this, I did not pursue any additional support for the Earth Sciences NW Cambridge project from the resource sector during the operation of the Divestment Working Group, since this was something that was under debate. I considered it inappropriate to enter into discussions with other potential sponsors. For that reason, after the UK Government turned down the proposal, there was little further industry support for our proposed research and teaching facilities in Earth Sciences and the project stalled during the divestment debate.


Our ambitions to quickly find solutions to the urgent problems of climate catastrophe were stymied and our external partners recognise the urgency of action needed to combat climate change.

They listened to our rationale for re-casting the project into phases after the UK Government decision, but in the end withdrew their offer of support to what had become a stalled project.

When I suggested, in an email to the Department in November, that such external support had been lost because of the delay I was simply putting myself in their shoes - it was simply my supposition, but I have no evidence to support it. On the other hand, in the face of the urgent need to transition our world to a sustainable future, it is a supposition that still makes sense to me.  

I remain hopeful that we will manage to build the facilities we need to remain thought leaders in combating climate disaster, but I also am convinced that this will most quickly and effectively be done if we leverage support from all involved - governments, industry and individuals.

We all have a role to play.

Simon Redfern

Professor Simon Redfern is Head of the Department of Earth Sciences, Professor of Mineral Physics and a Fellow of Jesus College

Subsequent to Professor Redfern's submission above, a BHP spokesman told the University on Thursday 14 February, 2018 :

"BHP can confirm that it withdrew a proposed donation in November 2018, but that decision was not a result of the divestment debate within the University.”

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