Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today.

Cambridge Zero, the University's ambitious new climate initiative, will generate ideas and innovations to help shape a sustainable future - and equip future generations of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

Cambridge is the brand-new holder of a dubious record. On 25 July 2019, the temperature at the University’s Botanic Garden hit a new all-time record high for the UK: 38.7°C.

Few expect this record to hold for long. As temperatures rise globally, extreme weather events – floods, storms, droughts and heatwaves – are becoming the new normal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly articulated that, if this continues, we risk venturing into a world of climate-driven food shortages, water stress, refugees, species loss and catastrophic shocks such as the collapse of the vast polar ice sheets.

Scientists have been warning for decades that man-made climate change is happening. But with a few exceptions, we have done little about it. In the past 18 months, however, there has been a noticeable shift.

“The basic science hasn’t changed: what is starting to change is public opinion,” says Dr Emily Shuckburgh (pictured), one of the UK’s leading climate scientists. “As the impacts of climate change are starting to be felt around the world, it’s finally cutting through that we need to do something and we need to do it now. If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today.”

Shuckburgh recently joined the University from the British Antarctic Survey to lead an ambitious new programme: Cambridge Zero. The programme will harness the full breadth of the University’s research capabilities across the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences to respond to climate change and support the transition to a resilient, sustainable future.

Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener fuels, technologies and materials. It’s about addressing every aspect of a zero carbon future: the impact it will have on our lives, our work, our society and our economy, and ensuring decisions are based on the best available knowledge.

By developing a bold programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange focused on supporting a zero carbon world, the initiative’s ambition is to generate and disseminate the ideas and innovations that will shape our future – and to equip a future generation of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

Its launch comes a few months after the UK became the first major world economy to legislate for net zero emissions. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will mean a fundamental change over the coming decades in all aspects of our economy, including how we generate energy, and how we build decarbonisation into policy and investment.

Emily Shuckburgh


“The challenge is how to develop the technologies for the energy transition at the scale, and on the timescales, that we need,” says Professor Sir Richard Friend, Director of Energy Transitions@Cambridge, which brings together over 250 Cambridge researchers working on areas such as bioenergy, batteries, photovoltaics, carbon capture, propulsion and power, and cities and transport.

Friend is one of the UK’s leaders in the development of next-generation solar cells and super-efficient LEDs, and has founded several spin-out companies based on his research. Since the 1980s, his group at the Cavendish Laboratory has been developing materials for low-cost solar cells that could surpass silicon’s efficiency in converting sunlight into energy.

Through initiatives such as the Henry Royce Institute, the UK’s national institute for materials science research and innovation, Cambridge researchers are also developing next-generation materials for energy storage and use.

“Cambridge is already one of the UK’s leading universities in battery science and a major contributor to the Faraday Institution’s battery programme for electric vehicles,” says Professor Manish Chhowalla, the Cambridge Royce Champion. “The Royce facilities help us supplement the chemistry and physics research we’re already doing with engineering approaches that will help bring our research to market faster.”

Friend adds that working in collaboration with industry is the only way to enable the energy transition. Although Cambridge has the research and knowledge base to identify new solutions, it does not have the capabilities to produce those solutions on an industrial scale: “It’s important to understand what industry actually wants, rather than what we presume it wants.”

Solar panels


Even if a scientist or engineer develops a new technology that solves a problem associated with the energy transition, how do policy changes make the most of innovation?

This question lies at the heart of the work of Laura Diaz Anadon, Professor of Climate Change Policy in Cambridge’s Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, and a lead author on the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report.

“When I first moved into policy and economics work after my PhD in chemical engineering, I was focused on solutions as if they were things that people could and would start using tomorrow. I realised quickly that I wasn’t thinking about cost-effectiveness and the role of policy, regulation, business models, political support and their impacts. That was really eye-opening for me,” says Diaz Anadon.

“Climate change policy is particularly challenging as it cuts across so many sectors and demands engagement with many different stakeholders,” says Dr David Reiner, from the Energy Policy Research Group at Cambridge Judge Business School, and one of the co-editors of the recent book In Search of Good Energy Policy with Professor Michael Pollitt. “Good policy isn’t just about getting the numbers right, because even the numbers are controversial,” says Reiner. “Different groups have different priorities, so how do we determine which numbers to put stock in and which things are actually important?”

Shuckburgh is echoing this broad approach in Cambridge Zero. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to make an impact, which is why it’s vital we bring in multiple perspectives to ensure that we’re translating scientific knowledge into innovations that are rapidly deployed in the real world – and robust, evidence-based policy that works for everyone,” she says.

“It’s great to see climate change finally breaking through as a priority with the public,” says Pollitt. “But the challenge has always been when you start asking about specifics. Lifestyle changes are cheap, but they’re intrusive. And if you aren’t willing to become a vegetarian, turn the heating down or stop flying, then you’re going to need serious decarbonisation policies to reach where we need to get to.”

A major energy policy – such as decarbonising the electricity grid or banning petrol cars – generally requires a decade of planning, and another two decades to implement. It also requires public engagement, says Pollitt: “If the public feel they haven’t been consulted on a new policy, they’re less likely to support it, and they need to see that these policies have benefits that minimise the negative effects. A carbon neutral economy isn’t unachievable, but there are massive challenges associated with it, and we have to face those challenges with eyes wide open.”



Beyond policy, the transition to a zero carbon future will also require unprecedented levels of government, private and institutional investment in green and low carbon technologies, services and infrastructure. And financial institutions themselves will need to move to a sustainable finance model, pricing environmental and social risks correctly.

These are areas that interest Dr Nina Seega at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which bridges the worlds of business, policymaking and finance. “Since the attention called to the issue by the G20 Green Finance Study Group in 2016, we’ve seen lots of discussion about sustainable finance in the financial world but more action is needed to thread sustainable finance into the day-to-day work of financial firms.

“When we have conversations with financial firms, what we get is a conversation about the costs and risks of transition to a zero carbon future. However, it is refreshing to see the focus turning to opportunities of sustainable finance and the cost of not transitioning. Simply put, it is more expensive to do nothing.”

This point is illustrated by the recent Green Finance Strategy, in which the UK government predicts that the population health impacts of not delivering on emissions reductions could be around £1.7 billion per year by 2020 and £5.3 billion per year by 2030.

“Unfortunately, there is still a persistent perception that sustainable investment means sacrificing profitability, but that’s not the case,” Seega says. “A 2015 review of 2,200 studies found that sustainability has at least a non-negative, and in most cases a positive, relationship to profitability. Prioritising sustainability does not mean sacrificing profitability.”

Wind turbines


One of the major successes of global efforts in energy and climate policy has been advances in developing low carbon solutions, which is beginning to pay off. Just since 2010, the average cost of producing electricity globally from solar PV panels has decreased by 77%, and from wind turbines by 34%, and the cost of storing energy in lithium-ion batteries has decreased by 89%, in turn making electric vehicles less expensive.

“Nobody really predicted that costs would come down so fast,” says Diaz Anadon, who analysed these figures as part of INNOPATHS, a project funded by the European Union. “Governments around the world have been key drivers of these cost reductions, both through investments in R&D, and policies to incentivise their commercialisation, such as feed-in tariffs, carbon prices and other regulations.”

Even so, considering the scale and urgency of the climate change problem, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But Shuckburgh is optimistic that a zero carbon world is achievable.

“Cambridge has the power to bring together industry, finance, policymakers, NGOs and other partners to jointly propose ambitious solutions. But we all need to work together to make this happen,” she says.

“The human race has achieved incredible things: lifted billions of people out of poverty, cured diseases, travelled to the moon. The biggest challenge now is how we preserve our only home for future generations, and we need to respond to the challenge with all of our efforts. We cannot fail.” 

Cost of renewable energy


Understanding what society must do to decarbonise is the most complex and important puzzle we have ever had to solve, says Dr Ellen Quigley, a researcher at Cambridge Judge Business School and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

“We need electrification of our energy systems, decarbonisation of supply chains, new technologies that will help us cut emissions by at least half by 2030 – or sooner – and all of this needs a financial ecosystem that is up to the task. Plus, we are the last generation who can do something about catastrophic climate change.”

Appointed earlier this year as the Advisor to the Chief Financial Officer of the University, Quigley is establishing a research programme to understand how shifting the focus of investment – at institutional, national and global levels – can achieve system-wide changes that “will help us move rapidly and justly” towards decarbonisation.

“I’m one of many who are worrying about whether the financial system is fit for purpose in an era of climate crisis. My research is looking at everything an institution like the University can do in terms of responsible investment – from encouraging financing of decarbonisation spin-outs, to adopting soil management techniques to sequester carbon, to supporting government policies like carbon pricing.

“Everything we do here in Cambridge could be a useful template for other institutions. We are picking the things that are most effective and moving as quickly as possible in this very brief period we have to make the difference we need to make.”

Dr Ellen Quigley