Why universities are the engine that can turn COP28's words into actions



Image of a lighthouse guiding in the dark

Article originally published on Business Green on 29th November 2023.

As delegates prepare to gather for COP28 in Dubai, my thoughts are already turning to what happens next. Once the microphones have been switched off, once the glare of the spotlights has faded, once the chairs have been stacked neatly away – that’s when the real work begins.

According to the NCEI Global Annual Temperature Outlook, there is a greater than 99% probability that 2023 will rank as the warmest year on record. Negotiating the text for statements on how we collectively ensure that record isn’t broken again, and again, and again is complex, yet – as the world has been reminded since the Paris Agreement in 2015 – turning those words into actions can be even trickier.

The latest global stocktake report from the United Nations spelt out for us all just how far away our global community sits from hitting its commitment to limit global warming to 1.5C - revealing startling warnings about the imperative need to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% by the end of the decade, with nearly half the world’s population experiencing ‘hotter than usual’ extreme heat this summer.

In its report, the International Panel on Climate Change reminded us that, alongside private finance, both technology and international cooperation will be critical to enable accelerated action to mitigate and counter climate change. Having the right policies and systems in place to deploy such technologies will also be key to hitting net-zero targets.

That’s where universities come into their own. The best academic institutions occupy a unique place in which they can act as trusted and independent partners – we can be the glue that holds together businesses and governments as they collaborate with academics to shape the technologies, policies, and strategies that are essential to hit net-zero targets and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Harness the UK’s status as a science powerhouse

British universities in particular have a major role to play. The UK is a global powerhouse of science and research, with more than 80% of our universities classified as “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”, according to the latest assessments, making us credible partners for governments and businesses as they strive to live up to the promises that they have already made at previous conferences of the parties and that they will no doubt make at COP28.

Writing on Business Green earlier this month, [November] Tufts University’s Professor Rachel Kyte reminded us that, to build trust at COP28, the UK must be trustworthy. I believe that our universities do indeed command that trust on the international stage, having formed deep and long-lasting relationships with fellow academic institutions and with multinational businesses throughout the world.

The recent UK Innovation Strategy reinforced Britain’s strong position in science, research and innovation, with  the UK ranked fourth in the Global Innovation Index and 18 of our universities ranked among the top 100 in the world. The UK also draws in more high calibre international Research & Development (R&D) than any other large country, with a total of 14% of UK R&D investment financed from abroad and over half of UK R&D performed in business by overseas-owned businesses.

Harnessing those close working relationships will be key in order to turn words into actions once the delegates leave the United Arab Emirates. Those partnerships have been forged on the back of the day-in, day-out exchange of ideas and information, which takes years and indeed decades to grow into lasting mutual trust and respect.

That can come through universities training graduates to have the specific knowledge and skills that are required by industry, and industry in return partnering with universities to offer the practical placements and projects that students need to put their knowledge and understanding into practical action. It can also come through deep and embedded R&D projects, during which it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s working for a company and who’s working for a university because the integration is seamless.

Driving collaboration

No one’s pretending that tackling climate change is easy; our whole way of life since the Industrial Revolution has involved burning coal, oil, and gas to produce the power we’ve needed to run our homes, businesses, and community facilities, including essential hospitals and schools. The shift to renewables and, in some places, nuclear power is helping to decarbonise power networks to meet current levels of demand – but the pressure on those grids is about to balloon if we’re going to electrify transport and heating and cooling to meet our 2050 net-zero goals.

Change is hard – but change is possible. Earlier this year [2023], the UK government launched a new national research hub called the Research Hub for Decarbonised Adaptable and Resilient Transport Infrastructures (DARe). The goal of the hub is to identify pathways and solutions for delivering a resilient, net zero transport system in order to meet the UK's goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

According to recent data, transport is the largest source of greenhouse gas in the UK and accounts for 34.% of the country’s total carbon emissions.

DARe will bring together leading researchers to provide expertise, modelling, and data tailored to transport challenges and has received backing from the Department for Transport, National Highways, HS2 Ltd, Network Rail, and UK Research and Innovation in the shape of £10 million in funding.

Led by Newcastle University, in partnership with the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, and Heriot-Watt, researchers aim to launch an open-source platform that will share data with policymakers, local authorities, and the transportation sector to help accelerate the transition to a green economy.

Collaboration on an international scale

Examples of universities’ abilities to act as trusted partners stretch beyond the ambitious aims of DARe. Heriot-Watt’s twin solar energy test sites at our campuses in Edinburgh and Dubai illustrate the benefits of international reach and collaboration when it comes to developing the renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency technologies that are needed to tackle the climate emergency.

And it’s not just academics who have a role to play either – students too are helping to turn ideas into actions. Heriot-Watt’s campus in Malaysia is working with Guangxi University in China and Ho Chi Minh University of Technology in Vietnam through the Decarbonisation, Decentralisation & Digitalisation (3D) Energy project, which is helping to solve problems in the energy industry by examining them from a broad range of academic disciplines and approaches.

Furthermore, rejoining the Horizon Europe research programme, the world’s largest transnational research and innovation programme with a £85bn budget, will also vastly benefit Britain’s researchers and scientists by facilitating closer collaboration with academics across Europe as well as providing access to networks, shared facilities, and opportunities to be part of international teams tackling major research challenges.

No single country holds a monopoly on the solutions to meet the threats posed by global warming. That’s why the international outlook and global reach of the UK’s universities will be an essential tool in turning COP28’s words into actions, bringing together entrepreneurs, policymakers, and academics to shape the technologies, policies, and strategies required to turn the climate emergency’s threats into opportunities.


Nikhil Pereira, Hot Tin Roof

07955 672095