On the opening day of COP26 in Glasgow, Professor Michel Kaiser, Chief Scientist for Heriot-Watt University, discusses why the global climate summit is important and explains how science can provide solutions to alleviate climate impacts.
COP26 is undoubtedly a landmark meeting at which global leaders need to commit to solving the climate crisis, with almost daily reports of extreme weather events, destroying people’s livelihoods, causing tragic deaths and triggering land and seascape changes the like of which we have never seen. I recall one of the first climate seminars I attended several decades ago, given by Dr Bill Turrell of Marine Scotland Science, in which he revealed the stark reality that the salinity of the seawater between Shetland and The Faroes was gradually lowering as more melt water was introduced from the Arctic, the implication being that the North Atlantic conveyer could slow or even stop, plunging the UK into a climate regime similar to Newfoundland (at best). That seemed such a distant possibility, but today it is entirely imaginable as we witness ever increasing temperatures and the prospect of an ice free Arctic in the next few decades.
As Chief Scientist I have a privileged insight into the breadth of science undertaken by this University to contribute our part to answering the climate emergency. A considerable part of the challenge will be addressing how we can transition to green energy. This will require Government investing in appropriate infrastructure, which needs to be informed by robust science and modelling. Professor Phil Greening is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, a joint initiative between Heriot-Watt and Cambridge University. He and his colleagues are pioneering a demonstration project that will electrify heavy good vehicles on UK roads, potentially using overhead electricity cables in dedicated HGV lanes. This technology aims to reduce the dependency on batteries by delivering power directly to the vehicle. They are also researching ways to optimise logistics to reduce unnecessary road trips in the goods and delivery industry, which thereby minimises emissions and energy use. Similarly, the Scottish Government recently commissioned The Lyell Centre to undertake an evaluation of the carbon footprint of the Scottish fishing fleet to inform which sectors of the fleet are ‘quick wins’ for transition to alternative energies such as electricity, ammonia or hydrogen.
The circular economy is an important aspect of minimising our production of waste and reducing the energy required in mining or producing new materials for commercial use. Professor Gabriela Medero has won many accolades for her pioneering research to turn construction industry rubble into bricks – known as the K-Briq - that can be used in construction. One of the strengths of this innovation is the strong buy-in from industry, a relationship that has been built over years of close collaboration with the construction sector. The K-Briq is the only building material on the market that is made of over 90% recycled waste and has only one tenth of the carbon emissions in comparison with the manufacturing of traditional fire-clay bricks. On this theme, our own students are currently in Dubai at the Solar Decathlon where they are representing the UK with their innovative house designed to be carbon neutral, power harvesting and life enhancing in extreme environments. Our student team were supported by some of the key innovators in building construction and it has been a superb opportunity to show-case the best of British innovation.
In addition to the more traditional ‘engineering’ solutions, working with nature to provide ‘nature-based solutions’ has an important role to play in increasing the resilience of our coastal systems. Prof Bill Sanderson’s pioneering native oyster reef restoration project in partnership with Glenmorangie distillery has won numerous awards for its innovative approach to clean residues from distilling discharges while building reefs of native oyster that enhance carbon-capture in the marine environment. While oyster reefs were common-place around the UK in the 1500s, over-exploitation and disease have all but eliminated them. This joint industry-science project has helped develop the understanding of how to restore these reefs to enhance the ecosystem services provided to coastal waters as the oysters filter seawater and lock up carbon in the seabed through their waste products, and increase local marine biodiversity.
The Heriot-Watt experience demonstrates how working in close partnership with industry fosters scientific innovation that translates into applications that have a real impact. Future Government initiatives should build on existing structures that nurture and promote these collaborations to enable us to reach the shared goal of tackling the huge climate challenges that confront global societies.
Professor Michel Kaiser
Chief Scientist at Heriot-Watt University