How universities can help rise to the challenge of Net Zero



Professor Richard A Williams, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University
Professor Richard A. Williams, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University

Writing in The Herald on Tuesday 30 May, Professor Richard A. Williams Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt Universitycomments on the role of Scottish universities in providing leadership towards Net Zero.

Climate challenges are full of dilemmas. For every good idea for change there is a disruptor whose strong voice can explain why it is not. It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole. This is true of the general landscape in Scotland, with schisms widened through political divides, rather than healed through acts of unity, clear intent and policies.

The soundness of decisions made by the Scottish Government, the pace of change, and absence of long-term implementation plans and assessment of the net impact, have all been criticised in recent months by the expert Climate Change Committee and others.

The criticism begs the question: have the right choices been made? Electric vehicles, highways and systems have been baked into policies with no real evidence of deliverability at scale, or demonstration of the actual end-to-end net CO2 mitigation. Whac!

So where do our Scottish universities fit in? As charitable bodies, higher education institutions are mandated to work solely for the public good. Many, like my own, have been working for centuries to derive and assess new forms of energy, and are now pushing the frontiers for ethical and rapid energy transition. As such, universities are national, and indeed global, lighthouses of best practice, casting their light to provide leadership and develop confidence.

Universities embrace and model innovative pathways to Net Zero and beyond Net Zero – but they also carry the knowledge to assess and articulate the net impact of decisions around energy systems and society. Whilst some universities may turn the climate change challenge, adherence to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and being the first to reach Net Zero into a "league table race" most are choosing to stretch themselves.

But back to the Whac-A-Mole. How can universities be arbiters of truth and sources of advice beyond their campus environs? There are four gamemaster roles.

First, to educate hundreds of thousands of students to become carbon literate, so wise personal and collective decisions can be made. At Heriot-Watt, we are developing a free carbon literacy programme for all staff, students and alumni worldwide. The tangible impact of such educational endeavours will yield more net impact to CO2 mitigation than any physical transformation to decarbonise our buildings.

Second, to assist national academies in articulating the pathways for policies and systems that will lead to a net zero lifestyle for Scotland. This is notably absent from national strategies, but desperately needed to build ambition and confidence for decarbonisation. The nation is aching for confidence and ambition to support much-needed actions.

The third role is to coalesce action by initiating trusted multi-partner consortia. This is well evidenced in the way universities work with industry and others. By working as part of a cluster of industries within a region, the challenge of decarbonisation becomes a shared endeavour, by which we will encourage collective regional action and funding. A key example of this is the UK-wide Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC) based at Heriot-Watt.

The final role is to drive new ethical economic thinking through frontier research in green finance, and models for a future-looking sustainable economy where impact investment and social benefit is valued.

It’s time to move from gaming to reality.


Professor Richard A. Williams

Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University