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COP27 should be a moment for universities to reflect

If COP26 was the moment the UK showed its leadership on climate change then COP27 is when it must live up to those promises, says James Coe.
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Remember COP26?

It was the UK’s turn to host the summit which promised to set the world away from the irrevocable harm caused by climate change.

In the end, a compromise was reached with some progress made in agreeing reductions in global carbon emission, but likely not enough to stave off global disaster.

It was also a fortnight in which universities from across the country exhibited their work, argued for policy change, and made connections with the great and the good of international climate leaders.

Good COP

Reflecting on COP26 Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram and University of Liverpool PVC for research and impact Anthony Hollander, wrote for Wonkhe that

We will look back on COP26 as a failure if it is remembered only as a moment and not the start of a movement towards creating a different world. That is only possible with innovation policy support from government to empower our localities: from the research strengths and knowledge leadership of universities to make a transition possible, to the economic priorities of regional leadership to shape a greener future, and through the input of civic, academic, and business partners, to embed these commitments in all our organisations. The answers to this macro challenge can be found on a micro level.

The debate as to whether the world is doing enough to halt climate change is a different blog for a different time, but whether there is enough going on across R&D is very much the concern of universities, businesses, and by extension the whole planet.

Let’s start with what has been said ahead of COP27. The major debate surrounding COP27 was whether the Prime Minister would attend. In the end Rishi Sunak did and reaffirmed the UK’s £11.6bn commitment to a climate change fund. This was in addition to announcing a trebling of funding earmarked for climate adaptation by 2025. Yesterday, the Government also set out a press release full of announcements on climate support ahead of the conference. The most relevant to research is the announcement for £65.5m for the Clean Energy Innovation Facility. This fund provides grants to researchers and scientists in developing countries to accelerate the development of clean technologies.

The fund is laudable in its aims and works across the development of riskier clean technologies where conventional funding may be unavailable. It is multi-national and aimed toward scaling up innovation through collaboration between countries. The evaluation documents suggest it is difficult to view the success of this programme as it was launched during COVID and as such there is still significant programme underspend. Although an increased budget for the programme is welcome this is likely rolled over under-spend from previous years. There are plenty of programmes in the pipeline to fund.

Elsewhere, the Foundation for Science and Technology, a charity for the debate of science and technology policy, hosted an event with Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance ahead of COP27. In it he made the argument that there is still the need for more research into the modelling of climate change and understanding its consequences more granularly. Professor Mahmoud Sakr, President of The Academy of Research and Technology Egypt, made the case that different approaches to research would be needed in different places depending on geography, finance, and capacity.

Over the past month there has also been significant announcements across the UK funding landscape. UKRI awarded £14m to projects which promote sustainability across key manufacturing industries. Likewise, Innovate UK has a history of promoting novel approaches to sustainability through industry and education links through programmes like their sustainable innovation fund.


There is no doubt that these measures are positive, that COP26 set the scene for more widespread net zero commitments than we have ever seen, and that the UK is standing by its promises. Yet, despite all of this, it feels like the wider R&D policy ecosystem can act at odds with these aims. Unless there is a clear route for funding and support for sustainability these measures will not be as impactful as they could be.

COP27 is the moment for the sector to consider its own practice and to reflect on the wider support for innovation in sustainability.

As COP27 continues over the next week there are sustainability measures which are at the forefront of my mind:

  • The Government downgraded its target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross domestic income on Overseas Development Aid to 0.5 per cent up until 2023/24 at the earliest. In 2020/21 £534m was allocated for climate change and biodiversity, and in line with the UK’s wider climate finance targets, should be considered a priority to protect and grow to allow countries to adapt R&D to their own circumstances as argued by Professor Sakr. The sooner funding is returned to 0.7 per cent the better.
  • Collaborations between businesses and universities should be made easier. The majority of R&D takes place within businesses but they are nonetheless reliant on the expertise, facilities, and quality assurance, within universities. The R&D tax credit system requires significant overhaul but a start could be a special credit which incentivises businesses and universities to work together on issues of sustainability.
  • The Nurse Review into the research ecosystem is due imminently. The current research ecosystem suffers from a series of priorities, ministers, moonshots, themes, pillars, missions, and so on. If the Nurse Review can find a straightforward way to suggest how universities can marshall their resources and expertise toward avoiding climate catastrophe, then it will have been a success. Sustainability, in all of its guises, should be the single guiding missing for UK research policy.

It is understandable that COP27 has received less attention than when the UK hosted its predecessor. This week is the opportunity for universities not only to reflect on their own sustainability practices but to consider how government, funders, and regulators could support them to have an even greater impact.

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