This article is more than 2 years old

The net zero debate is coming – are universities ready?

The idea of a referendum on net zero seems unlikely, maybe even absurd, but James Coe notes that a constellation of familiar faces are amplifying net-zero scepticism - and universities should be prepared

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

Co-founder of Vote Power Not Poverty Richard Tice, once director of the Brexit Party and Leader of Reform UK, called the Government’s net-zero plans “the wrong bit, at the wrong price, and the wrong time-frame.”

Nigel Farage, co-founder of Britain Means Business (now defunct) with Richard Tice and former UKIP Party leader,  hasquipped that “net zero [is] net stupid” and called for a referendum on net-zero. Net Zero Watch – only launched in November 2021 – has appeared on Vote Power Not Poverty’s putative conference guest and TalkRadio presenter Julia Hartley Brewer’s show already.

And to wrap this all together the Net Zero Watch grouping of MPs, including Vote Leave alumni Steve Baker, have hired the head of policy at Net Zero Watch as a staff member.

This all feels familiar

Like the Brexit campaign some easy talking points are emerging. This isn’t about climate scepticism it’s about lowering household bills. How will we do this? Well through the extraction of shale gas, reducing green subsidies, drilling for more North Sea oil, amongst other measures. Who gets to decide? The British public through a referendum on net-zero. It’s a playbook that anybody with even a cursory awareness of the Brexit campaign will be aware of.

In an early and lengthy piece on why Vote Leave won the Brexit referendum Dominic Cummings highlights three major reasons for his campaign’s success: a souring of public opinion against the establishment owing to events like the financial crash, a more effective Leave campaign with better communications, and Cameron and Osborne not being very good at politics. Clearly with Cameron and Osborne out of the way this last one is not a factor in the net zero debate to come, but there clearly is a belief that public opinion can be moved on net zero.

A personal cost

A majority of Britons support the major commitments made at COP-26. After being provided with information on net-zero a population of surveyed Britons by BEIS/DEFRA supported the UK’s Net-zero commitments. However, and crucially for those seeking a form of climate delayism, support for measures to reach net-zero drops rapidly when it involves a personal cost.

In the coming months the framing of this debate will undoubtedly try to cover two imagined solutions. The first is that there is a route to net zero which involves zero personal cost. The second is that it’s only political intransience, the green lobby, or bloody-mindedness, which is preventing more drilling, more fossil fuel extraction, and the reopening of coal mines.

This is crucial as Brexit showed technical economic arguments won’t overcome the real cost people feel in their pocket. I cannot possibly predict how a referendum would work (an in-out referendum on safe planetary boundaries for emissions?) but you can see it now. Net carbon emissions against pounds in the pocket; advancing carbon capture technologies versus heating and eating; the establishment green lobby arguing with plucky outsiders who want to “take back control”. If all of us involved in the production of knowledge in sustainability make the decision to transition to a net zero economy seem patronisingly straight forward, obvious, or the clever thing to do, we will lose the trust of the public and for the sake of the planet we cannot afford to.

Could this really happen?

A referendum currently seems unlikely – but we also thought that about leaving the European Union In any case, it does no harm to think about how universities might communicate around sustainability in these circumstances. At worst, we find pithier ways to discuss what is undoubtedly a complicated topic. At least, we prepare for another public debate on an issue crucial to society. And the first stage of this has to be grounding the realities of a sustainable future in the day to day of people’s lives.

Yes, it is about technology and the abstraction of the economy but it is also about the jobs that will be created, the changing nature of work, and the type of climate we want to share. It means treating those we engage with respect in being honest that a sustainable transition is hard, it will come at public expense, and some jobs will be lost. The corollary of that has to be a promise that universities will redouble their efforts in local employment, engagement in research, and outreach with a sustainable lens to it. Reducing carbon emissions is necessary but that does not make it easy.

It is also striking just how organised those on the more sceptical end of net zero are. As outlined there is a web of those with looser and stronger alliances around similar goals. Universities communications are often best when they come from partners. In sustainability, these are the businesses working on new technologies, the local communities benefitting from cleaner air, fewer cars, and nicer places, or the people who are taking part in sustainable outreach, activities, and outings. We are not always our loudest advocates but we can share our platforms with those who advocate for us.

Research communications in controversial moments

This amplification of research is important – whether there is a referendum or not the time to start talking about work in sustainability is now. This is a cause being championed by various mission groups, but laying the ground on how we’re discharging public funding responsibly to tackle the greatest threat humanity faces cannot start early enough.

During Covid-19 it was the huge research programmes which caught the public imagination – but it was also those less large but impactful measures which gained traction. Giving over car parks to NHS workers. Leasing bikes for free to key workers. Offering respite to those going to and from work. In sustainability, it is incumbent on all of us to turn a global story into thousands of local anecdotes on how we’ll make the world better.

We should be under no illusions that science alone can win over public opinion. The science is settled on the need to rapidly reduce carbon production. There is a world of people out there to engage and inspire with the work going on in universities. There is no better time to start that work than now.

3 responses to “The net zero debate is coming – are universities ready?

  1. “The science is settled on the need to rapidly reduce carbon production.” And therein lies the biggest issue of all, we might discuss at length the already massive reduction in direct UK Carbon emissions, but the huge amount of ‘off-shored’ production and thus Carbon emissions still needs to be addressed. One needs to note the ever increasing number of coal fired power stations being built in China to power our and the USA’s off-shored production.

    And I have to disagree about ANY Science being ‘settled’, ‘consensus science’ and ‘scientific consensus’ have long been proven to be a huge stumbling block for Science (don’t tell the flat earthers), further work is always required to refine and indeed sometimes to refute previous theories. Then there is the issue of solar forcing effects on our climate, which are conspicuously absent from most climate modelling attempts, are we actually chasing something that is far less of a problem than it is purported to be?

    With the current US inspired conflict in Ukraine and the shortage of fertiliser, and grain, that is resulting the benefits of increased atmospheric CO2 to plants might actually be a good thing.

Leave a Reply