In the fight for our planet, it’s not just up to the scientists – we need leadership

Publication Date

When COP26 ended on the 12th of November, many of us were left thinking: what’s next?

Russell Morris wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera
Russell Morris FRSE, Professor of Structural and Material Chemistry at The University of St Andrews.

Fellows from the Royal Society of Edinburgh were amongst those pondering the changes needed to tackle humanity and Earth’s common adversary – climate change. At the recent Science and the Parliament event hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, a panel of Fellows outlined to Scotland’s politicians what needs to be done to avert our current trajectory towards climate catastrophe. While Scotland has proven ambitious in setting demanding emissions reduction targets, this ambition now needs to be met with the same level of action. Policymakers must create the conditions that will enable – and empower – Scotland to drastically decarbonise, mobilising expertise from across science and industry and promoting widespread behavioural change.

Despite the challenge, governments need to trust that the public is open to change.

Russell Morris

How can our leaders empower science and industry?

According to Raffaella Ocone FRSE, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University, and Professor Andrew Tyler FRSE, Scotland’s Hydro Nation Chair, policymakers need to work with industry to help fast track technological development and encourage whole-systems thinking. Andrew stressed the need to break down the silo mentality within our water management sector and encourages industry, regulators, academia, and communities to work together to obtain an integrated understanding of the solutions needed to mitigate climate change. He is enthusiastic that water is a resource that can be utilised to reduce our carbon footprint through innovative clean energy technologies, including hydrogen, as well as managing water to support carbon capture in the environment.

Raffaella echoed the need for new energy vectors and added that carbon extraction from the atmosphere and storage solutions would be critical in our decarbonisation journey. However, like Andrew, she argued this could not be done in isolation. Policymakers should work with industry to ensure new technologies are scaled up for commercialisation at a faster and more affordable rate, all while transforming the idea of a ‘just transition’ for Scotland’s oil and gas sector into a reality.

How can our policymakers help increase meaningful public awareness and participation?

Dr Hermione Cockburn FRSE, Scientific Director at Dynamic Earth, wants to see policymakers empower the population by raising their ‘science capital’. Understanding the science and its relevance to them will help foster a public who are willing and able to engage in the national discussion around climate change. However, the public is a diverse stakeholder. To gain their support for climate action, politicians need to engage with all sections of society and make the conversation more accessible. Science centres like Dynamic Earth can help with this, already offering opportunities for diverse participants to engage with science in creative and meaningful ways.

The development of science literacy needs to start early – including in the classroom. To enable this, we need to support primary teachers to deliver engaging and inspiring STEM lessons, building their confidence to transfer knowledge and skills to future generations.

How can our politicians empower change in our behaviour?

While our panel emphasised the need for innovation, it was highlighted that technology alone would not be enough to address our present climate emergency. Professor Iain Docherty, FRSE, Dean for the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Stirling, stressed the importance of politicians being “honest” with the public about the lifestyle changes they will need to make if Scotland is to meet its emissions reduction targets.

Using the transport sector as an example, Iain explained how we get around in the modern world need to change. Currently, the transport sector is responsible for approximately 40% of Scotland’s carbon emissions, around one-third of which derives from private cars. Simply put, our society needs to rely less on fossil fuel-driven travel. This will not necessarily be easy, and politicians need to ‘treat the public like adults’ in stressing the importance of changing the way we live. Despite the challenge, governments need to trust that the public is open to change – after all, once-radical measures such as mandatory seatbelts and speed limits are now taken for granted. They need leaders to be honest about how much they will need to change.

The task of saving our planet is far from over. We need our politicians to empower the various sections of Scottish society to rise to the challenge and collaborate. Now is the time to work together to achieve net-zero and secure our legacy in the history books.

Professor Russell Morris FRSE is Professor of Structural and Material Chemistry at the University of St Andrews.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.