Climate crisis: The tough decisions that lie ahead

Aerial view of a part of a solar park near Raichur, India

Climate crisis is the central issue affecting every one of us across the globe, with the question of global warming having a serious impact on just about every single area of policy.

World leaders face the daunting task of putting the brakes on this environmental juggernaut, and working towards net zero undoubtedly means making some very tough decisions. Scientists at ARU are now playing a key part in helping leaders to find solutions.

The Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition (EEIST) project brings together leading experts and policy-makers from China, Brazil, India, the UK and the EU. The idea is to help those governments make difficult decisions, using cutting-edge science and modelling.

Decisions about transport, industry, taxation, housing, and agriculture are all considered by scientists at ARU and led by Prof Aled Jones, Director of our Global Sustainability Institute. He admits that working to find creative, sustainable solutions for government implementation is a complex process and likens it to wading through treacle.

'The scale of the challenge is huge,' Prof Jones says. 'It's the question of how to re-orientate the entire economy.'

Prof Jones points out that whilst the impact on the environment is the first motivation, there are also huge commercial opportunities available if new technological advances are suitably utilised.

Just a few years ago, wind and solar energy were regarded by experts as not being cost-effective. Today, however, the world has moved on and innovation has reduced costs, making wind and solar energy a much more financially viable option. A fledgling industry was able to create a market demand which defied the existing expertise and has become one of the most successful alternative energy options worldwide.

Prof Jones highlights how overlooking creative solutions in the past has led to the failure of traditional economic theory. Failing to account for the risks and potential loss of life that global warming can bring means that there is now a prescient need for transformative policy solutions.

'If you can't feed anyone in 20 years time, it's probably not a path you want to be going down, regardless of what your cost-benefit analysis is saying.'

Finding the right path forward and keeping pace with the changing times involves developing a suite of models to help governments adapt current policies and infrastructure to respond to environmental changes and also the public’s expectations.

'If you want to do renewables, you don't want petrol pumps on every street,' Prof Jones points out. 'You want to be able to plug in your cars wherever you park them. So we need to almost deconstruct our current energy system and build a new one.'

In this sense, developing economies can be more nimble than their richer neighbours, being in a position to more easily pivot towards new policies and systems at the forefront of sustainable technology and energy solutions.

For example, Vietnam has seen a 300% growth in solar power in just one year, and India has some of the world’s largest operating solar farms, which cover several thousand hectares.

Prof Jones believes that unless scientists are dedicated to engaging with international policy-makers in order to make a real impact, and vice versa, then no true progress can be made.

'If the UK doesn't seize the opportunity to unlock and enhance innovation, then we're doomed to play catch-up with the rest of the world.'

He acknowledges, however, that it is extremely difficult for policy-makers to make the right decisions in periods of rapid change, but with the support of strong scientific expertise and scientific modelling, Prof Jones is cautiously optimistic about the future.

'There will be a day in the future when we go through a tipping point and suddenly it starts to change... we are probably quite close to that en masse tipping point, and then it will be unstoppable.'

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