According to a survey issued today by the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, over 80% of physicists think that the UK will not be able to fulfill its 2050 “net-zero” ambitions. Regarding climate change, it states that “we stand at a crossroads” and that further assistance is required to address what the IOP refers to as “the defining challenge of our time.” According to the paper, physics research and innovation are “central” to the energy transition. Alok Sharma, a physicist and the president of the United Nations COP 26 summit in Glasgow in 2021, made this statement.
In response to a suggestion by the UK’s independent climate advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, the UK government pledged back in 2019 to achieving net zero by 2050. According to this legally mandated commitment, the nation would have to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by the year 2050. If fulfilled, the UK’s greenhouse-gas emissions would be either the same as or lower than the emissions it takes out of the atmosphere.
According to the IOP paper, “Physics Powering the Green Economy,” physicists and the field of physics may contribute to the development of the green economy. After all, physics-based technologies like nuclear power, renewable energy, energy storage, hydrogen and alternative fuels, and carbon capture and storage have accounted for almost 70% of the £2.2 billion that UK Research and Innovation, the umbrella organization for the country’s research councils, has spent on green energy since 2005.
However, the research states that in order to get back on track to reach its climate targets, the UK would need to receive more funding and assistance. The IOP’s study of 502 physicists employed in academia, industry, and research supports that finding. Of them, 83% predict that the UK will fall short of its net-zero goal, with 68% thinking that present R&D spending is insufficient to ensure net zero.
The University of Birmingham’s Martin Freer, a nuclear physicist who oversaw the report’s development, told Physics World that the 83% statistic is “extremely concerning” in light of the UK’s prior actions, which include fewer coal-fired power plants. The outgoing vice-president of research and innovation at the IOP, Freer, continues, “The signs are currently pointing in the wrong direction.”
Taking up the task
Despite this, the research emphasizes the wealth of prospects in the green economy, noting that over 1750 green tech businesses with a combined revenue of £740 billion operate in the UK and Ireland. The paper states that a robust physics ecosystem is “essential” to the ongoing advancement of green technology and calls for a “broad range” of funding to support physics research, corporate innovation, and skill development.
The IOP also advocates for a “systems approach,” which may advance renewable energy capacity while simultaneously developing the infrastructure. In fact, according to Freer, the UK government needs to promote green technology with “greater ambition.” He continues, “We need to invest more in research and development.” Additionally, “a coordinated approach between various government departments regarding their own policies and strategies to ensure they are appropriately aligned with net zero.”
Sharma, a former UK business secretary who will be leaving the UK parliament after the next election, shares that opinion. “A long-term strategic approach that is supported by action and has physics at its core is what is needed in the UK and Ireland,” he states. “This IOP report is timely and offers helpful evidence to inform how we can move forward as a collective—a message that is important not only in the UK and Ireland, but all over the world.”