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Working together to see Scotland beyond net zero

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Global warming demands urgent action. The Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow are joining forces to help tackle the world's greatest existential threat.

The global climate emergency is taking root in Scotland. Last year we experienced the hottest June on record and October saw the country’s two wettest days since 1891. As the crisis deepens, experts say these extreme events will only worsen and become more frequent. Expect once-a-century weather events every year. So-called ‘freak’ floods, heatwaves, and storms will be disturbingly normal.

In the face of this, the world’s greatest existential threat, we need to act with an equal urgency and conviction. That is why the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow are joining forces in a manner and a scale unseen in the more than 400 years of their co-existence.

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh and Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow launching Scotland Beyond Net Zero at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh.

Scotland Beyond Net Zero

We have founded Scotland Beyond Net Zero (SBNZ), a collaboration that will see us combine our already world-class research in climate science to boost collaborations between experts, further empower the communities we operate in, and better inform policy makers on the hard decisions they have to make for Scotland to reach its ambitious target of reaching net zero by 2045.

We believe we can do more together than we can apart. In fact, the climate emergency demands it. There is an increasing moral – as well as practical – imperative that we look beyond our geographical location or traditional subject areas. We need academia, industry and government to collaborate more effectively to make the necessary changes at pace.

SBNZ will be a vehicle to help break down these barriers. Through it, we will invest in our community of researchers to work with our local partners, government and industry, to address key challenges associated with the climate emergency – including clean energy, storage, decarbonisation, green transport, community empowerment and climate justice.

Focused effort

As large organisations our commitment to net zero matters to the economy. We are major economic actors in Scotland and the UK so we understand we have a duty to address how we do business in the context of the climate emergency. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have introduced carbon management plans to address our carbon emissions across the board – from embedded carbon within our estate to business travel and supply chains.

For universities such as ours, supporting the transition to net zero is not only about keeping our own house in order – it’s also about how we use our world-leading research and innovation, how we influence the skills agenda, and how our cultural heft affects wider society.

Again, SBNZ means we are doing this on a scale that is not possible on our own. We don’t want to stop with just Edinburgh and Glasgow. We are inviting all Scottish universities to join SBNZ and lend their considerable expertise to help the country push back against climate change.

Radical economic transition

The transition to net-zero will be the most radical economic transition we’ve ever made in peacetime. A fundamental part of SBNZ’s mission is to help ensure that the transition is just and fair, and doesn’t leave the most vulnerable members of our communities behind.

It’s been two years since world leaders arrived in Scotland for the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26), making commitments through the Glasgow Climate Pact to phase out fossil fuels, reduce emissions and unlock private finance to drive a green transition. Nations were praised for their ambition but criticised for not going far enough and including the valid concerns of less-advanced economies that could be left behind.  Since then, the UN has embraced so-called “inclusive multilateralism”: bringing more groups and voices to the table.

With SBNZ, this is a commitment we share with other interested parties. This isn’t a project for Edinburgh and Glasgow to lead alone, this incorporates the research expertise from universities across Scotland. It will also see us include those on the frontline of the net zero transition– the coastal communities at risk of rising sea levels, the workers who will be re-skilled for the green industry, the farmers adapting to the changing climate.

Going beyond

As the name suggests, Scotland Beyond Net Zero believes we shouldn’t stop at reaching the 2045 targets. This collaboration is looking beyond that horizon.

We realise there will be hard choices to make for Scotland to achieve these ambitions, and we know we need to strike the balance of sustainable economic growth and increased productivity. These priorities – environmental and economic – are not conflicting. For it will be the green, clean and emerging technologies of the future that will see us reach our full economic potential.

Equally, we know we need clear-eyed, long-term thinking. SBNZ will share all our data with the Scottish Government to ensure all its decisions and policies guiding the nation through this just – and profitable – transition are data-driven and evidence based.

The Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow are joining forces, but given the trajectory our climate is on, that isn’t enough. We need more partners to be involved and we hope to encourage academia, industry, government, organisations and communities across Scotland to join us.

Now more than ever, we need collaboration at pace if we are to take the country to net zero – and beyond.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Herald on January 23rd, 2024.

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Image credits: Neil Hanna Photography