UK chief scientist: Private sector innovation key to addressing climate change

By Tierney Smith

The experts aimed to set out their vision for the world in 2050 (© Nasa)

The UK’s chief scientist says ingenuity and innovation from the private sector will play a key role in coping with the huge changes the world will experience between now and 2050.

Speaking at the Planet under Pressure 2012 conference in London John Beddington told an audience that government should put in place the right mechanisms – but the private sector should be allowed to experiment and develop the technologies needed over the next 30 years.

Beddington stressed the public and private sector must work together but that state intervention, or the private sector merging into the public sector would be ‘disastrous’.

“Where is the ingenuity? Where is the innovation? The answer, yes to some extent it is in the government labs but vastly more it is the private sector, working on the profit basis,” he said.

Martin Haigh, Senior Energy Advisor for the Scenarios Team at Shell echoed Beddington’s thoughts but presents a different picture of a 2050 world.

He predicts that it will not be till the later half of the century when renewable generation outstrips fossil fuels.

“It is very difficult to paint a picture of 2050 without higher energy use in the world,” he said.

“We all use a huge amount of fossil fuels in our daily lives to do the things we want and like to do, and at the same time we don’t want to deny people from the developed world that same lifestyle.”

He points towards business engagement and further research into technologies including carbon capture and storage and biofuel production as key players in the 2050 energy sector – areas that Shell are currently investing in.

He said, for a company such as Shell, they need to know they can still grow as a business while investing in more clean-tech options. He also warned that people can not expect these technologies to be workable overnight.

“We would want to see ourselves larger in the future,” he said. “So for us it is about asking how to do that? If we change too early we will wither and die. But if we change too late we will wither and die. It is all about timing.”

RELATED AUDIO: Shell energy expert Martin Haigh on why fossil fuels will dominate for the next three decades.

Whether or not this transition takes place now or whether it comes from the top down (i.e. G20 including natural hazards in talks) or bottom up (grassroots movements such as Transition Towns) one message is clear – business, science, politicians and consumers willd have a vital role to play in creating the world of 2050.

“It is about satisfying individual needs, it’s about local and regional sustainability but at the same time bearing in mind global sustainability at that top level,” said Jill Jaeger, Senior Researcher, Sustainable Europe Research Institute in Austria.

“It is utopian but it is also very realistic. Getting from here to there will not be easy and it will definitely not be linear. It will be a path of big transformations.”

Is 2050 too late?

Those transformations could happen sooner than many of us expect. Beddington warns against looking too far into the future.

He predicts that change will already take place over the next 20 years because of the greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere today.

This will be coupled with other growing trends of population increases, particularly of those living in Urban areas – with 500 million people to be living in Africa and the same in Asia.

“Between now and 2025 there are going to be massive changes,” he said. “We need to think about it in the short term. How do we feed, provide water and sanitation for the 500 million living in cities in Africa?”

Contact the author on [email protected] or @rtcc_tierney.

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