How European research and innovation can help to address climate change

As climate talks convene in Paris, research stands ready to make a greater contribution to addressing this challenge, says Luke Georghiou. However, it must be properly integrated into a broader approach, he tells the Science|Business Annual Summit in Barcelona


The European research and innovation system needs to look beyond the technological fix and consider four main themes in assessing what contribution it can make to addressing global warming. 

These themes are: the nature of research that we carry out; the importance of breakthrough science and technology; wider challenges as we enter the realms of systems transformation; and the need to engage demand side innovation policies.

To begin, let us look at our own house. A number of good practices that can contribute to climate change mitigation need wider adoption, including greater use of simulations, substituting new, more energy-efficient materials, equipment sharing, and better electronic communications to reduce the need for travel.

Another way in which research can improve its contribution is by examining its own reward system. Climate change issues almost always require an interdisciplinary approach. While progress has been made, there remains a suspicion that interdisciplinary research is less valued in terms of the hierarchy of publication and grants -  and consequently of promotion and career advancement.

Behavioural change

We also need to be clear on the scope of research and innovation covered - and that it is not only technological. There is tendency to home in on the technical fix, such as carbon capture and storage, which may be valuable in itself, but obscures the more messy issues involved in understanding consumption behaviour. 

Our biggest challenge is to achieve lasting behavioural change that promotes sustainability. This requires understanding, for example, of what mix of economic incentives, sanctions and moral imperatives are most likely to engender and secure sustained behavioural change.

Research in this area has already exposed factors such as displacement, along the lines of, "I have been diligent in my recycling so I can allow myself that holiday in Bali."

A role for many disciplines

Mitigation of climate change does not necessarily rest solely on research directed at climate change. Advances in areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive science and complexity, perhaps motivated solely by the advancement of knowledge, may nonetheless provide the breakthroughs that transform the economics of photovoltaics or biomass, or enable a step change in the efficiency of urban infrastructure.

Coming from the University of Manchester, allow me to cite graphene as a case in point. Truly a wonder material, graphene has properties that could impact significantly on climate change, reducing energy needs in aircraft through lighter structures, in electronics by reducing power consumption, and in desalination, by providing more effective membranes.

These may be the benefits of tomorrow, but today the first commercial product using graphene, a new type of LED lighting, is ready for market. This uses the heat transfer properties of graphene to reduce power consumption and to double the life of a lightbulb.

Translational science

Breakthrough research, which at an EU level is the territory of the European Research Council in particular, is necessary but not in itself sufficient to deal with climate change. There is also the need for translational science - to inject potentially radical thinking into the more incremental approaches of applied research.

A lightbulb is an easy case because it is wholly compatible with our present infrastructure. Many innovations are inhibited by requiring systemic transformations to overcome 'lock-ins' to dominant socio- technical regimes. 

A line of research originating with Rene Kemp and colleagues, and in which today my colleague Frank Geels is a leading light, illustrates the need to find pathways which allow us to develop inter-related technologies and infrastructures hand-in-hand with appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks, and to meet cultural and other user expectations. 

This demands a degree of coordination that is foreseen in the design of the grand or societal challenges, but which is largely absent in their current implementation. 

Demand pull

This observation also leads me to my final point, which is that innovation policy is as much about demand conditions as it is about the supply of technology. Broader framework conditions such as the fiscal environment, intellectual property, and so on, are of course important. 

But if we are looking at the detailed pathways of transformations then more directed policies, such as regulation and public procurement, are powerful tools. They bring their own challenges, for example finding the optimal route away from price protection or subsidy, to lead a technology to become fully competitive without choking it off.

Innovation procurement has progressed more in the domain of sustainability than in other sectors. Despite this, it remains inhibited by lack of expertise in the profession and by wider factors such as the slow development of the European Single Market for innovation. The resultant fragmentation means that the potential rewards for innovating firms are reduced by an order of magnitude.

In summary, research and innovation are key to tackling climate change – but will only deliver the full benefits if we properly integrate them in a broader approach.

Luke Georghiou is Vice President for Research and Innovation at Manchester University
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Related subjects: COP21