Go to content

Absolute Zero

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero, is harnessing Cambridge expertise to tackle the climate emergency

  • Words
    Lucy Jolin
  • Photography
    Alun Callender
- 8 minute read

Dr Emily Shuckburgh’s childhood ambitions did not involve climate science for the simple reason that, back then, climate change was largely unheard of. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1990s, as Shuckburgh was embarking on her university education, that the first IPCC climate change report came out. As she studied the maths and physics of how the Earth’s atmosphere interacts with ocean dynamics, she began to realise the immense implications of a warming planet – and how she could use her skills to study them.

Today, that realisation has become an urgent mission. “I am, and have always been, passionate about the maths. But I want to use it in a productive way,” she says, sitting in the café at the futuristic William Gates Building, on an unseasonably warm September day. “It is clear that we are in a state of climate emergency. And, having worked on the problem side of the question for my whole career, now is the time to focus on the solution. We need to transform our whole society over the next couple of decades. Because the science is very clear. Time is running out.”

Over the years that Shuckburgh has been a climate scientist, the conversation has shifted from the purely scientific to the political and social. The last year, in particular, has seen an explosion in public consciousness, due to both the scale of severe weather events causing disruption across the globe, and the work of activists such as Greta Thunberg. But, for Shuckburgh, it’s also personal. She has seen the climate emergency for herself, first-hand: until recently, she worked for the British Antarctic Survey, visiting both the Antarctic and the Arctic, observing and taking measurements. “In both places, you feel very close to major changes occurring in the climate system,” she says.

What are those changes? Repeat measurements clearly show that the Southern Ocean is warming at all depths. There is already evidence that the Thwaites Glacier, a critical part of the western Antarctic ice sheet, may be in irreversible retreat: the warming waters melting it from below. Three to five million years ago, when there was a similar level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets last melted, sea levels were between six and 20 metres higher than they are today. A fraction of that rise would inundate land inhabited by hundreds of millions of people.

“We need to transform our whole society over the next couple of decades. Because the science is very clear. Time is running out”

“But we simply don’t know how far into the future we are talking about,” says Shuckburgh. “And that’s why a lot of research at the moment is trying to understand what’s happening with those ice sheets, and what the future risk might be. Currently, global emissions are increasing year on year, despite the Paris Agreement, and temperatures are increasing. We are seeing around the world how extreme weather is destroying lives and livelihoods. We need to turn that round over the next decade.”

Climate change on this scale is a terrifying prospect, and, yes, seeing dramatic change and understanding its potential consequences is depressing, admits Shuckburgh. But she says she continues to be inspired by her work – and the new will for change, which, as the newly appointed director of the Cambridge Zero initiative, she will spearhead. “It remains fascinating to understand how the world works. On that level, it’s just as fascinating now as it ever was. And while we face an enormous challenge, that’s also exciting. Because that’s where all the opportunities are. In Cambridge, we are drawing on all the expertise and creativity within the University – and connecting to that outside it – to help develop the technologies and insight to deliver a different future, a positive future, and one where we live in more harmony with the world that sustains us.”

Joined-up expertise

So just what is Cambridge Zero? It is, Shuckburgh explains, an unprecedented initiative that will bring together expertise from across the University – from science, technology and engineering to social science and the arts – aiming to generate the ideas and innovations that will meet the global challenge of climate change. That takes in everything from the work currently being done on what will be the first zero-carbon hospital in the UK (Cambridge Children’s – a new children’s hospital and research institute) to blue-sky research. “It is evident that technologies are going to need to be a significant part of the solution to climate change. But we can’t solve something as complex as reaching a zero-carbon future purely through technology. How do we spark individual behaviour change, for example? How can we incentivise that? How can we learn from history to ensure that the transition to a zero-carbon future is done in a fair and equitable way, in a way that works for all sectors of society?”

Cambridge Zero will help to train up the next generation of leaders with the skillset to navigate through the coming decades. And it will look outwards, using the University’s extraordinary network and convening power to disseminate those ideas across the globe. “We have all the relevant research expertise, of course,” says Shuckburgh. “But that has not previously been joined up. It’s very clear that if we are really going to tackle this, a substantial transition is required. We need to provide solutions and help support the delivery of those solutions in a holistic sense.” So another key component will be to create a dynamic ecosystem, linking the research undertaken at the University and internationally with the policy side, with industrial collaborations, entrepreneurship, the public and schools, and with the global network of alumni.

Because, as Shuckburgh points out, solving the problems created by climate change will require nothing less than a wholesale transformation of society. And Cambridge Zero will be broad enough to take in every aspect of that: battery technology to artificial photosynthesis; green building materials to electric aircraft; sustainable finance to going beyond using just GDP as a measure of economic prosperity. Everything will be up for debate and discussion: how do we put in place policies that will accelerate transition to a green future? How can we find alternative ways of using carbon? What could we do to potentially repair some of the damage to our climate system – and what might be the legal, ethical and governance issues associated with that?

The 2048 deadline

And, of course, Cambridge Zero will also help the University to decarbonise itself. Cambridge recently became the first in the world to announce that it has adopted a 1.5 degrees Science Based Target for carbon reduction. This commits it to reduce its energy-related carbon emissions to absolute zero by 2048, with a 75 per cent decrease on 2015 emissions by 2030.

The time is right. Change is coming, says Shuckburgh, you can feel it in the air: at the climate strike protests from Afghanistan to America; in the enthusiasm and passion of Cambridge students eager to use their skills to contribute to this new world. There’s a sense of urgency, but there’s also a sense of optimism. “Cambridge Zero is exciting and inspiring. It’s switching from thinking ‘What on earth can we do?’ to ‘Let’s turn this round to an exciting opportunity.’ I’m not aware of any other globally leading institution that has brought this range of topic areas together with a very clear emphasis on how, together, we can create a zero-carbon future.”

Ambitious? Yes: it has to be. Over-ambitious? Never. “That’s what we do, right?” says Shuckburgh with a grin. “We should recognise how vast and audacious it is but we also need to recognise that it can’t fail. We have to take responsibility. This is one of the greatest challenges that has ever faced humanity.”

But, she points out, this isn’t the first global, world-changing challenge that Cambridge had taken on. “Unlocking DNA, for example. Look at the changes that has created in the world, and you can trace it all back to Cambridge. We have a tradition of leading the way in transformational change. If ever we needed to step up and take a lead, now is the time. The University’s mission is to contribute to society. So if anyone is doing this, it should be us. Let’s be bold about it. Everyone can get involved: we need the skills of those in Cambridge right now but also the heritage of our alumni. Let’s go do this.”

Read more about Cambridge Zero

More from Cambridge