At the end of March, the British Science Association hosted the final Chapter in the For Thought series of thought leadership events. Dr Priti Parikh, one of this year’s Media Fellows, shares her reflections on the discussions.

Dr Priti Parikh is a chartered civil engineer and Associate Professor in Engineering and International Development at UCL. She has successfully championed the need for high-quality research and engineering education to meet the Sustainable Development Goals in resource challenged settings.

In February 2021, she undertook a BSA Media Fellowship with New Scientist. To mark the end of her Fellowship, she attended the British Science Association’s thought leadership event For Thought: Creating environmental prosperity (24 March 2021) and provides her take on the conversation.

I joined the ‘For Thought’ event as a BSA Media Fellow to see how the movers and shakers in business, policy and science were working towards building an environmentally sustainable and resilient future. This virtual event brought together leaders from a range of backgrounds to discuss the need for a ‘green recovery’ both in light of the pandemic, and in the lead up to COP26. The speakers made a compelling case for a ‘green recovery’; it is vital in creating environmental prosperity and now is the time to address climate change challenges.

The event started with a panel discussion and Q&A involving Dr Emily Shuckburgh OBE (Director, Cambridge Zero), Sir David King (Former UK Special Envoy on Climate Change and Founder of Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge), Dr Afsheen Kabir Rashid (Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Repowering London) and Duncan Burt (COP26 Director, National Grid), moderated by Samira Ahmed.

Duncan Burt reminded us that the UK has been the fastest decarbonising economy in G20, successfully reducing emissions by 50% from 1990 - but we are only halfway there. Although we have 30 years left to hit net zero targets, we face increased difficulties as further measures to reduce emissions will noticeably impact our daily lives. The pandemic, however, has shown us it is possible to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (albeit in extraordinary circumstances) as in 2020, we saw a 12% reduction in energy use in the UK.

The general consensus was that the pandemic should be seen as an opportunity for green investment and that it makes good economic sense as this requires public and private spending, as well as creating thousands of jobs. The OECD’s initial country analysis of pandemic recovery policies through an environmental lens indicates that some governments are actively pursuing this opportunity to invest in a green recovery.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh’s opening statement set out ‘Five “I”s’, necessary priorities in achieving our environmental goals: Investment, Innovation, Infrastructure, Institutions and Incentives. Innovation, in particular, is key as this is not just about engineering, but how we utilise nature and nature-based solutions to better mitigate climate change.

One such example is the North Sea which has the potential to be a major green energy hub. Large offshore wind farms and the networks connecting them to regions near the coast make use of our natural resource in a sustainable way, creating an amazing ecosystem of different organisations in collaboration with each other. Another example is investing in infrastructure to phase out the use of fossil fuels in railway networks providing an opportunity to move towards a successful hydrogen economy.

Sir David King and Dr Afsheen Rashid agreed that climate change needs to be tackled at multiple levels: local, national and global. Decentralised and democratised systems should be at the heart of decarbonising pathways moving forward. My Fellowship, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and industry partner Bboxx, focuses on how solar energy solutions in rural sub-Saharan Africa can support just and fair transitions to an environmentally and socially sustainable future for the region. My work focuses on the use of solar energy solutions to meet community needs and aspirations, which resonates with Afsheen Rashid’s point about working closely with communities and “taking them with us” on a green recovery journey.

All the panellists agree that this is the time to act, as we have an opportunity to press the ‘reset’ button post-COVID. We need to unlock a green recovery and take action now, as a more environmentally conscious future framework will create healthier and more resilient societies.

 The next session was a conversation with Aliza Ayaz (founder UCL Climate Action Society and UN Youth Ambassador for the Sustainable Development Goals) and Nero Ughwujabo (Former Special Adviser to Theresa May on Social Justice, Young People & Opportunities).

Aliza Ayaz shared her experience of climate advocacy for young people and recommended that those trying to reach audiences with an environmental message make each interaction relatable to society as a whole. As this generation are and will be, most affected by climate change they need to be involved in the discussions on future environmental policy. Current decision-making processes have excluded young people, but with the UK hosting COP26 later this year, we need to take the lead in putting young people centre stage. Post-COVID, important decisions will be taken on future investments in infrastructure and the economy – including the next generation of leaders in this process is essential as they will need to buy into, own and drive those solutions forward.

Nero Ughwujabo talked about the value of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, looking at why some countries responded with swift action and some much slower, and the resulting consequences. In addition, he reiterated the fact that the pandemic has exposed inequalities in society with significant negative impacts on Black and Asian communities in particular. We need to expand our understanding of why this is and develop policies to address these disparities. Such lessons are indeed relevant, and do translate, to policymaking in climate change; we must ensure a just and equitable transition to a green economy.

It was clear from both discussions that time is of the essence and we need to act today. Achieving true environmental prosperity will need targeted efforts from local, regional, national governments in partnership with businesses, institutions and local communities. Engaging with young people is crucial as they will be most affected by the decisions we make today. My own work in sub-Saharan Africa on solar energy has demonstrated that technological innovation is not enough; we need to engage communities to foster change.