Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

“The longer we don’t reduce emissions, it’s turning into effect”: Oxford environmental scientists discuss ways to tackle climate change

“Climate change is a real threat,” a Harvard Medical School article on anxiety about climate change stated. According to a report by the World Meteorological Organisation, atmospheric levels of three major greenhouse gasses, namely carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, reached a record high in 2021, with the parts per million concentrations of these three greenhouse gasses increasing to 149%, 262%, and 124% of pre-industrial levels, respectively.

With the remarkable increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels came a rapid rise in temperatures around the world. A Nature article published last month stated that modern temperatures in central-north Greenland have reached the warmest in the past millennium. A 2022 news article by the United Nations cited “no credible pathway” to the 1.5C limit, also known as the goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures, set in the Paris Agreement. “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster,” stated executive director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen.

“I want the University of Oxford to take a lead in this space in terms of really solving the problem of climate change from every aspect of the science, the alternative options for our energy sources, through to the policy and the engagements and the ethics and the behavioral changes that need to come with it,” Oxford University’s Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey told Cherwell in an earlier interview.

Approaching the climate crisis from various angles, Oxford environmental scientists have made considerable contributions in the area of research and policy. To bring society a step closer to a root-and-branch transformation, the Net Zero guidelines drafted by an international team that includes Oxford’s Net Zero policy engagement fellow Kaya Axelsson were published at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on November 11, 2022. Working with an international research team, geosystem science professor Myles Allen published a paper in Environmental Research Letters on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a group of policies with profound implications for net fossil fuel emissions. In this article, Allen and Axelsson sat down with Cherwell to discuss the specifics of EPRs and Net Zero guidelines, respectively.

EPR policies

In her inaugural address, Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey suggested that fossil fuel firms take responsibility for their own emissions, a type of policy also known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). In a broader sense, according to Allen, EPR is defined as “an established mechanism in law whereby a company that produces a product can be held responsible for the waste generated by the use of that product”. Allen stated that EPR policies have already been used for household chemical recycling in countries like France but that they have never been implemented to target fossil fuel emissions. “If we can just change that and include fossil fuels, the world would rapidly become a very different place,” Allen told Cherwell.

Allen disagreed with Andersen’s statement on the time being over to make incremental changes to climate policy. “I think the fossil fuel industry, if it were required to do so, would be able to dispose of the carbon dioxide generated by the products it sells relatively easily as part of its ongoing business,” he said. “The fossil fuel industry is so big, so wealthy, and so innovative. They could do it, but they won’t do it on their own – they’ll only do it if they’re required to do it… the longer we don’t reduce emissions, it’s turning into effect.”

Allen explained that EPR entails both geologically-based and nature-based carbon capture methods, some of which he introduced in another Cherwell article. “Storage has to be permanent, which means it has to stay stored for thousands of years, because that’s the timescale on which burning fossil fuels affects the climate. So that makes your storage options limited,” he said. “The only one which has already been developed on any scale is to inject (CO2 emissions) as a liquid back underground.” Although Allen stated that many geological carbon storage options are still under development or need considerable upscaling, nature-based solutions can ideally only be used until 2050 due to their unknown storage efficiency in the long-term. In their Environmental Research Letters publication, Allen and his colleagues proposed that the fossil fuel industry should be allowed to capture their emissions with a combination of geological storage and, over the transition, nature-based solutions, but making sure that they get to 100%

geological storage by the date of Net Zero in 2050. Allen and colleagues’ publication also stated that to accommodate for fluctuations in various price levels, one type of EPR policy called Carbon Takeback Obligation (CTO) would make sure fossil fuel companies can gradually increase their carbon emissions capture until Net Zero. “The big advantage of a carbon takeback obligation is it provides a very predictable route to Net Zero, no matter what happens to the cost of fossil fuels or the availability of renewable energy,” Allen added.

The COP27 Net Zero guidelines

“Given the falling cost of renewables, I don’t really see why we wouldn’t go as hard and as fast as we can on renewables – it’s the best choice economically,” Net Zero policy engagement fellow and technical author of the COP27 Net Zero guidelines Kaya Axelsson told Cherwell. She explained that compared to fossil fuels, besides not emitting greenhouse gasses, renewable energy is more affordable and has less concerns related to its extraction or decentralization. “All of the credible science-based pathways to Net Zero show that 90% of what we need to do in the energy sector, if not much closer to 100%, is to move towards renewable alternative energy,” she added. “We have a really great paper by Ives et al. (2022) that shows that actually investing now in renewable and alternative energy, including the current energy companies doing so, could actually save us $12 trillion.”

Inspired by ambiguous standards set by organisations and accusations of greenwashing – the false claims certain companies and organisations make about taking action towards sustainability – and focused on creating unitary standards for non-state organisations and defining common policies, the Net Zero guidelines were a result of participation of the civil society, government, industry, and academia, with more than 1200 experts across 100 nations taking part in the construction of the reference text.

According to the guidelines, some policies that might be implemented by governments to ensure the quality of a Net Zero transition plan are the disclosure requirements, requirements particularly for publicly listed companies (including non-fossil fuel companies) that ask them to report certain details about their emissions. “Our analysis shows that in the next few years, close to 50% of the world in terms of both GDP and emissions will be covered by some form of mandatory disclosure requirement on environmental sustainability and governance, particularly with regards to climate, emissions, and governance in terms of risks and opportunities,” Axelsson said.

In addition to government policies, the guidelines also suggest that companies themselves need to implement policies to reach the Net Zero target. For example, companies need to annually report on their progress to Net Zero. Also, as they transition to Net Zero and switch to new business models, companies need to think about how they are protecting their workers and

various stakeholders, which might be a local community in their supply chain. Furthermore, to ensure transparency in reporting emissions is maximized, besides having to follow the greenhouse gas protocol, companies would also undergo third party verification and auditing of their emissions data.

A full list of policies for governments and companies can be found in the original document of the guidelines.

The guidelines have received large amounts of positive feedback. “These Net Zero Guidelines helpfully build on the Race to Zero voluntary criteria and can be used as a core reference text on Net Zero to bring global actors into alignment, ratchet up ambition, and address greenwashing,” said Nigel Topping, UN Climate Change high-level champion of the UK of the COP26 conference.

Addressing other aspects of climate change

“One of the things we say in the Net Zero guidelines is that your Net Zero strategy should not just be about carbon, even though carbon is the priority, but it should be about all the greenhouse gases,” Axelsson stated regarding non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions such as NOx and SOx emissions. “Ideally, emissions reduction is a priority.”

Another area that has considerable fossil fuel emissions is the livestock sector. “Methane emissions are very powerful, but they’re shorter lived in the atmosphere… and they increase,” Axelsson said. However, she also stated that livestock also cause emissions through deforestation. “The cows are eating the soy and the soy is grown in places that are reducing our forests, jungles, and natural ecosystems. And at this stage, we can’t afford for our natural ecosystems to just shrink, we need them to grow.” Axelsson added that this is a good reason for people to “stop eating beef and to go vegan if they can, or just reduce meat and dairy consumption as much as possible”.

Regarding the impacts of deforestation and habitat loss, Axelsson stated: “We should still be investing… to increase nature-based solutions to restore ecosystems past the Net Zero target date. Ideally, we want to live in a world in which we have restored our ecosystems, not lost our ecosystems.” She added that since the 1970s, there has been a loss of about 70% of natural species and ecosystems. “We need to reverse that trend, irrespective of how it interacts with climate change”.

“If we want to even have a chance of meeting Net Zero, we need to end deforestation by 2025 and keep ourselves on track to really restore nature rather than degrade it further,” she said.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles