The Net Zero Conference: The right step forward

09 Feb 2023

The ‘sense of belonging’ normally eludes me at scientific conferences. As an environmental scientist, I usually feel my background is too broad to afford me enough comfort among experts in thematic events. However, I like to think this feeling of displacement gives me a different perspective on the topics at hand to most of those present. It was no different at the first ECR Net Zero Conference in Manchester last autumn!

Net zero? What is all the fuss about?

I have felt somewhat puzzled in recent years by the multitude of terminologies that have sprung up in response to the climate emergency: carbon neutral, climate neutral, climate positive and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, net zero.

Some of these terms may have been in use for a while but seem to have deeply permeated the different arenas of the climate debate in recent years, from academia to government and from small start-ups to multinational corporations, who seem to employ them loosely to glorify marketing strategies above all else. My first reaction thus when receiving the invitation to what claimed to be the first early-career researcher (ECR) Net Zero Conference, co-organised by C-DICE, CO2RE, CREDS, ERA, EnergyREV, IDRIC, TFI Network+, UKCCSRC and UKERC, was a mixed one.

On one hand, I was reluctant to join a room full of experts on a topic I have a fuzzy grasp on, considering I never relate my own research to net zero (and quite honestly, keep a distance from it for the most part). On the other hand, my interest was piqued when I saw the conference programme involving several different elements, including plenary talks, skills-based workshops and industry engagement sessions. In the end, I saw it as a great chance to gain new skills and take down barriers to delve deeper into a topic that has evaded me for a while, and something I have, mistakenly, thought of as nothing but a vague soundbite.

Net zero is my new gold

It definitely did not disappoint! On the contrary, it was beyond my expectations and made me appreciate how an event of this nature is highly needed. The talks were not only informative but also, to a newbie on the topic like me, thought-provoking in many ways. The industry engagement session, with input and feedback from industry insiders, was very useful to my own research activities, while the COP27 World Café (mimicking the World Café method) was a stimulating group exercise and pushed me to think of the myriad of climate challenges and resolutions in a whole different way. Finally, the closing Keynote on public engagement was a fitting end to inspire us all to push the climate emergency into the public’s realm even further.

I came out of this conference with a newfound admiration for net zero and for those working hard to advance it. I gained a better understanding of what net zero is and, most importantly, learned to appreciate the significant hurdles in balancing greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere to those taken out. Achieving net zero on a meaningful scale will require overcoming some major technical, economic, political and societal challenges. I see them through a positive lens though since they will precipitate not only new technologies and paradigm-shifting concepts and knowledge, but also push scientific endeavour to new limits (that is my hope anyway).

However, I had this nagging feeling something was missing! It turned out the outsider in me would not be easily silenced!

Net zero, but not environmental neutral

Going back to my humble origins as an environmental scientist, and away from the often techy-savvy world of net zero, I could not help but think where the environment fits in all this.

It may seem obvious to think that broad environmental concerns (e.g., biodiversity loss, soil pollution, water eutrophication) would go hand-in-hand with concerns over climate change, but not always so as it turns out. I had a feeling this would be a common theme throughout the conference after the opening Keynote address, when several challenges to achieving net zero were discussed without a single mention of the environmental implications. After all, developing new technologies and practices, as well as enacting new policies, may have unintended consequences that are difficult to anticipate from the outset.

For instance, strategies frequently touted to help achieve net zero targets, like replacing natural gas boilers with heat pumps and planting trees to remove carbon from the atmosphere, may have unintended detrimental effects on the atmosphere (in the case of the former) and on water cycling and biodiversity (in the case of the latter). However, these effects often only become apparent with new data and knowledge.

Net zero and net environmental gain go hand-in-hand

That is indeed what I have come to experience in my current research role working with the solar energy sector in collaboration with ecological consultancies. My work focuses on understanding the impacts of utility-scale solar farms on ecosystems, something seldom mentioned on debates around the merits of renewable energies to mitigate climate change.

Solar energy is an important tool for reducing carbon emissions from energy generation and, while several uses have been proposed for land under solar farms (e.g., cropping, grazing pastures), we cannot forget the opportunity they bring to achieve net environmental gains to, for instance, reconnect long-fragmented habitats and build refugia for wildlife. I believe the same should be applied to net zero initiatives, otherwise we risk missing the boat on biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Collaboration and diversity

Personally, I feel the success of this event was largely thanks to the number of organisations involved in delivering it. They each brought different perspectives and expertise that most likely contributed to a richer experience for ECRs. I hope there will be similar events in the future. As an ECR myself, I highly value the opportunity to discuss pressing issues with peers and learn from others, even if it means coming out of my comfort zone to engage with new topics. There may be a value after all in being an outsider; vive la différence!