Climate Optimism from Professor Dave Reay

The Environmental Action Research Team at Heriot’s (EARTH) were delighted to have the opportunity to chat to Professor Dave Reay, an esteemed climate scientist who is Executive Director of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, co-chair of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, Professor of Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh and Director of Policy at ClimateXChange.

Prof. Reay made us proud to be in Scotland, which set a world-leading target to drastically cut emissions of greenhouse gases and be net zero by 2045. We are halfway there! Scotland’s expertise in renewables and Carbon Capture and Storage, as well as the potential for planting trees and restoring peat bogs also make us a critical asset in contributing towards the UK’s target to be net zero by 2050. Scotland has also led the way in arguing the moral imperative to help low-income countries who are already feeling the catastrophic effects of Climate Change. At COP26 in 2021, Nicola Sturgeon committed £7 million pounds to a Loss and Damage Fund, before it was officially set up. Our small nation prompted greater political will elsewhere, and international contributions to the Loss and Damage fund now stand at over $700 million.

As an online delegate to COP28, which is underway in Dubai at the time of writing, Prof. Reay was able to give us a fascinating insight into proceedings, and a pleasing sense of optimism about its possible outcomes. In the most important COP since Paris 2015, a global stocktake is taking place and it is hoped that world leaders will rise to the challenge and act to ‘keep 1.5 alive’ i.e. keeping warming 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels. The world has currently seen 1.2°C of warming, so we need to rapidly accelerate the rate of reduction in emissions and scale up adaptation strategies. Professor Reay stated that, at the current rate of emissions, we have 6 years left before we ‘blow our budget’. Renewables need to triple by 2030, especially wind and solar, and we need to see a doubling in energy efficiency measures. In addition, more finance is needed for adaptation. When asked about the issue of an oil producing nation hosting a COP (and the COP president also being head of an oil company), Prof. Reay said that it led to massive scrutiny and could place more pressure on the oil and gas industry. When asked, he also highlighted the important role of the media in its investigation of deals and its cynicism of political rhetoric. It will be interesting to see how the global community now responds to agreements made at COP28, and whether commitments will lead to meaningful action and move us safely beneath 2°C of warming.

An insightful question about the role of Carbon Capture and Storage to absorb emissions led to comment on ‘abated coal power’ in countries that are reliant on this form of energy, such as India. We may see a tripling in nuclear energy by 2050 to cut carbon out of our energy supply, though this will not be viable where there are concerns about safety, waste management or terrorism. The UK is investing in nuclear power, but there are no plans for Scotland, which is more focused on increasing onshore and offshore wind capacity.

Prof. Reay asked us to consider our food and travel habits and encouraged us to ‘get ambitious to cut emissions’. He asked whether Heriot’s was on track and aligned for 1.5°C. This is an interesting question, which EARTH and the Sustainability Committee have been keen to explore for a while. We will now redouble our efforts! Prof. Reay encouraged us to engage with Carbon Brief to stay informed about the latest climate science and policy.

Finally, in response to a question about the rise in climate anxiety, Prof. Reay stated that older generations cannot ‘pass the buck’ and expect young people to solve a problem that began years ago; this challenge requires action from everyone, at all levels. He then emphasised again that there is real cause for optimism and progress is being made in reducing emissions, citing Scotland and China’s rapid progress towards ambitious targets. The following phrases from our discussion encapsulate Prof. Reay’s inimitable mix of science-based optimism and encouragement: “Do better. The clock is ticking. We’ve still got everything to play for.”

Huge thanks to Professor Dave Reay for taking the time to speak to us, to staff and pupils who came along, and to the pupils who asked such insightful questions.

R Hay (Geography Teacher/Eco Schools Coordinator)