By Professor Sir Ian Boyd

A “climate emergency” needs a robust response. According to the philosopher Peter Springer, developed countries like the UK have an ethical duty to lead the world out of this crisis. After all, the UK has been partially responsible for creating the problem through its past actions. Much of its financial and intellectual capital base has been constructed on a legacy of environmental damage. It needs to put this right.

The UK Government is committed to taking the country to net zero by 2050 following the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation and analysis of the pathways to net zero. But the committee was also clear that there are huge policy challenges associated with meeting this objective.

One of the most sobering aspects of the report from the Committee on Climate Change is the fact that we need to decarbonise the economy across all sectors simultaneously. It isn’t good enough to think we can do a little bit of this and then a little bit of that. The scale of this challenge is truly daunting not just for those who need to plan and implement these changes but for every single citizen. This will affect everybody’s life. As I have said before, there is no point putting a bung in the tail pipe of a metaphorical car to stop its emissions without re-engineering, and perhaps even re-imagining, the car itself.

Even though government has established a clear national objective, nobody should imagine that this is someone else’s problem. It is not, as often implied, for government alone to deliver the changes which are needed. The government needs to play its part but there is a job for everybody and for every organisation and business. For example, if every decision we make, from buying food in the local supermarket to deciding where to go on holiday, was informed by information about the environmental costs of the different options, we could probably make a massive and instantaneous difference. Many people already do this when deciding how much meat they eat, but this is just a start. Even small, almost imperceptible nudges to our decisions could be transformative. Government need to make sure we all have this information and, once delivered, we all have an ethical duty to take it into account.

This is why I have taken on the job of leading the aspiration of the University of St Andrews to reach net zero in its own business within the time scales set by government. This university has adopted net zero as part of its strategy and make it a corporate responsibility. My job is to hold it to account and help it to reach its objective.

Like any organisation, the university is going to find this difficult. It has already done much to reduce its carbon footprint, but there is only so much it can do on its own. Carbon, and other environmental impacts like water use, permeate almost everything the university does. Wringing the carbon and water out is going to take determination, smart decision-making and imaginative business practice.

A university has a special role in the mission to achieve net zero. Apart from being an exemplar to normal businesses, it moulds the future through the research it does and the people it trains. It has global influence through its networks of academics and can itself be a living laboratory for exploring the kind of actions and technical fixes which demonstrate feasibility. A university is not just a crucible for the creation of new ideas but also an integrated part of delivering these ideas to meet the national objectives. It has an opportunity to create impact which is much greater than its size.

Sir Ian Boyd is a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews and former Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs