SCI CEO Sharon Todd describes the SCI Next Gen debate at COP26 which show-cased young scientists shaping the green revolution
Earlier in 2021, the SCI team was saddened by Bath University research which revealed that around 60% of the world’s youth was experiencing depression as a result of climate anxiety (bath.ac.uk/announcements/government-inaction-on-climate-change-linked-to-psychological-distress-in-young-people-new-study/). This study discovered that 75% felt the future is ‘frightening’. These findings should concern us all. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of school pupils and students around the globe took time out of school to march on the streets about their climate concerns. More recent times, however, have seen a growing introspective anxiety amongst young people.
SCI wanted to help address this trend and show there is ‘hope in science.’ COP26 in Glasgow, UK, provided an ideal platform. In late August 2021, we were fortunate enough to be told that we had navigated an extremely competitive landscape – our bid to present an event in the COP26 Green Zone had been successful. Nurturing the careers of young scientists is one of SCI’s main tenets.
Some of today’s generation of young, pioneering scientists in the SCI network hosted the live panel debate at COP26 in November 2021, showcasing how they are finding real solutions to the global climate change emergency.
More than ‘blah, blah, blah
Environmentalist Greta Thunberg has brought the youth voice in favour of taking urgent climate action to governments across the world. In the run up to COP26 and during the event, her mantra was ‘blah, blah, blah’ – an indication that what governments were busy delivering amounted to all talk but no action.
Yet we recognised there was another voice at large – that of young scientists building their careers around the climate emergency and wanted those voices to be heard as loudly as possible. So, our Next Gen COP26 was born. At the time of writing, the event has had nearly 2000 viewers on YouTube.* As a global innovation hub, SCI is well placed to demonstrate how the next generation of scientists is actively developing solutions. These young innovators have the power to change our world’s tomorrow.
Climate change & chemistry
Climate change is ‘code red’ for humanity. Our COP26 event was titled ‘Countdown to Planet Zero’ as the only current certainty is that the planet will be in a sorry place if climate change continues at the current pace. However, we also recognise that although the next generation will be most impacted by climate change, it is also pioneering some of the solutions. We decided to showcase some of this ongoing work to tackle climate change with the support of the SCI community. The event was planned for 4 November at 5pm in the Green Zone’s Science Show Theatre. It was sold out within a fortnight.
The event was also streamed live on YouTube. In true scientific fashion, we wanted to engage the audience and test an assumption – that science can positively impact on climate change. Our live survey posed the question: ‘Do you believe that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions?’
Aiming for a range of the diverse voices called for by Natasha Boulding, CEO and co-founder of Sphera (C&I, 85, (10), 40), our panellists consisted of those working across the whole spectrum of climate change solutions – young scientists working within large corporates and SMEs including a scientist working within the carbon capture field in California. The work of our panellists was grouped into three themes: Fuels of the Future, Turning Waste into Gold and Inspired by Nature.
The panellists comprised:
Brett Parkinson, a Senior Engineer, Low carbon fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero in Santa Barbara, California, US, a ‘hard-tech’ start up working on the decarbonisation of natural gas. C-Zero technology converts natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon via high temperature pyrolysis. The hydrogen can be used to produce clean, low-cost energy on demand while the carbon can be permanently sequestered as a solid. In 2019, Brett was awarded an SCI scholarship for his research.
Natasha Boulding, a former winner of SCI’s annual business challenge for students, Bright SCIdea. Her speciality materials company, Sphera, works within the construction sector. Its focus is on developing sustainable, low-carbon alternatives with a product range including carbon zero and carbon negative concrete blocks made from aggregate encompassing waste plastic.
Dominic Smith, a Process Development Engineer at GSK, works to reduce energy consumption via green chemistry. His work involves finding greener ways to make medicines using enzymes found in plants and soil in order to cut energy consumption during processing and reduce hazardous waste.
Jake Coole, a Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, works on membrane electrode assembly for hydrogen fuel cells to assist in the transition to hydrogen powered buses and trucks
Clare Rodseth, an Environmental Sustainability Scientist at Unilever, uses lifecycle assessments to reduce the environmental impact of some of the 400 Unilever brands people use all over the world every day
The event co-hosts were a senior scientist at AstraZeneca, Oliver Ring (Chair of SCI’s Young Chemist Group) and Nikita Mayur Patel, a PhD student at Queen Mary London University, passionate about climate change. The key event sponsor was Johnson Matthey. There was additional support from Sarah Davidson at Croda, Anaphite’s Samuel Burrow and Manisha Pandey from Synthomer as well as from Scott Bader.
Discussion ensued as the panel members described their activities – and the challenges. Natasha Boulding explained Sphera’s blocks are the same strength and price as existing concrete blocks but have 30% more thermal insulation. She also added there is a benefit in being able to reuse waste materials. She engaged the live audience by explaining that concrete is the second most used material in the world after drinking water. Green technologies, for example, wind turbines, can’t be developed without concrete foundations. However, change is coming though with the steady growth of the ‘green’ concrete market.
For Jake Coole, there needs to be more hydrogen and charging infrastructure to fully utilise the developments in his sphere. He mentioned his work site has a hydrogen fuelling station and cars available to drive.
Dominic Smith highlighted enzyme use in green chemistry is still at an early stage, but manufacturers are now using enzymes to produce the drug amoxicillin. This is reducing the carbon footprint of the process by a quarter. Treating new diseases requires more complex medicines. Biodegradable enzymes can help in the process – these can be found in soils, exotic plants or deep-sea trenches, for instance. For him, it also makes ‘business sense to save nature and biodiversity’.
Brett Parkinson reminded the audience that action on climate change is still a recent phenomenon. The debate around climate change is not new but the ‘main reason we’re talking about it now is that there’s a driver to do it. Until the last decade, the world hadn’t cared about CO2 emissions. They just talked about caring about it.’ Now he believes the market has to be led by policies that promote low carbon innovation if ‘legacy industries’ are to adapt.
Clare Rodseth pointed out that her area of work has helped the company move away from petrochemical ingredients in its home care products. ‘Even small changes,’ she said, ‘have the potential to bring about large-scale change.’ Boulding stressed how we have to ‘measure everything. You can’t understand your impact – personal or professional without measuring your carbon footprint.’
Questions & answers
The panel faced live studio questions as well as queries from the online audience. They included the potential risks posed by hydrogen and why it has taken so long to consider it as an alternative as well as the scope of industrial standards for lifecycle analysis assessments and their future. Others asked about the lifespan of fuel cell products and whether Sphera’s blocks could also be used for home insulation.
In summing up, Clare and Natasha both called for greater industry collaboration. Natasha called for the ‘blurring of disciplinary lines’ to ‘bring start-ups and bigger organisations together to help solve problems.’
And the survey said
Of the live audience questioned, 100% believed that ‘Science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions.
And as co-host Oliver Ring concluded: ‘This is the end of the session but not the end of the discussion.’ I couldn’t agree more.
*Watch the session at youtube.com/watch?v=i8Iw5F8XJ7w&ab_channel=COP26
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