University science: poised to deliver on net zero policy

May 17, 2024

University science is uniquely placed to inform government policy: ensuring debate is grounded in scientific fact, and coordinating between industry, government and society.

Image: Shutterstock

The push towards a net zero economy has turned Australia’s energy landscape into a dauntingly complex place. 

University science is helping governments to navigate this labyrinth in three ways: through informing the numbers that measure progress towards net zero — and the consequences of not reaching it; through fundamental research driving innovation; and through partnerships that can fast-track technologies that will shift the dial.

Firstly, university science has the capacity to inform policy by providing accurate models of climate-impacting emissions needed to meet Australia’s net zero goals, says research director of Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Professor Ben Smith. The first step is designing better measurement processes.

Victorian non-profit organisation The Superpower Institute and the universities of Melbourne, NSW, Swinburne and Wollongong have grouped together to modernise greenhouse gas monitoring. In many areas, we are still in the dark about the extent and impact of fossil fuel emissions, Smith says.

“Next-generation measurement and prediction is an area where disciplinary and technological expertise need to come together, and of course universities have strong capability.” 

University science can also inform policy through communication. Scientists must be at the forefront of the conversation about the push towards net zero, because they can provide the scientific facts behind the policies, says UNSW Dean of Science and Scientia Professor Sven Rogge.

“This will help dispel the spread of misinformation that can impede developments across energy transition projects critical to our pursuit of a sustainable future,” he says.

“Universities will play an increasingly important role in working with a number of key stakeholders — including industry, government and the general public — in ensuring that any decisions on policy in reaching net zero are based on accurate, validated information that is both scientifically sound and socially responsible.”

It’s a tightrope walk: universities must lean into their research credentials without stepping over into areas that industry or community groups are better placed to handle, says Libby Robin, Emeritus Professor at ANU and an author of ACOLA Australia’s Energy Transition Research Plan

Rather than duplicating the advice offered by consultancies, universities should help industrial scientists communicate their work with broader audiences, including technical audiences, and feed practical case studies back into academic discussions, Robin says. 

“This can be achieved through universities’ unique partnerships with public institutions, such as museums, traditional owners and the ‘next generation’ of creative thinkers who have to live with the world to come,” she says.

Powering policy from partnerships

One example of universities already influencing policy design is the NSW Decarbonisation Innovation Hub. Here Smith leads a network of scientists focused on the challenges and opportunities of changing current land use and primary industry practices to reduce or offset emissions, while securing co-benefits for people, and the environment.

“The state government’s thinking behind creating a Hub to consolidate decarbonisation efforts is based on the very idea that universities are uniquely placed to bring together the right actors from research, government, industry and community to develop effective solutions, and promote or seed their widespread adoption,” Smith says.

He says addressing climate change requires a transdisciplinary approach, that the research sector’s wide reach of inquiry is well placed to lead.   

“It is doing this by collaborating with industry and communities for implementation, and governments to overcome barriers through regulatory or policy changes, or incentives such as carbon and biodiversity offset programs.” 

Setting measures for success

With Australia positioning itself as a global net zero high technology hub, success will involve access to research that may not yet be in the public domain, and translating it for commercial applications, Smith says.  

“There is an excellent value proposition for businesses to engage with the university sector to access relevant knowledge, and for universities to engage with industry to facilitate impact of their research and to access R&D funding,” he says. 

To successfully inform net zero policy, universities must not only supply quality research that can ground debates, but contribute to those debates by making that data accessible and understandable to government, communities and industry. 

In this way universities can play a full part in helping Australia achieve its net zero goals.

Writer: Rachel Williamson

First published in Australian University Science, Issue 11

Related stories

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *