University science underpins our journey to net zero

May 17, 2024

Achieving net zero is a grand challenge that relies on universities’ science innovation, deep history and escalating the journey forward.

Image: Professor Sharath Sriram President of Science & Technology Australia, supplied.

Throughout history, humans have grappled with grand challenges that have shaped our existence, tested our resilience, and spurred innovation. From the Industrial Revolution and space exploration to the information age, these monumental quests transcended epochs, leaving indelible marks on our collective journey.  

The current quest for sustainable energy spans the globe, and the energy transition to a net zero future is humankind’s next grand challenge to overcome. The transition to net zero is unprecedented and complex, but it is also a beacon of hope and a call to action. 

Standing at the precipice of this mountainous task, we need to recognise that no single discipline can unravel these complex problems. Instead, the collective symphony of scientific minds will orchestrate our ascent. 

For example, take the deep STEM expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Their conservation and custodianship, sophisticated engineered systems, and complex technology development — woven into the fabric of this place for more than 65,000 years and continuing — provides sustainability blueprints for living in harmony with the land.

Australian universities have a critical role to play in cultivating the deep knowledge to unravel these wicked problems while fostering talent to secure Australia’s future STEM workforce. 

Our universities nurture a mosaic of disciplines, each one necessary to ensure the success of a net zero future. Boosting biofuel production efficiency, enhancing energy storage and conversion, developing the next generation of solar cells, protecting biodiversity through sustainable infrastructure development, and energy systems modelling — these incredible achievements are just snippets of the Australian university science innovations that are driving us towards net zero. 

Key to our success will be a connected innovation system that smoothly takes great Australian ideas, turns them into products and services, and creates maximum value for society. The three parts of our innovation system need to work in cohesion — universities and research institutes generate ideas and drive the push and pull of the innovation system. Businesses transform and adopt research, and the government champions the efforts with strategic incentives and drives efficiencies — informed by the best science out there. 

Creating this connected system is crucial, and the scientific knowhow, discoveries and outcomes from Australian universities are critical to its success. 

Writer: Professor Sharath Sriram President of Science & Technology Australia

First published in Australian University Science, Issue 11

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