Climate Change


Achieving our goals will require a major cultural shift

Ian Boyd

Professor Sir Ian Boyd FRS FRSB FRSE is the Chair of the UK Research Integrity Office. He is a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews and an adviser to the Principal. Sir Ian is also co-chair, with Nicola Sturgeon, of the Scottish Environment Council. He is President-elect of the Royal Society of Biology and a non-executive director of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May 2021 and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


  • The policy framework needs to encourage individuals and institutions to act
  • An effective strategy needs to tackle all the indirect emissions that occur in a company‚Äôs value chain
  • It will not be sufficient to cut carbon: institutions will have to absorb it as well
  • Policy innovation is just as important as technology innovation
  • Sustainability is more than just net-zero carbon.

At the University of St Andrews, I am responsible for changing the business model to become a net zero institution. I also co-chair the Scottish Environment Council with Nicola Sturgeon. Looking through those two lenses enables a view over institutions across the country, everything from local authorities to SMEs and large corporates, as well as universities: in fact, all those institutions that collectively have to achieve net zero if the country is going to get there. 

In my experience so far, there is not much difference between the challenges at an institutional scale and those at national scale, although the results are slightly different.

What do institutions need to do? Similarly, what do national governments need to do? And how do those two programmes interact? Well, governments will need to create a policy landscape to allow not just institutions, but individual citizens as well, to make the choices required to get us to net zero. Institutions will have to plan within that context how they will deliver that outcome. There are a few factors to take into account. The journey to net zero is a long one. The University of St Andrews, for example, has decided to achieve this by 2035. And it is going to be really hard work. It has also won a sustainable institution award, but not for the progress it has made, rather because it is facing up to the realities of what this means. A lot of the talk about net zero is just greenwash.

There needs to be a change in the culture from top to bottom of the institution. The idea that net zero can be achieved by tackling scope one (direct emissions from owned or controlled sources) and scope two (indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling) emissions is a complete fiction. If everybody did that, then we would never make realistic progress.

We need to include scope three emissions, all those other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. That is an ethical requirement. Within a university context, the students absolutely insist on it. Therefore, the business model needs to change.

What does that mean in reality? For a university, it means that by the target date we will be doing things very, very differently. In addition, it will not be sufficient just to cut carbon out of the inventory, it will have to be absorbed as well. A university like St Andrew’s has to absorb about 40,000 tonnes of carbon by 2035, if it wants to get to net zero: that is the size of the challenge.

A university like St Andrew’s must absorb about 40,000 tonnes of carbon by 2035, if it wants to meet its net-zero target.

Statutory reporting is ineffective, providing no real incentive to the universities at all. The regulatory playing field is almost non-existent. Institutions like the University of St Andrews are not getting the help they need from Government, i.e. policy help. It is in the national context where that policy help can be implemented.

However, I believe COP26 asked the wrong question: it asked how to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. We will never get these down unless consumption is reduced: it is a mass balance problem. The more we consume, the more pollution we create. And part of that pollution consists of greenhouse gases.

The flow of natural resources into the economy (domestic extraction) is accelerating. At the same time, material productivity is declining overall and there is increasing evidence of resource exhaustion. In effect, humanity is paying more to run faster and go backwards.

In Scotland (and it is much the same for the UK and Europe) each person consumes on average about 18 tonnes of raw materials a year. That must reduce to below eight tonnes in order to be sustainable. Now that creates a policy problem.

A recent update to the Limits to Growth scenarios that were run in the early 1970s produced some new, plausible scenarios for the globe. They were run on the data that we currently have, including population change, but also resources and rapidly rising pollution. In the BAU scenario, the update shows industrial output falling rapidly over the coming decades. This can, I think, can be looked upon as a reasonable worst case scenario – which is what those in Government should be planning for. Are we doing so? Absolutely not.

Logically, innovation and investment in technology might change this, but not enough to resolve the scale of the challenge of this kind of scenario. So, this is not just about greenhouse gases, but about the way humanity manages the resources of the planet, while reducing pollution at the same time.

In the current policy context, there are a wide range of supply-side policies: the focus is on market solutions, deregulation, subsidy (which includes fossil fuel subsidies). There is a relatively small number of demand-side policies, about regulation, fiscal measures and incentivisation. Demand-side policies are hard to implement. Politicians do not like implementing them. This is because it means saying to people: “You may want this, but you can’t have it.” But that is what is needed. It is not a matter solely of reducing the supply-side policies: some of them are very good. However, they must be balanced on the demand side. We need to internalise the environmental costs.

I personally think the machinery of government needs to change. Until now, we have failed, repeatedly, to step up to this challenge. Policy innovation is just as important as technology innovation, and the latter will not work without the former alongside it. Policies must empower institutions and individuals to achieve the required results in a market-based context.

Finally, sustainability is more than just net-zero carbon. Even if we get to 2050 and achieve net zero, it will not have completely solved the sustainability problem. It will just be there in another form.