Climate Change


To prepare for tomorrow, look at what is already in place today

Patrick Vallance

Sir Patrick Vallance FRS FMedSci FRCP HonFREng is the outgoing Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), National Technology Adviser (NTA) and Head of the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) profession. Prior to this, he was a clinical academic at UCL and joined GlaxoSmithKline in 2006, where he was President, R&D, from 2012 until 2017. During his period as head of R&D, over 14 new medicines were approved for use worldwide, for diseases ranging from cancer to asthma and HIV. His own research was in the area of diseases of blood vessels and endothelial biology.


  • Climate will be the biggest issue for governments across the globe for the next 40 years
  • COP26 saw a focus on innovation
  • Scaling up is a massive challenge
  • We need to look at what is available today to see what can be used at scale in 2050
  • The challenges do not go away in 2050 and we must be prepared for what comes after.

The big issue that will occupy governments for the next 40 years is, of course, climate. Having a strong science base to the response will be critical. Science, after all, identified the problem. It is crucial for tracking where we are and it will be crucial for determining solutions as well. COP26 was the first to include a day dedicated to science which was very well attended.

There were many important outcomes from COP26. One basic result was the consensus among participants from different backgrounds that there is no longer any doubt that the climate is indeed changing. Also, there is no longer any doubt that human activities have contributed to that change. The reason such a consensus was possible is because of the work of many scientists across the world, and of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in particular.

COP26 was the first Conference of the Parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in which the final text of the outcome document – the Glasgow Climate Pact – included a commitment to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. And 23 countries agreed to phase out coal and not build new coal-power plants.

There was the launch of Phase 2 of Mission Innovation, which aims to develop innovations that will make a difference to clean technologies: supporting innovation was a priority at Glasgow. Importantly, there was a clear link at the meeting between climate and biodiversity, with 130 countries agreeing to halt, and indeed reverse, forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

This was not just a meeting about mitigation, though, it also focused on adaptation and the Adaptation Research Alliance was launched, involving 100 organisations across 35 nations.

And in advance of COP26, 40 senior scientific advisers to governments from around the world came together to produce a statement calling for science and innovation to be at the centre of global action to tackle climate change.

The challenges

While there were some good outcomes from COP26, there was also a big ‘but’. The scale of the challenge is extraordinary and is going to occupy governments around the world. In addition, there remains a need for further research. There are, for example, many tipping points in this process: the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, glacier destruction, sea-level rises, for example. It will be important to get better resolution modelling in order to more fully understand what happens over time and at much greater granularity. Research remains crucial.

Behaviour change: how quickly we choose to take up innovations such as electric vehicles will play a significant part in determining the ultimate size of the challenges we face. 


The second big challenge is innovation, particularly with respect to scaling up. There are many novel developments being announced now, but applying these across populations and countries is a huge technical and operational scientific challenge.

As Bill Gates puts it, the cost of a green innovation is much more than the cost of a conventional option, and the difference is what he calls the ‘green premium’. Reducing that to a level which is practical for people is again a scientific, technical and engineering challenge. There are areas where there are still no adequate solutions – for instance, massive energy storage. Carbon capture and storage is a technology that will be needed on any journey to net zero, but it is still not clear how to achieve that at scale. Concrete and shipping are others – the list goes on. Then, in addition, there is adaptation: innovations here will have to adjust to a continually changing situation.

A further area is behaviour. How quickly we choose to take up electric vehicles, change what we eat, and change how we move between or within countries, will play a massive part in determining the ultimate size of the challenges we face. Rather than prescribing change (which is very difficult to do), it is more important just to understand the factors that are likely to produce a big swing towards the desired results.


Finally, aspirations and ambition are laudable but delivery plans are needed – and needed now. Of course, these are very difficult politically as well as for individuals. Take the example of innovation: we have to work back from 2050. The scaling challenge means we have to get on with rapidly deploying some of the innovations we have today if they are to play their full part by 2050.

That, in turn means the next five years are crucial in terms of innovation. There has to be a roadmap to deliver all this, with both push and pull mechanisms, financial tools, and everything else needed to make sure that innovation can come through.

Another area where science becomes really important is in monitoring progress against the roadmap. This is at heart a systems problem. People tend to want to pick off distinct elements: ‘I can solve electric vehicles’, or ‘I can solve housing’, etc. Yet it all has to be done together. So systems monitoring is critical including, of course, understanding supply chains.

It also needs to be recognised that it is important to continue to research new areas, because the challenge is not going to stop in 2050. The problems will continue and we have to make sure we have the right answers for what comes next