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Eight out of 10 physicists believe key net zero target will be missed

27 November 2023

Survey published today as part of the Physics Powering the Green Economy report finds 83% of Institute of Physics members believe we are not on track to meet key environmental goal.

A survey published this morning by the Institute of Physics (IOP), with a foreword by Sir Alok Sharma KCMG MP, former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and President of COP26, has found 83% of physicists do not think the UK is currently set to hit the key 2050 net zero target.

The 2050 target adopted by the government commitment to ensure the UK reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% from 1990 levels is a key element of international efforts to slow climate change and prevent the potentially disastrous impacts of a warming planet.

But the IOP’s survey of 502 physicists working in academia, business and research found widespread scepticism about whether current progress is fast enough.

And 68% of IOP members who responded said they think the current level of investment in research and development (R&D) is too low to deliver the level of growth in the green economy needed to reach net zero.

The findings are particularly worrying given how crucial physics-based innovation and science is to many of the technologies needed to fulfil the 2050 ambition.

The Physics Powering the Green Economy report published today cites five key technologies which will need investment and growth if the UK is to get back on track to meet its targets. They are: nuclear, renewable energy, energy storage, hydrogen and clean fuels, and carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS).

All those technologies rely upon on physics skills and research, with 72% of UK Research and Innovation Research Councils R&D funding for them over the past five years going towards areas classed as ‘core physics’ and ‘strongly physics’.

But the report also highlights huge opportunities for economic growth offered by the switch to green energy and gives reasons for optimism.

It describes a proliferation of successful businesses in this area, in total 1,653 companies in the UK with a further 119 in Ireland. The combined turnover of businesses operating in at least one of the five key technology areas is £743.5bn, with a total fundraising of £5bn.   
The report argues this is a strong platform to build on and a huge opportunity for sustainable economic growth and jobs.   
But physicists leading the energy transition are clear that taking that opportunity needs a ‘systems approach’ that, for instance, develops the grid at the same time as pushing forward renewable energy capacity.  
The report calls for a strategic plan that advances each element in a coordinated way to achieve the objective – the type of thinking that the physics community are expert in.    
Louis Barson, the IOP’s Director of Science, Innovation and Skills, said: “This report shows the UK and Ireland are at a crossroads: one route sees us fail to meet the challenge of climate change – the other opens the opportunity of building a thriving green economy. And the physics community think we’re on the wrong path right now.   
“We should hear this message – not least because physics has been key to understanding the challenge of climate change, physics is central to the technological solutions which make up the green economy, and physics cultivates the ‘systems thinking’ needed to boost growth.   
“A green economy can create new routes to productive and valuable employment, inspire communities and give hope to young people for whom the impacts of climate change will be most acute.   
“It could also make a massive contribution to our national prosperity. Our analysis identified that businesses with a green economy profile already have a turnover of nearly £750bn and are spread across the UK and Ireland – with the right energy, vision and investment that figure should continue to grow.   
“We are calling for a systematic plan that makes the most of the power of physics: pushing forward aspects such as R&D, business innovation, infrastructure, and skills, while keeping on track to accelerate the growth of the green economy and deliver a sustainable and just energy transition.”  
Professor Martin Freer, the IOP’s outgoing Vice-president for Science and Innovation, who wrote another foreword to the report, said: “Many of the technologies comprising the green economy have been driven, and will continue to be driven, by physics. Physicists are responsible for innovations ranging from nuclear energy to breakthroughs in solar and wind power and the battery technology which is needed to store energy drawn from new sources.

“A healthy physics ecosystem is therefore an essential underpinning to the continued development of the green economy. Over the course of 2023, the IOP has shaped the debate on the green economy, working with over 500 IOP members to understand and quantify the role of physics in developing green technologies.  

“I hope that policymakers will be interested in the view of the physics community and engage with the IOP to help drive further progress towards net zero. Ultimately this is about building on our strengths to be world leaders in the large and growing green economy.”

Physics Powering the Green Economy has three sections:  

  • A new analysis showing the central role of public funding for R&D in physics-related areas for key green economy technology along with future-focused technology profiles that indicate where physics R&D has potential to further accelerate capability and impact;
  • Original business demographics setting out the scale and geographic distribution of businesses working on these physics-powered technology areas, with case studies of businesses leading change, to facilitate thinking about business support in local contexts; and
  • Short essays from leaders in the physics community articulating the need for an overarching ‘systems’ approach to deliver on R&D and business support, taking account of a broader range of essential enablers: securing the necessary physics skills in a way that promotes diversity and inclusion in the sector, and appropriate and timely deployment of infrastructure.