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Social sciences to play vital role in meeting UK’s net zero goals

The UK’s journey to net zero by 2050 is set to be bolstered by the social sciences, thanks to a major new investment from ESRC.

Published 1st February 2022

The investment in an environmental leadership team worth £6.25 million will ensure the UK’s world-leading social science expertise plays a central role in interdisciplinary environmental science research.

Institutional, community and individual behavioural change will be fundamental to securing net zero by 2050. The team’s expertise will hasten our understanding of how to develop solutions that will help us reach net zero as well as other environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals.

The new team will bring world-leading social scientists and major national and local organisations together to highlight the skills and insights of social scientists when it comes to research, policy-making and action. Their aim is to foster new ideas and solutions based on evidence, data and expertise to support policy and decision makers across the UK.

The collaborative climate and environment social science programme, headed by Professor Patrick Devine-Wright of the University of Exeter, will be led by the University of Exeter and Professor Birgitta Gatersleben at the University of Surrey as part of a core team that includes the universities of Bath, Leeds and Sussex and the Natural Environment Social Research Network (Natural Resources Wales, NatureScot, Natural England, Environment Agency and Forest Research). Programme partners include other major UK and international universities, devolved governments, energy and water companies, local councils, science centres and the National Trust.

Together, the team will ensure the UK leads the world in understanding how to achieve the human and institutional change needed to deliver net zero and other critical environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals. The Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science (ACCESS) five-year programme will: map, assess and learn from current expertise; empower environmental social scientists with the knowledge and skills required to support policy or institutional changes; and create a world-class data and information hub to enable innovative solutions.

The UK Climate Change Committee’s 2021 progress report to Parliament was clear that actions from businesses, consumers, workers, households and citizens are vital to reach the net zero target. The International Energy Agency’s ‘Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’ 2021 report also highlighted the importance of behavioural change in achieving net zero: “Behaviour change plays a role in almost two thirds of the emissions reductions. Most of this comes through consumer adoption of low-carbon technologies such as electric cars, but 8% of total emissions reductions come from directly changing practices such as reduced business flights.”

ESRC’s Interim Executive Chair, Professor Alison Park, said:

“The UK government has set a national target of carbon neutrality by 2050, and an interim target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035. Tackling the climate and ecological crisis requires social science research insight, leadership and coordination across disciplines to catalyse the change required.

“ESRC is investing in this new world-leading social science and interdisciplinary team of experts to provide leadership for climate and environmental social science research at a crucial time.

“Their work will support the transition to a sustainable and biodiverse environment, and a net zero society. ESRC will work with them to develop further investments within this important thematic area.”

ACCESS team lead, Professor Patrick Devine-Wright of the University of Exeter, who is also a Lead Author for the IPCC Working Group III and ranked in the world’s top 1% of social science by citation, said:

“We are in a climate and ecological crisis, with profound implications for humanity and our planet. Urgent substantial action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is now required involving profound institutional and behavioural change, as well as socio-technical transitions in all sectors.

“This multi-faceted crisis demands the skills, insights and leadership of social scientists in relation to research, policy-making and action. We need to increase the accessibility, agility and use of social science, as well as further develop the skills required to support decision makers – and with this excellent investment and team the UK can lead the way.

“Critically, environmental solutions are often framed as technological or ecological fixes, underestimating the importance of social aspects. Championing environmental social science, in the context of current societal disruptions such as COVID, has the potential to open up new solutions that effectively and fairly address environmental problems and limit the negative impacts of climate and environmental change in the critical years ahead.”

The ESRC investment starts in February 2022 and will run for five years.

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