Once a month, we'll be sitting down with one of the experts in our community to talk about what they do, how they got there and what they believe are the greatest challenges and opportunities in solving the climate crisis.
This month, we're talking to Dr Shaun Fitzgerald OBE FREng.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Please can you introduce yourself?
My name is Shaun Fitzgerald, I’m the Director of the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge (CCRC). CCRC is a multi-disciplinary hub which is developing a range of projects to Reduce emission of greenhouse gases, Remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and enable us to Refreeze the Arctic.
Q: What would you say is your specialty area, or your focus?
Our main specialties are in the Remove and Refreeze areas of our strategy. We are first developing approaches to Remove greenhouse gas emissions which have large-scale potential, because we not only need to get emissions down, we have to get to negative emissions. We currently emit something like 40 Gigatons of CO2 each year and we will be hard pushed to get to even half of that in the next 30 years, let alone the next 10 years which is really where we need to aim. We need to find solutions that have a scale of Gigaton per year removal potential and which can also be developed and rolled out in that time frame.
Our second speciality is developing approaches to Refreeze the Arctic. The Arctic is a critical part of the overall climate system. “What goes on in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” We have to find ways so that the ice cover can be reinstated. We are doing this mainly by researching the way clouds reflect sunlight, and how more whiter clouds could be formed using natural processes such as generation of more sea spray.
Crucially our research is not just about developing the technology, but also engaging with stakeholders to determine which approaches may be acceptable.
Q: Please tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into what you’re doing now?
I did my undergraduate degree in Engineering in the late ‘80s and even then, I had a burning question – “How can we provide energy to society without spewing out CO2?” It just seemed so wrong that we were damaging the environment for society to function. Admittedly I didn’t know just how damaging it was back then – but I knew enough to know that it wasn’t right. The non-fossil fuel and non-nuclear options were generally called alternative energy back then.
I undertook research on geothermal power, developing ways to try and harness the power of the reservoirs while lessening the environmental impact of the scheme – the power plant, the reservoir, and the pipelines. But also trying to understand how we could best preserve the geothermal reservoir itself while utilising it for power generation.
In the early 2000s, I pivoted from green energy supply to looking at how we could use less energy in the first place. I focused on developing strategies to reduce energy use in buildings with work in both academia and business, as well as supporting government in the development of policy for energy use and ventilation in buildings. In 2018, I was appointed Director of the Royal Institution, which is one of the leading organisations promoting public engagement for science in the country. This all brought me to where I am today, where I can combine these experiences and my passion for not just reducing emissions but also removing greenhouse gases and making a positive contribution to repair our climate.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in your area?
I believe the biggest challenges are twofold. First of all, you have the challenges of actually developing scalable approaches to reduce emissions, remove greenhouse gases, and refreeze the Arctic.
But then you have the societal, policy and economic challenges, which are probably even greater and more profound, asking does society actually want to do this? Moving from 500ppm CO2e to 350ppm, which is what we need to do to keep the planet fit for life as we know it, is a priority if we want it to happen. But is there a will in society for this to happen? There are so many other concerns as well – pressing issues in the here and now. Climate is a longer-term issue that can be difficult for people to grasp and prioritise the immediacy of what needs to happen, but primarily for the benefit of the younger generation, our dependents and further generations.
So, we need to help people understand why action now is in fact also good for the here and now. It doesn’t work to scare people into action. We want people to be excited about the future and to see this as an opportunity for making a more just world, and a world we all want to live in. Particularly in overcoming social barriers and social justice, because social justice and climate justice are intertwined.
Q: What are the opportunities for solutions, and how might your work support that?
There are two opportunities in particular in greenhouse gas removal, and they are Marine Biomass Regeneration and Giant Kelp in the surface waters of the deep ocean.
Kelp provides short-term benefits for island nations who rely on the oceans heavily as they can use kelp as food or ingredients for other products, with the co-benefit that some of what you grow ends up on the floor of the deep ocean. This therefore has both economic and lifestyle benefits while also sequestering carbon.
With Marine Biomass Regeneration, the big idea is based on recognizing that we have successfully destroyed many of the ecosystems in our oceans as a result of extensive whaling – certain species of whales are at just a few percent of their previous population. Whales used to provide an incredibly important function in the oceans; they feed at depth and defaecate at the surface. As a result, they recycled critical nutrients from the lower waters to the surface waters, rather like farmers spreading manure on fields, and enabled phytoplankton to grow which in turn led to whole ecosystems including fish stocks. The carbon sequestration occurs with the biomass which dies and ends up at the bottom of the ocean.
The Marine Biomass Regeneration project is focused on figuring out whether we can regenerate the whale population, enable fish stocks to increase and support local communities through them being able to sustainably harvest the natural resource of regenerated ecosystems.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in working in your field?
For someone who is still in school, I would say – follow your heart and do what you think is right, whether it’s geography, maths, engineering, land economy, history. All have ways by which you can help the climate crisis, because we need multi-disciplinary teams to tackle this challenge and provide solutions. The world needs people who care about doing things constructively and doing things with passion, and there is no greater call for your life’s mission than helping to sort out this climate crisis we are in.