Research Impact


Ep. 4: Where research transforms climate change mitigation

Hear how UCL economics researchers and campaigning journalists put keeping fossil fuels in the ground and divestment on the climate crisis agenda.

Host and Producer

  • Dr Rosie Anderson, Research Fellow, Public Health Policy team, UCL


  • Prof Paul Ekins, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources and the UK Energy Research Centre
  • Dr Christophe McGlade, Head of the Energy Supply Unit, IEA
  • Damian Carrington, Environment Editor, The Guardian


Rosie Anderson  0:04   

Hello and welcome or welcome back to the podcast where research transforms lives. I'm Dr. Rosie Anderson. And every Thursday the summer, I'm inviting you to take a deep dive with me into the UCL research that has changed the world around you. Lots of the stories we're looking at in this series are about researchers working really closely with people who care about the things they study. There are benefits around to that it improves the university work and keeps it relevant. And collaborators get access to expert skills and sometimes answers to some of the biggest questions in their lives. But independence can be a precious resource for researchers with a controversial cause. And they have that in common with journalists doing the same thing. Sometimes both professions are told that to campaign to care makes them biassed and unprofessional. Still, they both need what the other can offer. And nowhere is that more true than with the science of climate change. In 2015, Dr. Christophe McGlade and Professor Paul Ekins published the paper they hoped would change the way we thought about keeping global warming under two degrees Celsius. And at the same time, Damian Carrington, the environment editor of The Guardian, was steering that newspapers landmark, keep it in the ground campaign. They all have the same aim, halting investment and exploitation of new sources of fossil fuel. I spoke to them about how they negotiated that balancing act of needing each other and needing their own voice to give their workers best chance. Paul, Christophe, thank you very much for speaking to me, I wanted to start by asking about how you came to be doing this research at all. 


Christophe McGlade  1:41   

I started at UCL as a PhD student. And really, the topic was very, very broad. Whenever I began, it was looking just at what is the role of fossil fuels in a climate constrained world, many parts of the research world in particular, the research focuses on the alternatives on things like clean electricity, and hydrogen and biofuels. And there hasn't always been a huge amount of work going on the existing oil, gas and coal assets. And so as I was working through my PhD under Paul's guidance, we saw this as being an area where it seemed like we had a lot of the numbers that were needed with a lot of the tools that were needed to answer the question of, if the world is serious about tackling climate change. And at the time, the the temperature limit that people had in mind was, how do we limit the temperature rise to two degrees? And what would that mean for the fossil fuel producers. And so we were able to use the model that we developed as part of the PhD and to really dig into those details, look at who does well, who does not so well, and how much needs to be left in the ground. If we are, if we as a welder serious about about limiting the temperature rise to, to that two degree limits. 


Paul Ekins  3:01   

At the time that crystal started, which was sort of early in the 2010s. I can't remember 2011 2012 Perhaps the UK Energy Research Centre had been going since 2004. If I remember, rightly, Kristof's work was the only work in the UK Energy Research Centre on fossil fuels. And everything else was around either energy efficiency, or around zero carbon alternatives to fossil fuels. And everyone just assumed that we will crack on with energy efficiency, and we will crack on with clean energy. And then there was this question left hanging in the air. Well, what are the implications of that for fossil fuels? So we were really the only people who were asking that question, and thank heaven that, you know, Christoph was was up to getting a really robust answer, 


Rosie Anderson  3:52   

in practical terms, is that literally how much fossil fuel reserve needs to stay in which hole in the ground basically, in laypersons terms? 


Christophe McGlade  4:05   

Yeah, I mean, broadly speaking, that's, that's correct. The, whenever people talk about limiting, the temperature rises to a certain level, and the conversation very quickly becomes about carbon budgets, how much remaining co2 cambia met, while limiting the temperature rise to two degrees or to 1.5 degrees. And it was known whenever we did this before we did this research that the remaining carbon budget was a lot smaller than the amount of co2 that would be admitted, if the world combusted all of the fossil fuel reserves. And if you burned all of the coal reserves, all of the gas reserves and all of that or reserves, you would exceed that budget massively, it was at least a factor of three times too big. But what wasn't quite so clear at that stage. Before we did this research was what's the distribution between oil, gas and coal? Coal is the there's reserves the largest for coal, because also, in many places of the energy system, the easiest fuel to replace. And so what we wanted to do was with this, that sort of knowledge for coal and knowing how you can replace oil, with electric cars and natural gas with with alternatives, find out well, how much of the oil gas and coal individually will need to remain in the ground, if we are to limit to two degrees, and then go one stage further and say, Well, if we can only use 20% of the of the coal, I think was even less than I think it'd be 10% of the coal, who owns the coal that is used in that scenario. And similarly for for oil, because until you know, which of those which are the fuels can be used, while being compatible with two degrees. What we very often found when in conversations was a company or a country would say, Well, we know there's a limited carbon budget, but that carbon budget is ours, we can we can extract our own reserves, and that won't exceed the global carbon budget. And you could say, you asked every single country or every single company the same question. And they would say the same thing. And of course, again, when you added up, then the carbon budget is massively exceeded. So what we wanted to do was to kind of draw a line in the sand, give a give some numbers to people and say, Well, if you are working towards two degrees, in optimal sense, the world is working collectively, in the cheapest possible way of achieving two degrees, who, who leaves their stuff in the ground and who produces their their stuff, 


Paul Ekins  6:40   

it set a baseline as to who could produce what and what that then enables you to say is when countries say that they want to produce more than that, and we have this quite explicitly in relation to Canadian oil sands, which are huge. And so the question then is to the Canadians, well, if you're going to produce more oil sands at a higher cost than elsewhere, who is going to produce less oil in order to stay within the carbon budget, but you will immediately get into these very difficult conversations, but absolutely essential conversations as to what oil and gas is going to be left in the ground and what isn't. It therefore tightens the political tension, if you like, which is absolutely essential. 


Damian Carrington  7:27   

I'm Damian Carrington, and I am environment editor at The Guardian newspaper, back in 2015, the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who had already announced he was leaving wanted to do one big last campaign and decided to do it around climate change, and fossil fuels. And we thought at that time, the best thing to sort of focus our resources and attention on was fossil fuel divestment. So trying to get companies, universities, all sorts of institutions to take their investment away from fossil fuels because of this incredibly powerful and grow fast growing science at that time showing that to you know, we just had too much fossil fuels already. And we couldn't afford to burn even even the stuff we had already. 


Rosie Anderson  8:15   

I find it quite surprising that actually, this was the first work of its kind being done, at least in the UK. Because, you know, the oil and gas, the fossil fuels lobby is so immensely powerful and sophisticated. So exploring the alternatives is very important. But what why do you think people wanted to focus so much more on alternative energy, renewables downstream stuff, perhaps, rather than this question of how do we limit what we extract in the first place, 


Christophe McGlade  8:45   

I think some of the results of the work themselves that the high level results, they wouldn't have been a massive surprise to some people in the oil and gas industry, because they would have known this from their own modelling exercises. But as Paul said, the modelling exercises they had been carrying out used proprietary datasets, which cost millions and millions to get access to. And also if you're a private company, of course, they will oil and gas company, you will have your your own knowledge, which only you would know. But it's only whenever kind of the we were able to do that work in terms of giving the best estimates to characterise what the state of play is today, in terms of how much exists and how much it cost to extract and and what the flow rates are. Once we've done all of that work with the with the model, then you can start to ask these interesting questions. And what we wanted to do as part of the paper was then to put that out there, as I said, to really kind of use this as a bit of a challenge to countries into companies to say, Well, if you think some of these numbers are wrong, or you want to produce more than what what does that mean for the others? We've we've seen in recent years, increasing amount of emphasis put on well, how do we how do we deal with the legacy assets? How do we deal with To the existing infrastructure? And how do we start to reduce that in a way that's compatible with the with the climate targets? 


Paul Ekins  10:08   

Yes, and I think we mustn't underestimate the real power of peer reviewed literature, especially when it comes out in a high profile journal like nature, which is where this paper appeared. Because, as Christoph said, certainly people in the oil and gas industry would not have been surprised by the results. And indeed, you could have arrived at a general perception of the results by doing much, much less work just on easily available data. But that wouldn't have been published in the peer reviewed literature. And if the companies concerned to published it themselves, then people wouldn't really believe it, because they wouldn't be able to document the data, where they'd got it from, and the assumptions that they will make him because all those things are fairly commercial, commercially confidential, but when you can get that data from publicly available sources, triangulate it with other publicly available sources, documented all document the assumptions that you're making, and justify their reasonableness, and then go through peer review, and then get it published. Immediately, you've got numbers in the public domain, that people realise are worth more than they would be if they were simply coming from a single source, especially when it was a commercial source that hadn't had an interest in them. 


Damian Carrington  11:37   

So we were really lucky with the timing because early in 2015, this paper by Paul leekens and Christoph McGlade came out, which did this enormous bit of research to work out how much of the world's existing reserves of fossil fuels could be burned whilst keeping below two degrees centigrade of global heating, which at that time was the target. And so this was published in a really top journal called nature, and was really solid piece of science, it was just really striking, it was showing that virtually all coal or at least 80% of it, had to stay in the ground, and large chunks of oil and gas, and they weren't talking about stuff that you know, might be there always been thinking about was being explored for this was reserves that had already been identified. And often were sort of cited on company books as being an asset to those companies. So even seven years ago, thanks, in large part to this paper from UCL, we knew that we couldn't even afford to burn the stuff we already knew about, let alone continue to explore. 


Rosie Anderson  12:50   

listening to you talk something, which I think is contrary to what a lot of people think of when they think of doing research and how research happens. And what good quality research looks like is that you were extremely aware of the power of publishing, peer reviewed literature, as you just said, and that that was an intervention into something ongoing and dynamic and really, really urgent. And that you you did that in a way that you knew was going to be a provocation in a way? Would that be fair? 


Paul Ekins  13:23   

Well, absolutely. And it was intended to be a provocation. I mean, as Crystal said, it was a challenge. So when you do a piece of research like this, you say, Okay, these are the data were no, they're not perfect, there will be you know, there's lots of uncertainty about a lot of these data. These are the assumptions, the world is very uncertain, these assumptions may well not work out in the way that we've said, but on the basis of this data, and these assumptions, these are the results you get that we get. If you don't like them, then please correct the data, give us better data, or make more reasonable assumptions, more plausible assumptions. And then because we would, by that stage, have a model, which could interpret those, we would plug the different data in and the different assumptions in and we will get different answers. But again, they too would be subject to challenge and correction. So yes, it is very much a provocation, and of course provocation in a very controversial topic, where there's lots of money at stake, and therefore, it got that much more attention than it might otherwise have got. 


Christophe McGlade  14:33   

I mean, Rosie, coming to your question on the the importance of getting this published in a in a high profile journal. This conversation is reminding me that that was a pretty torturous process to get that to get that through. I mean, I think it was the best part of a year full time work just for just on this paper. I mean, when you see it now it's you know, 2000 words and and a couple graphs, it doesn't seem like so much time dedicated would would go just into that every word was poured over every, every sentence, every figure, every number that appears, going through that really rigorous peer peer review process, improve the paper massively. But it did require that the, I would say the the support of people like Paul and support from the from the UCL team to be able to have that, that confidence, well, let's keep going with this. There are, of course, other projects, which needs which could be getting worked on. But this is an important one. And we know it can, it can make a bit of a splash whenever it comes out. So to have that support, I think was absolutely vital to be able to, to be able to produce something like this. 


Rosie Anderson  15:42   

I think that's a really interesting point from the point of view of how research is done and funded. And then how it goes on to have the kind of impact that your research has had is that there's doing the research, and then as getting getting it out there. I think it's maybe underestimated how much work it is actually, if you're not a researcher, how how tricky that can be, but also how much thought goes into it. 


Paul Ekins  16:06   

That's absolutely true for most papers, I think that was less necessary in this case than it might have been in other cases, because the nature of the paper, and the substance of the paper meant that it was it was big news. And so unlike most scientific work, when it was published in the journal, there were a number of big newspapers that were already interested, they done that work before it came out during the embargo period. And they were really ready to go when it came out. And we mustn't forget that we were in the run up to the Paris Climate Conference. So climate was already reasonably high on the on the public agenda. And then suddenly, here's this paper that says for the first time, this is the amount of coal gas and oil that we can produce. And according to our model, this is where it should be produced, 


Rosie Anderson  16:57   

who picks it up. And in the press, he was talking about it in the media. And what happened as a result of that. 


Christophe McGlade  17:04   

I remember the Guardian was very keen on it, because I think it was just at the beginning when they were they weren't developing their own, keep it in the ground campaign, I think they'd been thinking of developing something along those lines, in parallel to this paper, but the newspaper clearly gave the scientific backing for for the company wants to do lunch. 


Damian Carrington  17:29   

We did a whole bunch of things. Obviously, at the core of it was a lot of reporting. Some of that was scientific, in terms of what the situation was with climate and the amounts of fossil fuels that we needed. We commissioned lots of comment pieces. I mean, we sort of spent a lot of time on the creative side of it as well, we had our designers making the pages look really good. And when we published to launch the campaign in the paper, there was a whole wrapper around on the outside cover, which was beautifully designed. We also looked at the investment side, in particular at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome Trust, who did have significant investments in fossil fuels at that time. 


Christophe McGlade  18:15   

But then, once it kind of got picked up by the UK media, there was then quite a big second wave from the international media, that that was the, you know, the week of the launch request and kept coming in for further comments to talk on radio programmes on TV programmes. If you don't have the the support to be able to go and speak to media and speak to anyone who's asking questions on the paper, then the dissemination will just kind of start to fall off. But as we saw, it got such big attention at the beginning, it was it was a bit easier to make that make the case for why we should, why we should keep pushing it and make sure that we were responding to all of these these questions and, and comments as they were, as they were coming in 


Paul Ekins  19:00   

doing research is one thing and demands a specific set of skills. But talking about the results of complex research to a general audience, which is mainly the audience's that we were talking about talking to is a completely different set of skills. A lot of the questions that we got were extremely detailed. I mean, I remember some some really pretty hostile questioning from Canada, because of the implications for the Canadian oil sands and the people that who didn't like these results at all. And we're very keen both to understand them. And then if they thought they weren't robust, to challenge them, 


Christophe McGlade  19:37   

getting into the complex technical details is very important for some audiences. And for others, it will just completely go over their heads. Even speaking with policymakers within the UK, you can immediately see what what what messages are resonating with them, and then you could you know, you'll know well for next time when I'm speaking with a policymaker or speaking with a certain audience. I'll I'll know what sorts of things to say to keep their attention. 


Damian Carrington  20:08   

I would say that scientific research is the cornerstone of my reporting, in particular. And that's partly because I had a scientific background, I did a PhD in geology and some postdocs, I guess I was leaning in that direction anyway. And certainly for a long time, writing and reporting on the environment really was about the science, half of my reporting is based on scientific papers published in peer reviewed journals. Because that feels like something kind of really solid, the way science works is a bit difficult to sort of make it then jump into the public domain, how many scientific papers you've read, but they're all written in the third person. And they're full of jargon. And they're also careful, you know, because nobody ever wants to over claim anything, and they're sort of cautious and all that kind of thing. So sort of trying to translate that into something appropriate for members of the public, our readers without dumbing down absolutely not doing that. But but making it accessible in terms of language and just trying to sort of really distil the essence in a accessible fashion, I think is, you know, the sort of core part of the job. And, of course, you know, we hope it, we know, in some cases, more often than not that it does influence the sort of public debate and how policies change and governance decides things. Because politicians, business leaders, all sorts of people read our coverage, not just regular members of the public. What I say to scientists is, don't be shy about your work. I know, in academic circles, it's not often seen as a good thing to be promoting, or even self writing your work. But the work that scientists do, in many cases is really important in the world. And if you are able to work with journalists, then you can get it to a much, much bigger audience. And all that hard work that you've done will be much more relevant in the world. Also, don't be afraid of journalist I know, sometimes we've got pretty bad reputation. And in some cases that certainly deserved but it was a little bit of effort and a little bit of collaboration with your institutions, comms or PR team, don't know who the good people to go to are, and maybe who the ones not to go to are. And then the last thing I'd say is a really practical thing, which is if you've got data, provide spreadsheets, if you've got you know, maps or images provide those even you've got videos, if that's relevant to your work, provide those because most news reporting is done online now. And we'd like to have those things just to help research really stand out. 


Rosie Anderson  23:03   

I'd love to ask a bit about how your relationships with campaigners of all stripes, whether that was the Guardian and their campaign, but also other organisations that picked up on your findings, how that evolved and how you work with them. I'm thinking particularly three fifty.org. 


Paul Ekins  23:18   

I mean, to be honest, our relations with those kinds of people were pretty positive, because generally, they liked the message. They they hadn't, I think probably thought in as much detail about how much fossil fuel was going to stay and was going to have to stay in the ground consistent with the climate targets. And as soon as they saw the numbers, their reaction, like the reaction of most people was good happens. I mean, I think a much more, a much more difficult audience for us, was the fossil fuel industry. Because we were really challenging their entire strategic positioning at the time and their strategic positioning was that the world is going to need fossil fuels for a very, very long time, we're going to go on producing them at scale, you know, more or less into the indefinite future. And when I think back to those days, 2015, pre Paris, pre any kind of talk of net zero, or any of that stuff, yeah, it was a it was a huge challenge and required a real learning on the part of all sorts of people, both campaigners, activists on the climate issue, but also the fossil fuel industry. So when we had events with them, which we did, yeah, I mean, it was Daniel Kristof, in the lion's den really, you know, having to having to defend a point of view and a piece of scientific analysis, which was not really very welcome. 


Rosie Anderson  24:49   

That's really interesting, though, that you did hold those events because I have encountered people from campaigning organisations, organisations that campaigned on exactly this issue, who make it almost a point of principle not to engage those actors not to engage those stakeholders, because they are, you know, an existential threat of some kind as they see it. But you took a different tack to that. And what did you say to them? 


Paul Ekins  25:15   

Well, we were very keen to stress that if they wanted, there was a very positive role for them in the future. There are all sorts of skills and technologies which they were expert in which other people were not expert in, which were going to be extremely useful in, in the low carbon world towards which we needed to be moving. 


Damian Carrington  25:37   

I'm not sure I'd say we will, sort of working with the campaign as we were sort of ploughing the same Thoreau, if you know what I mean. But from memory, I don't think we work that directly with them. But there was a big divestment campaign going on led in principle by an organisation called three fifty.org. And one of the founders, Bill McKibben, there. So I think it was it was a little bit symbiotic, you know, in a way, we were trying to do our job, which is reporting what's going on in the world, finding out information that sometimes people don't want to be found out. And in a way, that was almost kind of ammunition for the divestment campaigners. We didn't really bring the campaigners kind of inside our reporting, because I don't think that would have been appropriate. But I can tell you a little story, actually, which was interesting. So I went to a climate conference, quite a big one in Paris, in 2015, at that time, and did a lunchtime panel, which was hosted by a journalist and with a couple of other people on the panel. And journalists were saying, isn't this, you know, inappropriate for a newspaper? To be sort of campaigning in this way? Isn't your job to be more objective and sort of stand back a bit who's American, I think there's more of a culture of that in American journalism. But it's interesting, I set my piece and said, I thought we were still doing our job responsibly, and still, you know, centering it on scientific or other information. But at the end, he asked this audience, it's quite big, actually, probably a couple 100 people there mostly scientists, I think, as well as others. Did they think it was appropriate that we taken this route and done this kind of campaign? And there was an overwhelming vote in favour of it, which gratified me very much. 


Rosie Anderson  27:26   

How would you say that investor or commercial behaviour has changed as a result of your findings as a result of this, of the campaigns that grew out of them? 


Christophe McGlade  27:37   

It was financial institutions are one of the audience's who were very keen to understand what the what the paper says and what the research meant for them. Because for them, if there are very large quantities of oil, gas and coal that can't be reduced, be produced, that means that there's a financial loss step for somebody. And he wanted to make sure that it wasn't them who who incurred that loss. In terms of how it changed their bid behaviour and actions, it's very hard to point to one piece of work that would that has changed their views. But you have seen a real evolution in financial organisations attitude towards climate change, and addressing and understanding the risks from climate change in terms of climate change damages, but also the risks and opportunities for the those financial institutions in addressing climate change. So whenever you look at a lot of the bank's financial actors, now, pretty much all of them will have a net zero target. Some have put much more thought into it than than others. But all of them will be thinking about the sorts of topics that were raised in the paper. 


Damian Carrington  28:52   

So I think the thing we're most pleased with, keep it in the ground campaign was the booster go to the fossil fuel divestment process. And certainly within a fairly short space of time, a year or two after that, I think something like $7 trillion of assets under management had committed to divest from fossil fuels. And the financial world is a really powerful lever for making change in the world, because all businesses and companies need investment to do what they want to do. So I think the fact that we felt was shifted dial in that area. 


Rosie Anderson  29:35   

How are you taking this forward in your work today? I mean, you've I mean, you obviously Christoph have moved on to pastures new, how does it how does this work still a part of what you do now and and the same question to Paul as well. How did you evolve this work? 


Christophe McGlade  29:51   

Just last year, for example, we put together at the AEA, a net zero roadmap. So this was looking at what would Need to happen if the world wants to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, which is roughly speaking, when we need to achieve zero emissions, if we want to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, it was included in the Paris Agreement, and it was reaffirmed in the Glasgow pact. And then that net zero roadmap, again, one of the big findings that came out of that, and one that really grabbed a lot of attention was the result that if the world is serious about moving towards net zero emissions in 2050, there is no need for investment in the new oil and gas fields. So it's, it's sort of continuing the spirit of the the paper that Paul and I put together, because it's it's commenting on the same topic. The actual conclusions of the netzero map, I think are even stronger, because the the the climate constraint is even more stringent. 


Paul Ekins  30:52   

And of course, we at UCL are doing a doing a bit too, we still have the model with a different research team. We published a paper, again in nature, earlier this year on a 1.5 degree target, because the work with Christophe was looking at a two degree target, because in 2015, that was the international aspiration well, because climate change is clearly much more serious than was thought to be the case, then we repeated that work for a 1.5 degree target. Not surprisingly, that means that even more of the oil and gas needs to be left in the ground. And so that's an even more challenging message. 


Damian Carrington  31:39   

So in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published a special report on a new target of 1.5 degrees centigrade. And the reason they did that was because the science has shown that even at 1.5 degrees of global heating, the impacts were going to be really, really bad around the world for millions or billions of people. And so the UN process then move towards having a target of 1.5 rather than two degrees. So having been really struck by this work that was back done back in 2015, by Paul and Kristoff on two degrees. I was wondering, well, what would what would that same research look like if the target had been one and a half rather than two, because it presumably would have meant the to even more of the world's fossil fuel reserves would need to be kept in the ground. Another factor was, of course, some years have gone past. And so some of that had already been burnt. So the available budget in the space we had left was also shrinking. So I got in touch with Paul and said, Well, what do you think, could you do an update. And thankfully, he was able to do that with a bunch of colleagues that UCL and that came out just ahead in the September, I think ahead of the cop 26, which was hosted by the UK in Glasgow. So again, a really impactful time, 


Paul Ekins  33:03   

that new paper on the 1.5 degrees, got a lot of coverage, I think because so much of the basic robustness of the model. And the approach that we were taking was established with the two degree paper, the 1.5 degree paper was was a much easier piece of work in some ways. You know, one of the things that I'm pleased about is that on the basis of that kind of publication, the UCL national UK energy model is now the energy model that is used by the government. The business of the Department of Business, energy and industrial strategy, and obviously, for governments to take on the work of other other other organisations institutions, is quite an achievement. 


Rosie Anderson  33:48   

And that seems like a good and positive note to finish on. Thank you very much, Paul, and Christoph for talking to me. That's all for now. I hope to see you next time where I will be talking to Professor Elena Robson about the modern fight to protect the ancient ruins of Nimrod in Iraq, and why ISIS a part of a long tradition of people who have damaged that city to gain control over its history. If you can't wait until then, and want to hear more about the impact of UCLA research on society in the world, then why not take a listen to Made at UCL presented and produced by our students. Finally, I want to thank Professor Paul Ekins, Dr. Christoph McGlade and Damian Carrington, our guests, and of course you our listeners. This podcast is brought to you by UCL minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insight and expertise through events, digital content and activities that are open to everyone. 

- end -