A research project between the University of Oxford and the UK Government could help to achieve quicker wins in reducing global warming.
Dr Michelle Cain, Science and Policy Research Associate from the Oxford Martin School, is working alongside climate change specialists from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to deliver several resources designed to feed into policy-making.
- New metrics – Michelle has developed a way of estimating the warming impact of short-lived greenhouse gases (GHGs), which are emitted into the atmosphere, such as methane – a by-product of the agricultural sector. Standard methods only worked for GHGs with a long life span such as CO₂, or at specific time horizons. The new metrics will enable a sharper focus on policy to bring about cooling much more quickly. It is hoped that the metrics will also support Defra’s strategic decision-making on agriculture, land use and reducing emissions.
- Software tool – Michelle created a tool in Excel using data and feedback from stakeholders in the agricultural sector. This will enable the government to model the likely shape and outcomes of different national scenarios.
- Communications – The team developed several additional resources, including policy briefings and Q&As, to maximise awareness about the project for policymakers in Defra and stakeholders in other departments.
Policy will only work if it's informed by the best available evidence. But merely producing research evidence isn't always enough. One of the most effective things we, as academics, can do for good policy is help to build practical tools
Materials are being finalised as government calls upon UK industries to help it achieve zero emissions by 2050. The UK agriculture sector produces 50% of national methane emissions, and its policies are being re-written ahead of the UK leaving the European Union's Common Agriculture Policy.
This collaboration is the result of an Oxford Policy Engagement Network (OPEN) Fellowship - designed to support the development of mutually beneficial partnerships between researchers and policy makers, supported from the University’s allocation from the Higher Education Innovation Fund.
Focus on impact
While we cannot dictate policy changes, the least we can do is make sure we're helping to inform government decision-making
Michelle said her approach was inspired by a desire to solve real-world problems. 'Even if we reduced CO₂ emissions to zero today, the "baked-in" warming will remain for hundreds of years,' she said. 'Tackling methane is one of the most powerful and fast ways we have to slow global warming until the economy is fully decarbonised.
'In addition, choosing which metric to use for comparing different gases is an issue that has been cropping up in academia year after year – and it never seemed to get resolved. I wanted to look at warming impact, not just levels of emissions.
'By focusing on those two aspects, I hope to make a real difference.'
Michelle noted that the underlying climate science is not new, but her work aims to better communicate well-established science better. 'An effective policy response requires researchers and policymakers to collaborate in design of specific, practical interventions and ways to test their viability. That’s what the OPEN Fellowship has enabled us to do,' she said.
An effective policy response requires researchers and policymakers to collaborate in design of specific, practical interventions and ways to test their viability. That’s what the OPEN Fellowship has enabled us to do
'While we cannot dictate policy changes, the least we can do is make sure we're helping to inform government decision-making.'
Immersion in policy
Michelle spent 18 months as a Natural Environment Research Council policy placement fellow at Defra, specialising in air quality, between 2012 and 2013.
Her involvement with policy really took off in 2017-2019, when she developed the Oxford Martin Programme on Climate Pollutants. She gained a Knowledge Exchange fellowship on agricultural emissions, enabling her to build her professional network in that area and speak at industry-focused meetings. She organised a workshop in her specialist area, as a more efficient way to speak to the agricultural sector.
She also worked with co-authors specialising in climate policy, including Myles Allen, Leader of Climate Research Programme at the Environmental Change Institute; and Adrian Macey, Adjunct Professor at the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute. She has also briefed several policy-led organisations including UK government departments, the European Commission, and the New Zealand Ministry for Agriculture.
It’s no good just "telling" science to people. You need to understand what policy makers want to do, what they need, and then provide relevant information
Learning from experience
One key to her success on the project with Defra was finding time to identify and understand the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, in and around the policymaking process.
'It’s no good just "telling" science to people. You need to understand what policy makers want to do, what they need, and then provide relevant information,' she said.
'For example, Defra has an air quality expert group – all the committee members are experts whom the government asks questions of all the time. It’s great to feed into those groups if you can.'
Michelle added that it was also important to tailor interactions according to the needs of specific audiences.
'Civil servants are very, very busy. They are hugely knowledgeable, but they are juggling a lot. Some specialists will read through masses of stuff and so you can talk through research with them. But others need to get up to speed more quickly.
'Policy will only work if it's informed by the best available evidence. But merely producing research evidence isn't always enough. One of the most effective things we, as academics, can do for good policy is help to build practical tools.'