Adrian Gault was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours for his work with the Committee on Climate Change, but the Fitzwilliam College alumnus will not rest in the face of the climate emergency.
Adrian (Economics 1977) tells fitz.cam.ac.uk: “There’s an urgency to the problem - a need for action now, because we can’t just delay and expect that we will be able to catch up or that technology will come to the rescue. Every year we don’t take action leaves more to be done later and at greater cost.”
This year is particularly important, Adrian says, as Glasgow will in November host the UN Climate Change Conference COP 26. COP stands for Conference of the Parties.
“It’s an important international meeting in terms of putting things on track to the Paris Agreement, which everybody’s signed up to, barring the United States,” he adds.
“By the end of this calendar year, members of the COP should be setting out increased ambitions in their targets for reducing emissions and saying more about how they’re going to do that.
“It’s all very well signing up to Paris, but we’re not currently on track to reach those goals. In the UK, we’re the host, and it’s vitally important the UK goes into that meeting as a leader.
“To be credible as a leader we need to be showing not only that we have stretching targets – and in the UK we are committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 - but also showing how we intend to meet those targets. That, at the moment, is lacking. The government knows it needs to do more, and set out those plans. That’s what we need to see over the next year.”
Adrian was recognised with his OBE for services to the environment and tackling climate change, accepting the award on behalf of his colleagues.
He says: “I was really proud. Clearly a lot of people have contributed to this over the years at the Committee on Climate Change. It’s recognition of the work the whole of the team has done.
“I’m grateful that the work has been useful and recognised. Personally, part of what I thought about was my parents, who are not around to share it but would have been very proud.”
When Adrian joined the Civil Service in 1980 after leaving Fitzwilliam, his preference was to work on the labour market in the Department of Health and Social Security. But his career wound a slightly different route before he assumed the role at the Committee on Climate Change, which was established in 2008.
The independent body advises the UK Government on the level of its emissions reduction targets and tracks the progress, reporting to parliament annually.
Adrian, who served as the Committee’s Chief Economist for a decade and is now Chief Assurance Officer, says: “The government doesn’t have to accept our advice. So far it has, and most recently that has led to the adoption of the net zero target by 2050.
“It is achievable, it’s clearly very difficult and requires a whole range of actions across the whole of the economy which we are not currently taking.
“The Committee’s role is about what the UK will be doing, but the UK is responsible for only around one per cent of global emissions. This is clearly an international problem, where we all need to be taking action.”
The decision of President Trump and the United States not to back the Paris Agreement – signed in 2016 to deal with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance – is “unfortunate”, Adrian says. But he is convinced there is recognition of the need for action elsewhere within the US, and that high polluters like China recognise the need to change.
“The science is clear. There ought to be – there will need to be – a meeting of minds about the need to take action,” Adrian says.
“Over the last year, 18 months, with (Swedish teenage activist) Greta Thunberg and the response to that, there has been a big shift in terms of understanding and knowledge and the need to take action on climate change.
“I think we have to be optimistic we can still reach the targets. There’s lots of things individuals can do – in relation to things like how and how much we travel, diet and waste reduction. Those individual actions are really important, but I don’t think that will add up to what we need to achieve. We need the government to lead and provide the low-carbon policy frameworks within which we make decisions.”
The OBE also prompted a period of reflection, including to Adrian’s time at Fitzwilliam. He was a keen footballer for the College and enjoyed the academic and social balance at Fitzwilliam.
He adds: “Studying economics was great – the teaching especially – but the main thing was the community. You meet people and make friends, who remain friends, although I’m not very good at keeping in touch.”