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By Julia Knights on

2020 UK Year of Climate Action

This morning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched the UK Year of Climate Action at the Science Museum. The museum’s Deputy Director Dr Julia Knights explains why the Science Museum Group will be a prominent scientific voice in preparations for the most important climate meeting on the planet.  

As a soil and climate scientist, I am passionate about engaging our Science Museum Group audience of 5.5 million in the biggest threat to our planet – global climate change.

At the end of this year, Glasgow will play host to the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference – COP26.

As Sir David Attenborough told us this morning during the launch of the Government’s UK Year of Climate Action, ‘the moment of climate crisis is with us and our planet needs us all to act now’.

We know what has to be done to cut carbon emissions, and we can’t afford to delay action.

Simply put, without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, global mean surface temperatures are likely to rise by more than 3°C above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of this century.

Yet, at current global rates of carbon emissions, it is estimated that we have approximately 10 years before the carbon budget associated with a good chance of limiting warming to a 1.5 degree rise is used up.

The day began with Sir David Attenborough, Science Museum Director Sir Ian Blatchford and local school children planting a beautiful glade of native UK sourced trees in the Science Museum courtyard to mark the start of an exciting year of climate exhibitions and events across our Group.

Sir David Attenborough, Sir Ian Blatchford and Darren Moorcroft plant trees with pupils from Barnes Primary School and John Betts Primary School at the Science Museum to mark the Science Museum Group’s climate-focused public programme as part of the Year of Climate Action.

The ceremony was a symbolic nod to the 100 million new trees that need to be planted every year if the UK is to meet commitments to cut emissions to zero by 2050.

To ensure we did it right, we partnered with the Woodland Trust and their CEO, Dr Darren Moorcroft, who selected and supplied us with four native tree species to act as natural carbon sinks and benefit our wildlife: hazel trees will provide hazelnuts for birds, wild cherry will provide a rich source of nectar for our honey bees, whilst rowan and crab apple will provide berries for birds in autumn.

These trees are in addition to the 43,000 native trees that the Science Museum Group has already planted over the past decade at our National Collections Centre in Wiltshire.

As part of our further commitment to greenhouse gas removals, we have committed to planting a further 1000 native locally-sourced trees every year to 2030.

Sir David Attenborough plants a native locally-sourced wild cherry tree with Sir Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Director, Dr Julia Knights, Science Museum Deputy Director & Dr Darren Moorcroft, CEO Woodland Trust to to mark the Science Museum Group’s climate-focused public programme as part of the Year of Climate Action

But planting trees, even millions of them, is not enough to mitigate global climate change.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5°C Special Report, limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels requires reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally around 2050, alongside deep reductions in other greenhouse gases, especially methane.

The UK Year of Climate Action, launched by the British and Italian Prime Ministers today at the Science Museum aims to motivate communities and businesses across all sectors from agriculture and transport to energy and waste to support the breadth of changes needed for the UK to achieve its net zero emissions target.

The Prime Minister and Sir David Attenborough join pupils from Barnes Primary School and John Betts Primary School to hear more about climate science at the Science Museum

Of course, there will need to be real action and commitment from governments globally including our own.

The UK is now in a unique position to influence and show leadership in its commitment to the net zero by 2050 it legislated last June, and encourage the world leaders and government climate negotiators from 197 countries, who signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to make greater commitments to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions beyond what they pledged in Paris five years ago.

That of course will be crucial given that the pledges under the Paris Agreement cover only a fifth of the emissions reductions needed to meet the 1.5°C target.

The Prime Minister recalled an electric taxi, invented by Walter Bersey in 1897 and now part of the Science Museum Group Collection, as he told the audience now was the time to ‘come together with the courage and the technological ambition to solve man-made climate change and to choose a cleaner and greener future for all our children and grandchildren’.

The Bersey electric taxi, designed by Walter Bersey in 1897. Part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

In support of the UK Year of Climate Action, the Science Museum Group today revealed the latest steps in our ongoing commitment to inspiring ourselves and all sectors to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon capture and storage will be the focus of our new temporary exhibition opening in November at the Science Museum aimed at exploring the latest technologies for greenhouse gas removal from the atmosphere.

Visitors will explore a range of approaches to removing carbon: from nature-based solutions such as tree planting, protecting ancient forests and maintaining our peat bogs to technologies – as yet untried at scale – such as direct air capture and producing energy from bioenergy crops such as short rotation coppice and capturing the carbon dioxide produced.

Climate change will be the theme of our biggest event, the Manchester Science Festival, organised by our Science and Industry Museum and running from October to November 2020.

Looking through three different lenses: cities, the natural world, and ourselves, over 100,000 visitors will be encouraged to be part of the climate solution – by looking at the positive contribution that individually, and in communities, we can make to cut our own greenhouse gas emissions and live sustainably.

As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was the catalyst for scientific innovation and unprecedented change worldwide. Now, with Greater Manchester’s vision of becoming carbon-neutral by 2038, the city is uniquely placed to influence future progress.

Visitors enjoying an immersive experience at Manchester Science Festival in 2018

Climate change has been part of our programme for more than a decade, starting with the Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery, which has inspired over 5.4 million visitors already.

Since then the Group’s approach to sustainability has transformed our working practices and collections care. We have also held climate-themed exhibitions on James Lovelock and another on “The Rubbish Collection” – an art installation of a month’s worth of rubbish discarded by Science Museum visitors and staff.

In 2005 the Science Museum became the first national museum to install solar panels on our roof. And one of the UK’s largest solar farms is hosted at our National Collections Centre in Wiltshire.

Opened in 2016, the 88 acres of photovoltaic arrays generate close to 50 GWh of energy annually; enough to power 15,400 homes.

Aerial view of the solar farm at the National Collections Centre

But there is much more that we, as the world’s leading group of science museums, can and will do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and promote sustainability both within our working practices, our estates and with our audiences.

Today’s announcement and activities demonstrate our commitment to this goal and I look forward to sharing more later this year when we aim to launch our new Sustainability Strategy.

Manchester Science Festival takes place from Friday 23 October – Sunday 1 November 2020.

The Science Museum’s Carbon Capture and Storage exhibition runs from Friday 6 November 2020–October 2021.

Further reading:

Explore climate change through items in the Science Museum Group Collection

Discover more about James Lovelock and how we detect and monitor atmospheric pollution.