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Interview: Oxford City Council’s scientific adviser Professor Nick Eyre

It is often said that local government might be well-placed to tackle an issue like climate change, but after years of austerity, not every town hall will have the skills and knowledge required.

As councils develop plans to transition to net zero and improve air quality, it could be time to look outside the normal channels for expert advice.

Oxford City Council, which has proved to be a pioneer in this field, recently became one of the first local authorities in the country to appoint a scientific adviser – Professor Nick Eyre (pictured).

Professor Eyre is senior research fellow in energy at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), and a supernumerary fellow of Oriel College.

He leads the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, which is the main UK university research programme on energy use.

And he is also a co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy.

In his voluntary role as the scientific advisor, Professor Eyre will offer the council independent advice relating to its goal of tackling the climate emergency in Oxford, in particular he will be helping to inform the councils future sustainability strategy to meet its net-zero targets.

I do sense that there is a need for good scientific advice in local government, he tells Air Quality News.

I suspect other councils will move in this direction, if they can. Obviously, not every council can, because not every local authority has got one or two universities like Oxford to draw on.

But I wouldnt be surprised to see some of the bigger cities move in this direction, because their ambitions for zero carbon do raise a lot of questions, and they could benefit from advice which is outside the scope of what their officers have traditionally worked on.

Professor Eyre says many universities want to play a bigger role in their local communities.

There are a lot of academics who already give advice for free, because they think it’s important and worth doing and want to make a difference in their local community.

If you look at many community energy projects, they rely hugely on professional volunteers or recently-retired professionals. There’s a there’s a huge wealth of people in this country who do want to try and help us move in the right direction.

Professor Eyre has worked as a researcher, consultant and manager on energy and environmental issues since 1984.

He has also supported Low Carbon Hub in their landmark Oxfordshires Local Carbon Economy report which evaluated the economic case for investment in the low carbon economy in Oxfordshire.

He was one of the UK’s first researchers on mitigation of carbon emissions, and was co-author of a presentation to the UK Cabinet on this issue in 1989.

In 1997, he wrote the first published study on how the government’s 20% carbon emission reduction target might be delivered. He has since advised government ministers and parliamentary inquiries.

Looking at the challenges faced in Oxford specifically, he says there are a number of old buildings in the city centre, which will have to sensitively decarbonised.

Building efficiency is an important area, Professor Eyre explains. The council has done a pretty good job within its own buildings, but they are relatively small fraction of the housing stock.

The structure of the city centre means it’s never been appropriate for heavy use of motorised transport, which is why Oxford I think was the first place in the country to go to have park and ride, he adds.

Obviously, there’s quite a high rate of cycling in some of parts of the city and theres interest in whether e-bikes might extend that range to some of the estates on the outskirts.

The more people who could use the lower impact transport modes, the better. So, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

And within the city centre, buses and taxis are a significant proportion of movement. Electrifying those will be an important step forward. I think people are pretty keen to move in that direction, but obviously that has implications for charging, particularly rapid charging, if you want to make it a viable option at the moment.

Professor Eyre says one of the strengths of a city like Oxford is the number of partnerships that exist or can be formed between different organisations and groups.

The Low Carbon Hub, which is essentially a not-for-profit business, has been hugely effective in catalysing quite a lot of community-owned renewables projects and its beginning to work on energy efficiency projects.

The concept of the hub works fairly well in a place like Oxford because there’s loads of people with drive opinions and ideas. The council can help catalyse all sorts of other people to act, from major businesses to local communities.

He adds he has already spoken to Southampton City Councils chief scientific adviser, Professor AbuBakr Bahaj, who was appointed to the role in 2012 and in 2014 was named by the UK’s Science Council as one of the UK’s 100 leading practising scientists.

The focus will be trying to make sure that good advice gets into Oxford City Councils zero carbon plans, adds Professor Eyre.

Oxford City Councils deputy leader and cabinet member for green transport and zero carbon Oxford, Cllr Tom Hayes, comments: I am delighted to welcome Professor Nick Eyre to his role as Oxford City Councils chief scientist.

Climate science has a vital role to play at the heart of the Councils policy making, and Professor Eyre is a world-leading scientist who will provide the best advice. As chief scientist, Professor Eyre will strengthen this councils evidence-based decision-making by bringing the scientific community and independent advice into our democratically elected council.

Having worked with our new chief scientist on the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change, and other business, I have seen first-hand his love for Oxford and his deep commitment to ensuring the city uses science effectively. I look forward to the city council receiving Professor Eyres forthright, independent, expert advice, added Cllr Hayes.

Photo Credit – Supplied by Oxford City Council

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