Interview: NPL's Richard Barker on measuring net zero

Richard Barker, head of energy and environment at the National Physical Laboratory, talks about the need for a rigorous systems level approach to the net zero challenge.

How can a systems level approach help address the net zero challenge?

A lot of the time people will say “I’m doing something for net zero” but of course the issue is that no single thing on its own can deliver it. Net zero really means the totality of everything that we do. It’s very easy to pursue a particular innovation thinking that it’s a net zero innovation, but it won’t deliver on net zero because it doesn’t all add up.  And this is where a systems approach to net zero starts to come in. It’s an incredibly complex problem with a lot of dependencies. Whenever you touch one part of the system, there will be consequences elsewhere and you need to follow that trail to make sure that it all adds up.  There is, I think, a growing awareness of that. Obviously, you can only tackle this one stage at a time. But certainly, from my perspective, it’s about understanding the totality of what you need to do even if you can’t do it all just yet.

How can dialogue between industry and the scientific community help drive this approach?

It’s very easy for science to provide lots of data, lots of information about things that people look at and think, “OK, but I need to do this!” So, one of the challenges that we have in the science community is to understand what are the questions that people really want to ask. Often people won’t know that question, there’s an element of science and discovery that needs to be done to actually understand what is the real question we’re trying to ask, and that’s why, from my perspective, it’s really important that we have this dialogue not just with policymakers but also the technologists to make sure that we understand what’s the science that we need to do to support that.

And so, part of my role is to take that view and say how can I benefit the UK most? Which science should I focus on? And so that’s a big challenge for me that I can only really solve by having lots of interaction with lots of different stakeholders.

How important is the science of measurement?

In any innovation you want to know that it works, and works effectively. Measurement is part of that feedback loop that says you try something, you measure it, you see how it works or doesn’t work, you learn from that. Innovate a bit more. It’s not something that happens very, very quickly. Yes, the initial idea might suddenly come out, but actually to get it to be a usable technology for society takes an awful lot of effort. That kind of iterative approach needs a feedback loop and measurement is the main way that we see that people need to create these feedback loops.

How can a systems approach help drive the growth of the UK’s low carbon sector?

If we didn’t have this climate problem, we wouldn’t be trying to pursue net zero as an ambition and we wouldn’t be looking to pursue so many of these low carbon technologies. The reason we’re doing it is because we want an outcome of net zero to try and avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change and so it’s really important that we don’t invest and innovate in technologies that actually don’t deliver overall.

That’s important for the UK because we want to be able to export our technologies and you know and support the global ambition towards net zero. So, what we want to be doing in the UK is making sure that one of our differentiators is that we create technologies that are truly part of a net zero system.

What’s the key challenge now?

With net zero we’ve got a deadline and we’ve also got a very specific objective, but it’s not necessarily a particularly tangible objective.
Science is very good at providing data, but that doesn’t necessarily motivate, doesn’t necessarily make it tangible. How do we make that complexity simple and understandable and clear to the people that need to drive the change in innovation? So that people know we’re making progress, that the innovation is working, that we can invest more in this area and that it does add up.

Richard Barker is head of energy and environment at NPL (the National Physical Laboratory)

This is an edited version of a longer video interview with The Engineer - click here for the full interview