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Five years on from the UK’s Net Zero Target

This month is five years since the UK became the first major economy to set legally binding carbon budgets, with a target of achieving Net Zero by 2050. As a strategic priority area, the GW4 Alliance is prioritising the transition to a sustainable Net Zero.  

The Net Zero target stemmed from a recommendation made by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to tackle and respond to climate change. The ambitious target commits the UK government by law to reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by the UK to Net Zero by 2050.   

The GW4 region is home to more climate expertise than any other area worldwide as well as innovative facilities such as the National Composites Centre, IAAPS and the Exeter Centre for Future Clean Mobility. Together, we are leading the way in unlocking green and inclusive growth opportunities and achieving sustainable Net Zero.  

To mark this anniversary, GW4 have put together our top five achievements towards a sustainable Net Zero over the last five years:  

Sustainable Net Zero as a GW4 Strategic priority

All GW4 Universities declared a Climate emergency, with Bristol the first UK University to declare a Climate Emergency in April 2019. Since then, GW4 has appointed Academic Net Zero Ambassadors across the institutions, set up a Net Zero project team and included Sustainable Net Zero as one of our four key priority research areas in our new strategic vision 2023-2028.  

As a regional Alliance, GW4 is well placed to accelerate the transition to a sustainable Net Zero. The South West has one of the highest concentrations of businesses in the Net Zero economy in the UK, and the Net Zero economy in Wales is over three times more productive than the regional average. However, our area also faces major challenges, with the effects of climate change already being felt by marginalised urban, rural and coastal communities, which are particularly vulnerable to flooding, heat stress, coastal erosion and a loss of biodiversity. 

The GW4 Sustainable Net Zero strategic priority adopts a whole systems approach and champions co-created solutions. GW4 brings together researchers, government, industry, organisations and communities to better understand the challenges and priorities faced by different sectors in our region, and identify opportunities to collaborate on innovative solutions. Under GW4’s new strategy GW4 has supported large collaborative projects and achieved sustainable external grants and funding for Net Zero programmes.  

Living Labs for Net Zero

The GW4 "Living Labs for Net Zero" network was established in July 2022 with the aim of engaging local authorities, community organisations, industry, university students, researchers and non-academic staff in delivering a Net Zero transformation. Living Labs work iteratively through exploration, experimentation and evaluation, to develop and test solutions that are fit for the communities they work with. Universities have an invaluable opportunity to use their research on campuses and with wider communities to co-create Net Zero solutions. 

GW4 held a practical workshop in Bristol entitled "GW4 Living Labs: Scope 3 and the Road to Net Zero" in February 2023 bringing together different groups to focus on some of the hardest to decarbonise emissions areas, such as supply chains and travel. 

Following the workshop GW4 and partners published a report identifying eight priority areas, ranging from energy to education and collaborations have started to form towards achieving sustainable Net Zero.  Read the report in full on the GW4 website 

Accelerating the hydrogen ecosystem

Hydrogen technologies will play an important role in decarbonising transport and energy to meet the UK government’s 2050 Net Zero target and large scale aims to drive the growth of low carbon hydrogen. GW-SHIFT will be a key enabler of these priorities, supporting the UK transition to green hydrogen production.  

The Great Western Supercluster of Hydrogen Impact for Future Technologies (GW-SHIFT) is a unique programme bringing together academic, civic and industry partners to unlock the huge potential of our region’s hydrogen research and innovation ecosystem.  

Led by the University of Bath and University of Exeter the programme secured £2.5 million in October 2023 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of their Place Based Impact Acceleration Account awards (PBIAA). 

Researchers from across the GW4 Alliance alongside the universities of Swansea, South Wales, and Plymouth are collaborating with 25 civic and industry partners, contributing over £1.5 million in additional funds and in-kind support. The aim is to maximise the enormous potential of the South West of England and South Wales hydrogen ecosystem, providing solutions for storage and distribution, transport, and the energy sector supporting up to 100,000 jobs by 2050. 

Transforming Housing and Homes for Future Generations

With the support of GW4, in 2023, a research project led jointly by researchers from the University of Bath and Cardiff University secured £4.6million from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to develop energy efficient and low carbon housing. 

Researchers from across GW4 will work with industry, community groups and local authorities to transform existing housing in Bristol and Swansea into ‘Beyond Net Zero’ liveable homes. The housing sector is responsible for around 20% of the country's total carbon emissions and with 80% of the homes that will be occupied in 2050 already built, retrofitting the country's existing housing stock to improve energy efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions, is critical to achieving the UK's Net-Zero targets. 

The team are designing, testing, implementing and monitoring innovative prototype bio-based lower carbon solutions to improve the energy efficiency and resilience of housing, and evaluate their performance compared to traditional synthetic materials. The goal is to create scalable and transferable designs and solutions to retrofit a greater number of houses and different house types. 

Professor Jo Patterson, Director of Research at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University and Co-Director of the project said: “This project evolved from a GW4 research community, and would not have been possible without the support of the GW4 Alliance. I am excited to be part of a team that will expand on that research, working with colleagues across the alliance and alongside new regional partners to transform existing housing by working with, and for, communities.” 

Developing the next generation of Net Zero researchers

GW4 is committed to nurturing talent and developing the next generation of researchers and leaders.  

In 2021 the GW4 Crucible programme focused on the theme: ‘Transitions to Net Zero in the Time of Covid-19’. GW4 Crucible is an early career researcher leadership development programme that brings together 30 competitively selected future research leaders to explore how they can enhance their career through interdisciplinary, cross-institutional research leadership and collaboration.  

Without successful interventions dedicated to supporting transformations towards Net Zero emissions, climate change will have a catastrophic effect on society. The GW4 Crucible programme offers the opportunity for future research leaders from different disciplines to come together to generate innovative, multifaceted responses to tackle global challenges.  

Dr Rebecca Windemer, Crucible 2021 Alumni said: “The GW4 Crucible was an incredible experience. The theme was an extremely timely and important topic that requires interdisciplinary collaboration and the cohort included researchers from a really wide range of disciplinary backgrounds. I learnt so much, developed skills in research dissemination, collaboration and leadership and also increased my own self-confidence." 

Progress and next steps

Since the UK signed its Net Zero commitment into law significant progress has been made towards reducing emissions, but many challenges still lie ahead. To coincide with the 5 year anniversary the ‘At a Crossroads: Pathways to a Net Zero Future’ report, which builds on the recommendations of the Net Zero Review, Mission Zero will be launched by Rt Hon Chris Skidmore OBE (and Professor of Practice at the University of Bath) and Dan McGrail, CEO of RenewableUK. The report explores what has been achieved in the past five years to deliver greater clean energy for the UK, how far we have come, and how far we still need to go to meet Net Zero commitments. GW4 welcomed the publication of Mission Zero and will continue to collaborate across the alliance and beyond to deliver our strategic priority to accelerate the transition to Net Zero.  

To find out more about GW4’s Sustainable Net Zero strategic priority and vision visit the website, sign up to the GW4 Sustainable Net Zero newsletter and follow @GW4NetZero for updates on X 


University of Bath
University of Bristol
Cardiff University
University of Exeter