The green economy is a concept that aims to achieve low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive development. It is a response to the global climate crisis and the need for sustainable growth. Physics is a key discipline that can enable and support the transition to a green economy, by providing fundamental insights, innovative technologies and multidisciplinary solutions.
Physics has been essential for the development of the energy system that we rely on today. Many of the discoveries and inventions that enabled the production, transmission and consumption of electricity originated from physics research. For example, the photovoltaic effect, which allows solar cells to convert light into electricity, was discovered by physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in 1839. The first electric generator, which used electromagnetic induction to produce electric current, was built by physicist Michael Faraday in 1831. The first nuclear reactor, which harnessed the power of nuclear fission, was designed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1942.
These examples show how physics has contributed to the creation of the current energy system, which is largely based on fossil fuels and nuclear power. However, this system also poses serious environmental and social challenges, such as greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, resource depletion and nuclear waste. Therefore, there is a need for a radical transformation of the energy system, towards one that is more renewable, efficient and equitable. This is where physics can play a vital role again, by providing the scientific basis and the technological innovation for the green economy of the future.
Physics and the green economy: a systems approach
The green economy is not only about developing new technologies, but also about changing the way we use and manage energy and resources. It requires a holistic and systemic perspective, that considers the interconnections and interactions among different sectors, actors and scales. Physics can offer a valuable way of thinking and working in this complex and dynamic context, by applying its methods and principles to analyse and solve problems.
For instance, physics can help us understand the physical laws and constraints that govern the energy system, such as the conservation of energy, the entropy and the efficiency. Physics can also help us model and simulate the behaviour and evolution of the energy system, using mathematical tools and computational techniques. Physics can also help us design and optimise the energy system, using concepts such as feedback, control and optimisation.
Moreover, physics can foster a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach, by working with other disciplines and stakeholders, such as engineers, chemists, biologists, social scientists, economists, policy makers and civil society. Physics can provide the common language and the shared framework to integrate different perspectives and knowledge, and to co-create solutions that are technically feasible, economically viable and socially acceptable.
Physics and the green economy: a call to action
Physics has a crucial role to play in delivering the green economy, but it also faces some challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, physics needs to overcome some barriers and gaps that limit its impact and relevance, such as the lack of funding, recognition and communication for physics research and innovation, the shortage of skills and talent in physics education and careers, and the fragmentation and isolation of physics communities and networks. On the other hand, physics needs to seize some opportunities and potentials that can enhance its contribution and influence, such as the increasing demand and support for green technologies and policies, the growing awareness and engagement of the public and the media on climate and sustainability issues, and the emerging collaboration and coordination among national and international physics organisations and initiatives.
Therefore, as physicists, we need to take action and responsibility, by:
- Advocating for more investment and support for physics research and innovation that can enable and support the green economy, and highlighting the benefits and impacts of physics for society and the environment.
- Educating and inspiring the next generation of physicists and citizens, by providing them with the skills, knowledge and values that can help them address the challenges and opportunities of the green economy, and by showcasing the diverse and rewarding careers and roles that physics can offer in this field.
- Engaging and collaborating with other disciplines and stakeholders, by sharing our insights, technologies and solutions, and by listening to and learning from their needs, expectations and feedback, and by co-creating and co-delivering the green economy together.
We, as the physics community, are a partner in this grand challenge. We stand ready to lend our knowledge and skills to drive change. Now is the moment for action.