Professor Alice Larkin

As part of our Women of Wonder interview series, we spoke to Alice Larkin, Head of the School of Engineering at The University of Manchester, and Professor of Climate Science and Energy Policy at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Professor Alice Larkin: "Climate change is not a topic that should be taboo."

After completing her PhD in climate modelling, Prof Larkin joined the team at Tyndall, where she studied the conflict between the aviation industry and climate change.

From 2017 to 2019, she was the Head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, and is now the Head of the School of Engineering. Here, she reveals her goals are to further enhance the quality of teaching, research and social responsibility activities within the School.

We asked her a few questions about the impact her work has had and what inspires her.

Can you tell us a bit more about your work at The University of Manchester?

My research focuses on how to tackle climate change by exploring measures to reduce CO2 emissions generated by different sectors of the economy - the aviation and shipping sectors, for example. This work means engaging with policymakers, and I’ve contributed oral evidence to government inquiries on a number of occasions. The evidence I’ve given on climate change subsequently contributed to the development of the UK’s Climate Change Act.

Aside from my research, I’ve taught on a range of degree programmes including Environmental Engineering to Civil Engineers and Energy as a System to the MSc course Renewable Energy and Clean Technology.

How does your work impact society and the world we live in?

Scientists and policymakers have been aware of the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to avoid so-called ‘dangerous climate change’ for decades now. However, emissions continue to rise, and the impact of climate change is being felt increasingly across the world.

In 2015, governments from around the globe came together in Paris to develop a new agreement to tackle climate change. This agreement, known as the Paris Agreement, has a goal of avoiding a worldwide 2°C warming above pre-industrial temperatures.

The key focus of my work is how to meet this goal by making changes across energy systems. My research considers how to make changes that impact on how we use and produce energy, and also assesses the potential impact on other systems, including food and water.

If we don’t respect the delicate balance of our earth-system, or treat it as consumable, we will likely create sustained damage to both society and the planet’s eco-systems.

What inspires you?

The natural world inspires me - but its awesome power and influence over our lives is easy to overlook in a country like the UK, where we experience very few extreme natural events.

Yet if we don’t respect the delicate balance of our earth-system, or treat it as consumable, then we will likely create sustained damage to both society and the planet’s eco-systems.

People who are full of energy also inspire me!

What did you study at school, and when did you realise you wanted to specialise in your area?

I studied maths, physics and chemistry at A level [a subject-based qualification taken by students in the UK between the ages of 17 and 18 years old]. As a child, the stars always fascinated me. I had a small telescope and spent many hours outside on frosty nights, trying to spot planets and other interesting astronomical phenomena.

I did Physics with Astrophysics at university, but when it came time to choose what to do next, I wanted to stick a bit closer to home, so I sought out a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. While I enjoyed this work, I reasoned fairly early on that I would prefer to work at the interface of different disciplines, rather than immersing myself solely in physics.

After working in science communication for a while after my PhD, I landed my dream job – a Post-Doc at the interdisciplinary Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, based at The University of Manchester.   

What would you like to see happen in your field in the next few years?

I’d like to see much more attention paid to the role of social sciences and interdisciplinary analysis in tackling the problem of climate change. Right now, there’s a strong emphasis on quantitative and economic modelling, and this plays a very influential role in terms of policy and decision-making.

But climate change challenges how we in wealthy nations live our lives. It’s not a topic that should be taboo. And yet it remains the case that technological solutions to the problem - even if it’s shown they will not deliver results in the time needed - still dominate the climate change debate, and this is at the expense of other more systemic solutions.

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