Reaching net zero emissions is going to be a big challenge, with lots of partners involved and continuingly moving constituent parts. So how do we look at delivering on this challenge? I believe we need to take a whole systems approach, understand the interactions of the proposed technologies and systems, and put them together like a jigsaw to deliver the end outcome we all want.
Why a whole systems approach? Well, we must understand the interactions of each technology option. We must be able to accurately measure the wider impact across the energy system and wider economy, not just the immediate impact to a sector or community. This challenge affects us all, so we must find solutions that work for all.
The challenge is not just about getting to net zero and what year that will be achieved. This challenge is also about how we tackle the effects of cumulative emissions. Cumulative emissions represent the total sum of CO2 emissions produced from fossil fuels and cement, are measured in tonnes, and describe a country’s total history of emissions. And urgent action is required.
Whilst we target a future of net zero emissions, we must work hard and rapidly not to add dramatically to the existing cumulative levels. It is the total cumulative emissions that influence the impact on the climate and the resultant acceleration of climate risk. This makes it vital to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short-term to avoid the problem of higher cumulative emissions in the long-term.
A whole systems approach is needed because there is a need to coordinate the decarbonisation of power, heat, transport, and the infrastructure that connects them. No single technology solution is the answer. Instead, net zero will be delivered by a combination of known and underdeveloped options. So, we need to construct clear pathways, with a need to understand the costs and benefits of different options, system designs and decarbonisation pathways. We need to develop a portfolio of options but ensure that we make decisions based on evidence.
There are three pillars that are connected to ensure decarbonisation.
The first is technology. We need technology and innovation to deliver the low carbon solutions of tomorrow. Secondly, we need to repurpose our energy system infrastructure. We have an energy system that was designed for different challenges and different times. Thirdly we need a change in behaviour. This is incumbent on all of us and the decisions we make – how to travel, how to eat, how to heat our homes. If we do not change our behaviour it is difficult to see how we can deliver net zero.
All of this will be underpinned by finance. Funding is needed to deliver across all the pillars and that comes from both the public and private sector. We should note a couple of announcements in last month’s budget that look like they will have a really positive impact.
Firstly, the launch of a new National Infrastructure Bank, to be based in Leeds and with a clear remit to support clean energy, transport, digital, water and waste. Alongside this, the introduction of a clear sustainability objective for the Bank of England with a new remit for its Monetary Policy Committee to support the transition to an environmentally sustainable and resilient net zero economy; a welcome example of how a net zero lens needs to be applied to all government policy making moving forward.
Together these two changes will back up the momentum currently seen in sustainable investing which is being led by a real focus on ESG reporting. This will help drive forward the private sector financing of the transition, as this will be the sector that delivers much of the funding required.
As we sit here in April 2021, 2050, the defined date for net zero, seems a long way away. But activity is needed today, and we need to speed up our response to the climate challenge. Therefore, I use the jigsaw analogy.
The answers are there, but we must work hard to put the pieces of the puzzle together for the most efficient and effective path to decarbonisation. Working together as a collaborating force to put all the pieces in place, from a whole systems perspective, is imperative.
This will be delivered by a collaboration of academia, government, and industry. So, every decision that is now taken should be viewed through a net zero lens. We need to challenge every proposal and decision to ask how it would help to deliver a lower carbon future. And that is the case from a government, company, or organisational structure level, right down to individual actions.
We all have a part to play in solving the puzzle.
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