In June this year, after extensive CBI campaigning, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, reformed legislation of the UK’s Climate Change Act to raise emissions reduction targets from 80% to net-zero by 2050. The targets are ambitious but vital, and there’s a lot of work to be done. It means that business and government must work together to avoid the most damaging effects of climate breakdown.
Meeting a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 will require far-reaching changes beyond those already underway in energy, industry, buildings and transport. Achieving a net-zero target will require a huge expansion of renewables, mass uptake of electric cars, smarter buildings using low-carbon sources of heating and cooling and using nature and technology to capture carbon. All this and much more will shape the future of the UK.
As Colin Matthews of EDF said in a recent CBI Ideas Forum article, “transitioning to a low carbon economy requires batteries to replace fossil fuels in vehicles and heat pumps to displace gas boilers in our homes and businesses.” Whatever the mix of solutions, we will need a lot of electricity, but to be carbon neutral that electricity must also come from clean and renewable sources.
EDF operates 35 onshore and offshore wind farms and has plans to at least double its renewable business. It owns one of the UK’s biggest battery storage sites in West Burton. And it’s involved in a recent partnership with Nissan to explore how second-life batteries from their LEAF electric vehicles can be converted into commercial battery storage.
A key to unlocking net-zero is not just the way that we generate electricity, but the way we store it. As Professor Martin Freer of Birmingham University said, “you need to cater for when the wind isn’t blowing”.
Prof. Freer is the Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) which, among its many areas of interest, is developing research at the Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage (BCES). “There’s been a lot of hype about battery technology and we’re not going to do it with batteries alone. We need to look at large, grid-scale storage solutions.”
Potential solutions are in the offing, from compressed air energy storage to converting excess energy from wind farms and other renewable sources into liquid nitrogen which can then be heated to vapour and pushed through turbines to generate electricity when needed.
“There are emerging technologies which are going to play an important role in the energy market as we take the path to net-zero because we don’t yet have the storage required. I think in 10-15 years-time these technologies will be commonplace in the energy market.”
But while Prof. Freer credits the ideas and ambition around tackling carbon emissions, he warns that appropriate investment is lacking. “There is sense from government that the market will somehow deliver if there’s a solution. In part that’s true, you can drive the market with incentives. But that will drive things around the current system when we require big change in that system. And the current level of investment coming from government isn’t enough to drive the required level of co-investment from industry. There’s an ambition from government but a lack of commitment.”
Futureproofing for net-zero
Professional services firm WSP leads by example when it comes to preparing for a carbon neutral future. Around 1,000 of its 6,000 UK based staff are environmental and sustainability professionals, while around 7,000 of their 48,000 staff worldwide fall into that category.
Working on major building and infrastructure projects such as the Shard and Crossrail, means that futureproofing is an essential part of what it does.
“A huge amount of what we design and the advice we give to our clients lasts a long time,” says David Symons, Future Ready Global Leader and Director at WSP. “With roads and railways, the design life is 120 years, for heating and cooling systems for buildings it’s 25 years. For buildings like 22 Bishopsgate or the Shard, only four skyscrapers worldwide have ever been taken down in a planned way.”
The issues such long-life projects pose to net-zero ambitions is something WSP has taken on with its Future Ready programme, which challenges all its employees to look beyond current codes and enable projects to be net-zero ready or as adaptable as possible for the future.
Rolling the programme out as a challenge to all its 48,000 people has provided WSP with a sense of purpose throughout the firm which in turn has proven good for business. “From a purely commercial perspective, we win more work when we make Future Ready the front and centre of our tenders and proposals,” says Symons.
The success of the Future Ready programme is an example of an organisation making big, institutional changes. But when it comes to leadership, Symons believes everyone has a role.
“Government does have a part to play, but so does business, local authorities and everyone else in the UK. But there is a vital role for public policy and for public finance to create momentum and set a framework.”
The challenge has never been greater, and the UK needs to speed things up if we’re going to become a zero-carbon economy by 2050. As Symons says, “there are 15,000 home a week that must move from gas heating, now there are just 220 per week. 20,000 homes need to be insulated weekly, we’re doing less than a tenth of that. 20,000 petrol or diesel cars need retiring or converted to clean energy per week when there are currently about 1,200 EVs registered weekly. Technology has a big part to play in that but so too does government in terms of setting benchmark, providing finance where private sector finance won’t necessarily deliver, and putting action alongside zero-carbon ambition.”
With COP26 being held in Glasgow next year, the UK has the opportunity to demonstrate its continued leadership on global climate action. To meet the target for zero-emissions, businesses need ambitious policy to support their actions – and the CBI is working hard to get that message across to all those in government.
Find out more about our Powering the UK’s low-carbon future campaign or join us at Low-Carbon 2020s - a Decade of Delivery conference where delegates will explore how business leaders can grasp the financial, social and environmental benefits of creating a sustainable business in line with Government policy to deliver a net-zero economy by 2050. To explore the speakers, programme and further details for registration, please see the event page.