The road to net zero offers huge opportunity. Not just for the businesses who transition early, but for the UK as a whole – from leading the way in the development and manufacturing of battery technology to making the UK a global player for offshore wind.
But there are still plenty of obvious bumps in that road. Not least because huge questions remain. How do we make the UK into a genuine hub for low carbon industry? How can we best tackle the UK’s low carbon heat challenge?
These challenges can only be overcome through effective collaboration of business, government, and consumers - and that was at the crux of discussions at the CBI’s Road to Net Zero conference, where experts, business leaders and politicians got their heads together to share learnings, commit to progress and enter into the spirit of collaboration for the greater good.
A holistic approach to truly seize the moment
Net zero presents a genuine opportunity for the UK to lead from the front in when it comes to decarbonisation. Not just in terms of developing technologies but also in commodities produced, said Uniper’s Mike Lockett. One example is the UK’s vast experience in developing offshore wind and gas, which can be put to good use in producing green hydrogen as well as carbon capture and storage. “We've seen over the past two decades the power sector really leading the way in terms of decarbonisation,” said Lockett, “but that has to change, and we have to step up – it has to be a cross-sector approach because the scale of the challenge is so huge.”
The shift from the perceived landscape being one of risk to opportunity is something Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer of Heriot-Watt University is also seeing, however, to really seize the opportunities for inward investment much work needs to be done: “We need to make sure that we are deploying the right technologies, the right skills, the right business models, the right policy and regulatory framework. And all this has to come together.”
Government should help business to help business
The call for government support was heard loud and clear throughout the conference. From targeted support to upgrade homes from gas boilers to heat pumps, as mentioned by Engie’s Charlotte Large, to more specific roadmaps to increase the confidence of investors as highlighted by Vonjy Rajakoba of Bosch.
Rajakoba also called on government to step in on supporting and upscaling the skills and training of the workforce. And, as John Lord of Bolton at Home highlighted, on consumer education too.
Political representatives were keen to reassure delegates on all fronts. BEIS’ Daniel Newport, for example, said the delay in the Heat in Buildings Strategy reflects the need to get it right and to ensure that the decarbonisation transition makes the most of opportunities.
Gillian Keegan MP, Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, pointed to the forthcoming findings of the government’s Green Jobs Taskforce, “which will look to build on the Skills for Jobs white paper which includes apprenticeship skills, boot camps, traineeships and more to help to grow future talent pipelines and also deliver the skilled individuals that we need.”
But alongside the call for more detail and clarity from government came the understanding that businesses were willing to play their part and work together to deliver. That includes large businesses helping small businesses. Compass Group’s Carolyn Bell referred to it as “radical generosity” - a kind not seen in business before.
And it includes the collaboration within sectors and supply chains and between them. As Richard Katz of Glass Futures – a membership not-for-profit organisation with the purpose of decarbonising the global glass industry – said: “Sharing information is fundamental. We won't succeed if we stay in isolation.”
Time for the UK to lead by example
A big challenge for both business and government is to enhance the attractiveness of net zero, not just to make firms fall in line, but to change consumer behaviour. “We've got to find a way to make it cost-effective for people to make this transition,” said Ed Miliband, Shadow BEIS Minister. “Because I think if we say to people, ‘well, look, now you can go green, but only if you can afford it.’ We are not going to take people with us on this journey.
“It’s about carrots rather than sticks,” he added.
Echoing the sentiments of many of the panellists throughout the course of the conference, Miliband stressed the importance of the immediate future: “We are in the decisive decade and there's nothing more important that we can do internationally than the power of example, because if we show that it can be done and it can be done in a way that takes individuals, consumers and workers with you, I think that can have tremendous power around the world.”
To close the event, delegates received a sobering message from singer, songwriter and social activist, Annie Lennox, who stressed the importance of collective action from all sides in the climate crisis to circumvent catastrophe for future generations. “It is incumbent upon us all to create change,” she said. “And the business communities have the potential to make this happen.”