How can we deliver a net-zero emissions UK?

The Committee on Climate Change’s net-zero report was missing a trick on two crucial issues, argues EIT Climate-KIC’s Andy Kerr.

A few weeks ago, the UK and devolved governments’ statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), published its long-awaited report on when the UK should target net-zero emissions. This has been widely covered in the media.

So, what is missing in what is an otherwise excellent and comprehensive analysis? Two issues stand out.

  1. People and places
  2. The role of innovation

On people and places

The report recognises the importance of people in this transformative change to come—which we should applaud—but still tends to default to the notion of people as things to be engaged with, rather than as central to the system change. It is perhaps not surprising that “people” or “citizens” are mentioned barely one fifth as many times as “technology” or “technologies” (57 vs. 250+).

The irony of this is that the report also recognises that delivering net-zero emissions can be done alongside improvements in people’s lives. In other words, there is no inherent trade-off in our standard of living, our quality of life, with delivering this net-zero target. Indeed, delivering these zero carbon changes—clean air, warm affordable homes, green urban spaces—can make us healthier and with higher quality of life. And while a minority will be happy to change their lifestyles because of the reality of climate change, the vast majority won’t (“Turn down your heating! Fly less! Walk more…!”). Yet, they will engage with the idea of improving their life, health and wellbeing. Why not start the question of how we deliver net-zero by putting people at the centre of this system?

The second irony of the report’s approach is that people do not exist in isolation. They live in places, from which they derive identity, security, jobs, pleasure. Yet the report mentions UK cities less than ten times and towns only three times. Despite Lord Deben’s foreword recognising that “more and more we understand the importance of policies made outside of Westminster” and noting (on page 196) that “cities and local authorities are well placed to understand the needs and opportunities in their local area”, the report then summarily dismisses cities and local authorities as having insufficient resources to contribute strongly to reducing emissions.

Yet if we want to empower people to deliver the necessary changes, we must start with the places they want to live in over the next 10-20 years. Do they want clean air? Green spaces? Affordable homes? Effective transport systems? How do we help cities and towns help their own citizens to deliver the change, to make a better place to live? This is not going to happen by edict from central government.

Meanwhile, in certain leading cities and regions across the UK, from Leeds and Bristol to Edinburgh and Glasgow, we are seeing the blossoming of civic approaches to delivering transformative change on climate change—framed around building a better city or town for the future.

On the role of innovation… the report rightly notes (page 183) that: “Innovation is not limited to technologies, it also covers institutions, business models, policy designs and behaviours”. However, the majority of its 80+ mentions is in relation to technology innovation, as a way of reducing costs.

And this notion of innovation—of ways in which we develop and scale technologies in UK and global markets—is deeply embedded in UK government thinking. It has had some notable successes—offshore wind cost reductions being the most obvious. But, more widely, the experience of innovation programmes in the UK and elsewhere is that this model is failing to deliver the types of system changes we wish to see.

This innovation model—drawn from US experiences particularly around Boston and San Francisco—develops largely single point technology solutions, incubating and accelerating them and seeking venture funding to scale into the global market. Many of these ideas are fantastic. Some work and scale and venture funders reap their reward. Indeed, in the case of companies like Uber, venture funders have reaped their reward even though the business has never turned a profit… and may never do so. It is ironic that these successes are termed “unicorns” if they create billion-dollar businesses from scratch. But in practice, the vast majority fail.

The common response from government funders (UKRI, BEIS, ERDF, EIT etc.) is to double down and fund more ideas being pushed through incubators and accelerators. In other words, we seek to boost the ‘supply-side’ of innovation.

Yet, if we pose the question: For all this innovation funding spent on supplying ideas, how much tangible change has it made to the communities and places we live in? The answer is: Not as much as we might hope for. Because we are tackling the wrong problem. Solving the challenges of the places we live in—and wish to change to net-zero emissions and climate resilient—requires a much wider appreciation of the possible levers of change. These might be around governance: Who makes decisions (citizen’s assemblies?) Or the need to create new markets: Changing local building regulations or planning guidance? Or the need to develop the skills and capabilities of people in the community for the jobs of the future? Or provides access to finance and investment through new business models? Or understand what is the cultural context that drives uptake of specific technologies in certain places?

But none of these is solved simply by pushing more technology ideas into the market, though matching new technologies to specific local challenges may well bring substantial benefits. In other words, for system change to take place and to deliver net-zero societies, UK and European funders of innovation need to rethink and re-address our approach to innovation. We need to approach innovation at a systems level, recognising that we need to test and pull all the levers of change available to us—from governance and policy to social behaviours and business models, not just technology supply—to deliver the transformation required.

In a world of deep uncertainty about future technology development and costs, about social behaviours and cultural preferences, and about governance and markets, such an approach is designed to generate viable pathways to transforming the system. We must not pretend that we know the future choices or technologies confronting citizens and communities over the next 30 years. Or that we know which pathway will work best in a given place.

But we can create an approach to innovation—with constant learning of what works, and what does not—which will equip our city-regions, corporates and communities with the frameworks to both deliver net-zero emissions and thrive socially and economically.

The article originally appeared in BusinessGreen and has been syndicated with permission.

 
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United Kingdom
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