Since the launch of the Local Zero podcast in November 2020, we've interviewed a host of fantastic contributors including Polly Billington (UK100), Sam Gardner (Scottish Power and ex WWF), Jim Watson (ex-UKERC director), Glasgow City Councillor Anna Richardson, and Aimee Ambrose (UK Fuel Poverty Research Network chair). They’ve all helped us answer our key question: how smart local energy can be part of delivering a net-zero future that’s fair for all.
This topic is more important than ever as the countdown to COP26 - the United Nations Climate Change Conference - ticks past the 300 day to go mark, putting climate action centre stage for Glasgow and the UK. It seems only fitting that Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Climate Change Committee, kicks off 2021 with the Local Zero team, including the University of Strathclyde’s Matt Hannon, Fraser Stewart and myself, supported be Bespoken Media’s Dave Howard. Here are 7 things we learnt from chatting to him (you can find the full interview here).
1. The UK has come a long way since COP21 in Paris, but we've still got a LOT more to do
The way decision-makers across national and regional governments talk about net-zero, it's easy to forget that this hasn’t always been part of our rhetoric, and that just a few years ago an 80% emissions reduction target seemed ambitious. The UK has made remarkable strides forward in delivering net-zero legislation to drive long term climate commitments, as well as more immediate term targets of 68% emissions reductions by 2030. This short-term target can help bring focus onto what needs to happen over the next decade, to ensure that the UK’s 2050 net-zero target is met. Also, as Chris points out during the interview, we're in the midst of something pretty remarkable; we can realistically meet these targets (maybe even ahead of schedule) but we're just not doing enough yet.
2. We're entering a critical point in time for getting the right policy frameworks in place
The UK is staring down the barrel of key decisions that need to be taken now around how we travel, how we heat our homes and businesses, and how we generate and move around energy. The technologies that underpin these activities have asset lives in the region of 15-20 years, so what we replace now will have a big impact on our emissions into the future. We need to get rid of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and gas boilers by 2035 at the very latest to make sure we can meet our targets of net-zero by 2050, which means putting strategies and policies in place now. We've made good progress in the power sector, but net-zero strategies are still needed for industry, transport, heat, energy efficiency and buildings, and the natural environment. Developing a well-coordinated set of strategies across the economy must be a priority in the coming years.
3. Challenges are not financial, but about the distribution of costs and benefits
The overall cost of implementing net-zero is low and offset by increases in GDP, jobs, and disposable incomes. This means that the key challenge is not financial, but in how the cost of net-zero transitions are spread fairly so that people are not exposed to costs they can't afford. But while the overall costs to the UK’s economy are low, taking a national perspective masks some big changes happening unevenly across the country. For example, some sectors, such as oil and gas, are shrinking, and this could be painful to those people who stand to lose their jobs. However, if we're honest about the process, start to plan early, and engage workers in open discussions, this can ease the pain and support a fairer transition process.
4. Engagement is key
Chris reflected on his experience with the Citizens Assemblies that took place in 2020, and how these highlighted the role that people want to play in delivering net-zero. They don't want decisions made on their behalf, but want a stake in decision making strategies. This process of engagement and consent has been missing from policy frameworks for far. We need to think beyond regulations and laws, and start to develop processes that bring people together, in order to co-create more effective and socially acceptable plans.
5. Local authorities have a very important role to play
Local authorities have influence over a third of emissions reductions needed to deliver net zero. Put another way - unless they are actively engaged in a coherent way, we won’t reach net zero. Right now their capacity for action is patchy across the country and there is no go-to resource for them. This means that there is a lot of duplication of effort and no common reporting structures. Although funding (or their lack of funding) is a big issue it's not to the only one, and Chris outlined the need to develop a framework for involving Local Authorities directly in the delivery of net-zero; finding ways to bring local actors into decision-making processes, and support strategic discussions about the future of heat, transport and other parts of the economy in ways that are tailored to local resources and the local context.
6. Change is needed across society, from the CCC to you
Chris told us that the CCC will be shifting gears into 2021 and the build up to COP26. Having published the 6th Carbon Budget in December 2020 (which Chris told us is possibly the most important of all the carbon budgets), their attention will now be moving from outlining what needs to be done, to how it can be delivered in practice. This includes scrutinising what Central Government is doing to deliver on statutory targets, as well as focusing on climate change adaptation and risk. But it's not just central, or even local, government that has a role to play. Each and every one of us has the capacity to take action, and Chris suggests we pay more attention to how we travel, what we eat, and what we're invested in.
7. Climate change is not and must not become a culture war
One of the reasons that Chris believes the UK has made such great strides forward in setting net-zero legislation is that climate change has so far manage to avoid being dragged into a US-style ‘culture war’. While there may be political differences in terms of how we reach net-zero targets, the debate in the UK, unlike in the US, has not been about the very existence of climate change or whether we should have targets at all. However, the political discourse can change very quickly, seeing climate change become a cultural issue, which could be detrimental to delivering coherent and cross-party action at the pace and scale commensurate with our targets. Chris believes that the CCC have a big role to play in making sure this doesn't happen, and that we continue to tread carefully on the road to net-zero, using evidence to drive decision making, and bringing along everyone in the transition.
Listen to the full interview here, and make sure you subscribe to get future episodes in your inbox.