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New prime minister: Seizing the opportunity to achieve net zero

Published on September 05, 2022

Today, 5 September 2022, Liz Truss was announced as leader of the UK Conservative Party and appointed prime minister. Liz Truss takes over from outgoing prime minister and party leader Boris Johnson, during whose term the UK has witnessed a number of landmark moments in climate and environmental policy.

Since 2019, when Johnson took office, the country has seen key moves towards a greener, carbon neutral future; however, there is still a long way to go. Now, almost a year on from COP26, the largest environmental conference of its kind that was hosted in Glasgow last November, what is clear is that targeted action needs to be taken across many sectors if we are to meet national net zero targets by 2050.

So, with a new prime minister in office, what opportunities do they face in efforts to meet national climate targets and what are the key actions required to achieve them?

Water

Owing to the water sector being a large and complex industry, there are many areas to address in its evolution to a totally zero carbon sector. In the UK, we currently use more water per person than the average across Europe; consumption continues to rise, with the average daily water usage per person reaching 152 litres in 2021. That equates to over 55 tonnes of water per person each year. And this represents a lot of energy – never mind water – just to treat and transport this from source to tap.

With this in mind, where we need real action is leakage. Up to 50% of all leaks occur on the customer side of the pipe: between the property boundary and the tap. We need to mobilise and incentivise the population, with government support, to reduce these leaks and preserve every drop of water.

And this can be tackled: firstly, all properties should have a water meter fitted. We need to accurately measure and understand what our water consumption actually is in order to manage it better. data can then inform a nationwide leakage reduction programme. Secondly, and vitally for real change, all pipes in every household should be adopted by the water companies right up to the tap. Transforming household infrastructure into a water company asset would create a greater reason for the water company to maintain and improve it.

So, if we want to manage water resources better and drive a path to achieving net zero, we need to eliminate customer-side leakage as a first big step.

Energy

It is easy to say that using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels will be the most important way to achieve net zero with regards to energy. But the demand at peak times of the day – and peak times of the year – means fossil fuels will continue to play a role in meeting demand. The balance between generation, storage and consumption needs to be improved if we are to meet ambitions.

It is important that we all change our habits as domestic end users as we all have a part to play. Smart meters will prove vital in these efforts; being able to visualise electricity usage will encourage people to take actions to reduce their consumption. The roll-out of smart meters in the UK at scale has begun but needs to be expedited if we are to see the impact. Additionally, changes in tariffs can be explored to encourage consumers to use their energy at specific times of the day, as well as using less. For example, having a low rate for up to a certain amount of kWh per day, then a higher rate from that point onwards may encourage changes in habits. This principle is already available on tariffs with a lower rate over the night period but could be explored further to offer cheaper rates at times when the grid is “at its greenest”.

Encouraging the population to think differently about consumption, combined with continued growth of renewable generation, will take us further towards achieving net zero goals.

Green Finance

Realising objectives in the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan, National Adaptation Programme, Net Zero Strategy and Energy Security Strategy requires considerable amounts of financing to be mobilised. Estimates for the Net Zero Strategy, for instance, indicate that annual investment needs to increase from current levels in the order of £10–15 billion to a minimum £50–60 billion to 2030. Currently in the UK, private sector investment for the protection and restoration of nature is a long way short of where it needs to be – targets of a minimum annual £500 million of private finance by 2027 and greater than £1 billion a year by 2030 have been set by the government.

Clearly associated with mobilising such sums are the opportunities for green and sustainable jobs, renewable energy, home improvements and more; positive economic, environmental and social returns can be derived from clean and green investments.

How then can the government facilitate those investments? Part of the answer lies in producing a detailed investment plan: one that shows targets by sector and their capital requirements, the incentives available and policy levers that can be used to mobilise investment.

Nature and biodiversity

In February 2021, HM Treasury published the report of an independent, global review of the economics of biodiversity (the Dasgupta Review), which found that biodiversity was “declining faster than at any time in human history”, leading to “extreme risk and uncertainty for our economies and well-being”. Although we have taken recent strides forward to help address this, such as through the introduction of the Environment Act, government policies need to be far more ambitious if we are to reverse these trends and meet our net zero targets. This is particularly important during times of economic hardship, when there will be a greater temptation to provide economic stability and growth at the possible expense of the environment.

But there are opportunities to provide a better balance and achieve ambitions. Regenerative agriculture, for example, offers a great opportunity to deliver both economic growth and biodiversity net gain, while also increasing food production and carbon sequestration and providing wider benefits to other ecosystem services, such as improved water security and air quality. It describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, help reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, which results in carbon drawdown. It leads to healthy soils, capable of producing high quality, nutrient-dense food, while simultaneously improving rather than degrading land. As soil health improves, input requirements from pesticides and fertilisers may decrease and crop yields may increase as soils are more resilient against extreme weather and harbour fewer pests and pathogens. This ultimately leads to productive farms and healthier ecosystems and economies.

Agriculture and food

The agriculture industry has, for many years, been engaged in research and development projects to understand its climate impacts and developing new ways of managing its footprint. We are now better equipped with more tools and knowledge than ever before on how to ensure farming is as sustainable as possible.

It is now time to put all this knowledge into action. Doing so will require industry-wide agreed approaches to reporting and assessments. Ensuring consistency and clarity will avoid the pitfall of parties duplicating entries across the supply chain where their chains overlap. Ideally, approaches would take the form of a voluntary code, though an inability by the industry to deliver could well result in government providing an agreed framework. The quality of data needs to improve too: accurate data on emissions and impacts will facilitate better management of crop and livestock production and of the inputs of fertilisers, feeds and energy. A key action that both government and industry will need to take is to invest in understanding the optimal balance between emissions reduction and food provision – and the implications for food and climate of answering that question.

Answering such questions requires a holistic view and an acceptance that compromises will need to be made – a prime example being the trade-off that comes from decisions on land-use priority. Considering such complex issues and implementing the arsenal of knowledge we now have will be vital to further developing sustainable agriculture objectives.

Transport

From a transport planning point of view, our clients dictate our aims, but we must also work within technical guidance set by the government. Our clients seek to beat the competition: the product that they want to sell must be attractive to the purchaser or user. Sustainability has long been a consideration for the government and our clients, and while sustainability may be on the list of requirements for these buyers, for most it will be further down that list of ideals. The government must aim to put sustainability on the ‘shopping list’ of the entire population, as if sustainability is more important to the buyers or users, it becomes even more important for our clients to satisfy their customers’ ideals.

We need to actively encourage consumers to make sustainable choices and the key aspects of bringing sustainability higher up the list of desirable items is to make it more affordable at the outset; educate by demonstrating the benefits of sustainable options; and make sustainable options accessible to the majority.

In the context of land-use planning, the sustainable neighbourhoods that are set out in government policy are a starting point, but if public transport is to be a realistic option to travel into and out of major centres then the frequency of bus and rail services must be improved. A single bus or train per hour will not attract customers to choose these services. These services must be made attractive to become a choice, by making them convenient, comfortable and affordable to all.

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RSK Marketing Communications

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