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Blog: Net zero by 2050 - how do we adapt infrastructure fast enough?

last modified Nov 26, 2020 03:34 PM
24 November 2020 - Colin Matthews, Chairman of EDF in the UK discusses the leading role businesses can play to drive engagement and investment in the UK's green economic recovery

Countries around the world are battling the Coronavirus pandemic. Victory will come from the successful combination of dozens of technologies and innovations delivered by thousands of organisations both public and private.

During the last week, hopes have surged for effective vaccines. The media has shone a light on the public policy questions around priorities and the massive logistics challenges associated with distribution. Clearly, successful vaccination depends on delivery infrastructure, some existing some new.

Likewise, brilliant innovations by pharmaceutical companies and others are delivering ever faster testing for the virus in ever greater numbers. Their deployment depends on widespread IT and logistics infrastructure. Society needs an effective test and trace system to avoid future lockdowns and further damage to health and wealth. 

Just as health and wealth are directly connected in the Coronavirus crisis, the same is true in the longer term for climate change. Achieving the UK’s commitment to net zero by 2050 requires the combination of multiple technologies delivered across national infrastructure, which itself requires huge investment. Surely that means that policy makers and delivery organisations, both public and private, need to be collaborating urgently and effectively.

In the power sector, we must multiply the supply of low carbon electricity to meet increased demand, including from advances in low carbon transport and heating. That means a huge investment in new energy-generating infrastructure in the form of wind farms, solar plants and nuclear power stations.  In other sectors, investing in infrastructure will enable adoption of new technologies, such as charging points for electric vehicles. Transitioning national infrastructure in time for 2050 will be a key factor in the UK’s successful delivery of our net zero goal.

How we do this – and the positive role businesses can play - was the topic of discussion for a webinar I recently chaired on behalf of the Corporate Leaders Group

With 2050 as a deadline, we can’t afford to wait. We must start today to upgrade the UK’s existing infrastructure and to deliver new infrastructure. So it was encouraging to hear from several businesses during the webinar who are already integrating their commitment to climate action into their plans.

As part of their commitment to be a net zero business by 2030, Sky is converting thousands of cars and vans driven by their employees to electric. Companies taking the initiative to switch their fleets to electric well before the Government-imposed ban on new ICE vehicles comes into force in 2030 indicates that businesses are willing to place climate action firmly at the heart of their strategies. This is good news – yet one of the main challenges Sky have encountered is providing sufficient charging infrastructure at their office locations.

Some companies are going even further by combining their efforts to support net zero with opportunities to deliver wider benefits to the communities they serve. Signify, a leading provider of lighting, highlighted a recent example of installing energy efficient lighting around a community building. The project reduced the building’s carbon footprint by lowering its energy consumption – and crime fell as well. 

This approach isn’t limited to the private sector. During the webinar we heard an example from the NHS.  Targeting better protection for vulnerable individuals at home during the winter, the NHS in one region funded the installation of insulation and energy efficient boilers in homes. Hospital admissions declined as a result, as did carbon emissions. 

The importance of stakeholder engagement was a recurring theme in the webinar. Success in reducing emissions depends on customers and other interested parties understanding why and how changes are being implemented. EDF are part of a consortium working on a first-of-a-kind project to accelerate the achievement of net zero emissions in Leiston, a town in Suffolk, and to create a route map that other towns can follow. The local town council is spearheading the project, with support from EDF and others. They are taking a whole-systems approach, including installing energy efficient heating and an EV charging network. The council’s involvement, and extensive stakeholder engagement, means that the local community have been part of project from the start. 

No single organisation, and certainly not a private company, could achieve these results on their own.  In the case of Leiston, the government player is local. For national infrastructure investments, national government has the central role in setting public policy and in some cases is also the delivery body.  Close dialogue and collaboration between government and business will be critical to achieving net zero. Surely government will design better and bolder policy if it knows that business stands ready to deliver, and business will invest with greater confidence and deliver more efficiently when it understands government’s commitment.

So it was great that Steve Barclay, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, joined the webinar. He was perfectly placed to explain Government’s commitment to green economic recovery following the effects of Coronavirus. He said infrastructure will be critical to Britain’s ability to bounce back, not only because it paves the way for adoption of new low carbon technologies, but also because it is a huge creator of jobs and investment, particularly in areas of the country which have been worst hit economically.

The Minister stressed the role for the private sector in delivering large scale infrastructure projects and addressing the UK’s jobs challenge. Government, he said, is ready and willing to work more closely with progressive businesses, like those represented by the Corporate Leaders Group, who are committed to building back better.

Watch the recording of the CLG Webinar - Delivering a resilient, net zero economy How do we transition infrastructure at pace in the race to zero.

About the author

colin matthews

Colin is Non-Executive Chairman of EDF in the UK, part of EDF Group, having been appointed in November 2017.

Colin was appointed Co-Chair of the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) in February 2020. Colin advises on the strategic development of CLG which brings together the voice of British business in support of ambitious action on climate change.

A chartered engineer, he graduated from Cambridge University and holds an MBA from INSEAD.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership or the wider University of Cambridge.