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Climate change and projects: how can we stay on track for net zero?

Blog posted by: David Thomson, 25 Jan 2021.

Emissions From Power Plant, Yorkshire

Project professionals will be at the heart of the transformation to deliver meaningful change and meet the UK’s net zero targets

With the headlines dominated by coronavirus throughout 2020, you could be forgiven for thinking that decision makers had taken their eye off the climate change crisis. But climate as an issue came back with a bang in the final months of 2020, with a flurry of reports including the government’s 10-point strategy for a green industrial revolution, and an energy white paper, putting the climate and net zero considerations high on the project profession’s radar for the foreseeable future.

But what does that mean in practical terms? The first part of the challenge is how to co-ordinate rapid delivery of projects and programmes that will contribute to climate goals.

The UK’s policy commitment is to hit net zero emissions by 2050 – but achieving that means that work is needed now. As Lord Deben, chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, said: “The 2020s must be the decisive decade of progress and action”.

Achieving that will be far from simple, as an important recent report points out. The National Audit Office (NAO) is best known for monitoring government value for money. But for its report on ‘Achieving government’s long term environmental goals’, the NAO has drawn on its experience in auditing previous cross-government initiatives to cast an eye over the current state of efforts to reach net zero. It identifies some critical pointers for the way ahead.

First, quite simply, it is a colossal challenge. Getting to net zero demands changes that are significantly bigger, and tougher to achieve, than those achieved to cut carbon so far – and the easy progress has been made, through changes in power generation. The hard yards lie ahead, with greater change required in our personal behaviour. Second, points out the NAO, current targets won’t get us to net zero, yet we’re on course to breach even these targets. Thirdly, while the costs of net zero are uncertain, we can be confident that the costs of inaction would be far higher. The Climate Change Committee agrees about the cost of inaction – but now estimates that the costs of achieving net zero will be lower than previously thought, at under one per cent of GDP throughout the next 30 years.

The NAO notes that the government has not yet set out the role of public bodies beyond the central departments, which will be essential. Departments will also need to prioritise net zero: previous cross-government initiatives have often struggled to get traction, warns the NAO.

The scale of change required goes well beyond government, of course. It is difficult to envisage any future (or current) project of scale that will not need to have net zero embedded from the start. Surface transport; aviation and shipping; industry; buildings; power; agriculture and land use; waste management; and how we remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere are all part of the puzzle.

Systems and stakeholders

For project professionals, there is another key question raised by the NAO report: will the government be adopting a systems approach? The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is said to be examining a systems approach in order to join up policy areas and ensure that interdependencies are understood and managed.

This echoes the thinking of Professor Peter Morris in his influential APM paper, Climate change and what the project profession should be doing about itand another report, to which APM contributed recently, that sets out the argument for systems thinking on major infrastructure. The key point, that we need to learn the lessons from major projects which have suffered significant cost and time overruns from failures to take a systems approach.

Another lesson is engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders to reach informed decisions. The Institute for Government’s evidence in energy policy shows that the UK lags behind leaders like Germany and the Netherlands in involving outside experts and civil society in shaping policy. Building consensus and meaningful engagement on projects will be essential in what will be a long and challenging timeframe.

Covid: a dress rehearsal?

As we move into 2021 and a critical period for climate policy, perhaps we can see COVID-19 as a (unfortunate) test run. COVID-19 may have felt like a more immediate than the climate crisis – but climate change is every bit as existential, and arguably much more so in the long run. The global response to coronavirus showed that effective action is possible in the face of these huge crises, albeit highlighting some major lessons learned. An extensive public health response along with rapid innovation (as set out in the most recent edition of Project journal), at the same time as changes in public behaviour, are useful guides to what might work when it comes to the different strands of change needed for net zero.

In November, the UK will host COP26 – the big climate conference delayed from 2020. The climate is set to be on the agenda throughout 2021 and beyond. Net zero will increasingly be a priority for us all as individuals, for organisations and for civil society as a whole, and project professionals will increasingly need to be at the heart of the transformation required to deliver change.

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About the Aurthor

David Thomson is the head of external affairs at APM.


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