4 November 2019

The Power to Make a Difference

In May this year, MPs approved a motion to declare a climate emergency. You’d be forgiven for missing that one, with the chamber’s debating hours being gridlocked with Brexit. However, there’s rarely a week goes by that I don’t read a climate-related piece of news that leaves me with my jaw on the floor.

The UN has said that we may have just 11 years left to limit what they’ve called ‘a climate catastrophe’. Instead of heading to the pre-agreed 1.5 degree rise in global temperature, we are staring at 3 degrees creating unprecedented change and global impacts.

The other day, I read a report in the scientific journal Nature that showed how previous sea-rise predictions were wrong. According to the report, entire nations may be displaced. I’m going to write that one again… entire nations. By 2100, 190 million people could be displaced by rising sea levels, with 630 million affected by annual flood events. Even more shocking is that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by 2050 based on present data.

Sometimes (unfortunately) these kinds of stats go over people’s heads. We simply can’t comprehend the entire population of Vietnam migrating north when we have domestic challenges on our doorsteps. But these global issues are fast becoming domestic issues. Low-lying parts of the UK flooding annually, mass migration on a scale we’ve never witnessed, terrible air quality and droughts; all no longer concerns in far-off nations but highly prevalent local issues.

By 2100 I will have exited stage left and my future grandchildren will be mature adults. But what of their children’s quality of life? We’re not talking generations and generations down the line here, but one maybe two generations; a group that may bear witness to one of two scenarios. The first of which I’ve touched on – displacement, famine, mass-migration and irreparable damage to human life and ecosystems. The second, however, is very different and well within our gift. The clock is ticking, but we have the technology and hardware to start unpicking the damage. There are those that can answer the climate emergency. The trouble is, do we have the collective will to see it through?

Moving the great machine

As I’ve said in a previous blog, the low carbon economy is set to grow at 11% per year – four times faster than the rest of the economy from now until 2030. There is a national imperative to decarbonise. But as with any major social or industrial transformation there are three conditions that need to be met; scalability, collaboration and willingness.

If I start with willingness, a better way of phrasing it might be ‘the need for leadership’. It’s the behavioural shift of policymakers and commercial organisations to seek out new ways of working, but at the same time realising that (i) this is an economically advantageous area to be in, (ii) it can create new jobs and training opportunities and (iii) you can also do some good in the meantime.

When the conditions for change are right, the results can be spectacular. Just take the wind industry for example. In 2007, the UK agreed to an overall EU target of generating 20% of its power from renewables by 2020. Funding, grants and the impetus for growth were all there and the scale was achieved. Now, the price per MWh on wind is less than half that of nuclear. If you want to see what can happen when the conditions are right, just take a look in the North Sea.

Which leads me to my other condition, which is collaboration. There’s a quote that comes to mind that says: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Connected systems are a staple of the fourth industrial revolution. That’s the reason our Northern Powerhouse group is so strong. The NP11 is made up of eleven local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and we’re all working together to achieve a growth target in the region of 15% by 2050, creating 850,000 new jobs and massively reducing CO2 in the region to zero. Together, we can continue to promote the ‘clean growth’ agenda, yielding jobs, prosperity and innovation in the region for decades to come.

But my final point is on scalability. We need the willingness, the collaboration and the motivation to start scaling these ideas and projects to mass adoption. I’m always massively inspired when I look at our Smart Energy Demonstrator at Keele University. Already, we’ve delivered a 62% reduction in emissions and stopped 8,000 tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. While I’m proud, I also realise that this is still a small-scale project albeit with huge potential. Sometimes small is mighty and the benefits of these decentralised energy systems far outweigh the old thinking of heavy, large scale infrastructure. Once the democratisation of energy becomes more prevalent, the net gains for the UK are plenty – onsite generation from renewables, grid resilience and complete energy independence for your town, campus or business district.

Creating environments that care

The road to decarbonisation is going to be long. We’re unpicking an energy ecosystem that’s been in existence for over 150 years, along with behavioural changes and large-scale infrastructure upheaval. It’s a daunting task, but we absolutely cannot walk alone on this journey.

When I look ahead to 2050 I want to be able to say that we did save the planet. And not through stopping speeding bullets and rescuing people from infernos, but because we acted early enough to do something. I want to show that we fought tooth and nail to pass on a planet that was in a better condition than the one we inherited; we created jobs, growth and most importantly we showed the next generation that we cared.

I want to end with a story I was told by one of our engineers. When I asked him why he worked for Siemens and why he loved what he did, he told me that he was leading a secret double life. Just as I was about to call HR, he explained: “When my children ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m a superhero, not an engineer. I tell them that each day I go to a building with lots of other superheroes, and we try to save the planet. They love that their dad is saving the world.”

It’s time for us all to don our capes and focus on the future.

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