The UK wants to continue on a path of decarbonisation through its new clean growth strategy – and this desire is embodied in the inaugural Green Great Britain Week. What can be done to tackle climate change across all levels of society?
Summer this year was unrelenting with soaring temperatures around the world, parched fields across the country revealing historical sites and ample opportunity for Brits to engage in their favourite conversational topic: discussing the weather. Human behaviour is affecting the world's climate in an unprecedented manner and this is cause for concern. The Met Office stated that atmospheric greenhouse gases reached their highest levels in the instrumental record in 2017, with average CO2 concentrations reaching a record high of 405ppm (parts per million). According to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the US, Arctic sea ice reached a record low maximum extent in 2017 in a 38-year satellite record period. The picture offered by these statistics and others is bleak and sometimes climate change is presented as insurmountable. As climate change continues to encroach on people's lives though, initiatives are being undertaken at national and local levels to tackle the issue.
Greg Clark MP, Business Secretary said: “Looking to the future, a combination of falling costs and global commitments are creating new opportunities for British businesses to lead the world in the development, manufacture and application of low-carbon technologies. Our Clean Growth Grand Challenge is a commitment from government to work with industry to make this happen. There is a big business opportunity here, and we will be working with business to highlight these opportunities during the first ever annual Green Great Britain Week, starting on 15th October.”
Clean growth seeks to transition to a low-carbon society while growing national income: it aims to combine increasing productivity along with improvements and protections for the environment. Professor Andy Gouldson of the ESRC-funded Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, hosted jointly by the University of Leeds and London School of Economics, has worked extensively on the opportunities for – and critically also the limits and contradictions of – clean and green growth. His work has focused especially on the economics of low-carbon cities and communities, and he is currently working on the different ways of financing the low-carbon transition.
He said: “Green Great Britain Week is there to celebrate the opportunities available in the green sector. In our contribution to it, we're interested in the local opportunities – our research shows that there’s a massive opportunity for low-carbon or climate-resilient development in cities and communities across the UK. As an example, the Leeds City Region could save over £1 billion a year in energy bills if it invested in all available profitable energy efficiency and low-carbon options. This would create nearly 15,000 years of employment and emissions would fall by nearly a quarter, over and above what is currently expected.”
The UK Government has allocated £2.5 billion of investment in low-carbon innovation between 2015-2021 and committed to reducing greenhouse emissions by at least 80% of a 1990 baseline by 2050, as part of the Climate Change Act. It cannot tackle climate change alone though.
“The challenge is that clean development can require a lot of investment in the short term even if it would be more productive economically, and socially and environmentally in the medium to long term. Stimulating that investment is a major challenge. This can mean getting the big pension funds and institutional investors involved, but the really exciting opportunities are for communities to invest in their own area. For example, residents of the Leeds City Region have an estimated £5 billion saved in ISAs. We could offer them an opportunity to invest in clean development in their region and get comparable returns whilst also creating jobs, value and social benefits whilst also decarbonising the regional economy. This has started to happen in Leeds and it could be transformative.”
Initiatives such as UK100 have been set up to connect local stakeholders in a bid to transition to 100% clean energy by 2050. UK100 brings together local government leaders with businesses and national government to implement clean energy transition plans that are cost-effective.
Polly Billington, Director of UK100, said: “Local authorities are really feeling the squeeze, with budgets increasingly tight. They have no statutory responsibility around energy so if they are going to embark on energy initiatives, the projects have to at least wash their own face, and preferably generate income that can be deployed elsewhere to sustain services. There are opportunities through offering flexibility services, especially if the local authority invests in renewable and sustainable energy generation like solar, wind and energy from waste. Battery storage is a real game changer, enabling renewable projects to contribute to grid balancing which can generate income.”
Clean development is being driven both by policy and the market, and this can be seen in the energy sector in the UK where there are opportunities for innovative renewable energy technologies such as on-shore and off-shore wind to displace legacy means of energy generation.
Professor Gouldson said: “At the moment, over 25% of electricity in the UK comes from renewable sources – due to a combination of government policies and market forces. Sometimes the media and others make a big deal out of the supposed extra cost of this and the impact on energy bills, but they overlook the fact that much of our energy infrastructure needed updating anyway. If we have to make massive investments in new energy infrastructure, there are obvious benefits from doing so in a way that improves our energy security and offers wider societal and environmental benefits as well as future-proofing the energy network.
“In the UK and globally, renewables have become so competitive that they are displacing fossil fuels – especially coal and to some extent also gas – so there are some grounds for optimism. The big question is whether the rates of change we have seen can be sustained, and whether the forces are strong enough to deliver the rapid and deep transition that we need.”
Local action can have global impact in the bid to tackle climate change as more people seek to shoulder the collective burden of transition to a low-carbon society. “In Leeds we have created the Leeds Climate Commission to bring together all of the public, private and third sector actors in the city to build our capacity – as a city – to step up and take advantage of clean development opportunities. The Commission acts as an independent voice to provide advice on implementing steps towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient future. Through this cross-sector collaboration, projects are emerging and investments are happening that help the city meet its climate reduction targets. Our broader agenda is to energise the city and show that there are new ways of tackling challenging agendas. There is a lot of interest in replicating the Commission in other cities and communities across the UK,” adds Professor Gouldson.
Green Great Britain Week can demonstrate the progress made on climate action, not least by showing what can happen when we unite people, communities and businesses against climate change.