Have we got the energy to make the change?

Why 2021 is the year to up the pace on the push to net zero. Ben Lewis from Barton Willmore offers his thoughts on a crucial 12 months ahead for the construction industry.

Ben Lewis, infrastructure and energy director at the planning and design consultancy, Barton Willmore

As we step through January’s door and further into 2021, I can feel the optimism across the industry. The political ‘climate cloud’ cast by Donald Trump has shifted and straightaway Joe Biden was recommitting the USA to the Paris climate accord. A noticeable statement of intent for the incoming president. 

Here in the UK, a man whose knowledge of energy issues I respect, Kwasi Kwarteng, was putting on the bigger BEIS shoes as secretary of state. For me, that’s important because our departmental lead for all things business is someone who has cut his teeth understanding the energy industry, its market and its stakeholders.

China is getting it too. We’ve seen movement on the Chinese commitment to cutting carbon. That’s a big win.

My inbox is also full of opportunities, tenders and conversations about investing, consenting and building new UK energy infrastructure. It’s busy and that’s not simply anecdotal. I saw figures reported by Bloomberg that, for 2020, a total of $500 billion (£365bn) was invested globally in renewables, vehicle and heating electrification, hydrogen and carbon capture. The news agency estimates global economies committed a 9% larger budget to decarbonisation last year than in 2019, despite the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

So, all glass half full then? No, it’s not that simple is it? What keeps me awake at night is the pace of change required. The unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation needed across governments, markets, stakeholders and consumers. The fact that the renewable energy infrastructure we have built so far is just the first rung on the ladder.

We need to work in ways we have never worked before and go faster – but not allow haste to lead to regret and potential climate damage when the very thing we are trying to do is ensure the health of our environment. Which is why looking to Covid and the development of the vaccine is not a bad metaphor. I listened to the BBC’s Hugh Pym speaking the other day about how we have developed, tested, licensed and deployed the vaccine in under 12 months – a process that usually takes a decade. It got me thinking about the speed with which we are currently consenting and activating renewables infrastructure across wind and solar for example, which is good but not great.

I also read this month that net zero by 2050 is anticipated to require a doubling of existing power generation capacity (including a quadrupling of renewables) but – and here’s the challenge – none of that capacity is actually generating today and neither are the grid connections required to deliver it. Makes you think doesn’t it?

All this considered, what do I most want to see in the rest of 2021?

  1. A ramping up to COP26 – by which I mean don’t be afraid of the increasing level of expectation but embrace it.  Be ambitious. Use it as a moment to galvanise politicians and people around the climate mission.
  2. Making climate change ‘the next Covid’. I’m not being disrespectful here but if we learn one thing from fighting this pandemic, it’s that we can come together on a global scale to face down a challenge to humanity.
  3. Government to set a clear direction and do everything possible to instil certainty. The energy white paper and National Infrastructure Strategy are great, but we need more. I’m looking forward to the strategies for net zero and hydrogen for example. I want the UK to benefit from the clearest possible landscape for bringing forward climate-benefitting infrastructure. The signs are that we’re going in the right direction but there’s more to do to support necessary technologies like carbon capture, utilisation and storage and pumped hydro, for example. 

January is done and it’s time to step on and also step up the pace. We don’t have any time to waste.

Ben Lewis is infrastructure and energy director at the planning and design consultancy, Barton Willmore.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.