Building back together: can we apply energy sector progress for a whole-system approach to net zero?

Green transition 5 March 2021 Emily Agus

2020 was a year of society’s renewed ambition on climate change priorities and sustainable future expectations. Will 2021 be the year of society’s implementation and action, or be another year of continued delay? We explore energy sector emission reduction progress, and the increased need for a whole-system approach to net zero.

Expert columns
8 min

2020:  Renewed ambition and opportunity

Almost exclusively related to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, no-one will debate that 2020 was a year of large-scale societal changes and economic decline/slowdown through government policies on national lockdowns and international border closures.  

Amid the many negative effects of the pandemic, some positive environmental effects were reported to be recognised via dramatic falls in global greenhouse gas emissions.  Whilst these only represented temporary reductions, which are unlikely to make a significant contribution to longer-term climate change, it demonstrated that societal shifts are possible in the midst of a global emergency.  

Indeed, with the associated news coverage and social media debate highlighting an increased awareness of climate issues, 2020 was also a year of society’s renewed ambition on climate change priorities and sustainable future expectations.  

Further, noting the UK Government’s 2050 net zero target, 2020 presented a unique opportunity to not only review our emission reduction progress, but to also define possible pathways and determine an overall holistic whole-system approach to net zero.  

Emission reduction progress

Based on UK Government statistics, it is clear that, between 1990 and 2018, the energy sector dominated emission reduction progress.   



But with the bulk having predominately already been delivered – through coal phase-out and renewables integration – energy sector emission reductions are slowing down and other sectors (including:  the commercial and industrial sector; the residential sector; and the transport (aviation, rail and road) sector) are only showing limited progress. 

The importance of policy

Noting this, in June 2020, the Committee on Climate Change published their 2020 Progress Report and highlighted the importance of policy in delivering further emission reductions.

Indeed, the Report stated that stronger policy had been key in driving the energy sector emission reductions, with this stronger policy comprising: clear direction; stable and predictable carbon price; investible market instruments; appropriate product standards; and, enabling measures.

Therefore, applying the lessons from the energy sector progress across other sectors is critical in maintaining an overall downward emission reduction trend.  

A multi-sector approach…

Reiterating this message, in July 2020, National Grid published their latest Future Energy Scenarios defining four different, credible pathways for the energy future to 2050 and their potential to meet net zero.  Of particular relevance, National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios stated that “the net zero target makes it more important than ever to consider all aspects of the energy system”, but also that “part of the challenge of the [net zero] target is that the energy system alone cannot deliver decarbonisation”.  

Subsequently, in November, the Prime Minister published his ‘Ten Point Plan’ laying the foundations for the UK’s Green Industrial Revolution and a multi-sector approach.  

Promisingly, within this Plan, whilst some ambitions were more specific to individual sectors, some were clearly multi-sector.  For example those associated with carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and new hydrogen technologies have combined energy, commercial and industrial, and transport sector applications.  

Building back together?

Yet, in December, when the UK Government published their latest Energy White Paper ‘Powering our Net Zero Future’ although there was, with reference to the response to the pandemic, the need for “building back better and levelling up the country” and, with reference to climate change, the need for “building back greener”, there was limited emphasis on a multi-sector approach and the need for ‘building back together’.  

As such, whilst the Energy White Paper represents progress, it may also be considered disappointing in lacking emphasis on a multi-sector approach – rather signposting further consultations, plans and strategies, promising much for Spring 2021 – and a much-needed overarching net zero strategy – promising this ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in November 2021.  

A holistic, whole-system approach

But, even with a multi-sector approach and overarching net zero strategy, this will still not be enough to achieve net zero.  In fact, in January 2020 (twelve months prior to the publication of the Energy White Paper), the Council for Science and Technology’s Letter to the Prime Minister stated “achieving net zero will require fundamental changes in our society and economy”.  

That is, even if reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are realised across all sectors, additional societal behavioural changes will still be required to meet climate change priorities and sustainable future expectations. 

These additional changes are the critical final piece of the holistic, whole-system approach for achieving net zero, and any building back together.  
Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change’s Progress Report states “the message is clear:  action taken in this Parliament will define the pathway towards Net Zero and climate change resilience”, and the latest Energy White Paper states “we need to act urgently” as “the cost of inaction is too high”.  

The Council for Science and Technology’s Letter also states “given the long timescales required to get innovation into individual homes and businesses and the scale of behavioural change needed by individuals, communities and institutions, we must start now”.

Encouragingly though, the Committee for Climate Change’s Progress Report also states “the pandemic has demonstrated how quickly social change can occur – and the role of government in driving that change.  Early indications show that the public are now more aware of external risks and continue to favour action to tackle climate change”.  

2021: Action or continued delay?

So, 2021 needs be the year beginning society’s implementation of the holistic, whole-system approach, with decisive – and, more importantly – early action.   

Critical will be essential and substantial commitment and investment from both the private and public sectors, with such actions suggested within the recent January 2021 Prince of Wales’ Terra Carta (Earth Charter) which is “calling on CEOs from around the world to engage and play their part in leading the global transition”, and requires that supporters “commit to supporting and rapidly accelerating the world’s transition towards a sustainable future”.  

But, in parallel, the public will undoubtedly seek value for money.  So, consideration will also need to be given, in a time of recovery and uncertainty, to ensuring acceptance and continued ambition and commitment on climate change priorities.  

However, this will prove challenging, and the required comprehensive and inclusive planning will be difficult at a time when the UK is still dealing with (and recovering from) the effects of the response to the pandemic and matters related to Brexit.  

Indeed, in making its promises, the latest Energy White Paper also makes numerous references to action only “when Parliamentary time allows”.  But another year of continued delay will put us on course for failure.  


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