As we look beyond the current crisis and begin to reopen our economy we must use the lessons learned as an opportunity to redouble our efforts to decarbonise society writes Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Given the global scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government’s decision to postpone COP26 was inevitable. But even in the throes of this global health crisis, we must not lose sight of the longer-term threat to humanity from climate change, or the government’s target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. While we are in the process of addressing this particular pandemic we should also reflect early and often, taking an objective view on what we are learning along the way, and apply this to the global climate challenge.
COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly government, academia and industry can collaborate with common purpose to address challenges and solve problems during a global emergency
COVID-19 has already taught the world many lessons, not least exposing our essential infrastructure and its myriad interdependencies to scrutiny. While we have not yet seen this crisis play out, it has demonstrated how quickly government, academia and industry can collaborate with common purpose to address challenges and solve problems during a global emergency. I hope we can learn from our rapid behavioural, cultural and economic evolution in the face of a global pandemic and bring the same spirit of unity and action to the ongoing task of tackling climate change.
Indeed, engineers have a vital role to play in creating systems and solutions to address both COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Government faces challenges across many sectors that have engineering at their heart. Reaching net zero means the government needs to act with more urgency on critical issues like decarbonising homes. This is a difficult challenge that will impact us all but, like many of the challenges arising from climate action, it also creates opportunities: to build better homes that are warmer, cheaper and more energy efficient, reducing fuel poverty and winter deaths. This must remain high on the agenda for government and engineers must be among those informing government decision-making on how we reach net zero, to provide expertise and to galvanise action.
I have been promoting decarbonisation for 30 years, as well as working to redesign and innovate the architecture of our power systems. We are now at a point where we have the technical capability to address the global climate challenge, but that challenge is now very real. So we must go beyond the rhetoric of decarbonisation being a good thing to do – it is what we must do. With the UK and Scottish governments both committed to net zero targets, I am confident that we can now focus on moving quickly to action. Engineering will be at the heart of that.
As we work towards restarting our economy, we have an excellent opportunity to reassess our goals as a society and to redouble our efforts to drive low-carbon innovation and create sustainable businesses. The recovery package that will surely follow must be ambitious: not just aiming to recreate business-as-usual, but actively working to achieve our goal of a net-zero economy.
In the past few weeks people across the UK have drastically changed the way they behave in order to keep us all as safe as possible. We have seen that selfless acts, personal responsibility and mass behaviour change are possible in the national and global interest
The National Engineering Policy Centre has assembled a diverse and accomplished group of engineering experts to offer regular advice to government on how to achieve Net Zero by 2050. They will be providing evidence-based advice, identifying actions that can be taken now and in the future, from replacing or retrofitting heating systems to decarbonising transport systems and addressing energy-intensive industry. They are here to provide evidence and advice that will empower government to make bold and difficult decisions now that will protect our planet for society at large and, most importantly, for future generations.
While 2050 still seems like a far-off date, current projections suggest that the UK is not currently on track to meet its emissions targets. The next 30 years will surely be interrupted by other crises, not least climate-related ones including extreme weather events like the flooding that beset many regions of the UK earlier this year. Increasing global temperatures are likely to elevate the risk of such weather events, requiring infrastructure adaptations to protect people from increased heat, rain or wind. We need to be prepared for this eventuality.
As engineers we are used to solving complex problems every day. We routinely study the interconnectedness of people and things and consider whole systems – where changing one thing here also impacts people over there. COVID-19 has lifted the lid on the system that is our society and shown us where there is flexibility and where there is failure. We cannot fail when addressing climate change; there is no ‘plan B’. COVID-19 provides an impetus to build resilience into our daily lives, and we have a duty to work together to enact rapid, vital and transformative change.
In the past few weeks people across the UK have drastically changed the way they behave in order to keep us all as safe as possible. We have seen that selfless acts, personal responsibility and mass behaviour change are possible in the national and global interest. The social distancing measures may be temporary, but they offer hope that we can also make the positive, enduring behaviour changes necessary to achieve net zero emissions. I hope this heralds a new era for community-led action, empowering individuals to shape and change their environment, with a fresh mandate for engineers to deploy the technologies and infrastructure that will lay the foundations of a truly sustainable society.