Net zero: As global warming advances, how can government be a catalyst for change?

Achieving net zero will require a substantial and coordinated effort across all sectors, as experts on a CSW cross-sector round table discussed
This week's extreme temperatures in the UK have sparked renewed warnings about climate change. Photo: Matthew Horwood/Alamy Stock Photo

By Mark Rowe

19 Jul 2022

Net zero is the fulcrum on which the UK government’s climate change policy turns. The binding goal of a 100% reduction in emissions by 2050 (on 1990 levels) covers all sectors of the economy, but setting the goal and delivering it are quite different matters. Meaningful carbon reductions must be implemented by all governmental departments as well as the sectors they serve. Nothing is exempt, whether it is prisons, transport, military equipment or schools. Carbon-heavy sectors such as cement, steel, shipping and aviation can no longer simply turn to credits to offset their climate debts.

Achieving this will require a substantial and coordinated effort across all sectors – government may have set out plans, but it will be business, citizens and local communities who are vital to their delivery. It was in this context that Civil Service World recently chaired a roundtable on the issue, bringing together officials from across government with public and private sector experts including sponsors KBR, a company that provides science, technology and engineering solutions to governments and which has its own net zero target for 2030.

Attendees were acutely aware of many hurdles to overcome. Past attempts to drive green initiatives have faltered, and the event took place just days after the Public Accounts Committee published a report critiquing government’s net zero plans as lacking details on how the transition to net zero would be funded and monitored, while also questioning government’s ability to support the business investment and consumer changes which would be needed.

Although they agreed that achieving net zero would require effort from all sectors, attendees at the round table also discussed the importance of government facilitating – rather than hampering – change. As Rezina Hakim, senior policy advisor for the NHS Confederation put it, government must provide, “consistency, clarity and capability” to help others achieve net zero targets.

One key aspect was how messages around net zero are positioned, both by leaders at the top of government and sustainability teams within departments. “Awareness could be better, and we need to highlight the benefits to society at large,” argued Muhammad Ali, head of the climate change and sustainability unit at the Ministry of Justice. His advice was that teams “bring value back into the argument”.

James Clare, director of climate change and sustainability at the Ministry of Defence stated that long-term savings in cost, as well as wider energy security resilience benefits, should provide a practical financial argument in favour of decarbonisation.

This was the approach taken in the MoD’s Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach, published in 2021. This document used defence objectives to make the case for climate change mitigation (that is, reducing emissions) and adaptation (preparing for climate changes already in train), writing that “a defence properly organised for climate change is one that will be better able to defend its citizens”.

Clare worked on this strategy, working under Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, now retired. Nugee was also an attendee at the CSW round table, where he pointed to the importance of long-term context when making a positive case for net zero work.

“If we are all self-reliant on energy in 30 years it would be much cheaper for everyone and much healthier,” he said “That’s better than a negative message that ‘we must do this or else or it’s a catastrophe’.”

Attendees were clear that net zero and sustainability work must be linked to wider policy or business objectives. It soon became apparent that all departments faced practical questions in relation to net zero policies. Within the MoD, Nugee pointed out, “we are buying and building vessels and we need to know what fuel we will be using in 25 years time to fill them up. It’s not just about climate change – it’s practical – if we’re using diesel but noone else is, we won’t be able to refuel”.

For prisons, Ali pointed out, implementation of net zero projects had to be integrated with wider operations, capital and maintenance projects. Fitting LED lights into a cell, for example, at the same time as carrying out fire safety works. Co-ordinating such tasks with other works saves money and delivers a more comprehensive outcome, he said.

For Simon Bittlestone, director at the National Audit Office, integrating net zero meant it should not be seen as a stand-alone policy; instead government should show how “this fits in with wider biodiversity objectives and air quality and levelling up.”

But while there was consensus on the need for strong and appropriate communication from the top, attendees also saw other roles for government in supporting industry to tackle climate change. “High level messaging is something only government can do,” said Julia Beck, deputy director for strategy at UK Export Finance. “But from the bottom up, we need to understand what the private sector wants and to support academia.”

There was a need “to start grappling with this pretty urgently,” she added. “There’s a huge amount of liquidity out there that wants to get involved but is looking for bankable technology and products, the government needs to help with this. At UKEF we are focusing our support on more nascent technologies like hydrogen, with favourable terms for green sectors.”

A practical example of this was provided shortly after the round table when UKEF announced it would be underwriting a loan of £400m to boost research and development in sustainable technologies. The loan, provided by HSBC, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and Bank of America and backed by UKEF, will be given to sustainable technology company Johnson Matthey and will also support the development of high-skilled jobs across the UK.

L-R: Suzannah Brecknell, editor, Civil Service World; Anne Epsom, head of policy and improvement, Orbis Procurement; Lt-Gen Richard Nugee, non-executive board member, Ministry of Defence; Dougal Monk, director of strategic development, government solutions, KBR; Simon Bittlestone, director, National Audit Office; James Clare, director of climate change and sustainability, Ministry of Defence; Joy Newton, associate director of sustainability and ESG, Lloyds Banking Group; Ben Sawford, global VP, consulting, KBR; Muhammad Ali, head of climate change and sustainability, Ministry of Justice; Julia Beck, deputy director for strategy, UK Export Finance; Rezina Hakim, senior policy adviser, NHS Confederation

Bittlestone said that organisations such as Innovation UK would be well placed to ensure such things were joined up and liaise with private companies who could develop appropriate structures. capital and To a certain extent, attendees agreed, governments need to ensure they were consistent about which technologies they intended to support, giving industry the long-term confidence to invest and develop infrastructure. This appears to be working in relation to electric vehicles – which enjoy impetus from the deadline for stopping production of petrol engines in 2030. The same could happen with air source heat pumps although for many energy producers and environmentalists, the jury is still out on these technologies. “The government is counting on industry to make them better, smaller,” said Bittlestone. “The question is what happens if the industry doesn’t?"

Joy Newton, associate director of Sustainability and ESG Finance, Lloyds Banking Group, also warned that any intervention in the supply chain should consider the unintended consequences from the wider sustainability perspective. “If organisations are setting long-term targets and ambitions there needs to be realistic plans that sit behind them, any intervention in operations or the supply chain will have a positive or negative consequence, and any intervention needs to be considered holistically,” she said.

These questions alluded to government’s unenviable task of being not only consistent and providing longterm support, but of being nimble. It’s entirely possible, as several attendees pointed out, that the technology that ultimately “delivers” genuine net zero status for the UK has yet to be invented.

On this topic, Benjamin Sawford, global VP, consulting for KBR, pointed out that recent years have shown just how quickly innovation can happen in a crisis. “If Covid has taught us anything it is that the scale of change can be incredible. Ideas have gone from decision-making to reality within two years, that’s never happened before.”

As well as providing policy sticks and carrots, government has a very strong way to influence change: through the many procurement, commissioning and funding decisions it makes each year. It has already taken several successful steps to use this power. Dougal Monk, director of strategic development, government solutions for KBR, noted that 75% of the government’s strategic suppliers have net zero statements. “If it wasn’t for the government stressing the importance, I don’t think they all would have done this. Net zero is now on boards’ agendas,” he said.

Such an approach matters but must come, again, with consistency both in terms of how targets are monitored, and of funding over the long term, as several attendees argued. Bittlestone pointed to reports by the NAO on how government “had chopped and changed” its direction on climate change over the years.

Anne Epsom, head of policy and improvement for Orbis Procurement, which oversees procurement for county councils in southern England, warned that: “A lack of consistency will cost money. There’s a perception that the green levy is optional, we need to get across that net zero is a legally binding target. It comes back to the consistency of message.” Funding also had to be consistent and long term, she added. “It’s not just about budgets for this year, it’s for the following year and the year after that.”

She also noted that it was hard for organisations to measure and monitor their carbon impact without a clear framework and information. “We have over 330 local authorities in England alone scrambling to tackle climate change. We need to collaborate to have a consistent model, and there could be a role for central government in supporting that.”

But while attendees agreed that consistent ways to report and monitor progress would be important in decarbonising supply chains, Clare argued that we should not let perfect be the enemy of good. “We don’t need to know everything to the nth degree we just need enough to start the conversation,” he said.

Hakim also raised worries about traditional short-term funding which makes NHS long-term planning for climate change problematic: “The NHS is wellknown for short-term injections of cash. The funding is always welcome but how do you dovetail that sustainably? We don’t have the luxury of long-term planning.”

Yet several attendees pointed out that if organisations can start to plan and implement their net zero ambitions now it will be much less costly than if the work is put off for another 20 years. Doing nothing has its own costs, as Sawford put it, “the cost of doing nothing is staring us in the face right now, with oil at US$170 a barrel”.

“It needs something solid, such as an Office for Sustainability at the centre of government – it’s not enough for individuals to be championing this” Richard Nugee

Returning to the three ‘C’s which Hakim set out at the starte of the discussion, attendees agreed that there is an urgent need to build capability across government in terms of understanding issues around climate change, net zero and sustainability. Several mooted the idea of a sustainability function which could provide cross-departmental standards and support. Nugee envisaged some specific structural changes to truly embed sustainability in everything the civil service does. “It needs something solid, such as an Office for Sustainability at the centre of government,” he added. “It’s not enough for individuals to be championing this.”

He argued that one way to embed this and build capability would be to require all papers submitted to the National Security Council to include implications or impact of climate change on the issue at hand. This would ensure senior decision makers were made aware of the impact of climate change, but also build capability since there would need to be a team able to provide this advice. He suggested this mechanism could act as a “dynamo” driving change in government.

Hakim added another way in which net zero could be embedded into organisational strategic and structural thinking. “The Care Quality Commission’s regulatory framework doesn’t adequately include any standards for net zero and this lack of joined up approach is unhelpful for the NHS” she said.

Sawford, meanwhile, argued that an Office of Sustainability, or similar entity, could “bring the private sector and government together and be more connected, which would be critical to making change happen at the pace required.”

Despite the challenges raised during the round table, Bittlestone drew a positive conclusion. Referring to the near-unanimity around the table on the importance of on integrating net zero with wider policy goals, he reminded colleagues of an important point. “It feels a long time since net zero was set but it’s actually less than three years. The positive thing is that [in that short time] we now have people right across Whitehall thinking about these issues.”

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