Barriers to reaching net-zero are here to be broken!

5 July 2023 By 0

Net zero is not a vague destination but a cultural change affecting how we live, travel, work, socialise, create wealth, and enjoy life for years to come. By planning for inevitable bumps along the way – and how to avoid them – we can make what is basically a major revolution much easier.

Which is why how we tackle some of the less obvious but extremely strong barriers to net-zero is something I am keen to talk about here – given recent bad global warming news.

New evidence suggesting climate change is happening much fast than expected. This makes it vital to hit the UK’s legally-binding net-zero emissions target by 2050. However, we also know that the goal of keeping global temperature rises down to 1.5C is slipping out of our hands.

Is it time to give up? No, certainly not. The situation is not yet irreversible. But reaching net-zero means not only cutting carbon, but also breaking much wider barriers and taboos across society.

Some are technical, others are financial. However, many are deeply rooted in our own behaviour and long-term values. Are we willing to adjust before it is too late?

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All in it together

Reaching net-zero has so far focussed on improving energy-efficiency, green travel, and replacing ‘dirty’ fossil-fuels with clean renewable energy sources – especially in the power sector.

But there are other challenges – particularly where business decisions impact on other people through Scope 1 and Scope 2, but also more complex indirect Scope 3 supply chain emissions. Many of these factors are in turn affected by human and consumer behaviour patterns.

Which is why I feel we need to look closely at wider net-zero barriers and potential solutions. I have started with a brief overview, plus some financial considerations that influence, according to recent research, how many companies are approaching net-zero.

However, I also want to look at peoples’ natural reticence to unfamiliar changes. Fortunately, the Behavioural Insights Team (BI) (https://www.bi.team/) published pathfinding work on this subject in January which I draw on later.

Beyond carbon – housing, travel, 15-minute cities, and multimodal freight

Net-zero is not just about curbing emissions at major plants. As planning and permitting consultants, Enzygo (https://www.enzygo.com/planning/ and https://www.enzygo.com/permits/) helps to design major housing proposals with important net-zero measures. As explained later, we also help to deliver cutting-edge renewable energy projects.

In parallel, we are similarly involved in developing efficient ‘green’ multimodal freight delivery systems reaching into the heart of local communities, and planning issues around ’15-minute cities’.

Are net-zero costs a barrier?

Could be. Big investments will be needed. The Government’s independent adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), thinks some £50 billion will be needed annually from the late 2020s to 2050 – mostly for transport, renewables, and buildings.

Ordinary businesses worry about costs too. Some 38% of UK firms have net-zero transition plans – but are struggling to turn them into reality, says international law firm Baker McKenzie (https://www.bakermckenzie.com/en/newsroom/2022/11/new-report-finds-barriers-to-net-zero-transition).

Its November 2022 survey found that circa 40% of business leaders think their organisations might be setting objectives they cannot meet. Some 70% say large upfront investment requirement are a net-zero barrier; 58% feel they have not allocated nearly enough budget for a successful transition.

Scoping out the costs

Businesses must also work with their suppliers. Research suggests too many are trying to go it alone when faced with the complexity of extended value chains.

Scope 1 covers direct onsite emissions. Scope 2 refers to bought-in emissions, say, from energy and utility suppliers. Scope 3 covers obvious and less obvious emissions from supply chains. Circa 41% of executives questioned said they had no views here and no plans to tackle problems.

Only 40% are auditing suppliers; 36% of SMEs struggle to cut Scope 3 emissions. But if consumers are persuaded to buy environmentally-friendly products and services from green supply chains, SMEs could reach net-zero faster, learning from larger organisations as they go, and vice versa.

Which is interesting because there is evidence that the logistical networks of large organisations produce 5.5 times more emissions (Scope 3) than their operational chains (Scope 1 and Scope 2).

On our best behaviour

As mentioned above, my main point is that reaching net-zero is partly technical, but also involves a culture shock that will redefine what we buy, how we travel, the homes we live in, plus key spending decisions.

Fortunately, the Behavioural Insights Team (BI) is ahead of the game here. Founded in 2010, BI has grown from a seven-person unit at the heart of UK government into a global social purpose company of more than 200 professionals worldwide.

Early in 2023, BI published ‘How to build a Net Zero society’ – https://www.bi.team/publications/how-to-build-a-net-zero-society/, an important document that should be read in full. I am taking the liberty of summarising its content and conclusions. This is a wee bit complex, so please bear with me for a few paragraphs.

– How to build a net-zero society …

BI has highlighted the role of motivations, beliefs and attitudes in decarbonising home energy, transport, food, and material consumption in a study with a foreword by CCC CEO Chris Stark, and BI CEO Professor David Halpern.

As living costs rise, Stark and Halpern say simpler and cheaper ways to cut demand via changed consumer energy behaviour are largely untapped.

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– Consumers concern and confusion …

The CCC says incentivising lower-carbon choices will make net-zero more achievable. At present, many changes rely on people’s willingness to use electric vehicles, heat pumps instead of gas boilers, and adjust their diets so farmland can be used to restore nature and store carbon.

However, Stark and Halpern say consumers and businesses are both concerned and confused. Re-focusing the public’s buying power to support the growth of greener products and services is crucial.

Huge societal changes mean that ‘incentives, standards, nudges, labelling and public information’ must be integrated to cut carbon, but also improve health, save money, and reap other benefits.

There is nothing to be afraid of, they stress!

– A nudge in the right direction …

Government data shows that 84% of people are worried by climate change; circa 50% think 2050 is too late a deadline to make a difference. Meanwhile, CCC says 62% of the emissions cuts the UK needs must come from modified public behaviour as consumers.

How would this work? Some 53% will come from new technology – electric vehicles, heat pumps, home energy-efficiency improvements, and 9% from lifestyle changes – eating less red meat and dairy, active travel, and flying and driving less.

Much of the remaining 38%, CCC believes, will depend on social and behavioural constraints in areas like strong public support for green infrastructure and policy.

– Overcoming costs, inconvenience, and the unfamiliar …

CCC says the encouraging news is that 9 in 10 consumers want these changes, at least in principle. Sadly, many behavioural changes are seen as too expensive, inconvenient, unappealing or unfamiliar.

As examples, heat pumps are costly; electric vehicles are inconvenient for people with no off-street parking, popular British cuisine is meat-based, and there are no easy alternatives to long-haul flights.

As a result, because the ‘economy, infrastructure, and media environment’ are not well designed for sustainable living without determined personal efforts or compromises. Instead, many people – including politicians – talk about a ‘nanny-state’ that sacrifices modern conveniences.

– Not our approach …

BI says this is not necessary, desirable, or effective, and has looked for a more practical pathway based on evidence of what works, plus what the public finds appealing as a means to an end.

They looked at barriers people face in greener choices, the evidence and theory of behavioural change, complexities of innovation, and public views, before sketching out a blueprint for ‘flourishing’ green lifestyles.

The team asked themselves questions about ‘attitudes, incentives, and cognitive biases’, as opposed to ‘investment and infrastructure decisions, cultural norms, regulation, and market economics’.

The answers effect whether we choose to turn down heating or change diets (downstream). But also the ‘environment of pricing, norms and weak environmental regulation’ (midstream), plus business ‘profit motives and unsustainable consumption habits that are hard to escape’ (upstream).

BI’s analogy is of a swimmer free to move in different directions, but constrained and influenced by the current. Which raises the next question of where should intervention be targeted?

– The conclusion is …

The largest carbon impact reduction will come from tackling cost, convenience and desirability barriers – with a ‘midstream’ emphasis (making green options easy, appealing, affordable, obvious, and normal), plus ‘upstream’ actions (leveraging commercial incentives, stressing institutional leadership, and using regulation to create the right choice environments at scale).

This approach, the authors say, is less about pressurising individuals to make different choices, and more about targeting the social environment so that greener behaviours flourish naturally.

Home-warm-home … net-zero housing sector

Home-building is a major industry that could make or break net-zero, and one very much in the minds of local planning authorities.

Net-zero energy buildings (NZEBs) are more expensive than conventional property, although the equipment needed saves money later. They use renewable power generated on site, bought-in as clean wind, solar or nuclear energy, and/or both.

Crucially, NZEBs produce more energy from renewable sources than they consume – which helps to reduce the Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. They also improve airflow, make better use of daylight, and add value via higher energy efficiencies and green technologies that save thousands of pounds.

Transport net-zero … where to begin?

Travel, transport and transit is another crucial net-zero arena.

Electric vehicles (EVs), low-carbon aviation fuels and electric planes, electrified railways, ‘clean’ shipping – and Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) where people digitally plan, book, and pay for shared travel services as an alternative to personal car-ownership – all feed into the net-zero transport mix.

As a simple example, EV charging facilities that meet local authority net-zero plans are now central to many of Enzygo’s housing planning proposals for clients. We also work on an industrial scale.

– More than just the obvious …

The freight equivalent with parallels to MaaS is multimodal transport whereby at least two different modes of optimised end-to-end air, sea, land and rail distribution are executed seamlessly in one contract.

With good planning and design, the carbon benefits can be extended into innovative delivery hubs at the heart of local communities. This is an Enzygo speciality (Multimodal green “sheds” for the future’s last mile’ – https://www.enzygo.com/news/multimodal-green-sheds-for-the-futures-last-mile/).

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– Waste-to-jet-fuel breakthrough technology …

Enzygo has also gained planning consent with minimal conditions for a pioneering aviation fuel technology (‘Enzygo secures planning permission for the UK’s first waste-to-jet-fuel facility’ – https://www.enzygo.com/news/enzygo-secures-planning-permission-waste-to-jet-fuel/).

– Working, living and socialising in a 15-minute radius …

Finally, I must mention a fast-emerging and much misunderstood net-zero concept.

My colleague Planning Consultant Florence Hewitt recently delivered a key-note seminar on 15-minute cities (https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:7061599529858428928) at Salford University – an important part of net-zero we will be looking at in more detail soon.

Getting in touch

As ever, if you would like to discuss any of the issues above, please feel free to contact me directly.

Matt Travis, Company Director, Enzygo Ltd