Delivering Net Zero: Eight key themes from the academic community

07 Oct 2021

As COP26 approaches, the pressure to develop a viable plan for delivering net zero emissions intensifies.

Climate change is recognised as a ‘super wicked problem’- time is running out to address it, no central authority can provide a solution, and stakeholders that have contributed to the problem also seek to fix it. Therefore, despite widespread agreement on the urgent need for rapid decarbonisation, developing a collective narrative across countless different sectors, disciplines and industries is extremely complex.

These conditions combine to make it difficult for policymakers to identify and deliver the level of action required.

London Bus with city bikes

Introducing Delivering Net Zero

The Delivering Net Zero (DNZ) project is a UKRI funded collaboration between the University of Leeds, Cardiff University, and Cultivate Innovation, that seeks to address this complexity by outlining a shared narrative for reaching net zero. This narrative will take into account measures that will have an impact in both the short-term (next 10 years) and long-term (following years up to 2050).

To achieve this, DNZ will undertake a series of structured, deliberative workshops with leading UK academics and other key stakeholders from the public, private, third sectors, and finance sectors. These will identify where and why consensus on a credible narrative does and does not exist, identifying urgent initial steps and a longer-term strategy for delivering net zero.

Ultimately, DNZ aims to ensure that research funded by the UKRI Energy and Decarbonisation Programme has the maximum opportunity to inform and guide the response of UK decision-makers to climate change.

Key themes from the academic community

The first round of DNZ workshops convened 42 academics in early 2021, to explore shared narratives across the topic areas of energy supply, energy demand & greenhouse gas removal (GGR).

Initial analysis of workshop transcripts has revealed eight overarching themes in relation to consensus building around net zero. These are summarised below with a brief insight into each.

1. The need to develop social legitimacy for an ambitious decarbonisation pathway

It was identified that a more active public debate driven by democratic institutions around net zero could help socialise the lifestyle adjustments required for rapid decarbonisation within specific sectors. Some participants felt that social legitimacy will follow change and may even be used as a delay tactic for strong mitigation measures. This would be most important for large, visible technical solutions, whereas solutions invisible to the public, such as electricity distribution, would face less attention.

2. Different perspectives on the social and political feasibility of solutions

There was a split between ‘realist’ & ‘idealist’ measures, with some favouring less disruptive short-term solutions, especially for demand reduction, while others advocated more drastic lifestyle changes. Some participants were also concerned that there was not enough attention paid to how to get politicians to implement the proposed solutions, especially some of the short-term priorities.

3. The role of technological optimism and system change

There was a split in priorities in relation to developing technologies, programmes and policies that sit within current socio-technical systems versus the need for more dramatic systems change to drive rapid emissions reductions.

4. The need to rapidly roll out ‘ready to go’ infrastructure and technologies

Participants consistently prioritised the need to rapidly deploy infrastructure and solutions which could provide immediate reductions to cumulative emissions. Such solutions were deemed to be both technologically ‘ready to go’ and able to reliably deliver emissions reductions. For example, updating electricity networks, improving systems flexibility and scaling up offshore wind were highlighted as ‘safe bets’ for decarbonising energy supply.

5. The need to improve ‘readiness’ of solutions and roll out infrastructure for the long term

This was particularly prominent in greenhouse gas removal participants, where deploying infrastructure for carbon capture and storage and developing robust monitoring, reporting and verification protocols were seen as high priorities for these technologies.

6. The need to upskill and capacity build in the workforce, government and civil service

The need to upskill and capacity build was emphasised, both within the private workforce to deploy and monitor infrastructure, and within the public sector to oversee and implement change. Energy supply participants in particular expressed the need to upskill workers to deploy renewables infrastructure, which could form part of the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. The need for a more active and interventionist policy approach

Participants expressed the need for a better coordinated and more interventionist policy approach from government, for example the development of a whole system plan to implement decarbonisation across departments, linked to regulatory intervention. Policy needs to move beyond ‘another roadmap’ to provide a strategy connected to deliverables and policies. It was emphasised that this should sit above changes in government to provide a long-term strategy for decarbonisation.

8. The need for continued investment into new, potentially disruptive technologies and solutions

A final theme that emerged was the need for continued investment into energy innovation, to fund potentially disruptive new technologies and support all stages of technology development, including commercial deployment. Innovation funding was viewed as particularly important by the energy supply and GGR groups, discussing the need for increased investment into bioenergy carbon capture storage (BECCS), direct air capture (DACs), energy storage, marine renewables, offshore hydrogen and systems flexibility.

More insights are available in the full report, which also provides a summary of the priorities discussed in each workshop group and a comparison in relation to the levels of consensus reached.

The results of the second round of workshops that engaged key stakeholders from the public, private, third sectors and funders are currently being analysed. These sought participant’s input on the narratives introduced above, alongside their broader priorities and perspectives in relation to net zero. A final round of workshops will be carried out in November 2021, which will enable the research community to refine and finalise narratives.

You can stay up to date with the Delivering Net Zero Project by visiting the project website and following us on Twitter and LinkedIn.