How do we reach Net Zero in densely populated urban areas?

This was the topic of discussion at ‘Unlocking City Decarbonisation’ this week, a fringe event at UK REiiF organised by Steer and Amberside Advisors and the latest in our series ‘The Rethink Rooms’. 

After delivering a sobering reminder of what is at stake should we not reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the ongoing stark warnings of scientists, Amberside Advisors’ Shivali Mathur hosted a solutions-focused panel of esteemed experts from across government, academia, and the private sector. 

Patrick Allcorn (Head of Local Energy at the Department for Energy Security), Professor Jillian Anable (Chair in Transport and Energy at the University of Leeds), Andrew Farrimond (Infrastructure Sector Lead at Aviva) and Colin Blackburn (Assistant Director at South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority), covered everything from investment to community buy-in on topics that ranged from heat networks to active travel. 

Below are our key takeaways from a lively and insightful event.  

Messaging is key: Why should a community accept an onshore wind turbine near their homes or the medium-term disruption of installing a heat network? 

Messaging is key for achieving buy in from local residents affected by the inevitable upheavals of Net Zero projects. Messaging around the climate crisis can and should change to emphasise that it is happening now in the UK. Messaging should also be clear, rather than conflicting, and bring to the fore the many benefits of decarbonisation efforts at a local level. 

Messaging is essential for building consensus (something we sorely need) and a big part a successful message is finding the right messenger. Reaching people through intermediaries and climate influencers, as in the case of Ipswich Football Club mentioned by one panellist, can achieve great results. 

Exploring innovative funding models: In her opening, Shivali outlined the example of Copenhagen, the European capital that has a plan to be carbon neutral by 2025. Part of this effort has been the installation of low-carbon heat networks that now warm 98% of homes across the city region. 

Many of these heat networks are community-owned, a funding model that could benefit energy projects in the UK where communities banding together could simplify and increase their purchasing power. This and other innovative investment solutions found on mainland Europe could be applied here to good effect. Financial innovation will be key to paying for our sustainable future. 

Shift and maintain focus: Eye catching technological solutions to the climate crisis often grab attention and headlines but are electric vehicles and carbon capture alone enough to secure Net Zero?

A lot of our discussion focused on the need for demand-side reform and the role that has in bringing down emissions and curbing energy use. Meanwhile, maintaining focus whilst delivering a project and not being knocked off course by a vocal minority can secure the future of the project and achieve buy-in from communities. One panellist pointed out that once a project has reached a ‘critical threshold’ of buy-in many waverers and former nay-sayers will get on board.

Build on success and deliver, deliver, deliver: What is a project pipeline if it’s just numbers on a spreadsheet? The climate crisis is happening now and as a result our solutions need to be contemporaneous as well. 

Strategic multi-vector planning offers a chance to find data-driven, on the ground solutions and no one is better placed to find the best decarbonisation fit for their area than local authorities. The UK’s current political system and the huge boost of devolution in the last decade allows for a hyper-local focus and bespoke pathways to Net Zero that can be implemented in the short-term.  

Beginning delivery also proves legitimacy of ambition and will help on the way to attracting private investment. The time to start is now! 


Catch up on the event, watch the recording below


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