Ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year, the panel discussed how the government can match the rhetoric of policies across an international context. With the ambitious carbon reduction target of 78% by 2035, the cross-government panel began by exploring the key goals to transform and reorient the society and economy as civil servants. Each panellist introduced themselves and their key concerns surrounding climate change.
Rob Bradburn from Defra introduced himself and affirmed that the transition to net zero is a huge societal transformation. While it has to be done quickly, it also needs to be considered in line with other things we do with sustainable use of the environment and has to sit alongside biodiversity and other areas of the environment key to wellbeing. He posed two key questions: “how do we achieve net zero emissions with our other targets?” and “how do we act in a new way that spans government departments and play a part in all this?”
Alicia Forsyth from FCDO continued on from this, suggesting that while COP26 is a brilliant starting point, more is needed to allow for appropriate “transformation and reorientation as a society, economy and as civil servants.” FCDO has been reorienting their governance and policies when facing the impacts of climate change and energy transition, to mitigate climate change as the most fragile nations become more fragile. As a department with large estates, Alicia questioned how we think about our development, and how we make our estates climate conscious.
Andrew Goodman echoed this sentiment on estates, highlighting DWP’s vast estate and need to integrate sustainability into recruitment to ensure that it is considered from a holistic perspective. He questioned how we will fund this sustainability goal by 2030, and how we can set the benchmark across the globe.
Heidi Granger from the Office for Manpower and Economics stated that £120bn of public sector money pays for 3m workers. As such, the UK needs realistic plans that acknowledge how developing countries cannot commit to the green economy without a raised level of investment. The UK has an opportunity to be at the forefront of global leadership by supporting the green economy initiatives across the globe. David Knipe, Energy Partner Oliver Wyman, echoed this sentiment.
Gerry Kaspers from the animal programme in Defra highlighted that the UK has had international capability for researching disease, with major investment over 10 to 15 years. Leading by example, this insight could be used to help deliver a new science campus of net zero. With science and engineering as hungry environments, there is a “once in a generation opportunity to have leadership in this through the supply change.” The question is, how will we do that in a market with a multi billion pound investment?
Judith Kelly, the HMRC policy lead for environment, transport, and energy taxes, discussed how we have used tax as a policy lever for a change in behaviour. Through suggestions such as our world-leading plastic packaging tax, how can the UK act as world leaders through tax as a policy lever? At the same time, Judith questioned how we assess the environmental benefits of the introduced measures if we implement collective policy levers at once
Vijay Rajagurajun of the FCDO reaffirmed that generating money is a huge strand that the UK could be powerful at gaining international leverage in, particularly as a technology and mining hub. Move over, how could we make sure the money we put in has development benefits?
Louis Taylor, Chief Executive of UK Export Finance, promoted the idea of the opportunity in the supply chain to decarbonise. Known for their sustainable transactions across the globe, UK Export Finance is due to publish their climate change strategy in September.
Echoing this idea, Lisa Quest of Oliver Wyman questioned how the government itself can ensure that they are procuring in a climate-friendly way. As one of the largest buyers in the UK economy, the practice of the government should mimic the policy put forward, by scrutinising suppliers to understand their climate practices. Data should drive the research and decision making to ensure that the government as a whole should ensure that they are procuring in a climate-friendly way.
Sophie Jones at the Department for Education promoted the upcoming launch of their strategy consultation to make sure the education sector is sustainable. The report will question how we can mainstream climate and sustainability in the education sector. With COP at the forefront of this, as global leaders, the UK should use COP to expand on previous education and environment agreements. Sophie expressed key interest in the youth agenda; a massive movement that encourages engagement events at COP with youth organisations. This will help us understand how we can use the youth energy and thoughts in the movement in a positive way.
Sarah James at BEIS leads on the net zero strategy and questioned how we set ourselves up across government to ensure that there is a ministerial responsibility for climate change. While BEIS has this ministerial responsibility at the moment, this needs to be embedded across departments to ensure that we are putting credible plans behind ambitious targets. In turn, the environmental focus requires a greater priority in the upcoming spending review.
Following a “very rich discussion”, it was noted that Alicia Forsyth’s initial comments resonated widely with the panel: “we are at the foothills of this journey in many ways”. So, while climate change and net zero are core pillars of some departments, how do we ensure that there are credible plans across government at the beginning of this journey?
Louis Taylor pointed out that while many companies are pledging net zero by 2030, it must be acknowledged that we will need to use technologies that don’t exist to make this achievable. The government should focus on investing in the development of these technologies to ensure that our goals are not left for future generations to solve. The technology needs to be commercialised as well.
The chair highlighted his concerns that there needs to be greater urgency to come up with solutions, with technology being one part of the solution and the role of government in supporting this. Rather than a focus on investment, could the government be an organising body rather than a funder?
Lisa discussed the government crowding in investments, looking at countries across the world who have done this. Targeting specific agendas through things such as the Leveling Up funds and new Infrastructure Investment Bank as key ways to drive the overall government agenda forwards, we can then look at driving the change through different levers. We could look at universities, seed funding, and venture capitalists and private equity as key supports and enablers for this future technology to come forward faster and more effectively.
Green finance is a big discussion ahead of the COP26, but going beyond this to the global context, there was discussion on fair and just transitions when going green. Alicia distinguished between two key elements - making sure the transition is just and the perception of being just. Priorities should be on focusing on the effect and outcome rather than the inputs themselves. Rob raised two key points: “the first is a really key aspect, measuring and understanding the impacts of what we do in a more multidimensional way.” With one of the strongest sectors in the world, the question is whether we are leading the way to understand the multiple impacts of our levers. The second point is “that this is a lot of change”. Talking about new technologies, there can be winners and losers in an area of fast change. Existing technology, through things such as data science, could be transferred in a powerful way and applied to different sectors.
Sophie flagged that the Department for Education is considering the question of a just transition in the education sector. When thinking about equality, there will be difficulties to ensure that schools are able to be sustainable. We will need to make opportunities for schools, perhaps through offering money to those who are interested in becoming green. We will have to work across government to provide these opportunities.
As the session closed, Paul asked what the greatest opportunity and challenge is for the sector. Sophie posed the opportunity and challenge to the global youth movement, with the challenge being how we manage that relationship and how we can enable this internationally. Lisa’s opportunity was using the behavioural shifts change from COVID-19 to be a catalyst for change in the environment. Fundamentally, we need to change our consumption pattern as individuals and businesses. Louis said the greatest opportunity is commercialisation, such as hydrogen and wind turbines - however the greatest challenge is having enough imagination. Gerri discussed the risk, echoing Louis’ concern that we might not have enough time. She suggested leveraging our commercial levers to ensure we are coming up with solutions in a timely manner.
David stated that one of the greatest challenges from his perspective is not supporting some of the things the developing economies are doing. The opportunity for the UK is to provide support to these countries and help them find solutions. From Judith’s HMRC perspective, there is scope for the department to do more and questioned whether we have the right connections across Whitehall to create a holistic view towards net zero.
Sarah suggested that the “fourth industrial revolution” is dependent on mobilising necessary resources and reallocating resources to realign priorities across government. This rapid transition is dependent on support from the public, keeping them informed of developments. Heidi suggested that the UK has the opportunity to be a global leader. The challenge is supporting developing countries, and the UK needs to nudge countries who have inadequate pledges.
Andrew took a slightly different angle, looking at the impact of COVID on 18 to 24 year olds to make sure that the workforce is set up for the new carbon economy. “There is a window of opportunity we need to grasp now, and take that change that has been implemented to make a difference to this generation.” Alicia agreed, and echoed Vijay’s sentiment of soft power of leadership in the climate change agenda: “There aren’t that many issues that we all agree on”. The challenge focused on the supply chain impact, and how some commodities might struggle in terms of demand. Finally, Rob said that the greatest challenge is the timescale of nature. “We’ve got to match the speed of the ecosystem’s change.”