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Today, the thematic focus at COP27 is decarbonisation. The programme promises to discuss the many technologies which are emerging as potential solutions to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, as well as providing a platform for the world’s leaders to discuss the approaches and policies that can encourage and facilitate the much-needed transition towards a low carbon economy. IES’ mission is to provide the technology to facilitate the decarbonisation of the built environment. As you can imagine, we’re following with close interest, but with an ongoing concern that too little is being done by governments who employ soundbites to address a problem which is clearly too large for them to comprehend and hence solve.
Immediately following COP26, decarbonisation was seemingly high on the agenda. Unfortunately, the ongoing impacts of COVID, the war in Ukraine, and the energy crisis have noticeably, and somewhat understandably, pushed decarbonisation efforts to the background.
This loss of time and momentum has brought the numerous pledges and promises into question, especially when certain key world industry players are reluctant to contribute at all. A recent UNEP report has indicated that updated national pledges made since COP26 are nowhere near ambitious enough, shaving less than 1% off of global emissions predictions by 2030 and setting us on track for a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century; 0.1C higher than was estimated last year.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why the current energy crisis has led governments to resort to short-term measures to address the sky-rocketing price of fuel and threats of power outages, all of which are having a serious impact on people’s lives. In the UK, the government is still mooting plans to issue more than 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas extraction, despite Rishi Sunak’s promises at COP27 to support a clean energy transition and divert away from polluting fossil fuels.
However, while I can see the intentions, it should be clear to those in power that to increase investment in fossil fuels is a completely wrong, reactionary approach. It could take years to expand oil and gas production, by which time the current crisis may have stabilised giving us a regular oil and gas supply again, and we will still be faced with the question of how to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
On the other hand, if we were to spend the coming months focusing on increasing our renewable energy capacity instead, which could likely be achieved more quickly than new oil and gas projects, we will be tackling the current difficult situation in a way that will benefit us all in the long term.
At the same time, we could and should be making serious efforts to reduce our energy consumption. It's now commonly understood that the cheapest form of decarbonisation is energy efficiency, so let’s start looking at key sectors, such as the built environment, and establish how can we start to apply energy reduction approaches now.
Frustratingly, our government consistently seems to veer away from an energy efficiency first approach. On 9th November, Lord Deben, Chairman of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) wrote a letter urging the UK government to take urgent action to reduce the energy demand within UK buildings. The CCC warns that is now the biggest gap in current Government energy policy, and the numbers speak for themselves. A decade ago, they state that 2.3 million energy efficiency measures were installed annually through Government-backed schemes but, in 2021, this dropped to fewer than 100,000.
Statistics like this are complete madness, particularly during a time when spiralling energy prices are driving a much shorter return on investment on energy efficiency measures. While fuel subsidies may provide short-term relief to help those struggling to pay their bills, this is money which cannot be recouped and will only add to the list of problems which we need to address further down the line. By channelling further investment towards energy efficiency, we can secure operational cost and carbon savings for years to come, to help our most vulnerable and ensure progress on net-zero is maintained.
The government’s aversion to an energy efficiency first approach may be because it has a tendency to look at the climate crisis from a macroscopic perspective. While decarbonisation as a concept is not microscopic, when it comes to decarbonising the built environment for example - which currently accounts for almost 40% of all carbon emissions - this requires looking at individual buildings and seeing how you can make each one more efficient.
It has been widely reported that the number of delegates with links to fossil fuels at COP27 jumped 25% from last year’s summit. These players will undoubtedly be keen to sway government policy with promises of new jobs that can be created by the oil and gas industry. However, helping people to decarbonise their homes on a national scale would undoubtedly create far more. Not only that, but it would improve people’s standard of living while reducing their outgoings.
Of course, it won’t be easy, but neither will drilling for oil and gas, and it will have to be done eventually one way or another so why not start now? And once we do start the process of making buildings and homes more efficient, it will demonstrate positive, decisive leadership and hopefully stimulate a domino effect where others start to follow suit in ever greater numbers.
It won’t be a fast process, but even just beginning by looking at local authority and public sector buildings would get the ball rolling and help to reduce government overheads. The money saved on an annual basis could then be circled back and used to subsidise people’s energy bills and, ultimately, to help them reduce the energy consumption in their homes as well.
Sadly, it seems it’s possible that governments see the difficulty in decarbonising the built environment, so is leaving it as a problem for the next government to solve. However, this constant deferment of these sorts of challenges is one of the reasons we are yet to see any real change despite all the pledges. It would be fantastic to see a renewed interest in decarbonisation as a climate mitigation strategy amongst our leadership following COP27 – there are plenty of experts ready and eager to offer advice and guidance to make it a reality.