By John Mills, Director of Public Affairs, The Communication Group plc
Later this year the UK will play host to COP26, the success of which will play a vital role in keeping the global movement towards net zero on track. Recent polling for The Times suggested that two thirds of people in the UK believe that individuals, companies and government should come together to combat climate change by acting urgently to speed up delivery of a net zero economy. That’s the good news. However, as we know only too well, for many people such considerations count for little when the infrastructure required to deliver on the UK’s net zero commitments is planned close to where they live. When that happens, an abstract positive concept they support is transformed into a perceived threat.
COP26 is a once in a generation opportunity for the UK renewables and wider green-tech sectors to showcase their wares to a world that must act decisively and quickly to keep climate change within acceptable, liveable limits. It’s a great opportunity for the UK to showcase to its partners what best practice looks like. I hope the UK sector will make the most of the next six months to strengthen our national hand in this vital debate by successfully turning local communities into champions of change – if there is one subject on which we as a nation should speak with one voice, this is surely it!
Recent policy developments, coupled with a steady stream of technological advances, have opened up a huge on-going opportunity for renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies. Last December’s Energy White Paper made a series of announcements that gave further encouragement to the renewable transition and the UK’s prospects of meeting its net zero ambitions. Highlights were a 40GW target for offshore wind by 2030; an Advanced Nuclear Fund for the next generation of small, advanced modular reactor technology; a Net Zero Innovation Portfolio to encourage development on longer-duration energy storage, introduction of a UK Emission Trading System, plus £1bn to facilitate the development of four carbon capture and storage clusters by the 2030s. Any or all of these technologies are likely to be essential to achieve the energy transition, and if you are a local resident living next to an earmarked development site, it’s probably giving you a few sleepless nights.
Let’s take a moment to consider what we have achieved already. The UK is halfway towards hitting its target of being carbon neutral by 2050 (the first advanced economy to set such a target), with greenhouse gas emissions falling 51% against the Government’s baseline. Last year, carbon dioxide emissions fell 13% to their lowest level in nearly 150 years. Coal was responsible for just 1.6% of UK electricity generation, compared to 67% in 1990. No coal was burnt at all for 180 days last year, with renewables accounting for 42% of electricity generation. Better still, over Easter weekend this year the combination of sunny and windy weather and low demand resulted in almost 80% of generation coming from low-carbon sources – renewables plus nuclear.
These are impressive achievements and the UK deserves to be given due recognition for its performance. However, to have a hope of successfully delivering the next 50% reduction in carbon emissions, developers and operators will need to keep their feet on the pedal and work harder than ever to win public support. The positive buzz over COP26 shows how far we have come in the last ten years. We’ve moved a long way from being a nation of perceived wind turbine haters to world leaders in reducing our all-important carbon footprint. The majority of people in this country ‘get it’ now, but while awareness about climate change is strong, familiarity with advances in the technologies designed to tackle it and the contribution British businesses are making is lagging far behind. Success is contingent on the public’s support, without which, the political climate will become increasingly fragile. Those who have experience at the sharp end of promoting wind and solar development projects in particular, know this only too well, but the same or similar challenges also face the less familiar emergent renewable technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration, battery storage, hydrogen manufacture etc. that will become increasingly prominent in the months and years ahead. An effective and empathetic approach to communication by all renewable and low carbon technologies has never been more important. There is so much still to do.
Government support (whether financially, through regulatory incentives or simply by public expressions of encouragement) is critical; conferring certainty and reducing costs, enabling more new technologies to come to market and scale-up. The Government insists it remains keen to help promote British technological advances and new infrastructure (the Prime Minister recently characterised the UK as ‘the Saudi Arabia of Wind’), but central government doesn’t control the delivery of all the renewable energy developments and low-carbon manufacturing facilities that we will need to help the UK become carbon natural by 2050 - local government often holds the cards through the planning system – and local government has a particularly sensitivity to local opinion.
Green technology companies that have not been early movers in developing a sophisticated approach to their outreach need quickly to get on the front foot to leverage the opportunity that the current positive political and public outlook towards renewables provides. A few years ago it was usually wind turbines or large-scale solar schemes that created the most lurid headlines for allegedly blighting rural communities. Rural or urban, it could just as easily be any kind of energy or transport infrastructure, housing or manufacturing site that is perceived as a threat to life as neighbouring residents know it – battery storage, hydrogen manufacturing, biogas; take your pick!
Two approaches are key, with each equally dependent on the success of the other. The first challenge is for generators to get out there and shout about the benefits of their technology – how it will contribute to net zero, its cost benefits in the longer term, its economic impact in terms of investment and jobs created and how it will commit to being a good neighbour to those living close by. The second necessary step is to engage early, sincerely and responsively with the communities that will host the infrastructure; and also with their political representatives. Local political goodwill is essential to success. We can’t expect such support to be automatic, people have to become familiar and comfortable with the arguments before they will decide to support them.
The challenge is that many new and emerging technologies are largely unfamiliar to the wider public, local media and to local councillors sitting on planning committees. Unfamiliarity breeds fear and uncertainty. Developers have to get out there to make the case and build public recognition of their technology is not just green, but also safe, reliable and cost effective, engaging with local communities, businesses and government (both locally and nationally), making best use of traditional and social media to get the positive message out on why we need these technologies. Wind and solar in particular have marked out the way ahead, and those hard-earned learnings should be adopted and adapted by the promoters of the newer, less familiar technologies.
It’s not enough to win the macro argument about the threat of climate change and the necessity of delivering a zero-carbon revolution – few now would contest that – but we also need to win the argument for each individual technology and each individual piece of proposed infrastructure, just as you would with any other type of major development. That hasn’t changed. As anyone experienced in the planning process will know well, it is human nature for the majority to put considerably more effort into opposing something they don’t like than they would in expressing supporting for something they were in favour of. Local communities have to be persuaded of the need for low carbon energy infrastructure and the appropriateness of its proposed location on a raft of different levels – with just as much emphasis placed on the local jobs and supply chain benefits, as on the particular technology’s role in combatting climate change. We need to be talking to communities about the scope and management of potential community benefit funds (again, pioneered by onshore wind), involving local schools in workshops and site visits, considering sponsorship of apprenticeships and college secondments – building trust and a sense of partnership. Developers and operators should aspire to help communities feel proud of the renewable energy infrastructure they host. COP26 should be a huge asset in helping achieve that goal.
The Communication Group plc
The Communication Group plc is a strategic communications consultancy, whose key specialisms include emerging technologies.