Government investment too low to achieve net zero recovery, say engineers

03/11/2020 11:35

There is a large gap between government funding commitments and the true scale of changes required for a net zero economic recovery from COVID-19, according to a paper published today by the National Engineering Policy Centre, which represents 43 UK engineering organisations with a combined membership of nearly half a million engineers. With one year until COP 26 the UK has a responsibility to be a global leader for rapid carbon emissions reduction. The paper calls on the government to step up the level of investment it is prepared to make in clean growth to match that of other ambitious nations like Germany and the Republic of Ireland, to maintain international competitiveness, and build on the UK’s strengths and capabilities in clean technologies.

Urgent action is needed to build net zero capacity, says the paper, and policy decisions that can rapidly mobilise entire industries must be taken if the UK is to meet its carbon emissions target of net zero by 2050. In tackling the current employment and economic crises caused by the pandemic, the government must not lose sight of broader objectives such as net zero, resilience, international competitiveness and the need to create a more equal society. The paper sets out five foundations for government to deliver a net zero recovery.  

The UK has a chance to make the best use of its existing assets and to develop more flexible and efficient infrastructure systems for the future, says the paper. It recommends that recovery funds for carbon-intensive industries should require them to commit to ambitious but achievable targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These include engineering industries such as aviation, rail and energy-intensive manufacturing such as steel production and chemical processing. Cumulative, connected change is required across different policy areas and economic sectors to deliver net zero, and government should consider the technologies that will be needed and how people’s jobs and lives will be impacted as a result.

The five foundations in the paper are:

  • Government must ensure that recovery packages work together as a whole to pivot the UK towards a net zero economy.
  • Government spending on new infrastructure and public buildings must avoid the trap of high carbon construction methods and lay the foundations for a future net zero infrastructure system including minimising the need for future retrofitting, by basing spending choices on outcomes and including whole-life carbon evaluation.
  • Government should drive digital transformation as an essential enabler of net zero and resilience.
  • Government must increase the UK’s technical capability to deliver net zero by creating a national workforce planning strategy and implementing proactive policies on diversity and inclusion in employment and training that will help reverse the impact of COVID-19 on employment opportunities for women and people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
  • Government should deploy a cross-sectoral systems approach to policymaking thataccounts for the impact that transforming one part of the economy or national infrastructure will have on the others.

Dervilla Mitchell CBE FREng, UKIMEA chair at Arup and a chair of the National Engineering Policy Centre Net Zero Working Group, says:

“We must guard against the possibility that, as economies around the world recover from the impacts of the pandemic, plans for a low-carbon recovery unravel, and we lock the country into high-emissions infrastructure and systems that simply return us to past norms.

“Investing in low-carbon technology and practices now will create jobs and pay dividends for the economy and the UK’s net zero emissions target.

“Real progress on reducing carbon emissions will need to be built in the short-term, maintained over the long term, be sustainable over successive governments, and able to withstand disruptive events in future.”

Read the paper here.

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