Bottlenecks and barriers to delivering net-zero: Recapping the discussion at the ECR net-zero conference

30 January, 2023

Hussein Mahfouz

Reading time: 4 minutes

Embedding public participation, energy justice and energy demand reduction were all discussed at the recent ECR conference, Hussein Mahfouz reports.

As part of an early career researcher (ECR) net-zero conference, CREDS co-hosted a plenary session with UKERC titled What are the main challenges in delivering net-zero: Bottlenecks and barriers. The plenary focused on energy demand reduction, the challenges of decarbonising electricity, and how to embed public participation and energy justice in the energy transition.

The speakers were Prof. Nick Eyre, Prof. Rob Gross (Director of the UK Energy Research Centre – UKERC), Dr. Emily Cox (Researcher at the University of Oxford Smith School and part of CO2RE – the UK’s national research hub on Greenhouse Gas Removal) and Uttara Narayan (Researcher at CREDS). The conference was part of a cross consortium colloration with nine research centres.

Energy demand reduction and the benefits of energy efficiency

Nick started off the plenary by emphasising the importance of paying more attention to how we use energy, how much energy we use and what sort of energy in getting to net-zero. He highlighted how reducing demand is central to net-zero commitments, and that CREDS research has shown that the UK can halve demand by 2050, bringing UK energy use down below the current global average.

Nick reminded us that energy efficiency and reductions in energy use will come with many societal benefits, including energy security, more jobs (particularly local jobs), improvement in air quality, better diets and more active lifestyles.

Challenges of decarbonising electricity

While the UK has made significant progress over the last two decades in its efforts to decarbonise the economy, many challenges remain. Rob emphasised that we are in danger of underestimating the scale of these challenges and, to add perspective, noted that even if the UK delivers the 50% reduction in energy demand mentioned by Nick, it would still need to double the amount of electricity provided and move all of that activity to low carbon sources.

According to figures by the Climate Change Committee and the National Grid, this will require 10-15 billion pounds per year of investment in low carbon sources for several decades. He pointed out the danger of complacency that could come with recent progress, and that just because renewables are so cheap it does not mean that the market will invest in them without government incentives and regulation. One notable incentive is the “contracts for difference” scheme and its importance in the provision of cheap energy and the protection of both the generator and the consumer from market volatility.

Role of public participation

Emily pointed out that all this investment cannot happen without public participation, which is crucial to technology development and upscaling. She outlined key points for government and industry to consider:

  • Engage early and continuously
  • Engage more systematically (for example through meaningful citizen’s assemblies at multiple scales, with a viable route for recommendations to influence policies)
  • Use local knowledge and appreciate diverse forms of knowledge
  • Embed participation and public intelligence in decisions about how to evaluate different project ideas.

The public, Emily reminded us, can be an enabler as well as a barrier. If they are not given a voice, they will find a way to make their voice heard. It is therefore crucial to consider procedural justice (how things are done) and distributional justice (who wins? who loses out?) in our decarbonisation efforts.

Energy justice

Justice was also at the core of Uttara’s talk, who made the point that energy justice must include racial justice. In trying to ensure racial justice, we must answer questions such as:

  • Is there a typical energy user that solutions are designed for?
  • How well do we understand complex and diverse energy practice and needs of ethnic minorities?
  • Is representation of ethnic minority professionals across the energy system proportionate to their percentage in the population?

But energy justice also needs to be tackled globally, and different countries will have different obstacles during the energy transition. Uttara used India as an example of how the railways are subsidised through overcharging freight companies transporting coal across the country, and points out that there is a danger of poorer people bearing the brunt of decarbonisation as their traditional public finance evolves with the energy transition. Governments must fundamentally rethink existing models of welfare to ensure that is not the case.

Closing comments

The session got me thinking about the role of regulatory mechanisms in accelerating progress. It also gave me tangible examples of energy justice considerations, and how the success of this societal transition is, in some areas, dependant on reforms to welfare models. I want to go on and learn more about these reforms, the size of the challenge relative to global net-zero targets, and the debates around justice surrounding this topic.

Banner photo credit: Tim Bechervaise on Unsplash