Bending to the Wind: Sustainability in 2022

Until 2021 became all about Covid (again), it was meant to be a key year in the struggle for a more sustainable future. The EU continued with its pledge to build back better via its Recovery Fund, whilst the UK was meant to be building back greener and in the US President Biden promised a $2 trillion package of green investments. In March, China published its 14th five year plan, which focused largely on climate change. And COP26 in Glasgow in November was intended to put a cap on all of this activity with new pledges to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and to promote greater resilience.

It’s not entirely clear that 2021 delivered all that might have been hoped for in terms of the climate. Glasgow saw some positive developments, including far greater engagement from the private sector and from cities and other public institutions, but did not end with the blockbuster intergovernmental deal that had been hoped for. And whilst campaigners against hydrocarbons would have been cheered by the decision of another major mining company to exit coal when Anglo American spun out its operations in that sector this year they might have been less thrilled when the new company, Thungela Resources, ended the year up more than 150% in value as investors warmed to coal in the face of soaring prices for natural gas.

Just today we have learned that Germany has shut down three of its remaining six nuclear power stations with the rest to follow this year. I am obviously a fan of nuclear, having worked for the industry for years, but it is indisputable that the decisions taken in that country post-Fukushima, known as the Energiewende, have caused much more coal to be burned than would otherwise have been the case. It will be intriguing to see how the new Greenish Government in Berlin responds to the reality that Germany’s emissions remain much higher than other major European nations, particularly with the 12% of its electricity generation that it got from very low carbon nuclear in 2021 not being available at the end of 2022.

So we go into 2022 on the back of some more downbeat news when it comes to our climate. But perhaps this is no bad thing. For a long time there has been a tendency for politicians from all nations and of every political persuasion to make sweeping commitments to address this subject without much realistic thinking about how these will be delivered. For example, the UK has pledged to decarbonise domestic heating but it is far from clear where all of the tens of thousands of installers of heat pumps will come from. Countries everywhere want to phase out petrol and diesel cars and promote electric vehicles but are lagging behind when it comes to ensuring their electricity grids will be ready. Governments are promoting renewables without much thought about intermittency, as the UK’s experience this Autumn showed. And only lately have questions started to be asked about the true sustainability of batteries with their reliance on rare minerals, often from challenging geopolitical locations.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is who will foot the bill for all of these changes. The speed and scale of the transition needed means that taxpayers and consumers are going to face significant extra costs. There are already signs of a backlash; for example, prominent politicians from the governing party in the UK such as Steve Baker MP are aligned with a new campaigning group called ‘Net Zero Watch’, which aims to “highlight the serious economic and societal implications of expensive and poorly considered climate and energy policies”. But this is not just the domain of sceptics about climate science: plenty of organisations which fully accept that urgent action is needed are nevertheless worried about the fairness of loading new costs on people who can’t afford them.

The hope for 2022 is that the debate will become much more practical, much more realistic, and much more action-orientated. After all, there is actually broad agreement about the steps required, at least in the UK, so now let’s see how in practice we can make them happen. And let’s also start to be much more realistic about adaptation and resilience too: even if increases in temperature are limited the climate is still changing. Time to harness the more positive aspects of the debate in Glasgow – the interest shown by cities, companies and others, the new focus on resilience, and the innovations on show when it comes to financing the transition, as well as the evolution of the debate to consider nature and biodiversity as well as carbon alone. Time too to think about the skilled workforce we are going to need to get this right. If we do this the next 12 months could actually be the pivotal year for sustainability that 2021 was meant to be.

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