“Sheer determination and technological optimism” won’t be enough for a low carbon industrial revolution

Offices in the City of London. Image: Getty.

Launching the countdown to the COP26 climate talks last week, the prime minister was right to say climate action presents a huge industrial opportunity, one that can drive “our national agenda of uniting and levelling up our country”. The UK’s success in renewable energy is a clear example of what real policy ambition can achieve.

So why are we not taking even the most basic steps in other areas? One obvious target is the shocking level of energy UK offices and commercial buildings still waste, where there has been little improvement since the early 2000s.

In the financial district of the City of London, Green Alliance estimates that, every year, offices are wasting the equivalent energy used to power over 65,000 homes. That’s a similar number to the entire housing stock of the London Borough of Kingston upon Thames. This waste is costing City businesses £35m a year and generating the same annual carbon emissions as 46,000 cars every year. 

This seems hard to explain, particularly when cheap and readily available digital technologies can help businesses track and modulate their energy use. AI optimisation systems have been shown to cut energy use by as much as 14 per cent in commercial buildings and pay for themselves in just a few months.

Yet companies often find it hard to identify the inefficiencies in their operations, and don’t have the strategic foresight to feel comfortable with longer payback periods. 

What’s needed to change this?      


Saving money across the country

With over 65 per cent of local authorities now having declared climate emergencies, there is a strong political mandate for innovative local solutions. 

The local industrial strategies mayors and others are publishing could provide targeted support for business energy efficiency measures. Cities like Bristol, which are already pioneering adoption of smart energy systems, should take the lead on this. Green Alliance estimates that Bristol’s offices could save nearly £2m on energy bills within a year by using energy optimising AI systems. A similar programme in cities with bigger business districts could save more, with estimates of £3.3m in Manchester and £2.6m in Leeds.

Some councils already have powers to raise funding for this through a supplement to larger companies’ business rates. The Greater London Authority used this approach to fund Crossrail and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is considering it to fund the retrofit of commercial buildings. This could help to channel funding into local clean growth, stimulating the market for energy efficiency and enabling local supply chains for smart energy and sustainable construction to expand.

But success will be limited if there isn’t support at national level too. In its 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, the government committed to improving business energy efficiency by at least 20 per cent by 2030 but it has yet to set any policy to deliver on that.

A key failing of the system at the national level is that building efficiency is estimated rather than measured, with actual carbon emission up to ten times higher than usually assumed.   

A successful scheme in Australia has proved it is possible to spark radical change. The National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) has cut the energy use of office buildings across Australia by nearly 40 per cent over 13 years, using a rating systems based on their actual performance in use and by promoting digital solutions to save energy. The better understanding this has led to has also improved the design of new buildings. Newly built prime offices in Melbourne use less than half the energy per square metre of similar new offices in London. Before the scheme, they were comparable. 

Rather than trusting in “sheer determination and technological optimism” to do the magic, as the PM was implying last week, the government should be doubling down on this agenda. Boosting business energy efficiency would help UK businesses save £6bn a year by 2030 – a welcome shot in the arm and a route to “levelling up our country” by raising resource productivity in parts of the UK where the economy is lagging behind. 

It would also be one of the most basic steps to cut our climate impact and, alongside action on transport, agriculture and housing, a vital measure to get the UK on track towards net zero. If the prime minister wants the rest of the world to come with us and ensure the UK is seen as a credible host of the COP26, we should really be getting our house in order, starting from the basics.

Caterina Brandmayr is senior policy analyst at Green Alliance.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.