Net Zero Innovation: Using local networks to tackle our most complex challenge

By Luciano Pana Tronca, Katherine Welch, Grace Abel, Sadie Duffell

Around 90 per cent of the technology needed to achieve a net-zero world is already available - with the tools, programmes, and delivery mechanisms also accessible to cities and regions around the world. Networks and knowledge sharing amongst these are fast becoming the pivotal factor in achieving the green transformation needed to slow down the impacts of climate change.

It was these key topics — networks and knowledge sharing — that guests from global network Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the University of Hull discussed in detail at Net Zero Innovation: taking action from the local to the world, held in in May 2021.

Hosted by the Net Zero Innovation Programme (NZIP) — a collaboration between UCL and the Local Government Association (LGA) — the online event aimed to stimulate discussion on how to address climate challenges at the local level as we consider the opportunities for cities to lead on the path to net zero. We summarise the key highlights below.

Local government targets as driving forces for net zero

Local government is in a key position to tackle climate change — and since its inception after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, ICLEI has championed the role of Local Authorities in this fight. Now, almost 30 years later — and more recently after the Paris Agreement was established at COP21 — climate action has moved from being seen as voluntary to a duty for everyone.

Local government has also progressed in setting ambitious targets and has pushed for a move from goodwill into meaningful climate action; countries that have been most successful in spurring this action are also those that have embraced multi-level collaboration. For example, in August 2020, Japan Prefecture Governors presented ‘Urgent Recommendations’ to Japan’s Environment Minister, which led to a shift of policy and commitment to reach net-zero by 2050 (instead of an 80% reduction in emissions by the same date).

The enhanced role for local government is also evidenced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recently published report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis , which brings more scientific input from cities and describes the effects of urbanisation. Local Authorities are a concrete partner and have a crucial role in changing how climate change targets are achieved by using its local planning powers.

National government support is financial — but also involves knowledge sharing

A collaborative approach with national government, local authorities, universities, local businesses and citizens all playing a role to reach net zero will be needed to meet UK Government targets effectively. In this effort, BEIS published an Innovation Strategy in July 2021, which was highlighted as part of the 10-point plan by Prime Minister Boris Johnson — and includes £1bn investment in net zero innovation.

Several current projects involve collaboration with local partners; the BEIS portfolio includes working with Durham Council in geothermal energy, rapid de-carbonisation in Oxford and wind energy projects in the Orkney Islands. Additionally, BEIS has deployed a local energy programme that includes five local energy hubs across England, which act as liaison and knowledge-sharing organisations to showcase good practice. An example coming from the hubs is the Scatter Tool, which is helping local authorities understand their carbon emissions and subsequently plan on how to reduce them.

In regards to government and university collaboration, BEIS also supports these with capital funding to reduce emissions through the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. Key to government actions are programmes such as Innovate UK and CATAPULTS, which drive innovation by funding practical research and pilots around the country.

UK universities can leverage local knowledge, ambition, and solutions by partnering with local authorities

Universities and research centres are in a strong position to act as anchor institutions that work with local authorities to promote solutions and think locally. Collaboration within the sector and across geographies will also be critical in cultivating knowledge sharing.

At the national level, Universities UK (UUK) sets the direction of travel, showing leadership in the area and committing targets for emission reductions in their organisations, as well as reporting on targets and communicating these to a wider audience. This is in addition to all UK university members working towards achieveing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Particularly important for universities is the collaboration with local authorities; in the run-up to COP26, universities have a role to play by applying research insights to global challenges for the benefit of local partners. This has been the case with the University of Hull and Hull City Council in their effort to decarbonise the built environment with an innovative combined ventilation and air source heat pump technology.

COP26 is a pivotal moment for the UK public sector and universities to show leadership on climate

The climate change global agenda is accelerating in the run up to COP26 in November, with several events organised throughout the summer, including council-led climate weeks around the world. In particular, a few weeks prior to the critical climate negotiations taking place in Glasgow Urban October begins which will feature an event on Sustainable Development Goal 11: “to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. There is a real opportunity during this to share local government experiences on how to create sustainable, carbon neutral and inclusive cities and towns with a range of stakeholders.

Then COP26 itself is a chance for the UK to showcase and spur innovation, encouraging other countries by sharing information and good practice. For UK regions, it is also an opportunity to move forward and develop climate action plans that deal with local and regional decarbonisation journeys. Overall, the UK is in a strong position to champion climate action from the national to the local level. Alongside Chile (COP25 co-organiser), the UK is championing the Race to Zero global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions and investors to build a healthy, resilient, zero carbon economy. Members of the Race to Zero are committed to halving their emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest.

COP26 is also a key opportunity for local level partners to leverage the networks created, take advantage of the scientific background to endorse climate planning and to push for further local funding to make ambitious climate action a reality.

Scaling-up net-zero innovation

Partnerships, efficiencies of scale, and the community dimension are central in the effort to scale up innovation. The field of sustainability has progressed and has become more effective in connecting opportunities with different levels of government.

Thought leadership from the public sector and academia can help to inspire individuals and communities. In this regard, there needs to be a commitment from the communities in which net-zero projects are developed to follow through implementation. Bringing costs down from economies of scale can also help to scale up, for instance bulk buying of technology and searching for interdepartmental synergies. The community dimension is incredibly important as the adoption of technology needs to be supplemented with behavioural changes that can only happen at the individual adoption level.

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More about the speakers

Chair
Maggie Bosanquet, Low Carbon Economy Team Leader at Durham County Council.

Panel
Katherine Wright is Deputy Director Public Sector and Local Energy at BEIS. Katherine leads the Department’s work with local authorities on net zero, and the work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the public sector.

Yunus Arikan is Director of Global Advocacy, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability World Secretariat At ICLEI, the global sustainability network of more than 1,750 local and regional governments. Since 2013, he has been leading ICLEI´s engagement at the intergovernmental processes at the United Nations fora and within the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments.

Professor Dan Parsons is Director Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull. He is Chair of the Science Panel for the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission and is a member of the steering board for the COP26 UK Universities Network, with lead responsibility as Editor for the network’s COP26 Briefing Papers.

More about the authors

Luciano Pana Tronca is a Research Fellow at UCL Energy Institute.

Katherine Welch is Deputy Director of Partnerships at UCL Research, Innovation & Global Engagement.

Grace Abel is Programme Manager — Productivity at the LGA.

Sadie Duffell is Programme Support Officer at the LGA.

More about the Net Zero Innovation Programme

The Net Zero Innovation Programme brings together local authorities, universities and other stakeholders to address climate challenges at the local level, and seek routes to achieve council’s net zero commitments.

Find out more on the UCL or LGA website. Apply for the 2021/22 cohort here.

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