Net Zero Innovation: COP26 as an opportunity for the UK public sector and universities to show leadership

With 90 per cent of the technology needed to achieve net zero already available, and tools, programmes, and delivery mechanisms on hand to cities and regions, networks and knowledge sharing are becoming the pivotal factor in achieving the level of transformation needed. These and other topics were discussed at a seminar hosted by the Net Zero Innovation Programme, a collaboration between UCL and the LGA, as we consider the opportunities for councils to lead on the path to net zero.

Local government targets as driving forces for net zero

Local government is in a key position to tackle climate change. Since its inception after the Rio Summit, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) has championed the role of Local Authorities in this fight. Now, almost 30 years since Rio, and more recently after the Paris Agreement, climate action is not voluntary but a duty for all. Local government has progressed in setting very ambitious targets and has pushed for moving from goodwill into action. It is noted that countries that have been successful in climate action are the ones that have embraced multi-level collaboration.

This enhanced role for local government is also evidenced by the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which will bring more scientific input from the city level, something that will level ambition with data availability. Local Authorities are a concrete partner and have a crucial role in changing how climate change targets are achieved.

National government support is financial but also about knowledge sharing

A collaborative approach including national government, local authorities, universities, local businesses, and citizens all having a role to play to reach net zero will be needed to reach effective targets. In this effort, BEIS is working to deliver an Innovation Strategy this year, which was highlighted as part of the 10-point plan by the PM and includes £1 billion in net zero innovation. With regards to the current projects linked to collaborating 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. They act as liaison organisations and knowledge-sharing organisations where good practice is showcased. A good example coming from the hubs is the Scatter Tool, which is helping Local Authorities understand their carbon emissions and plan on how to reduce them.

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

UK Universities are in a good position to 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 UK level, Universities UK (UUK), the network of UK universities, sets a direction of travel. This is achieved by showing leadership in the area, committing targets for emission reductions in their organisations, reporting on targets and communicating these to a wider audience, and set a target for scope 3 emission reduction, in addition all UK university members signed the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Particularly important for universities is the collaboration with local authorities. In the run-up to COP26, universities have a role to play by delivering practice and theory together with their local partners.

COP26: an opportunity for the UK to show leadership and for stakeholders to engage and add to the conversation

The global agenda is accelerating in the run up to COP26 and there will be several events during the summer, including a number of council-led climate weeks around the world. In particular an Urban October event will focus on cities and climate change in the final month before the critical climate negotiations and there is a real sense of opportunity to take advantage of these events to keep the conversation going and share experiences.

For the UK, this is a chance to showcase innovation and encourage 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. From the national to the local level, the UK is in a good position to champion climate action.

Public sector leadership is needed to tackle the challenges

Internationally, the UK Government through International Climate Finance provides support to developing countries to tackle climate change, while UK universities can work within their international partnerships to promote decarbonisation and promote local UK solutions as best practices.

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 those communities to implement local proposals. Bringing costs down from economies of scale can also help this scale up drive, 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.

The Panel

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

Katherine Wright, 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, Director of Global Advocacy at ICLEI, the global sustainability network of more than 1,750 local and regional governments.

Yunus had led the establishment of the Bonn Center for Local Climate Action and Reporting (carbon) and has been serving as the Focal Point of Local Governments and Municipal Authorities (LGMA) Constituency at the UNFCCC. 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, Director Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull

Dan 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. Dan is an active researcher in areas related to fluvial, estuarine, coastal and deep marine sedimentary environments, exploring responses of these systems to climate forcing and environmental change, for example understanding how evolving flood hazard translates to risk across the world and how this can impact populations in low lying coastal environments.

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.