In this podcast series in partnership with UCL researchers and policy professionals from councils across England share their reflections on working together on the Net Zero Innovation Programme. It explores opportunities and challenges faced in partnering with those from different worlds to help achieve net zero emissions commitments.
In the first episode of our Together Towards Net Zero podcast series, we speak with one of our teams from Cambridgeshire County Council and UCL who are undertaking a project on a procurement carbon calculator and code of practice. We discuss how they approached, undertook and reflected on our series of workshops, which explored the different challenges to achieving net zero, navigating polarisation and avoiding gridlock, and tools for identifying and resolving barriers to effective partnerships. Joining us are Emily Bolton, Climate Change Officer at Cambridgeshire County Council, and Dr Isabela Butnar, Senior Researcher looking at net zero energy systems and across the UK, councils are declaring a climate emergency, seeking to lead action at a local level to reduce carbon emissions, increase biodiversity, transition to net zero and ultimately improve the quality of life of their residents and the local environment.
Isabel: Hello, and welcome to the LGA and UCL's Net Zero Podcast Series 'together towards net zero.' I'm Dr Isabel Bennett, Public Policy Engagement Facilitator at UCL Public Policy.
Our new podcast series 'together towards net zero' aims to reflect on our recently launched Net Zero Innovation Programme, bringing together councils and universities. As I'm sure you're aware, many councils across the UK have declared a climate emergency. In this series, we're focusing on stories from our net zero programme to help shine a light on how councils and universities can work together to co-create solutions to meet council's climate commitments. Each podcast brings together participants with expertise on the topic to explore the opportunities and challenges of the programme together.
In this episode, we'll be discussing how one of our partnerships approach undertook and reflected on our series of partnership workshops facilitated by Dr Kris de Meyer, and Dr Lucy Hubble-Rose. The first workshop looked at different challenges to achieving net zero, the second at navigating polarisation and avoiding gridlock, and the third presented structured tools for identifying and resolving barriers to effective partnerships. I'll be speaking to partners from Cambridge County Council, and UCL who are undertaking a project on a procurement carbon calculator and code of practice. This series is funded by UCL Public Policy and brought to you by the LGA and UCL connecting the world of research with the world of local government.
With me today, virtually of course, are Emily Bolton, Climate Change Officer and Project Manager at Cambridgeshire County Council and Dr Isabela Butnar, Senior Researcher looking at net zero energy systems and the academic counterpart at UCL.
Emily, I'd like to start with you. Can you tell me a little bit more about your area of expertise and why you're interested in joining our programme?
Emily: So I am responsible for a lot of the climate change work and environment work that Cambridge county council is doing at the moment. Starting in 2019, when we first declared our climate and environment emergency, and really pushing forward from there to shape the council's ambitions, and trying to figure out exactly what it is we want to do and how we think we can do it and play our role in meeting the climate environment challenge that we face.
This project was particularly interesting to us because we'd already, as I said, declared a climate emergency, we knew that a lot of what we needed to do would involve developing new approaches and new mechanisms to embed within the council's day to day working. And that, quite frankly, is a very big task and that we would need some help.
The collaborative nature of this project with university partners enabling us to pick the brains of some experts, we thought it'd be really beneficial for us, particularly as it's done in a way that really isn't otherwise possible, or would be very challenging to set up more organically.
Another part of the project that appealed from the local authority perspective definitely is the is the funding, which really helps to unlock doors, gets motivation going internally, and gets impetus behind the work to enable us to dedicate resources to doing things that might otherwise be more challenging and get pushed down the line to deal with later on.
Isabel: Isabela, I wonder if you could answer the same question. So describe a bit about your area of expertise and why you're interested in joining the programme.
Isabela: Thank you. So my main area of expertise is energy systems modelling and I'm specialised in bio energy systems and looking at global and national decarbonisation pathways and understanding what role bioenergy plays. Every time in the last in the last few years, we have been working with an understanding what makes possible net zero at the global level and the national level. What is really missing is understanding the bottom up coming from the much more disaggregated level and how does it look on the ground actually, rather than just the model, so for me this was really appealing to understand what the counsellors are battling with, what do they understand by net zero? How does it match with what we think is to be done if we are going to meet them at zero? So that was one main reason understanding net zero zero from thelocal level, as opposed to the top down I'm doing in my modelling.
And the second reason was that previously to working for UCL, I worked in the industry with international supply chains and doing loads of carbon footprinting. So what the, what the council wants to do with the carbon footprint calculate that is an expertise I have. And I'm really keen to use it in a different context. So not for industrial, necessarily industrial supply chains, but for all sorts of either supply chains. So I'm looking forward to unravel the complexity of the problem and finding solutions with them.
Isabel: Fantastic. Lots of lots to do at the local level, as you say, That's interesting. I wondered if maybe now it'd be a good time to describe your project, and explain how you've both been able to apply your expertise to the project so far.
Emily: So when Cambridge county council started shaping our climate ambitions, one of the key things we did was to put together a carbon footprint file for our organisation. As with many local authorities, we found sort of the scopes one and two, so are more direct emissions, fairly easy to figure out. But when it came to scope three, and particularly those emissions from procured goods and services, which formed the bulk of our carbon footprint, it was incredibly problematic - for two main reasons really, the first was just in some instances, we just didn't have the data. Or it was that we had some data, but none of it was in a usable format. For example, we had costs or number of items, but not tonnes of raw material, which is predominantly the way that you work out your carbon emissions, following the lights of the greenhouse gas protocol, for example.
This meant other than saying, we know it's probably very, very big, and we really need to do something about it, we didn't really have much quantified evidence to be able to set targets to or to measure success in reductions. And so we felt we needed to develop some sort of mechanism to help us do this.
Out of this came the idea of developing a carbon calculator and a code of practice, both of which could be incorporated into our procurement processes, partly to shift some of the burden of that data collection onto our suppliers, but also to enable us to potentially set carbon emissions levels within our procurements to either use it as evaluation criteria, or for those longer term procurements to be able to set key performance indicators that require carbon reduction over time. So the carbon calculator is looking to be a quantified measure.
This will be providing the supplier a standardised template for inputting their information into and then the code of practice is more qualitative. So this will set out the council's wider environmental ambitions, for example, we have targets for reducing single-use plastics, or encouraging the switch to electric vehicles. And so by setting out exactly what our expectations are, it enables our suppliers to respond to our needs, rather than putting together more generic responses to some of our environmental questions.
Isabela: I think it's especially this what was really attractive for me was how well organised Cambridgeshire Council is and how much work they have already done previously in understanding footprinting. What is scope one, scope two, what is the missing bit they need? So they have a very clear picture of what they expect from the project and I think that is very useful because I have been looking at their similar project in the past with a Camden Council. But very quickly, we fell into talking about future investments to 2030 and longer term which kind of caught us paralysed. So the fact that that Cambridgeshire Council has a very clear expectation, what do they need? What is useful for them, they have the suppliers' contracts in place, it seems that it's everything ready to go. And we can actually deliver in the short time of the project.
Isabel: I was also going to ask Isabela, why do you think it's so important that we come together as local authorities and academics to tackle the climate change emergency together?
Isabela: From my understanding is, the academics, we have been doing loads of modelling exercises, and we always worked with the Government, and advise theGgovernment all the time, but it was always the UK level. This, this funding actually gives us the opportunity to talk to local authorities and understand their point of view, their take, their own challenges, not as translated from the Government. And I think this, this is a really well, it's a really good timing for this exercise to happen, because it's just not in place anywhere else. So you are not doubling efforts from anywhere else. It's a unique programme, which is very useful, because I think it has to go both ways, and the top down and the bottom up should meet somewhere in between, and we should produce something useful for reaching that zero
Emily: I'd agree completely. I think the only thing I'd add was that what's really nice about this programme is that it's focused on how you do something rather than what you need to do. Because I think that's the bit in particular, local government struggles with, you know, as Isabela says, we've got government putting forward what needs to be done. But quite often, there's this gap between to actually implement it because you suddenly uncover all of these real world issues that you might not foresee or might seem quite small when you're talking at the national level, but can actually completely paralyse a project from proceeding and is focused on how and developing mechanisms to do things that are functional for the local authority, particularly as most policy one way or another comes down to the local authority to implement is really, really helpful.
Isabel: Yeah, that's that's a really interesting comment about the disconnect that you can get between national and local level when it comes to policymaking. Yeah, I completely agree. So I thought that we could maybe talk a little bit more about your sort of partnership and the team that you put together for the project, how did you make that initial link together?
Emily: So in terms of the project, we were both looking I think, at projects independently initially, and trying to figure out what we can do and then Isabella who had previously worked with us on a carbon footprint I believe it was for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, as in the geographical region, contacted us asking, did we want to do something in this space and flowed from there really.
Isabel: Fantastic - and how has it been working together so far Isabela, sort of working with a local authority - a new experience?
Isabela: For me, it has been really, really nice because I came to my first contact with Cambridgeshire County Council and was doing some volunteering, work doing some review work for, for a baseline they introduced in the last year. And then I noticed how well organised they are and how thouroughly they think about of all things - nothing happens by by chance. But since this project started, I'm really pleased to be working with them because it's, it's really a team effort is not just Emily and Kasia, who have been on the course - it's a bigger team behind them. They have managed to invoice procurement to involve higher functions in the in the county council, and the people are really motivated and I think that is very rewarding, that we are not talking about theory here. And we are talking about application in practice. And this people are looking forward to doing it. So it's really exciting, really.
Isabel: That's fantastic to hear. And how did you get to sort of understanding each other's expertise or kind of different approaches to the net zero question, how did you find that sort of communication with each other?
Emily: It was very much conversational, I think, at first, so because certainly from the council perspective, we've been looking at this, the programme separately, we have some broad ideas about what we wanted to focus on with procurement being the flagship idea that we wanted to push forward. And so it was when Isabela got in touch, we just put forward what we were thinking, and then collaboratively built from there taking on lots of Isabella's experience, particularly around the importance of interacting with our suppliers through the, through the development process of the carbon calculator.
And the fact that you know, supply chains are very, very different. And so a carbon calculator needs to reflect the supply chain to ensure it's data that suppliers have. And that's it to make it usable for all parties involved. And so we've merged our goals and aims and experience into this to develop the project together.
Isabel: Isabela, how did you find the sort of engagement with the local authority and getting across your your own expertise?
Isabela: It has been quite quite an interesting learning curve for me, because I suppose Emily, she has a very open mind, and she doesn't mind asking questions, which is really good when we start using all sorts of jargon. Because in modelling where we just some use some terms and some things, we already think people understand what we mean, but they don't so. So it's a really good one, when the other partner, the other collaborators actually stop you and ask you, do you mean this? Or do you mean the other thing and and then work from there and bring it to a common understanding? So I am quite confident that if I say something which is not clear or they don't fully get it, they will ask me, and I am the same, I feel comfortable enough - if I don't understand the structures of decision making, and how are we going to approach and deliver this, I can ask the questions. And I know there will be an answer. And if there is a challenge in the bottom that we'll find a way to solve it. So it's a very collaborative, it's not one way from either side. So it's really nice. It's a truly collaborative project. So we are learning - I feel like both are learning a lot.
Emily: Yes, definitely.
Isabel: And that is something that we looked at in the partnership workshops, which we held last year. So I wondered if you might cast your minds back to the partnership workshops. We're really interested to hear what were your expectations going into those workshops? You know, what, what did you think that they might be looking to achieve? And, you know, what was your thinking?
Emily: I think I didn't really have any expectations. We weren't given much information ahead of time to really start thinking about things. So you went in completely, completely fresh, which at the time we thought, they're not giving us the information? How can I prep for this? But actually, it was really helpful, I think, going in in that way.
Both in terms opening up to understand what we were going to be discussing and learning through the workshops. But also, you could see from the other local authorities there, because that was actually really nice, having everyone sort of in the room together, as it were, that we were all very much on the same page, and able to discuss things and develop our understanding together, rather than, you know, rushing off and doing stuff independently and coming back and already knowing the answers to the questions as it were.
I hadn't expected the workshops to be quite so much about teaching us new thought approaches and project management approaches. But I think mostly because you, you sort of come at this thinking, well, we already know how to do all of that stuff. That's part of the day to day job, but actually being taught those different approaches, the different ways of thinking, I thought really helpful even if I know Isabella and I struggled with some of them, but it was I think it was really helpful to look at the different ways and think that even if we think something might not apply to our project, but you could see how it might apply to different types of projects potentially from our perspective, there were a few bits that we thought might apply more to a project that was dealing with the general public, perhaps rather than a more technically internal focus as our one is, but having that understanding and being able to see how it could be applied to different things and different approaches and more beneficial in different areas, I think was really helpful. And not just for this project, I think generically, across how we do our day to day roles normally, it was helpful.
Isabel: That's interesting, so Isabela, were there are certain aspects of the workshops that you found more challenging?
Isabela: Yes, that is, that is a very good question. Because my, when, when I came to do workshops, I thought, I really hope they're not too theoretical and too remote from what we are doing, because I was already ready to start working on the project. I just wanted to get started and do something specific to the project. But then, I was very, very nicely surprised that every session had the hands on and the homework, which actually gave us the time as partners gave us the time the thinking space, organised thinking space, how to look at the problem, have we looked at it from all angles? Are we actually looking for the right solution? Do we understand that problem space? And I think it was really useful, because we came with a clear idea of what we wanted to do. But this extra thinking, and, and looking at it from different perspectives, was really helpful to actually break it down and make it more digestible. So it didn't feel that complex anymore. So it felt that way we can, we can approach it.
And I agree with Emily, at some point, we were kind of lost and felt that it doesn't apply to the project. But then it was really helpful that Kris, one of the teachers of the course, actually set some time aside with us, we had the session or two, where talked through what we don't understand, what we find challenging. And he helped us formulate the questions. So it was really nice to have that reception and that one to one with the teachers. So it gave us as as partnership time, but also interaction with the teachers on the group on the course, which was really, I thought that was really nice that that was possible. Even there were so many things on the course, we were very lucky to have the teacher source.
Isabel: Yeah, Kris is really fantastic at helping hand to sort of communicate and break problems down, that's for sure. Yeah, it sounds like that's a sort of a key aspect which the workshops help to address like breaking down, breaking down the problem into into bite size parts that sort of feel more manageable and looking at things from different perspectives. Were there any other key challenges, to sort of ways of working, which the workshops might have helped to address?
Isabela: I think, I think one thing which I didn't realise it it was a challenge and the workshop really shed light on it was the expectations from both sides. Because even in our projects case, where we went in with a clear idea, I was thinking more in the technical way how to design an Excel spreadsheet how to how to engage from the council point of view they were thinking how to take that and make it ways of working for the procurement. But I think we didn't really mind the two things together until we came to the course and and actually specified how that work will be done. What goes first, what goes second, how do we feed into each other because otherwise it will end up like two separate worlds where I do a desk exercise and Emily tries to to get everyone in the in the Council on board with it and and collaborating but still be disconnected. And I think the course, actually the workshop helped us to, to just bring all of that together and realise how important is that at each point, we don't just assume it's defined but actually ask for the opinion and the feedback at all points. So we are not creating something which the other side can't answer to, because it's it's really too complicated, too complicated for them again. So I think that for me, expectations, management of expectations and what to expect from each other and how to overcome challenges, I think that was really a nice outcome of the of the workshop. It was a challenge initially and I think it will be the main challenge going forward. But at least now we are aware of it.
Isabel: Emily, I was wondering, reflecting on the programme up until now, what would be your one key takeaway message for universities and council partnerships?
Emily: I think it really is the communication side that Isabela was talking about earlier on, I think both sides are guilty of getting a little bit siloed. And a little bit entrenched in our own jargon and processes and ways of doing things. And we forget that there's a whole other world out there of ways of doing things, and different terms for the same things. And so overcoming that as a barrier and taking it on as a collaborative learning experience, is really helpful. And I think also that key word is collaboration, this isn't, you know, say the local authority, procuring a consultant to do a piece of work for them that we specify, they go off and do it and bring it back. It is that communication, that iterative development working together, that I think really strengthens the outputs of what we'll be able to achieve. We forget that we don't know what we don't know. Others come forward with really helpful insights that if you hadn't had that conversation, it just wouldn't have been on the radar at all. And I think that's what is really nice about these sorts of partnerships, particularly the university side where you've got real knowledge and expertise, that that you might have no notion of otherwise.
Isabel: And how will you two, or I guess, how will your teams continue all of your sort of good work that you've begun now? So I guess now we're into the delivery period of the programme. You know, looking forward, what what are you excited about?
Emily: Other than just getting cracking... I think it'll be a really interesting project. And together, because we've got, while at the core, we've got this, this technical side of developing, you know, two discrete outputs. So we've got things that we're making - we will have to bring along so many people with us. And I think in particular, I'm really looking forward to starting to speak to our suppliers more to understand what they need to be able to do some of these things, what their views are.
Because we know, we've got some suppliers that are really, really clued up and very keen and open about this sort of thing. And others that are perhaps less open to new ideas or view that, you know, some of this data sharing might be an issue for them in terms of proprietary information, or commercial information. So there'll be a lot of conversations to have, but I'd be really interested in looking forward to understanding where they're at and how we can bring them along with us, rather than imposing something on them to do. And I think, actually more widely, there's some really helpful legislative things going on in the procurement world that make these conversations really apt and timely to be having with the suppliers.
And so I think that would be really informative and not just help this project. I think it will help our overall approach as a local authority to how we deal and speak with our suppliers, about these environmental issues that might perhaps have traditionally been seen as bonus points, rather than as core to how we want services and goods delivered.
Isabel: That does sound like it's gonna be a big year. Isabela, what are you what are you excited about in the delivery phase of this project?
Isabela: I have been already involved in a couple of council meetings regarding the design of the calculator and how we'll be organising and delivering this project and I'm really excited to talk to the people to understand the tools they are using in terms of carbon footprinting, how can we build upon those tools rather than generating new tools to give them an extra burden and to have to work their way around them. So create really something which, which is very easy to take up and run with it the day to day. And, and I know that we will be open, and then we will have very good conversations. So I'm really looking forward to that I am also really excited because from both sides, we are so into it into this net zero and creating the calculator we got in touch with, with different other stakeholders and, and created like a pool of, of disseminating as we go, which is really nice.
Because we were also able to split the problem into bits, we might have a couple of master's students helping us going forward. And they might go even beyond the timeline of this project. And we will, they will be building up on the work we are starting here. So I think we are already going even beyond the project. So we are kind of looking forward to get it started and get it going. But we are already looking beyond how to add more value to it because it's loads of work. I think this is just the beginning. A very good beginning. I think.
Isabel: I like that - this is just the beginning. Well, it sounds like - I'm very excited. This is such an exciting project. Thank you so much for sharing, sort of a little bit about your expertise about your project, how you came together, how you found the workshops. Thank you so much to Emily Bolsen and Dr Isabella Butnar for joining us on this podcast.
You've been listening to together towards net zero. This episode was presented by myself, Dr Isabel Bennett, produced by UCL and LGA support from UCL Public Policy, and edited by Nathan Copelin. Our guest today we're Emily Bolton and Dr Isabela Butnar.
To find out more about the net zero innovation programme, visit UCL Public Policy. If you'd like to hear more podcasts from UCL, then head to UCL minds podcasts. Thanks for listening and I hope you'll join us again next time.