Engineering Net Zero Part 1: Communicating a Plan

Article by David Simmonds CEng FIChemE

David Simmonds opens a new series on net zero asking: what can engineers do to help secure public engagement and support?

LAST year, I offered three lessons from COP27 including accelerating strategies on ‘how’ we reduce emissions. Unfortunately, post COP27, emissions are still destined to increase, and governments need to convert pledges into actionable plans which can be communicated. The G20 leaders can only "strengthen their will" by cooperating, communicating, and implementing workable strategies, and our chemical engineering community has a key role to play in developing and helping to express these strategies and plans.

I have given further thought to this, and the article from Jamie Cleaver in the May issue of The Chemical Engineer highlighted one of the biggest challenges of achieving net zero: bridging the communication gap to communicate beyond our specialism. How can we really get the public onboard? How do we approach big business? Should government consider net zero by 2050 as part of a longer-term journey to a circular economy? I would like to address these key questions through a series of articles that explore the challenge of engineering net zero. These will consider: the development of more reliable plans for the key sectors, particularly for heating and transport; the longer-term impact of net zero measures on resources; skilling up to achieve the net zero target; and finally, energy security and price. Each will examine how we, as engineers, can assist policymakers so that they can develop and communicate a viable pathway to net zero.

Case for energy net zero

Most engineers have long been making the case for net zero and public opinion has moved over recent years to the point that climate change is now high on most people’s agenda. Yet the pathway to net zero is far from clear or proven, and public support is not guaranteed. Indeed, there has been a public backlash to change when it hits us in the pocket, and questions are being asked about the impacts of the policy. There is the Not Zero book written by Ross Clark, libertarian and proponent of free market economics, in which he opposes net zero as ‘an irrational target [that] will impoverish you, help China and won't even save the planet’. In April last year, former Ukip leader Nigel Farage launched a campaign calling for a referendum on the UK’s net zero policy though this failed to secure sufficient traction. That said the current cost-of-living crisis certainly plays to the cause, and Justin Rowlatt recently presented a feature for the BBC exploring whether the UK can afford net zero.

As for the government, Rishi Sunak reshuffled his cabinet earlier this year and updated the energy minister job title to ‘minister for energy security and net zero’. It’s notable that Grant Shapps who is heading the new department first spoke of focusing on the energy security side of the brief rather than climate change. The new department has its work cut out. It has come under pressure to release the numbers that support its net zero strategy. The government’s outgoing climate champion opined that net zero goals could be achieved even earlier if governments set more stretching targets and made bold policy decisions; some climate experts have warned about the misuse and dangers of the carbon offsetting practices that are being used to ‘reduce’ emissions; and on 28 June, the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee warned that the scale up of government action on climate change is “worryingly slow” and it now has “markedly less” confidence that the UK will meet its net zero goals.

In my view, the government’s net zero strategy looks to a carbon neutral 2050, but fails to address a longer-term circular approach or fully sustainable economy; 2050 is only part of the journey.

I believe net zero and a circular economy are goals applauded by most so long as they do not affect individual living standards. This circle is hard to close. Politicians rely on public support and, today, they are under significant pressure to balance competing cost-of-living and climate change goals. Our engineering community has a significant role to play helping policymakers meet both challenges by developing and proving low-cost technologies without penalising consumers, which is proving a contentious issue in the development of hydrogen home heating trials.

A failure in communication and policy

Vested interests have fought against change and governments have put off implementing costly policies needed to accelerate green standards

I have worked in the oil and gas sector for the whole of my career, and the impact of fossil fuels on the climate has long been understood. Indeed, I recently went through copies of Shell’s staff newsletters from the 1990s and found references to speeches by the then CEO and others in the company which highlighted the need for action but regrettably did not follow through. Why?

Frankly, it was down to vested interests. Companies were not going to change their strategies unless governments changed their policies and the financial models for energy. Elements of the oil and gas industry lobbied against change and worked to undermine efforts by climatologists and environmentalists to quantify and articulate the need for greener energy. In turn, governments deferred measures which would have increased costs to consumers or, perhaps more significantly, would have reduced national competitiveness. Similarly, companies feared for their own competitiveness.

Buoyed by progress towards COP26 held in Glasgow, the case for change started to approach a tipping point as we all started to realise the longer-term consequences of climate change. Engineers and academics eventually managed to start presenting the case for change more effectively, though they failed to articulate a plan to deliver that change. Covid and, more impactfully, the Ukraine war have deferred the tipping point, for the short-term economy has become more fragile with significant cost-of-living exposure, and companies such as Shell are slowing down their transition away from fossil fuels

Let me be upfront, the plan for net zero and reversing climate impact  is still not well articulated. The case for change is there but governments have difficulty planning much beyond tomorrow let alone the next decade or to 2050. The substitute for planning has been forecasting and arbitrary policy changes. These include ending the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030 and the ambition to phase out the installation of new gas boilers from 2035. They provide great sound bites, but the consequences of these have yet to be fully assessed in terms of the impact on our power network or the ability of manufacturers to provide suitable low-cost alternatives. In turn these policy measures are used to generate, indeed justify, forecasts for our energy consumption which have yet to be backed by reliable costings. An independent review of the UK’s Net Zero planning in January 2023, concluded that businesses needed “clarity, certainty, consistency and continuity”.

The main reason we do not have a plan for net zero is that it is hard, possibly too hard, to pull one together; there are just too many unknowns. Three major unknowns are:

  • the uncertainties in future energy supply and demand scenarios (both locally and internationally) and the ability to physically link generated supply to consumer demand (hourly, daily, and seasonally) using our networks or grids;
  • the availability of scarce resources. These include the physical resources such as critical rare earth elements and lithium that underpin greener technologies; people with the skillsets to engineer and deliver the transition; and the availability of sites on which to deploy new technologies, including renewables and nuclear; and
  • the ability to predict the relative costs and speed of development of the alternative energy vectors and technologies.

However, the status quo and vested interests also present roadblocks. While the cost of energy has increased significantly over the last year, it is still relatively cheap, with, in particular, lower cost gas is making it hard for heat pumps to compete. We are all aware of vested interests of big business, but one can also bring this issue down to the consumer level, for a company vying for your business will want to promote its own technology or offerings to achieve a sale, often independent of your real needs. Everyone would like a silver bullet, even a series of silver bullets, to do away with these problems, but the scale of our energy transition is too large for that.

So, what next for communication?

Jamie Cleaver suggested how engineers can enhance their communications with non-engineers. I whole-heartedly endorse Jamie’s checklist, making them relevant for net zero, as follows:

Plan: I have already noted that until now we have failed because we don’t have a plan. I have also outlined some of the real challenges facing net zero and/or a circular economy. The uncertainties and scale of our transition mean that we need multiple technologies. I would go further and conclude that at this stage we need a plan to test, trial, and promote all relevant technologies. Yes, some will fail, but, overall, we will be richer for having more options in our green energy toolkit.

Empathise, listen and body language: Every consumer has their needs or goals. This could be lowest cost, highest efficiency, most reliable, or more flexibility. In practice it will be a mix of demands and dependent upon where individuals live, their lifestyle, and, for heating, the type of property they live in. Some will support longer term measures, while others will have a shorter focus as they consider moving house and changing jobs. As engineers we need to offer a variety of technology solutions and be able to explain options so that consumers can select technologies to match their needs. We have moved on from the day when the only option was a black Ford.

Set the context and use a narrative: As I have said the case for change is pretty much there, but the engineering community and climatologists can still do more to make it compelling. There is a virtuous circle here because a more compelling case for consumers will enhance the case for companies to change their business models to reflect that demand. If consumers demand green energy/green products, businesses will have to respond.

Use analogies: We need to look at prior energy transitions to demonstrate the benefits of new green technologies. For example, the transition from coal gas to natural gas opened the prospect of domestic central heating for a lot more people, and stimulated a whole new industry creating jobs. We also must be careful, for there are negative analogies or failures, such as the promotion of diesel cars in the 2000s.

Ask open questions: This is one of the more challenging aspects as it places additional responsibility on us engineers to communicate more effectively with the wider public, and in the next feature I will specifically cover two consumer facing issues: transport and heating. To get consumers to engage, we need to be able to offer multiple solutions and ask open questions so that they can establish ‘what is best for me?’

Speaking to consumers and better understanding their needs will help engineers develop products that find wider adoption

Our questioning should help steer them towards the workable solution that meets their needs.

To date, we have been offering, almost insisting upon, the take up of heat pumps and electric cars. This ‘telling’ consumers what they need is one of the main reasons we are seeing the backlash to net zero. So firstly, we need to be able to offer options, even if these are not necessarily the most efficient, for, in the end, an alternative may be more acceptable, perhaps better, solution for an individual.

Then, through the process of asking consumers open questions about the likes of their driving patterns and/or heating needs, we can help identify their best option.

Through the open question approach consumers will also be able to see how they need to adapt their behaviours so that they can get the best from their chosen technology.

Further, I think we must move back a step when developing options, so that, more widely, we can take consumers along with us through the transition because there are no black or white answers. Back in 2016, the UK Energy Research Centre held focus groups on the energy transition, and they concluded that although participants were prepared to accept some additional costs because they were in favour of energy transition, they also expressed distrust about the profit driven energy system, lack of transparency, and perceived close connections between the energy industry and government. I doubt public views have changed much since, perhaps even deepened, and so, as engineers, we must do a lot more to redevelop that trust, starting with more open engagement with communities about their needs.

To bolster this public engagement, I would add collaboration between engineers to Jamie’s list. Traditionally this has been one of our success stories, but I feel in today’s age of social media, we are tending to compete rather than collaborate, especially as engineers attempt to promote one technology over another. As I have already said we will need multiple technologies and often we will realise more benefit if we fully capture the synergies between them.

And for our net zero plan?

In spite of the progress with renewables, we still have the backdrop that, worldwide, we are dependent upon fossil fuels for approximately 80% of our energy needs. We also have developing countries increasing their energy demands as their economies grow, while developed nations need to find ways to reduce demand as highlighted by Kate Raworth in her book Donut Economics. With all these uncertainties or unknowns, it is essential that we pursue a range of energy vectors and technological solutions, as we can’t afford to rely on a single set of technologies. Yes, this may incur some additional cost, but the risks of driving down a cul-de-sac are significant. One recent example was that push towards diesel cars, which ultimately increased emissions, and we still have some uncertainties over car charging/ long-term reliability of battery electric vehicles. Ultimately though, we need to better communicate the challenges and opportunities to the wider public, providing energy security, consumer choice, and jobs. There are of course those who say we don’t need a plan but can just rely on markets to deliver. However, frankly, that is why we are where we are today with our climate exposure!

In subsequent features on Engineering Net Zero, I hope to elaborate a little more on some of the key considerations which I would recommend governments pursue as part of our journey:

  • developing multiple energy vectors and multiple energy solutions to successfully achieve net zero;
  • deploying hybrid solutions which offer more flexibility and lower risk;
  • reducing demand without lowering living standards;
  • Improving land (and sea) management planning to ensure Net Zero goals do not compromise longer term opportunities;
  • skilling up our SME/contractor workforce to deploy the new technologies;
  • winning over consumers through favourable energy pricing;
  • reshaping our energy retail market to ensure consumers realise the full benefit of alternative technologies/ energy vectors;
  • recognising 2050 is only part of the journey.

We have a long way to go to develop a robust net zero plan, so it is always going to be a communication challenge. Nonetheless there are many contributing components which can be shared, and we should create the story around how, collectively, we will develop a range of technologies which will contribute to net zero while meeting competing goals such as lowest cost, highest reliability, efficiency and flexibility, security, and even simplicity. As a starting point engineers need to use their collaborative skills so that we capture those value-adding benefits.

Article by David Simmonds CEng FIChemE

Retired engineer. Former director of Simmonds Energy and senior manager at BG Group and Shell

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