FEATURE: Determined engineers maintain net-zero focus despite UK policy U-turns

Professional Engineering

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

Climate scientists have started using words like “gobsmackingly bananas” to describe soaring global temperatures. The United Nations says we’ve entered an era of “global boiling”. This year is on track to being the hottest since we started keeping records – and possibly for the past 2,000 years.

There’s widespread consensus that the clock is ticking – louder with each shattered global warming record. How to speed up our response will no doubt be a central theme as nations meet for the COP28 summit in Dubai in December. 

While the UK government says its latest decisions are “sensible” – a pragmatic balancing act between today’s needs and long-term goals – to many they’ve come as a shock. These decisions include granting new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea. The government also announced that it is delaying, by five years, a ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel-only vehicles. 

Targets for replacing domestic gas boilers have been softened. Long-held plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 have been pushed back by five years. The government has scrapped a large chunk of the HS2 railway network and has pulled London’s air quality initiative (ULEZ) into the political boxing ring.

Tom Burke, co-founder and chairman of global climate think-tank E3G says that from a political strategy perspective, in a country that’s been dealing with a cost-of-living crisis, the decisions seem to make perfect sense. 

“But it means you abandon national interest to pursue them,” Burke says. “And it probably won’t work because it’s all based on a fundamental miscalculation.”

The government has said its focus is on hard-up families and energy security in the face of the war in Ukraine. 

Burke warns that the decisions could erode confidence and slow down investment across the private sector. Companies, he says, have nothing to gain by steaming ahead when there’s confusion over policy. Instead, with elections due next year, some might wait to see what the next government will do. 

Confusion reigns

Confidence and confusion are themes that have echoed across industries responding to the government’s decisions. 

“It beggars belief that the Prime Minister seems intent on rowing back on key climate commitments, just at the point when we should be speeding up, not slowing down climate action,” said Oxfam Scotland. 

While supportive of the government’s broader commitments to transforming transport, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ chief executive, Mike Hawes, says that what’s needed is a “clear, consistent message, attractive incentives and charging infrastructure that gives confidence rather than anxiety”. 

In a bold statement, Ford’s UK chair, Lisa Brankin, had this to say: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency.  A relaxation of 2030 [the deadline for selling new petrol or diesel-only vehicles] would undermine all three.” 

Globally, Ford, along with other carmakers, has invested billions in going electric. In the UK, it’s ploughed £430m into development and manufacturing to meet the 2030 deadline – which has now been pushed to 2035. 

These changes, whether in the automotive industry or in energy, align with public sentiment. A recent survey shows that more than seven out of every 10 British consumers consider it their responsibility to reduce their impact on climate change. In the engineering community, there is concern. But there’s no sense that the net-zero train has been derailed. 

“Regardless of the exact date for EVs or heat pumps, private companies are already setting themselves up to deliver,” says the National Grid’s David Adkins. 

Still on track

Adkins, whose job is to lay out National Grid’s strategy for reaching net zero in 2050, is also an ambassador for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. His take is that the bigger mission is firmly on track – and it’s going to need plenty of engineers, with all kinds of experience. 

“This is one of the most exciting engineering challenges that we’ve had in the electricity industry in the last 50 years,” he explains. “We need to deliver more work in the next eight years than we’ve delivered in the last three decades. It’s happening now. And almost every party is behind doing this.” 

In just one recent week, says Adkins, National Grid added more than 100 engineers to its field force. It estimates that to transform its infrastructure it will need 50% more people than it currently has – mostly engineers. Across the electricity industry, hundreds of thousands of workers will be needed to reach the nation’s 2050 targets.  

The task, Adkins explains, is immense. It involves tripling or quadrupling the amount of electricity in the grid. That means building infrastructure to support a carbon-free energy system.

“Keep going with what your missions are,” he says to other engineers. “This is the most unifying mission engineering has had. If you’re entering engineering, you’re not going to be short of work and challenges. You’ll have a career with 30 or 40 years of amazing acceleration. And I know I’d want to look back and say I was part of that transformation.” 

Philippa Jefferis, a sustainability controller at construction firm BAM UK & Ireland, agrees. A QE Prize ambassador like Adkins, Jefferis says her industry is “crying out for engineers”. “The projects are in motion, and we’ve got plenty of work,” she says. “We know the big challenge. We’re not changing the ultimate goal. We’re cracking on in that direction.” 

Jefferis says that, while it can feel as if engineering is “thwarted by short political cycles,” she understands that the government has to balance out current and long-term needs. Compromises must be reached, she explains, along with calculations about what’s realistically achievable and at what cost. 

Clear strategy needed

But Jefferis does worry about the ripple effects of the short-term policy decisions. She says they could lead to more caution from companies in how they roll out their sustainability strategies to make the big changes that are needed. 

“Caution will kick in,” she explains. “They may feel like there isn’t the support or investment to hit big targets. There’s a cumulative effect to that caution. It’s like death by a thousand cuts rather than a big sudden shift in focus.” 

Jefferis says what the industry needs is a clear strategy and a roadmap. Luckily, she adds, many companies understand “why we’re doing this,” and have seen how becoming more green leads to efficiency and business success.

Matt Rooney, head of policy at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says an important piece of this puzzle is for the government to help train more engineers and to help those with valuable experience transition to the new energy economy. 

“Transition to net zero is going to happen,” says Rooney. “There’s cross-party support for it in the UK. We’re on that road and we’re not going to change direction. The engineering profession stands by ready to deliver, but we’ll need to expand our skills in some areas.” 

From electric charge point fitters to heat pump installers, engineers and technicians will need to learn new skills, he explains.  

“At IMechE, we have an army of 110,000 members, ready to give advice and help government make the right decisions,” adds Rooney. “We’re expanding our policy team to work with our members and create new ways to deliver recommendations.” 

IMechE’s recent report on the automotive sector is a good example. The report (Surviving the Net Zero Transition) warns that the sector, while gearing up for an electric future, is shrinking and needs not only consistency and clarity – but incentives to both manufacturers and car buyers. 

 “The government is proposing to mandate an increase in supply without making comparable interventions to promote the uptake of zero-emissions vehicles by the public,” it warns. “More support and incentives for existing and potential UK-based car manufacturers is also required. Global competition for jobs and investment is intense. If the country ends up importing most of the cars currently made here, it will mean a capital outflow of hundreds of billions of pounds.” 

Social transformation

Burke, from E3G, says that, whether you’re building cars or laying cables, engineers need to deliver a simple policy message to government: drive down the cost of capital and support the social transformation. He adds that politics should become part of an engineer’s learning journey. 

“Young engineers should understand politics as well as they understand engineering. The world needs lots of young engineers who want to come in and use engineering to save the planet. The barriers to that are not what they know about engineering, but what they don’t know about politics. They need to understand society. And, sometimes, social complexities can be more difficult than engineering complexities.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers 


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