Richard Green tells us why Britain’s plan to "build back greener” will be an uphill battle and what the country's sustainability priorities should be
Sustainability has so far been one of the defining concepts of the 21st century, changing the way governments, businesses and individuals operate – possibly forever.
Most would agree that we still have a long way to go before humans are co-existing harmoniously with the planet. Nevertheless, many of the world’s biggest economies are finally making major policy decisions around sustainable development goals, with Britain chief among them.
Having spent the 1990s looking into the privatisation of the UK electricity market, Richard Green, Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College Business School since 2011 and Head of the Department of Economics & Public Policy, was well-placed when the conversation around energy increasingly centred on sustainability in the early 2000s.
“By the early years of this century, we were looking at how to decarbonise, and today, most of the important questions are on making energy more sustainable,” Richard says. As a result, his research is almost entirely dedicated to bigger, funded projects in this space.
Accelerating the sustainability agenda
One of his most recent studies investigated how to “untangle” the impact of building renewable power stations, as well as rolling out sulphur regulations to prevent acid rain (a by-product of coal stations that led to many of them closing five to 10 years ago) and introducing a carbon emissions tax. The key, he says, is understanding how all these elements combine to help the government meet carbon emissions targets.
Britain has been very vocal about its efforts to accelerate the sustainability agenda. Between 2012 and 2019, UK electricity emissions dropped from 160 million to just over 54 million tonnes, a figure larger than in any other major economy. And in October 2020, the government announced its post-pandemic plan to Build Back Greener, designed to underpin the country’s position "at the forefront of the green industrial revolution as we accelerate our progress towards net zero emissions by 2050”.
But despite the success the UK has had so far, Richard says the hardest work lies ahead. He points out that, while the government’s October announcement sounded positive and full of ambition, some of it had already been said before and more detail was needed on how to achieve the goals laid out by the plan.
"Simply saying something is going to be world beating does not necessarily make it so. They [the government] need to follow up, work out the priorities and what needs to be done on the ground for that to happen," he says, adding that one of the biggest challenges will be addressing the issue of home heating.
The challenge of home heating
"To some extent, we’ve done the easy stuff,” he says, explaining that a lot of what the UK has achieved with electricity relied on closing fewer than 20 big coal-fired stations, whereas dealing with home heating will involve adapting 20 million homes.
On top of the sheer number of homes that would need to be upgraded, the heating industry is very well set up to replace defunct gas boilers with new ones as people need them. But ideally, says Richard, we need to replace them when it isn’t urgent – the problem is it’s very rare for a household to replace a functioning boiler.
More positively, he notes, the UK government has started making progress on carbon capture and storage, which they have “quite sensibly” focused on industrial emissions. Having a plan to capture and store the unavoidable carbon emissions that come from certain processes such as creating cement under the North Sea makes a lot of sense, he says.
Carbon capture plans famously hit a stumbling block back in 2015 when "George Osbourne cancelled a design competition just before the entries were due in, so he could say a future financial target would be met".
“Hopefully that won’t happen this time,” he says. “It’s far too important to fail again.”