How can we get to net zero?

15 June 2020


Reported by Alasdair Neilson, CSaP Policy Intern

The response to COVID-19 has resulted in a dramatic economic slowdown. As governments put their national economies on stasis, and as production and consumption decline, there has been a corresponding fall in global emissions. Yet as Simon Sharpe, Policy lead for COP26, Cabinet Office, explained at CSaP's Virtual Seminar on reaching net zero, this drop is nothing to celebrate. The trend before the lockdown was one of increasing global emissions. There is a danger, therefore, as the global economy looks restart, that we will return to business as usual. If we are to avoid this and meet the goal of transitioning to a net zero economy, then structural changes are needed, not just a temporary cessation of activity.

Achieving net zero, and creating a thriving economy used to be seen as mutually exclusive endeavours. Yet, as speakers, Laura Diaz Anandon, Professor of Climate Policy at the University of Cambridge and Dimitri Zenghelis, Senior Associate at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, stated, this is not the case.

Dr Zenghelis illustrated how sustainable resource efficient technologies, such as wind turbines, have some highly desirable qualities for building a strong economy. For example, once built, they are more productive than carbon intensive energy sources, and tend to lower long-term energy costs, while increasing productivity and innovation. They, therefore, have favourable growth qualities both in the short and the long run, helping to stimulate confidence and investment, which is critical for 'bouncing back.'

To emphasize the importance of private and public investment, Sharpe highlighted the example of the power sector in the UK, the fastest decarbonizing power sector in the world. After a decade of government support, the cost of offshore wind has come down significantly, a trend that is likely to continue. This shift was less to do with the negative price put on carbon, instead it has been driven by investment in the renewable sector.

Yet, as Professor Anandon illustrated, such shifts to a net zero economy will require changes in the labour force. For example, she highlighted how changes in energy policies can impact the demand for manual labour. If a resilient, inclusive and sustainable economy is to be built, then we must focus on human capital as much as on infrastructure, physical assets and innovation. It is, therefore, vital that training and re-skilling programs are provided in order to future-proof jobs.

Given the integrated nature of the global economy, if we are going to succeed in building a resilient net zero economy, then international cooperation will be vital, both at governmental and a private level. As Sharpe stated, to address the unprecedented scale of this challenge, we need to advocate for sector-based international cooperation. We must recognize that emissions producing sectors are connected through the global economy. Countries are connected to these sectors by international flows of technology, knowledge, finance, goods and even people. Part of the endeavour must be to understand those flows, and which actors wield the most influence over them in order to bring them together and stimulate change.

As Sharpe stated, such a holistic approach also needs to address the issues of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, for the sake of social and economic development, as well as climate change. With COP26 and COP15 (the fifteenth Convention on Biological Diversity) most likely happening next year, it is vital that discussions around transitions to a net zero also focus on the importance of biodiversity for building a resilient economy.

This event was part of ongoing collaborations between CSaP and Cambridge Zero, the University's ambitious new climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero utilises the University's full range of expertise, to develop a programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange focused on supporting a zero carbon world. Recently, Cambridge Zero contributed to a COP26 Universities Network Briefing note on a net-zero emissions economic recovery from COVID-19, which was submitted to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

You can listen to an edited and condensed podcast episode featuring content from this event here:

This virtual seminar was part of CSaP’s 2020 Virtual Annual Conference Seminar Series, which will be running throughout the months of May and June. To learn more, or to register for your free ticket to attend an upcoming session, please visit our annual conference events page.

Cover Photo by Appolinary Kalashnikova on Unsplash