Climate change ‘code red’: Urgency of Covid response shows us the way to net-zero carbon emissions – Professor Andy Sloan

A woman repurposes a Covid face mask amid the smoke from forest fires near the village of Pefki on Evia island in Greece last year (Picture: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Industries, universities, supply chains and governments all came together, red tape was cut and planning processes fast-tracked. The results were unprecedented with a new hospital built in just nine days, clinical-grade ventilators developed in 100 days, and vaccines rolled out at record speeds.

If this model was successful for combating Covid, why could it not also address other global emergencies like climate change?

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At a recent roundtable, several Scottish transport and energy leaders recommended emergency measures adopted during the pandemic should be adapted to help the UK hit climate targets.

Scientists recently warned that the latest assessment of global warming represents “code red for humanity”. Yet in stark contrast to the Covid response, decarbonisation efforts are disjointed and mired in red tape – hampered by inconsistent regulations and risk-averse planning policies.

For example, a proposed renewable energy park in Scotland could take 15 years to secure approval due to planning bureaucracy. And only two carbon-capture-and-storage projects have so far been approved for government funding, despite several others already meeting the criteria and the UK needing up to 15 to hit net-zero emissions.

Transport contributes 27 per cent of UK emissions and the UK has set tough deadlines to ban all fossil-fueled cars and trains. This will only be possible if policymakers match the level of urgency that characterized Covid policies.

Mirroring the agile procurement that drove the UK’s record vaccine rollout, we should suspend many regulations to fast-forward net-zero transport projects like hydrogen hubs and Scotland’s new green freeports. Bans on state aid for industry and the requirement that all public contracts must be open to competitive bids should be selectively scrapped, allowing instant injections of government cash into green projects.

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Collaboration is key

The rapid rollout of vaccines also demonstrated how cross-sector cooperation could accelerate innovation, with universities, pharmaceutical giants and logistics firms collaboratively developing and distributing vaccines.

Yet when it comes to climate change, government and industry initiatives are currently disjointed and inconsistent. Industry and government priorities competition over cooperation, with companies required to competitively bid for green innovation grants.

Industry and government could hit climate targets much faster if they join forces and pool resources. Green consortiums could share manufacturing muscle across sectors to achieve combined economies of scale or share power sources such as rail and road networks jointly run from hydrogen.

Cross-sector collaboration would see transport intertwining to achieve free carbon cuts. For example, we could simultaneously decarbonise agriculture and aviation through green ammonia, while renewably powered tram and train links could have free timetables and ticketing systems.

We could incentivize more cooperation between suppliers and transport operators if we regulated manufacturers as well as end-user emissions. For example, while electric vehicles eliminate tailpipe pollution, mining copper for EV chargers causes major manufacturing phase pollution.

Universal supply chain standards would provide a cross-sector benchmark for best practice and green innovation across all manufacturers. Transport project chiefs should set their suppliers strict net-zero targets, causing a cascade of climate-friendly practices further down the supply chain. Supply chain carbon certifications would also foster collaboration and carbon trading among suppliers.

Reform the insurance landscape

It’s also important that we change the culture of excessive caution that prevents manufacturers bringing green materials to market. We need planning and procurement policies to specify green construction methods and materials, tipping the scales in favor of decarbonisation over rival considerations at the design phase.

The insurance industry could also develop smarter ways of insuring carbon-neutral materials to accelerate speed to market. Sensing technology could also be incorporated in new materials, enabling faults to be detected and corrected and insurance premiums adjusted based on live data. Ultimately, transport procurers and insurers need to treat climate change as equivalent to risks such as safety.

Re-use instead of building from new

The UK is over-reliant on building from new using carbon-intensive materials, an unsustainable model of construction. We could extend the lifecycle of transport infrastructure and reduce waste with more reusable raw materials.

Transport grids should be created to be refurbished or reused instead of scrapped or even recycled. This requires integration of supply chains to ensure different components can cohere into reusable products.

Marketplaces could resell reusable assets across the transport grid, generating secondary sales for manufacturers. Rail or road links could be put together like industrial-scale Lego from premade parts seamlessly slotted in or substituted for components in other infrastructure later in life.

The road ahead

The response to the pandemic was characterized by unprecedented cross-sector collaboration, regulatory innovation, accelerated procurement and proactive planning in response to a global crisis.

With scientists ringing the alarm bells over catastrophic warming, the UK needs to treat climate change as an equivalent threat to Covid with similar emergency policy measures.

Policymakers should prioritize lean, light-touch regulations that favor decarbonisation and innovation. Achieving change will also require an unprecedented joint effort uniting industry, academia, and government.

We need to reduce cradle-to-grave carbon footprint by regulating transport suppliers as well as operators. Infrastructure should be built for re-use rather than recycling, creating a circular economy that reduces demand for raw materials over time.

And all of our infrastructure should be designed cohesively as an interconnected system intersecting around cleaner air and lower carbon. This would help the UK ‘level up’ climate performance as well as economic productivity across every region.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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