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

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

Industries, universities, supply chains and governments have come together, red tape has been reduced and planning processes accelerated. The results have been unprecedented with a new hospital built in just nine days, clinical-grade ventilators developed in 100 days, and vaccines deployed at record speed.

If this model succeeded in fighting Covid, why couldn’t it also respond to other global emergencies like climate change?

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

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

For example, a renewable energy park project in Scotland could take 15 years to get approval due to planning bureaucracy. And only two carbon capture and storage projects have so far been approved for government funding, although several more already meet the criteria and the UK needs up to 15 to achieve net zero emissions.

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

Reflecting the agile supply that has led to the UK’s record rollout of vaccines, we should suspend many regulations to accelerate net-zero transport projects like hydrogen hubs and Scotland’s new green freeports. Bans on state aid to industry and the requirement that all public procurement be open to competitive bidding should be selectively removed, allowing instant injections of public funds into green projects .

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Collaboration is key

The rapid deployment of vaccines has also demonstrated how cross-industry cooperation can accelerate innovation, with universities, giant pharma and logistics companies collaboratively developing and distributing vaccines.

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

Industry and government could achieve climate goals much faster if they joined forces and pooled resources. Green consortia could share manufacturing strength across sectors to achieve combined economies of scale or share energy sources such as rail and road networks jointly operated from hydrogen.

Cross-sectoral collaboration would see transport intertwine to achieve complementary carbon reductions. For example, we could simultaneously decarbonise agriculture and aviation with green ammonia, while renewable energy tram and train connections could have free timetables and ticketing systems.

We could encourage greater cooperation between suppliers and transport operators if we regulated manufacturers as well as end-user emissions. For example, while electric vehicles remove pollution from tailpipes, copper mining for electric vehicle chargers causes major pollution during the manufacturing phase.

Universal supply chain standards would provide a cross-industry benchmark for best practices and green innovation across all manufacturers. Transportation project managers should set strict net-zero targets for their suppliers, triggering a cascade of climate-friendly practices further down the supply chain. Supply chain carbon certifications would also promote collaboration and carbon trading between suppliers.

Reforming the insurance landscape

It is also important to change the culture of excessive caution that prevents manufacturers from marketing green materials. We need planning and procurement policies to specify green building methods and materials, tipping the balance in favor of decarbonization over competing considerations at the design stage.

The insurance industry could also develop smarter ways to insure carbon-neutral materials to speed time to market. Sensing technology could also be incorporated into new materials, allowing defects to be detected and corrected and insurance premiums to be adjusted based on live data. Ultimately, transport buyers and insurers must treat climate change as the equivalent of risks such as safety.

Reuse instead of building from new

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

Transportation networks should be created to be refurbished or reused instead of being scrapped or even recycled. This requires the integration of supply chains to ensure the consistency of different components into reusable products.

Marketplaces could resell reusable assets on the transportation network, generating secondary sales for manufacturers. Rail or road links could be assembled like industrial-scale Legos from prefabricated pieces inserted seamlessly or replaced with components in other infrastructure later in life.

The road ahead

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

As scientists sound the alarm over catastrophic warming, the UK must treat climate change as an equivalent Covid threat with similar emergency policy measures.

Policymakers should prioritize lean and light regulations that promote decarbonization and innovation. Achieving change will also require an unprecedented joint effort bringing together industry, academia and government.

We need to reduce the carbon footprint from cradle to grave by regulating transport providers as well as operators. Infrastructure should be built to be reused rather than recycled, creating a circular economy that reduces demand for raw materials over time.

And all of our infrastructure must be cohesively designed as an interconnected system intersecting around cleaner air and lower carbon. This would help the UK to ‘improve’ climate performance as well as economic productivity across all regions.

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