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Flattening the climate curve? – Lessons from lockdown for tackling for climate change

Flattening the climate curve? – Lessons from lockdown for tackling for climate change

Author: Sue Kershaw, Managing director of transportation at Costain

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”. This statement on the lessons of action in adversity, attributed to Winston Churchill, describing post-war attempts to create the United Nations as a force to rebuild the global community is absolutely pertinent in a COVID-19 impacted Britain right now.

At the start of 2020 there was great expectation that the November climate change summit in Glasgow (known as COP 26) would help turbo-charge global efforts to decarbonise and tackle climate change. Then the coronavirus struck, and the summit was postponed – and the momentum to tackle the challenge looked like it would be lost.

Ironically, the COVID 19 economic shock has some upsides in environmental terms with estimates by International Energy Authority of an 8% reduction in carbon emissions this year. However, such short-term benefits come as the result of a massive economic shock and the result of enforced behaviour which is not sustainable. But the enormous collective endeavour to tackle COVID 19 does at least show how a looming crisis like climate change can be addressed by urgent collaborative action if we set our minds to it – and changes we thought would take months and years can be done in days.

And to put this into perspective, this reduction of 8% would need to be replicated every year for the next decade to meet the predicted need for decarbonisation. If we are to lock-in environmental benefits, then green recovery must be an essential part of a wider economic ‘reset’. And us as project managers are at the forefront of making this happen.

The COVID19 crisis has shown us how people’s behaviour can change in the face of a common challenge. “The climate challenge is like COVID in slow motion,” Professor Cameron Hepburn of Oxford University has argued, “One of my hopes from this experience – which has been terrible and tragic in many ways – is that we learn the lessons around the importance of government and business working together and also of international cooperation to tackle these challenges.”!

But back to Churchill’s dictum about not wasting a good crisis.

The greening of the economy should be accelerated as part of any ‘reset to the economy’ and Net Zero objectives should be embedded in new infrastructure and transformational changes: think projects! It is crucial that a commitment to tackling climate change and achieving our net-zero target is at the centre of any recovery plan. We know investment in low-carbon technologies and infrastructure programmes will create new jobs, generate growth, and help us meet our ambitions to build a more sustainable and resilient future. CBI research shows that for every £1 spent on construction, £2.92 is created in overall value for the UK.


Rail motion graphic

Solutions are needed and project professionals can play their part in looking for innovative solutions to existing and new projects to have a ‘green catalytic’ impact.

The evidence of possible benefits is there to see.

The Local Government Association suggests nearly half (46 per cent) of an estimated 693,628 total low-carbon jobs by 2030 will be in clean electricity generation and providing low-carbon heat for homes and businesses, such as manufacturing wind turbines, installing solar panels and installing heat pumps. In addition, between 2030 and 2050, the low-carbon workforce in England could increase by a further 488,569, taking the total level of jobs to more than 1.18 million by 2050.

The UK Green Building Council says to achieve net zero carbon by 2050, we will need to improve almost all the UK's 29 million homes, meaning we need to retrofit more than 1.8 homes every minute between now and 2050. Accelerating action on retrofit can also support more than 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled construction jobs to 2030.

The thinktank SMF suggests rethinking financing blockages via new pension “superfunds” to invest in infrastructure for Britain’s green recovery. They argue for spending money up front to support innovative ‘pathfinder’ infrastructure projects and new renewable energy markets in their early stages as enablers for a ‘post COVID’ economic restart.

The Department for Transport announced earlier this month twenty-five projects as winners of their ‘First of a Kind’ competition, covering projects to help the government reduce the railway’s environmental impact and support decarbonisation, including a world-first zero emission machine for removing and replacing rails, and hydrogen-based steam turbines to provide zero-emission, low-noise rail freight.

For an individual project manager all this may seem daunting in the face of so many other challenges, so it is good APM is helping open up this debate, providing a number of sessions on climate change at the recent virtual APM power of projects takeover (sessions available online from 22 June if you didn’t see them live) and an increasing number of practical examples of how to green your project like this blog: https://www.apm.org.uk/blog/how-to-bake-sustainability-into-your-projects/

Daunting it may seem. But as I started this blog, the extraordinary collaborative effort we have seen in the wake of the coronavirus threat shows what can be done if we set our collective minds to it. It’s time to be brave.

Visit our climate change solutions hub to find out more about Costain’s Climate change action plan and ways we support our clients in accelerating the transition to a net zero carbon future.

This article was first published by the Association for project management.