Natascha Engel is Chief Executive of Policy Connect, a cross-party parliamentary think tank, and a former Member of Parliament. She gives her views on tackling net zero.
It was a great pleasure to take part in the National Manufacturing Summit in Coventry last month – not least because it marked a return to in-person events and my first outing as the new Chief Executive of Policy Connect, a think tank that has manufacturing and a just transition at its heart. The theme this year, building on last year and looking ahead to many manufacturing summits to come, was around Net Zero 2050 and how business leaders, academics and practitioners will be key to hitting our target. The summit picked up where COP26 left off.
The UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow saw an important step-change in how we in the UK are approaching net zero by finally moving away from questions about if decarbonisation is a good idea to how we achieve it in practice. For too long, conversations about the energy transition have been trapped in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall where political point-scoring has hampered progress and lost us valuable time. That has changed. Political parties agree that working together is the only way that we can achieve meaningful change.
Time to get on message
The conversation has moved from being dominated by politicians and campaigners to including engineers – from the people who set the frameworks to the people who will actually make it happen. This shift brings with it its own challenges. Cross-party working, collaboration and involving the experts means that we can start realising the massive opportunities that decarbonisation presents: reshoring our manufacturing base, innovating and trialling new technological solutions, and thinking more realistically about the skills needs of the future.
It also means being honest about some of the barriers we face. These are sometimes political, sometimes technical. Once we identify the obstacles, we can overcome them. That is what we at Policy Connect have been doing for years by providing the forum for the difficult questions to be asked. How do we future-proof manufacturing so that decarbonisation does not mean industry closure, job losses and offshored emissions?
How do we harness the pioneering spirit of the pandemic that showcased UK manufacturing’s amazing resilience and adaptability? In short, how do we transfer the skills we learned from dealing with COVID-19 to achieving net zero by 2050? Chief among the lessons learned, and where manufacturing has been leading the way for many years, is the vital role of sharing information and best practice.
Influence a change for the better
We recently published a paper with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to highlight the link between innovation, manufacturing and net zero, and the vital role of automation and digitalisation to help us decarbonise. We concluded that technology is one answer, but that it is collaboration that gets results and stimulates the creative thinking necessary for positive and lasting change. Creative thinking will be key if we want to identify the future skills needed to develop the jobs and demands which don’t even exist yet.
The future manufacturing workforce will be the subject of our next Manufacturing Commission. Led by Lord Karan Bilimoria, President of the CBI and founder of Cobra beer, we will explore in detail how the net zero skills agenda can help address levelling up, the important role of regional manufacturing clusters and empowering local authorities to work more closely with local industries and SMEs. Because it is not just identifying the skills of the future. It is also looking at reskilling and up-skilling today’s workforce to make the transition an opportunity for improvement rather than something to be afraid of. As an ex-MP in a former coal mining area in Derbyshire, I have seen what ‘change’ means to our industrial heartlands. Done without planning or foresight, change can mean worklessness and social isolation. It means the voids left by coal mining being used for landfill. Mostly, though, it means a lack of opportunities.
War on waste
This is why both levelling up and planning ahead are so vitally important – to ensure that the transition to net zero is one of benefit and growth rather than loss and privation. Had we planned ahead in the past, we could have been at the vanguard of recognising and using waste as the precious resource it is. This will be the subject of another new inquiry into making the circular economy a reality and the role of reusable and refillable packaging. Before taking on my role as Chief Executive at Policy Connect, I spent over two years conducting opinion research for Public First on people’s knowledge and understanding of climate change.
While concepts such as net zero and carbon emissions are difficult to grasp for most people, litter on beaches, in beauty spots and in the oceans is something most people feel very strongly about. People do not like waste. They are passionate about reducing or eliminating it and finding sustainable substitutes and solutions. There are many workable policy solutions out there, but none of them matter unless we persuade the people whose lives those policies will affect. The circular economy is an excellent way to engage people in the conversation about climate change and provide practical steps to help.
As I write, the UK finds itself in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis with war in Ukraine seriously threatening global energy security. These are dark times which make the imperative for mapping out a positive and affordable roadmap to net zero more challenging and more urgent. Much of the onus will be on those with expertise, the manufacturers and engineers, to help government demonstrate that new ways of working, travelling and powering our homes, industries and transport systems are not just necessary but exciting and beneficial.
Whether it’s cleaner air or waters, it is down to us to communicate the positives that Net Zero brings. At Policy Connect we will continue to do our utmost to bring politicians together with industry experts to ensure that public policy has the best and most up-to-date information available. The challenges we face will need an added dose of enthusiasm and inspiration from our manufacturing industries to get us through these difficult times. The National Manufacturing Summit showed that the sector is already on the case.
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