The government is unequivocal in its belief that the private sector has a critical role to play in the UK’s transition to a net-zero economy by 2050, but more must be done to make it easier for enterprises to adopt and develop their own green technologies in support of this goal.
This is based on the contents of a government-commissioned review, published in January 2023, of how efforts to ensure the UK hits its net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions goal by 2050 are progressing – and what additional steps need to be taken so this target is not missed.
One of the recommendations featured in the report calls on the government to create a research and development (R&D) roadmap by autumn 2023 to ensure UK businesses have the technology needed to minimise their greenhouse gas emissions.
The 340-page document also calls on key Whitehall departments to join forces with HM Treasury to review how best to financially incentivise businesses for conducting R&D activities to create their own net-zero initiatives.
These recommendations are based on the feedback of more than 1,800 entities that participated in the net-zero review, which included “hundreds of innovative companies eager to bring new technology to market” that claim their ability to do so is being hampered by “slow, ponderous bureaucracy”.
“The review has heard from many respondents frustrated by a lack of long-term thinking, siloed behaviour from government departments and uncertainty over the length of funding commitments,” the review document states. “Evidence suggests this is holding back deployment of green technologies, hampering investment across all sectors and inhibiting the ability to create British jobs.”
This is something that needs to be urgently addressed, the review states, because private sector enterprises are “critical to the net-zero transition” as it is “their investment and innovation” that will bring low-carbon technologies to the mass market.
“The review has heard from many respondents frustrated by a lack of long-term thinking, siloed behaviour from government departments and uncertainty over the length of funding commitments. Evidence suggests this is holding back deployment of green technologies, hampering investment across all sectors and inhibiting the ability to create British jobs” UK government’s net-zero review
“They [enterprises] will drive many of the benefits we will all experience from net zero – not least economic growth,” it continues.
As an example, the review points to the potential for tidal stream marine energy to be added to the list of renewable power sources UK homes and businesses can make use of in future, but – presently – the technology is not cost-competitive nor is it fully commercialised.
To rectify this, it is likely the government will need to step in with some initial funding to create a proof of concept, and once that is successful, it is “inevitable” that private investment will follow. However, due to the financial risks associated with rolling out “novel technologies” like this, enterprises are unlikely to dive in head-first without public sector backing, it states.
And this is why the government is adamant that the pursuit of its net-zero GHG emissions goals will bring huge benefits to the economy as a whole.
“Net zero is a driver of economic growth: it has already delivered growth for the UK and will continue to do so,” the report states. “There are already around 430,000 jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains across the country, with a turnover estimated at £41.2bn in 2020. Government analysis [also] suggests that nearly 68,000 green jobs have been created or supported since November 2020.”
The other side of the enterprise equation
On the other side of the equation are the enterprises that may not be directly involved with the development and deployment of green technologies, but which have their own in-house net-zero targets to hit, and are looking at ways to minimise the environmental impact of their own activities.
For enterprises in that camp, the IT estate is one of the first places they should start looking to make changes, Craig Melson, associate director for climate, environment and sustainability at UK tech trade body TechUK, tells Computer Weekly in his recent IT Sustainability Think Tank article.
But first they need to make sure they have a firm grasp on the amount of greenhouse gases their organisation is emitting overall and how much of that can be attributed their IT estate’s activities.
“There are dozens of companies that can help calculate an enterprise’s emissions, using averages or more bespoke information,” he says, and there also exists cloud-based software that can help them get an accurate read on their emissions too.
Melson also advises enterprises to shift more of their IT workloads and applications to the cloud to “minimise their use of inefficient on-premise environments” and to consider aligning their IT procurement processes with the principles of operating in a circular economy.
“For personal staff devices, there is no need to buy new,” he says. “An estimated 80% of the carbon associated with devices comes from the manufacturing stage. Therefore, buying refurbished tech or keeping devices in use for longer dramatically brings down emissions and saves money.”
What goes around comes around
The government’s previously mentioned Mission zero report also features a recommendation that steps be taken to transition the UK over to a circular economy, including the creation of a task force that will work with industry to create “sector-specific circular economy business models”.
As detailed in the report, this task force will also be expected to work jointly with industry to identify “barriers and enablers” to UK businesses embracing circular economy-related ways of working.
“Money is being wasted on throwing things away or failing to reuse or refurbish them. More efficient use of resources can also bring immediate direct benefits to businesses.”
The report continues: “The circular economy is already providing economic opportunities: almost 90,000 new jobs were created in the circular economy across the UK between 2014 and 2019, taking the sector to almost 560,000 employees.
“An ambitious circular economy is likely to offer geographically dispersed employment across a range of occupations – in particular, reuse and open loop recycling activities are likely to be the least concentrated, requiring activity at local and regional levels.”
Shane Herath, chair of the Eco-Friendly Web Alliance, which was set up to help website operators find ways to cut the amount of carbon their sites emit, also advised enterprises on how they can go about incorporating circular economy principles into the way they work in his recent IT Sustainability Think Tank piece.
“Embracing the circular economy can pay significant dividends in achieving better sustainability in the IT estate,” he says. “A circular economy approach should be applied to enterprises’ supply chains and guide the selection and management of their suppliers.”
He adds: “IT leaders should always look at the entire lifecycle of the organisation’s products, services and processes, and the role technology can play in improving sustainability.”
As alluded to by TechUK’s Melson, enterprises could make some considerable headway with minimising their carbon emissions by optimising their datacentre estate, which is a view Jay Dietrich, Uptime Institute’s research director of sustainability, backed in his recent submission to the IT Sustainability Think Tank.
“With energy cost and supply concerns, and increased use of coal, projected to continue through 2023 and into 2024, investments in power management deployments, server and storage equipment consolidation, IT equipment refreshes, and automated IT space temperature and humidity control offer near-term paybacks and long-term benefits to the reliability, competitiveness and environmental performance of digital infrastructure operations,” he says.
“We must move quickly. Moving quickly must include spending money. We know that investing in net zero today will be cheaper than delaying, as well as increasing the economic and climate benefits” UK government’s net-zero review
The government’s net-zero review states the UK’s progress towards eradicating its greenhouse gas emissions has “exceeded expectations” since 2019, but there is so much more to do on the technology side of the equation, if the government is to hit its 2050 goal.
“We must move quickly… Moving quickly must include spending money. We know that investing in net zero today will be cheaper than delaying, as well as increasing the economic and climate benefits,” the report states.
“Oxford research has shown that a fast transition to net zero based on scaling up key green technologies will continue to drive their costs down, and transitioning to a decarbonised energy system based on green technologies by 2050 can save the world at least $12tn, compared to continuing our current levels of fossil fuel use.”
So the path to net zero is not just one we need to follow to help save the planet, but also to help support the economy.