A green recovery is the only recovery

14 July 2020 -

Ann Francke: Now is the Time for Careful Management and LeadershipThe case for ‘building back greener’ is irrefutable but, say two of Britain’s most influential sustainability experts, we face a huge challenge in developing the skills base that can deliver our net-zero targets

Ann Francke OBE

On 10 July I welcomed two sustainability experts to share their insights on building back greener: Dr Hayaatun Sillem CCMI is chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering; Lt General Richard Nugee CCMI is climate change and sustainability lead at the Ministry of Defence. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Green Recovery is the Only Recovery

Both experts are adamant that building back greener is an imperative, not an option. “The only effective and meaningful economic recovery is a green recovery,” says Hayaatun. “It would be a massive, calamitous mistake not to integrate our sustainability ambitions into our plans to improve our economic performance.” Richard reminds us that it’s “the law of the land” to be carbon-neutral by 2050: “If we actually build carbon back into our economy through a non-green recovery from this crisis we're only going to have to take it out later. And it’s going to be much more expensive.”

By building back green we will give a big boost to the UK economy and drive innovation and competitiveness, both leaders advise. “We’re going to be able to create new jobs, new market opportunities, new export opportunities,” says Hayaatun. Richard cites a Committee on Climate Change report showing that if you build back green using new technologies you create more jobs that are going to be longer lasting. “We can actually be world leaders in some of these technologies,” he says. “We can innovate our way out of this [in a way] that will give us a better economy, a greener economy, and a bigger economy.”

Systematic Approach to the Opportunity

Harnessing this opportunity isn’t easy. “We have to simultaneously transform multiple vital interconnected sectors, industries and infrastructure systems,” says Hayaatun, including housing, transport and energy, alongside developing whole new industries and changing institutions and behaviors. Such dramatic, broad-scale change can only happen if we approach it systematically across disciplines so that we all accept and embrace the challenge. She believes that building net-zero sustainability targets into strategies and plans now will help industries and companies to tackle climate change challenges in the years ahead. The kind of collaborative approach taken during the Covid-19 crisis – across companies large and small; and between public and private sectors – will be essential to creating the mindset required to tackle a problem of this scale.

We must cultivate “energy resilience” by building more wind farms, more solar farms, and ground source heat pumps, says Richard. To get anywhere near the net zero target, we will need to reduce energy use in homes and buildings – including in the military where this accounts for about 30% of emissions. While improving the energy efficiency of military equipment through different fuels, designs and use of “cutting edge” technology has its place, he admits that “we’re not going to put solar panels on fast jets because it just won't work.”

Learn from Covid Collaboration, Behaviour Change and Agility

How will we build a greener future? By changing people’s behaviours around how they approach and consume energy, and how they work together. Here, the pandemic has helped plant seeds, says Richard. “People have changed their behaviour astronomically as a result of the Covid crisis, partly because they’ve understood the threat from not doing so, and partly because the government has asked them to politely… we’ve done it without having to resort to the structures of law… and I think there’s an opportunity here.”

The pandemic response has accelerated knowledge-sharing, flexibility and rapid, innovative approaches to change, says Hayaatun. These “extraordinarily wide-ranging, complex collaborations… where we are all configuring ourselves around a common goal [that] we really recognise the shared importance of is exactly what we’re going to need to deliver on net zero.”

Changing behaviours won't be enough on its own, though. We must also cultivate the skills required to build a green economy.

Growing Green Skills and Reskilling

The skills challenge of going green is huge. To achieve net zero by 2050, the National Grid estimates we will need to fill about 400,000 roles in the energy sector alone, half of which are new. And this is on top of the current skills shortage in engineering.

For Hayaatun, this presents three challenges. First, “we need to make sure that it becomes a part of becoming a professional engineer to really understand how to integrate sustainability.” That means building sustainability training into every engineering role.

Second, we have to address the “diversity deficit” in engineering, where only 12% are female and 9% black and minority ethnic. And the third, related challenge is for those affected by Covid-19 to be a part of this solution in filling the gap in what she calls “the enormous upskilling and reskilling effort.

“If we are smart, we can use that as a chance to enrich the population of people who then go on to fulfill these future-facing roles,” she points out, and at the same time create a much more diverse profession.

Richard cites the power of apprenticeships and the role they have to play in this reskilling effort, particularly when it comes to practical skills. But we must go further, he says, and integrate sustainability training into all management and leadership training across the board. He cites the example of a generalship course, which all generals attend when they achieve that position. “It’s not a course on sustainability, but I’ve been asked to build sustainability into it.” Doing so will not only raise awareness of the issues but also encourage ideas to solve problems. “If we can build [sustainability] in, we’ll get genuine innovation because people will start to think about it in a much more imaginative way.” He encourages all employers to empower the young, who have demonstrated their commitment to climate change, and include them in efforts to tackle it. “Then you’ll have a really powerful engine of change in your organisation.” Hayaatun says we need to “put our energy into the solutions space” to help deliver change. Each of us should include sustainability in “your personal and organisational definition of success.”

No More Greenwashing

Governments must also flex their muscles. Sustainability must be part of the plan, as opposed to a “nice to have”. Both leaders argue for sustainability-related incentives, or for linking recovery stimulus packages to green initiatives. Richard has personally invested in solar panels as a result of government incentives, and he applauds the French example of tying the Air France loan to greener outcomes. “I think that sort of conditionality is quite likely to happen even in this country. And it's something we must do in order to make sure that we end up green.”

You can watch our conversation in full on YouTube. Why not meet some of the UK’s most socially responsible businesses while you’re here?