Sunday, June 23, 2024

With major targets scrapped, what’s next for net zero – and what does it really mean in 2024?

Don McLean is CEO at IES, a global climate tech company.

Almost every day, stories of extreme weather events and rising global temperatures populate our news feeds. Our environmental crisis is more visible than ever, with climate change widely viewed as a growing threat and jurisdictions in 40 countries having declared a climate emergency.

Evidence of the impact that CO2 levels are having on our planet is mounting, and people and industry are taking note. People are demanding change; we even saw a group of women win the first climate case victory recently, with the court ruling that Switzerland’s efforts to meet climate targets were inadequate. So it’s both disappointing and concerning to see Scotland’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 recently declared beyond reach – and now officially scrapped. However, were these targets ever realistic?

We’re at a critical stage for climate change, and this announcement – coupled with the news that Ministers have missed so many annual targets – sends the wrong signal to the people and businesses that will be integral to bringing about change. But we must continue to look ahead; backtracking on targets doesn’t take away the time sensitivity of the issue. Our planet is walking a plank that’s getting increasingly shorter every day.

Putting decarbonisation into practice – regardless of policy

Scotland remains steadfast in its net zero 2045 target, and encouraging industry to accelerate their efforts will be essential to meeting this ambition. The issue is beyond politics, and everyone has a role to play in decarbonisation – but not everyone knows the art of the possible.

We’ve seen an encouraging trend in organisations acknowledging that while the government isn’t going to ‘do’ it for them, they can act with autonomy. Carbon-intensive industries are where we can make the biggest difference – and the built environment is a major player in this regard. Given that a significant 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions derive from the built environment, reducing energy consumption and tackling the harmful outputs of the places in which we live and work can go some way to addressing the global issue at hand.

In the UK, many of us are fortunate to be able to access the energy we need. The challenge will be maintaining this standard of living as fossil fuels deplete. We need to make smart energy swaps now to benefit people and the planet in the long term.

The key thing is to make the ‘how’ as simple as possible – from cutting costs to making decisions much simpler. But with ‘net zero’ now a heavily politicised term, and conversations – and misinformation – around everything from heat pumps to solar panels rife, building owners may not know where to begin.

This is where data should come into the decision-making process, enabling building owners to shape good intentions into decarbonisation strategies and avoid a costly ‘stab in the dark’ when it comes to cutting energy consumption and emissions.

Creating digital twins of buildings means we can model operational scenarios and select the best way to move forward. Compliance energy models that have been archived can be re-awakened, taken through further modelling, and transformed into Performance Digital Twins for in-use building evaluation. This enables building owners to analyse where the most energy is being used and how, informing decisions around how to reduce it.

The ambition is that as technology advances, we scale this approach from individual buildings to campuses, cities, counties, and beyond. We’ve already proven that it’s possible at a district level at Warrington Borough.

But is ‘net zero’ really achievable – and do people actually know what it means?

By using data to create an action plan, organisations can strive towards meeting their environmental targets, as well as supporting wider ambitions at a societal level. But it’s worth noting that while setting a ‘hard’ target for net zero is helpful, it is still not ideal. The race to net zero instils urgency, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In reality, we can create and operate buildings that are net zero – which would be a huge step forward – but they will still be putting carbon into the atmosphere and offsetting it elsewhere. We should strive to get to a position where we are actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere, instead targeting ‘negative carbon emissions’.

For now, we should empower organisations with the tools to do what they can. There are no ‘perfect’ solutions, but some are better than others, and acting on evidence is the best we can do to make the biggest difference.

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Energy Manager magazine. Subscribe here.

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