In this guest blog, we are pleased to present reflections from a recent event organised by the Commission’s Young Professionals Panel. The content reflects the discussions of event participants, rather than a Commission policy position.
The UK is home to over 22 million people under the age of 30, many of whom are increasingly aware of the uncertainty surrounding their future due to climate change. Young people, both today and in the future, will bear the consequences of the decisions made today on net zero. It is therefore crucial that young people have a say in these decisions.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Young Professionals Panel’s recent ‘net zero for the next generation’ roundtable brought together 20 young professionals with NIC Commissioners, to discuss their priorities for the net zero transition.
Priorities for net zero
The roundtable asked participants to debate their priorities for three key areas:
- The clean energy transition
- Behavioural change
Participants were then asked to rank these priorities, and chose the following as their shortlist:
A national energy efficiency programme
Our panel agreed that this was the top priority for the net zero transition. The UK’s homes are amongst the least efficient in Europe. Improving energy efficiency is a win-win for both consumers and the planet, particularly in light of recent energy prices, yet government support for energy efficiency remains limited.
The Energy Company Obligation (ECO), which funds energy efficiency improvements, is limited to specific households (the event took place before the recent announcement of a widening and rebranding of the scheme as the Great British Insulation Scheme). There are also other challenges for those living in rental accommodation and a need to provide incentives for landlords to improve energy efficiency beyond minimum standards. Considering these factors, our panel identified expanding government support for energy efficiency improvements as their top priority.
A better carbon pricing regime
Sometimes, sustainable choices are cheaper. However, other times they come at a cost – whether that is felt financially or in the form of time and effort. For example, domestic flights are often faster and cheaper than rail equivalents.
While the UK already has a Emissions Trading Scheme focused on a limited number of energy intensive sectors, but our panel thought it currently isn’t doing enough by way of sending price signals to ensure that the sustainable option is always the cheaper option. This was seen as key to incentivising individual behavioural change.
(It should be noted that fiscal policy does not fall within the Commission’s remit, but participants felt this issue was an important area that warrants wider discussion.)
Electricity network capacity
Electrification of heat and transport will be key to moving away from fossil fuels. However, this could increase annual residential electricity demand by 50 per cent by 2035, and double peak electricity demand.
While some of this could be smoothed by improved demand-side flexibility, we need to invest today to ensure that our electricity network has the capacity to deliver this energy when and where it is needed.
The circular economy
A circular economy approach reduces waste by (a) promoting re-use of what we already have and (b) ensuring that anything new we make is designed to last many lifecycles.
At a consumer level, this means supporting policies such as ‘the right to repair’ and incentivising the companies that make these products to move away from the ‘take-make-dispose’ approach.
For our built environment, it means improving the durability and adaptability of our infrastructure, changes to the management of construction waste to enable material reuse, and better maintenance and retrofit of our existing building stock wherever possible.
Lifetime cost labelling
Our panel felt that it is currently too difficult for consumers to identify the carbon impact of the products and services they are buying. What is the best type of plant milk? How does packing impact carbon costs? And how much difference does buying local produce make?
The panel members would welcome a whole life carbon labelling scheme that allows consumers to understand the trade-offs they are making between financial costs, carbon costs, and other preferences. This could be similar to nutritional labelling.
However, they emphasized the need for this to be independently verified and audited to avoid the risk of greenwashing and rebuild consumer trust that is currently lacking in areas such as the offsets market.
(Again, we recognise such a wide-reaching initiative would stretch beyond the Commission’s remit.)
Creating a safe space for failure
There are some sectors where mass market green solutions do not currently exist. We are dependent on innovation to develop new solutions.
However, innovation is not without risks. Failure should be seen as a normal – indeed, a critical – part of the innovation cycle, with the learnings from any failures used to improve the next iteration. However, the panel felt that currently failure was perceived in purely negative terms. This was seen as a major barrier to innovation funding for riskier, more ground-breaking solutions – the exact type which we need the most.
Expanding opportunities to test – and indeed fail at – new ideas was therefore seen as key to enabling new technologies.
A co-ordinated plan
Finally, our panel perceived a lack of a clear, detailed, and co-ordinated plan for delivering net zero. Such a plan should clearly prioritise areas for innovation, along with backstop options, and provide actionable detail for delivering against these priorities in a timely manner.
The purpose of this roundtable was to facilitate direct conversation between Commissioners and young people. As the Commission prepares its next set of recommendations to government – in the form of the second National Infrastructure Assessment, due in Autumn 2023 – we hope that they keep these priorities in mind.