In this article, I’m going to be looking at the new terms that are being thrown about, a few ambitions that are cleverly worded, and give my overall opinion on the infrastructure drive that is taking place in the UK.
Are we mislabelling, or is the abundance of terms causing unnecessary confusion?
Do clever words result in important changes?
What is an industrial decarbonisation strategy when it’s at home?
Here are a few keywords in this industry that are used a lot and which look great, but don’t often show the full picture.
A business may claim to be net-zero, which means that they remove more greenhouse gases from the environment than they emit, which is quite uncommon. In the bigger picture, this is scaled up to a planetary level, where we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased GG capture (through reforestation primarily) to the point where the scales tip in favour of removal.
Carbon Neutral (Net-Zero Carbon)
These two terms mean the same thing. It is much like net-zero emissions, except it applies only to carbon dioxide, ignoring the other 6 greenhouse gases.
Carbon negative goes further than carbon neutral, instead of creating a deficit, where more carbon is being removed from the atmosphere than is generated.
Carbon Neutral and Carbon Negative are often claimed by businesses who pay large amounts to offset their activities, such as by funding reforestation projects. This creates the illusion that they are working to improve their operations when it’s not really true.
When a business makes these claims, we have to be quite rigorous with their usage and figure out whether they are greenwashing, whether they are paying away their problems, or whether they are actually committed to and fulfilling change. If these terms are not applied properly, they simply become quirky marketing tools and they ultimately regress and detract the mission to reduce carbon emissions and capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Here’s an example: Electrification. We are told by the media that electric vehicles are the future, and sure, that’s great, I’m not knocking it, but I do question whether the term ‘electrification’ should be used as an eco-friendly marketing tool. Does making cars electric really solve a lot of problems? The batteries are horrendous to produce and dispose of. Power generation requires fossil fuels until we have a greater renewable infrastructure. Both the manufacturing and end-of-life of electric vehicles is hugely intensive on resources.
So, I ask, are we being misled? Is it just a portion of the truth or a convenient lie?
Why would companies do that? Well, perhaps IBM has the answer. In a 2020 IBM study, they found that 6/10 consumers were willing to make more environmentally friendly purchasing changes, and 8/10 reported that sustainability was very important to them. That’s a lot of people who want to do good! It’s also a lot of people for companies to try and sell themselves to, through marketing genius and greenwashing. Customers can push companies to change the system and improve their relationship with the planet, or, customers can push clever terms on their customers and change nothing. Some phrases sound positive, but they are often catchy phrases designed to describe something the business is already doing.
You might think I’ve given businesses a bit of a hard time here, and maybe I have, but in fact, businesses can only go far, existing within the system that they do. Looming above them is the government and their policies. Unless the policies are put in place to encourage or incentivise actual innovation, businesses will continue to do the bare minimum.
The UK’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy
I’d say that the UK is taking big leaps in the right direction on policy-making for these reasons:
The first major economy to present a net-zero industrial decarbonisation strategy (here we go again with the big terms)
Looking to make environmental progress during the economic recovery from Covid-19
First major economy to add net-zero targets to the legislation
Looking to be seen as a leader and pioneer by other nations by driving a healthier future for the industry
The government ‘green industrial revolution’ sees decarbonisation as a key part of the strategy
Targeting net zero carbon by 2050 which would see emissions fall by about two-thirds – it has been brought forward by 13 years (2037) due to the gravity of the situation
Help businesses enter and expand into the low-carbon market
When we see these big claims and aims, we should rightfully feel inspired. In the past, the government has been quite vague about how it will go about achieving environmental and sustainable results, but in this case, the strategy is transparent and quite detailed. It explains which industrial areas will be prioritised (West Midlands and North East) for decarbonisation.
I would like to share the words of the Rt Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth.
“The 2020s will be crucial for us to lay the bedrock for industrial decarbonisation. Over the next decade, we will begin the journey of switching away from fossil fuel combustion to low carbon alternatives such as hydrogen and electrification, deploying key technologies such as carbon capture, usage and storage, and supporting industrial sites to maximise their energy and resource efficiency to reduce costs for businesses. In parallel, we will continue to help the industry overcome barriers and work with our international partners, both old and new, to kick-start the demand for low carbon industrial products. The work we do in the next decade will be essential to ensure the industry can flourish during its transition to net-zero, without moving emissions and businesses abroad.”
“As the movement against climate change grows, the UK will continue to set global precedents towards a fairer, greener society. We are leading the way, and I look forward to working with industry sectors, businesses, and governments from across the world to ensure these challenges are met.”
I’m left with more questions than answers whenever I look into the UK’s decarbonisation strategy, as I realise that there are so many considerations that aren’t being talked about enough. I have some issues, for example, with the fact that a lot of renewable technology requires rare earth minerals that are running low, to function. Should we not be looking at designing alternatives that don’t require such limited resources? Another thing is the fact that most wind turbine blades aren’t deemed recyclable? Why not? They’re metal, they should be designed to be easily dismantled and recycled, but even better, they should be created in a modular way so that they can be easily fixed. The electric car movement is great too, and I’m pleased to see the government promote them through policies, but what about the end-of-life for these vehicles? What about the battery acid?
I feel like we are approaching solutions but creating new problems along the way. The clever marketing I mentioned before is part of this. We have not connected the causes and consequences properly. Think of the Ozone layer, it took us 30 years to figure out what caused the hole, and then we were able to solve it quickly by making changes. Is that going to be the modern approach – unintentionally creating problems for the next generation to deal with? I hope not.
The bigger picture is hard to get at, so most issues may be accidentally created, but that strikes me more as negligence. We have the technology, experts, and research methods to effectively assess solutions and their negative side-effects, such as carbon emissions. If we fail to do the proper research, it’s going to come around like a boomerang and hurt us one day.