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Net effects: The path to net zero

Words: Robert Shaw

The path to net-zero is a revolutionary one and we are walking it, says Robert Shaw. If we stay the course, we’ll see transformations in technology, economy, living environments and the very way that we live our lives (8 minute read)

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, a picture is emerging of the technologies and infrastructure that will define our lives for generations.

Out of the long shadow of the Great Recession, Covid and structural stagnation comes the prospect of an economy that respects environmental boundaries, is closer to nature and is wealthier as a consequence.

The places that we build from now on will be very different from those of the past. It’s well understood that infrastructure and technology drive the economy; they also determine spatial form and function.

In the 20th century, roads built for vehicles powered by internal combustion engines allowed people to live in places disconnected from where they worked, shopped, or played. Limited telecommunication services meant urban centres and out-of-town commercial areas were economic focal points. Globalised supply chains and transport infrastructure allowed polluting industries to move out of cities, often out of the country. The energy to supply all this was produced centrally in large, remote power stations, gas and oilfields. The watchwords of the 20th century economy were scale and functional separation.

"The watchwords of the 20th century economy were scale and functional separation"

They have served us well. This combination of energy, transport, and communications infrastructure, and separation of functions, enabled 20th century society to address many of the ills of the 19th – notably urban overcrowding and pollution – and to deliver extraordinary improvements in living standards.

But the 21st century faces different challenges: achieving net-zero-carbon emissions within a generation, reversing biodiversity losses and transforming public health will not be achieved through incremental improvements to old technologies or by continuing to separate the human world from nature. These challenges require a new combination and a different mindset.

Many technologies we need already exist and their costs have reduced to such an extent that they are being delivered in the form of new infrastructure (see box ‘Free fall’). The growth of solar or battery storage, for example, has barely registered in most people’s consciousness but, as with all exponential growth, it has reached a certain point and is now exploding into view.

This is vitally important for solving the climate emergency, and the effect on towns, cities and countryside will be transformational. Regardless of whether government has fully appreciated the combined effect of this and the economic restructuring arising from the legally binding net zero target, businesses and finance certainly have.

Analysis by CarbonBrief shows that since 1990 the UK has already used these technologies to reach the halfway point to the 2050 net-zero target. But the second half will not be easy; it will require transformations in how heat and energy is supplied to homes and energy-intensive industries, and removing oil from the transport system.

Rolling out the net-zero technologies needed for this will bring about new opportunities for high-quality jobs, sustainable economic growth and improved biodiversity. Estimates by the Green New Deal UK group suggest this could amount to 2.7 million jobs in the next decade. They will also transform how places look and function, and their interaction with our daily lives.

Free fall: How renewable technology costs are falling

Solar PV module prices have dropped in price by 89 per cent since 2010. The UK has nearly 15 gigawatts (GW) of installed PV capacity with more than 13GW of subsidy-free projects in the planning pipeline.

Onshore wind turbine prices have dropped in price by 59 per cent since 2010. The UK has nearly 14GW of onshore wind farms operating and more than 10GW at sea, according to RenewableUK. 

Many more offshore projects are in the pipeline, with CarbonBrief expecting them to be cheaper than gas by 2023.

Battery packs used in vehicles have dropped in price by 89 per cent since 2010. UK installation of utility-scale batteries has reached 1GW, with 15GW in the planning pipeline, according to SolarMedia.
Preliminary data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders shows that sales of battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids accounted for 13.9 per cent of the new car market in 2020, up from 7.3 per cent just a year earlier.

Fit for the next century

Climate policy, technology and shifting attitudes towards nature are driving revolutions in energy, services, manufacturing, transport and finance. These in turn will determine this century’s infrastructure choices and industrial strategy, and shape land use decisions. The choices we make will determine the quality of the places we live and work in, and their economic success or failure.

The cost of net-zero energy technology is falling and, as it does so, the ‘backbone’ technologies of our future energy supply are coming into focus. But, as ‘21st century revolutions’ (page 22) explains, it is not a simple and predictable picture of technology X will supply energy quantity Y as and when we require it; rather, the energy supply of the future will depend on a portfolio of technologies working in concert, some cheap, some less so.

Such a portfolio of uses will be space intensive; but, being clean, most can be installed next to people and nature, even offering biodiversity benefits over standard developments. Spatial, economic and industrial strategies have always been interlinked, but net-zero is the new all-encompassing paradigm. Change will happen with or without a strategy, but the places that thrive will be those that recognise the transformational nature of net-zero and use it to create places fit for this century.

"Spatial, economic and industrial strategies have always been interlinked, but net-zero is the new all-encompassing paradigm"

Ignoring these technological and infrastructure changes will lead to spatial plans that prioritise the wrong kinds of infrastructure and land use choices. It will lead to poor decisions when applications are presented to committees and opportunities missed for realising mutual benefits.

Understanding them is therefore crucial, but local plans should not assume that town and country must be replanned around them. More than half a century ago, in the most comprehensive town planning experiment ever attempted, the entire country was replanned around the car. Although this delivered phenomenal economic growth and helped solve many of the problems of the 19th century, it inadvertently created the problems of this century.

It is not possible to foresee all eventualities but tools such as the DROP framework (above) provide a starting point for spatial and economic planning. DROP systematically researches the interactions between the economic, social, environmental and technological drivers of change; the revolutions they are bringing about in how we live, work and interact with nature; and the opportunities that arise from these.

There are myriad technologies out there. Some are universally applicable in the new world, but many will be contextual and location-specific. The 21st century evidence-base provided by DROP forms the basis for asking a series of deeper questions aimed at determining the right options for an area, such as:

  • What sorts of places do we want to create?
  • Are we trying to use new technologies and infrastructure to solve problems while perpetuating dysfunctional ways of living and interacting with the natural environment; or do we want to use them to create places in which people and nature flourish?
  • Which technologies and approaches will help us achieve ‘win-win-wins’ for communities, places, and nature?

To get more specific:

  •  Do we simply want to replicate car-based places using BEVs instead of internal combustion engines, or do we want places in which most facilities are within an easy 15-minute walk or cycle?
  •  How do we use the increasingly interdependent energy, transport and communications systems to conceive of different land use patterns?
  •  Do we continue separating clean energy infrastructure, such as solar farms, from green infrastructure and the natural environment, or do we plan them as part of a system?
  •  How do public, private and community sector roles differ by scale, technology or infrastructure types, and by their need to integrate multifunctional uses within and beyond individual projects?

The starting point is to accept that net-zero drivers of changes will revolutionise every aspect of society and economy and result in quite different spatial choices. The specific questions we ask – and the answers we get – will ultimately be place-specific, considering landscape capacity, history, culture, ecology, geology and, of course, resources.

This is where planning is so important. 21st century evidence bases that understand the core drivers of net-zero legislation, that will hold government’s feet to the fire and demand long-term thinking, and the myriad energy, transport, and communications technologies that are emerging will lead to spatial plans that support prosperous communities and healthy environments. Those plans are how conflicts between uses can be managed, quality can be designed in and mutual benefits achieved from infrastructure projects.

In these times of dramatic technological and social change, all our institutions are having to adapt. Planning is no exception. History shows that planning is most relevant at times of great change; those involved need to step up to the challenge.

DROP in centre 

DROP is a means to systematically explore how a range of drivers of change are combining with social, economic and environmental revolutions in different ways to create opportunities for change. 

Third Revolution Projects has used DROP with Homes England to create a sustainability strategy for its West of Ifield development near Crawley in Sussex. The urban extension will be built over several decades, and the work has demonstrated that to meet future needs and remain a place that people want to live and invest in, Hoems England must first understand how society, the environment and technology are changing. Third Revolution created the DROP conceptual framework to guide the masterplan, infrastructure decisions and sustainability strategy. It is also informing longer-term decisions on delivery and governance. 

Starting with analysis of how environmental, economic, technological and social drivers of change are combining with revolutions in how people live, work, and move about has helped the team understand risks, opportunities and frame priorities.

This provided the conceptual basis for a framework that delivers places that are futre-proofed, commercially successful and low carbon. For example, the research demonstrated that the needs of residents and businesses will be better met in neighbourhoods that: facilitate flexible working and multigenerational living; where most facilities not provided online are within a 15-minute walk or cycle,  have infrastructure that supports integration of low-carbon energy, transport and communication.

These findings have shaped the masterplan and shown the need to think differently about the types of homes, transport infrastructure, neighbourhood structure, and relationship between new development and a town centre in which the traditional retail function is declining. It is also guiding alternative approaches to delivery: for example, the choice of delivery partner, investment strategy, and Homes England’’s own role in delivery and long-term governance. 

Rob Shaw is managing director of Third Revolution Projects, a town planning, future thinking and sustainability consultancy

Illustration credit | Patrick George