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25/02/2021

Planning is the foundation for a low-carbon future

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The energy white paper is to be commended for committing to a transition to a zero-carbon future, but it seems to have forgotten about planning, observes Rob Shaw

The 2020s will be defined by rapid replacement of fossil fuels. While electric vehicles (EVs) will drive the transport system, the main uncertainty is the sources of heat for homes, businesses, and industry. The answers will determine whether nuclear and hydrogen have a role.

The UK has transitioned well to renewables. Coal-free weeks are common; lower installation costs mean wind and solar account for 37 per cent of energy supply.

EV numbers are rising and carbon emissions have fallen 43 per cent since 1990. But achieving net-zero demands more.

The  energy white paper, Powering our Net Zero Future, says little about planning’s role. But the transition could transform places, land uses and economies.

White paper modelling expects 15-120GW of new solar and 15-60GW of onshore wind by 2050. Ground-mounted solar could require 200,000 hectares. Conflict with priorities such as housing is likely.

“Spatial planning is the means to exploiting ever cheaper renewable power”

The paper proposes removing utilities’ monopoly on delivering power networks, and forward-thinking developers are looking to co-locate homes, industry and renewables to exploit cheap renewable power. Land allocations and proposed zoning are an opportunity to formalise this and supplement proposals for low-carbon industrial clusters.

Plans for improving energy in buildings remain vague but do commit to dramatic growth in electric heat pumps. The role for hydrogen and district heating depends largely on how successful this is: new buildings will be served by heat pumps, but hydrogen or heat networks will be needed if energy performance of existing stock is not improved.

The white paper recommits to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Homes England is already grappling with accommodating charging alongside active travel infrastructure in new development, without perpetuating congestion. It also commits to a decision on a new large nuclear plant by 2024, but its relevance is questionable in a decentralised system with cheap renewables.

Planning’s fundamental role is this: 21st century infrastructure will drive economic growth and is completely different to that of the 20th. Spatial planning is the means to exploit ever-cheaper renewable power, resolve land use conflicts in towns and country, and avoid repeating past mistakes in integrating new technologies.

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

Image credit | Shutterstock

 

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