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Advertorial: in association with Vattenfall

Towards a new, green economy

How innovation and investment in communities can help build a net zero future.

The UN secretary-general António Guterres has warned that the world is facing a climate change tipping point. If governments, private-sector organisations and individuals are serious about limiting global heating – as was mandated by the much-lauded 2015 Paris Agreement – then urgent and immediate action is required. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear that warming beyond that point will likely lead to cascading effects, including threatening the very existence of many low-lying coastal communities through rising sea levels, bringing consistent drought and supply chain disruptions, spurring mass climate migration and refugee crises, and leading to continued economic uncertainty.

Solving the problem necessitates a concerted effort towards greening our economies, transport systems, energy infrastructures and production processes, and doubling down on our journey towards net zero. The UK government legally committed itself to achieving the latter by 2050, and many other countries have followed suit. Similarly, the opposition has promised that in government it would eliminate fossil fuels from sustaining power on the UK’s energy grid by 2030. The political consensus on the need to drastically combat emissions is heartening, but meeting those targets will require bold, innovative thinking and cross-sector collaboration like never before.

As well as posing challenges, building a net-zero economy based on renewable energy generation and low carbon production in traditional heavy industries also creates opportunities. The energy transition can be made in a way which aptly correlates with regional economic growth agendas that have the potential to revitalise and transform communities up and down the country.

South Kyle in East Ayrshire and Dumfries is home to a new 50 turbine-strong onshore wind farm producing enough clean electricity to power up to 170,000 homes each year. It is owned and operated by Vattenfall, the multinational utility company owned by the Swedish state. “We have a community benefit fund in South Kyle,” says Lisa Christie, Vattenfall’s interim UK country manager. “It’s a way of recognising communities that are hosting energy infrastructure. But it works best when it’s designed in partnership with the local community in line with their needs and wishes, rather than thinking of it as some kind of quid pro quo payment.”

Over its 25-year lifespan, the wind farm is projected to generate £38m for the local community. The South Kyle site has provided a £44m boost to the local economy (out of £93m the project has spent in Scotland overall), not least by using a “local approach” to procurement, contracting and management of resilient supply chains. The social value from projects such as these can be maximised by supporting high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage local jobs as well as local small and medium-sized enterprises involved with the dozens of offshoot initiatives that are catalysed by this kind of major infrastructure development.

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“The impact can clearly be positive,” Christie adds. “We find a lot of support for our wind farms in the areas where we’re operating – and that’s both onshore and offshore. Support is very high, and we know that from polling.” Vattenfall has also expanded its operations to other parts of the UK, working in partnership with several local councils pursuing green energy policies.

“In Bristol, we’re working with really forward-thinking local leadership,” Christie told Spotlight. “They have set their sights really high. Ameresco has the main contract to help Bristol City Council deliver on its low carbon ambitions, and they’ve brought Vattenfall in as an expert in delivery.”

The Swedish company also works with local government on major projects in London, including on the redevelopment of Brent Cross. Vattenfall provides knowledge, expertise and decades of project-delivery experience to help create heat networks for this important regeneration scheme in one of the capital’s most deprived boroughs. It’s this kind of collaborative, partnership-first approach with local and central government, and other private-sector organisations that can help the UK achieve its low-energy ambitions quickly.

This will also require reform from Whitehall: current planning laws in England are far too restrictive. It’s not just housebuilding being held back by burdensome regulatory frameworks and layers of veto from multiple local planning committees and other stakeholders – the infrastructure we need for a green industrial revolution will need a more proactive, positive approach to development projects too. This will be easier to implement once communities see the real benefits of this kind of work.

But it’s not just energy and heating that needs to undergo a major overhaul if net zero is to become a reality. Carbon-intensive industries such as aviation, steel and concrete production, automobiles and plastics all need to revolutionise the way they do business.

These are sectors that are vital for maintaining mobility, modern living standards and for keeping the global economy on a sustainable footing. They cannot simply be wound down. Many of them will actually be essential for building the kind of mass transit systems and new energy networks we need.

Helping these industries go green will require high-tech innovations. That’s why Vattenfall is investing in research and development into fossil-free hydrogen, an essential component of decarbonising heavy-emitting industries such as concrete, cement, glass and steel manufacture. This kind of technology will help support stable, highly productive work in communities with deep historical connections with the traditional industries, bringing those sectors into the 21st century and creating the sustainable jobs of the future. Vattenfall is also investing in green steel through its Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology (Hybrit) project. Projects like these will help us change those cornerstone products of modernity and advanced economies and put them on a path to a green future.

“It’s not about waiting for the perfect plan and expecting to be able to flip a switch, at which point our entire way of living will suddenly no longer use fossil fuels. It’s about identifying which sectors you can decarbonise quickest and how you use green electrons to do that,” says Christie. “We’re getting ahead of the curve, and that’s what’s needed to make the green economy a reality.”

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