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COP26: Excitement, frustration and eco-anxiety

17 November 2021

By Noah Nkonge, Head of Partnerships at Vattenfall Heat UK

COP26: Excitement, frustration and eco-anxiety | ADE ade-news

I went to COP 26 in Glasgow between 8th and 11th November this year as part of the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) Green Jobs delegation. I felt a mix of hope, excitement, frustration and eco-anxiety swirling around the urgent topic of climate emergency. 

I visited the “Green zone” – the section open to the general public and attended talks and visited the stands representing multiple sectors and viewpoints. The experience was overwhelming at times when I considered the scale and complexity of the challenge we collectively face – no sector of society is unaffected. 

There is so much to write about, however in this piece I share my thoughts on “green jobs” and themes relating to the whole (energy) system approach that were inspired by my time at COP. 

Green jobs 

The purpose of the ADE green jobs delegation at COP 26 was to represent the full spectrum of green jobs available in decentralised energy. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines green jobs as “positions in agriculture, manufacturing, R&D, administrative, and service activities aimed at substantially preserving or restoring environmental quality”.

When thinking about what to say about green jobs, it occurred to me that ultimately all jobs need to be “green jobs”. All jobs need to be contributing to a sustainable society. Green jobs are not just those in environmental sciences, renewable energy or climate policy fields. Green jobs need to span all sectors and organisations ultimately. 

Having said that, there is a pressing need to ensure we will have people with the right skills and knowledge to be able to deliver the transformation of the energy system over the coming decades. The energy industry is working hard to raise awareness of the required jobs and skills and show that the roles aren’t just for engineers or scientists . The energy industry will need people in project management, stakeholder engagement, technicians to name but a few types of jobs. 

Whole energy system approach 

Technology is of course important in creating the clean energy system of the future but we must not forget the role of financial signals to the market and behaviour change.

The future energy system that we need to transition to will need to accommodate a significant proportion of renewable energy and this brings challenges in terms of managing fluctuations of a weather-dependent energy system. This can be partially addressed by energy vectors such as heat pumps, heat networks (and associated thermal storage), electric vehicles and batteries but we still have a long way to go across technology, commercial business models and supporting policy and regulation. We have to contend with ageing infrastructure build for linear “left to right” operation with a need for multi-directional decentralised energy system where a homeowner can generate and sell energy to the grid. The opportunities and challenges are significant. 

Below are more detailed points from the talks I attended

Technical/ Energy perspective 

- The future energy system that we need to transition to will need to accommodate a significant proportion of renewable energy e.g. wind turbines, solar panels. This brings challenges in terms of managing fluctuations of weather-driven energy system. 

- We need to move to a decentralised world where other generators (including buildings/ households) can provide energy to the grid rather than the traditional (fossil fuel) power station located many km away from where the energy demand is located. 

- We have a challenge in meeting the need for longer term storage over a number of days based on a renewables-heavy electricity grid. Grid-scale batteries can help store excess energy generated from renewables to use it when it is needed but they only have storage for about 2 to 4 hours. We have a challenge in meeting the need for longer term storage over a number of days based on a renewables-heavy electricity grid.  

- Hydrogen is hope for as a panacea for grid scale storage (and as a fuel for industry and transport among various uses) but remains unproven at scale. 

- Heat pumps (especially if hydraulically networked) and electric vehicles can play an important role in demand side response. However it’s not clear if consumers will be prepared to have their electric vehicles switched off if their motivation is to have their cars charged up as fast as possible so that they are free to travel. 

- Thermal storage whether in thermal stores, within heat network pipes or within existing houses can help but the business case has not been articulated.

Finance and accounting perspective 

- According to the rigorous climate science, going green is actually cheaper over the long term. And better for the environment. However the way we measure/ account and make decisions does not reflect this. Our collective thinking is still short term. 

- Key issue not raised at COP is the significant lever of the massive financial sector which continues to provide “wrong incentives” to a lot of organisations in terms of where they should be investing time and resources in line with a sustainable future. 

Behaviour change perspective

- Is information about climate change informing the right behaviour ? Are people empowered to make informed choices about climate change? What are the barriers to consumer change? 

- While the science on climate change is rigorous and compelling, how does this translate into simple, clear, honest and transparent information for people and businesses to make decisions in line with creating a sustainable future? 

- Investors drive behaviour change in the boardroom based on information about risk. Accountants have key role to play. However there is currently unclear/ inaccurate reporting of risk due to climate change if the right decisions are not being made in boardroom in line with climate change imperatives/ sustainability. 

What are the barriers to consumer change ? If you work in the climate change area, how much of your time is spent thinking about the following:

- Trust and reliable information: information needs to be consistent, simple, rigorous and transparent and cover all areas of consumption.

- Affordability: unsustainable choices are often easiest and lowest financial cost (think heavily processed food).

- Transparency: lifecycle analysis and systems thinking. For example, just because you buy an “eco-friendly” washing powder, it doesn’t mean you have reduced the overall climate impact. E.g. some people wash at higher temperatures to get the same cleaning outcomes as traditional detergents. Does the higher energy consumption due to running the washing machine at a higher temperature result in an overall worse impact? 

- Hopeful messaging: consumers need positive wording to engage them and avoid avoidance of engaging with behaviour relating to climate change due to eco-anxiety.

- Just transition: communities should not be left behind. People need hope and to believe in a prosperous future for their children.

The Big Picture Summary 

  • Need for speed - We are not acting anywhere near fast enough, despite increased levels of awareness and engagement on climate change.
  • We are all affected - climate change either currently or will affect each and every one of us because of the interconnected nature of relationships between food, energy, climate, environment and social justice. Climate change is complex and so it is hard for us to understand and articulate how the impacts will cascade through different areas of life, across different demographics and in between different countries.
  • Ultimately all jobs, including yours, need to be “green jobs”. This isn’t just about climate scientists or engineers.
  • How do we act with incomplete information and with an incomplete picture to address the multifaceted challenges around the climate emergency?
  • Genuine leadership needs to understand and acknowledge the relationships between our economic activity and the natural environment and include different voices and perspectives. We need to act fast but we should not leave people behind, whether this concerns technological, economic or social change.

Some of the talks I attended as part of COP 26 (all the COP26 green zone events were recorded and can be viewed online)

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