A green recovery post-Covid

3 August 2020

The EU and other countries have shown the requirement for whole-system energy planning in their future, and it’s now up to government to ensure the UK isn’t left behind

Jonathan Collins

Back in 2017 when the UK was in the early throes of its protracted Brexit process and the world had never heard of COVID-19, China decided to build a new megacity on the outskirts of Beijing. At 772 square miles, the new metropolis would come complete with large infrastructure such as transport systems, energy production and housing.

Aware of the overcrowding and severe air quality issues in Beijing, the government designed this megacity to be built over three counties and made use of integrated walking and cycling provision and designed energy efficient homes to limit air pollution. In short, they saw a problem and developed a solution encompassing different technologies to address multiple issues at once.

Without wishing to suggest that the UK turns to communism, it’s clear that there are certain lessons to be learned from aspects of Chinese infrastructure planning, especially in light of the post-COVID recovery. One of the most important lessons the UK can implement must involve taking a whole-system approach to developing future energy solutions.

To address the issues we will face as a result of climate change and to reach Net Zero by 2050 – in line with the UK’s commitments under the Paris agreement – we need a fundamental re-think of every aspect of how we currently operate as a country, as future solutions will need to deliver multiple carbon reductions in order for ambitious targets to be met. This approach, which before COVID-19 was difficult to coordinate across disparate government departments, can be built-in to the response to COVID-19, thus ensuring a green recovery and putting the Net Zero target within reach.

Reaching the UK’s target of Net Zero carbon by 2050 will require substantial changes to both individuals and industry, which will be underpinned by a long-term, holistic vision of what our future energy sector will look like. There is no silver bullet that will get us to Net Zero whilst ensuring limited changes to the current status-quo. Our current energy systems and infrastructure need to change and be fully utilised in order to get us to our target, which is why a whole-system planning approach needs to take place, by selecting the best energy vectors for the various sectors of our modern world.

Hydrogen as a future energy vector

Hydrogen could form part of the UKs green recovery, whilst at the same time reutilising one  of the UKs existing infrastructure assets on the road to Net Zero.

The recent launch of the EU’s hydrogen strategy demonstrates the importance hydrogen will play in the future energy landscapes on the European continent. This follows similar hydrogen strategies from Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands, and sits alongside already established strategies in the likes of Australia, Japan and China. This proves that hydrogen is gaining the policy support that would be needed to transition from scientific theory to project-ready fact.

But whilst the international attention hydrogen is receiving is positive news for the global journey to Net Zero, it also demonstrates that immediate action is required from the UK government if we are not to be left behind in the newly developing hydrogen economy.

The evidence supporting the need for hydrogen is clear and established, and although it was disappointing not to see any hydrogen-related announcements from the chancellor in his recent summer statement, there is still time for government to drive forward the hydrogen industry and for the UK to become a leading global player. However, this action must be swift and supported with the right policy frameworks.

The EU strategy sets out its ambitions to 2050, with the installation of 6 gigawats of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and with a plan to the produce up to one million tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2024, increasing to at least 40 gigawats of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and the production of up to 10million tonnes of renewable hydrogen in the EU by 2030. These targets provide clarity to industry and will help inform business plans going forward.

In a similar fashion, the UK needs ambitious targets, and a policy framework which supports a whole-system approach and includes a cross-departmental hydrogen strategy and the development of a financial support scheme to ramp up the production of hydrogen for blending with natural gas into the existing gas network, so we can start to make inroads into the Net Zero challenge whilst developing new industries and jobs at the same time. This should all be supported with a newly appointed ministerial position to ensure delivery.

A Green Recovery post COVID

The UK is entering a new phase as the lockdown eases, and many people are looking for a green recovery to help boost jobs and to ensure the economic recovery is delivering for both the present and for our 2050 targets. The EU and other countries have shown the requirement for whole-system energy planning in their future, and it’s now up to government to ensure the UK isn’t left behind.