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Mission Zero: Why the Skidmore Review can kickstart the nation’s journey to net zero

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6 min read Partner content

The publication of Mission Zero, the independent review into net zero by Chris Skidmore MP, provides a roadmap for the UK to deliver on its net zero ambition. But is it a roadmap that policymakers and others will follow? PoliticsHome sat down with academics from UKCRIC to find out why they believe the recently published Review is an opportunity the nation cannot afford to miss.

Net zero is tomorrow’s target but today’s challenge.

However, the path we take to reach that target will be complex, requiring a range of coordinated actions from diverse sectors and partners. And following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s  (IPCC) most recent report and assessment of keeping the world from warming more than 1.5C, those actions need to start immediately, reflecting the urgency of the issue.

This was also one of the key conclusions of the Skidmore Review, published at the start of 2023. It considers in detail how to achieve our national net zero target whilst maximising economic growth and investment, increasing energy affordability and security, and minimising costs to both businesses and consumers.

One body that is already driving collaboration to ensure that the research community plays its part in the net zero transition is the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC). UKCRIC pulls together experts from 15 of the UK’s top engineering universities to encourage a collaborative and coordinated approach to address some of the challenges that the nation faces as it moves to a low-carbon economy.

UKCRIC are providing the underpinning science and engineering to support the net zero transition in the built environment.  Their work is developing new low carbon materials, increasing the efficiency of infrastructure services, using AI and big data to improve the management of our cities, and designing resilient infrastructure systems.  They have followed the development and delivery of the Skidmore Review with keen interest.

Our panel of UKCRIC experts agree that the Skidmore Review is a considered and important document in setting out the specific short-term and medium-term actions required to achieve the nation’s long-term net zero goal, with a key strength being that it highlights measures to start now.

Newcastle University’s Professor Richard Dawson told PoliticsHome he believes that the depth and detail contained within the Skidmore Review can help provide the oversight and coordination required to transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Chris Skidmore has done a thorough job of setting out 129 very achievable actions,” he tells us. “Collectively those provide some positive enabling conditions that will help others deliver. Because it isn't just government who are going to be delivering. It is also businesses and wider communities.”

Dr Jennifer Schooling, Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure at the University of Cambridge, agrees with her UKCRIC colleague on the significance of the review. In particular, she supports Skidmore’s core recommendation on the need to produce a cross-sectoral infrastructure strategy by 2025 noting that all aspects of life are enabled directly or indirectly by National Infrastructure systems.

“The climate crisis is urgent,” she tells us. “And the response is not owned by any one sector. A lot of people are going to have to be involved in delivering net zero. It’s public sector, it’s private sector, it's government, it's industry, and it's all of us shaping locally what we want our communities to look like.”

Although the panel of UKCRIC experts told PoliticsHome that they believe the Skidmore Review could potentially signal an important moment in the nation’s journey to net zero, they caution that it is only the starting point. Whilst the specific recommendations in the review provide the essential building blocks, the next challenge will be ensuring that these translate into effective delivery.

“Without the collaboration and coordination, that only central government can do, we are simply not going to achieve net zero in a coordinated way,” explains Professor Liz Varga from UCL, who is a member of UKCRIC's Executive Board. “It will be fragmented and we'll end up with all sorts of different outcomes and unintended consequences.”

It is a view that our experts share. Dr Schooling suggests that the complexity and scale of the shifts required, make the move to net zero a national mission that can only be achieved by bringing together diverse perspectives from the worlds of government, academia, industry, and community.

“The reason a strategy is really important is that so many things have to change and they all have to change at the same time,” she tells PoliticsHome. “Everything's got to end up being electric. There'll be no more diesel trains, no more diesel trucks. We've got to change the way industry works. This can only be done if we coordinate things.”

Dr Tom Dolan, a Senior Research Fellow at UCL for UKCRIC and C-DICE, believes that this conversation needs to start by challenging some of the underlying economic assumptions that we have as a society.

“A massive thing here is mindsets,” he explains. “Everything we do, everything we take for granted, our tried and tested ways of working, have all emerged, evolved and thrived in a context where we can produce greenhouse gas emissions and don't have to pay for them. That's deeply embedded in the way we view the world.”

Challenging and changing the status quo needs to be the cornerstone of any strategy that seeks to coordinate the range of specific recommendations that Skidmore makes.

Professor Dawson highlights that the Skidmore Review did not address adaptation and resilience: “We must not squander our investments in infrastructure to deliver net zero, we must ensure all decisions on net zero embed adaptation and resilience from the outset to ensure they are prepared for future climate change impacts.”

But our experts are clear – without such a strategy, owned across government and robustly monitored, there is a risk that fragmented activity will make it difficult to address the urgent challenge of climate change. The hope is that the newly established Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero will provide a clear focus for ownership of any emerging strategy.

“Skidmore highlights the lack of a programmatic approach, but it wasn’t really his job to write it,” Dr Schooling tells us. “We need a programme of things that need to be achieved.”

That programmatic approach can provide the long-term certainty that will unlock the investment and innovation needed to support us on the net zero journey. And our panel believe that programmatic approach needs to prioritise specific early actions to accelerate the adoption of new technologies.

Prof Liz Varga notes that digitalisation will support the net zero agenda and many of the ambitions of the Skidmore review:

“Given the importance of collaboration, the emergence of multi-stakeholder digital platforms are set to enable transparency and action on net zero, as well as to introduce new players to challenge incumbent methods and processes.” 

Dr Tom Dolan added:

“A strategy in response to climate change can no longer be treated as an independent area of policy. It will require the consistent integration of climate change priorities into all policy objectives, and all societal and economic goals.” 

But, as our panel of UKCRIC experts makes clear, such a strategy will only succeed if universities, tiers of government, and industry work collaboratively to define clear shared objectives that are then monitored to track progress.

“It can feel overwhelming because there is a lot to do,” says Dr Schooling. “But there's always a lot to do. And we do it.”

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