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Chi Onwurah MP: "There’s nothing more caring than saving the planet"

Engineer, Labour MP and shadow minister for science, research and digital, Chi Onwurah, in October 2019 | Alamy

7 min read

As one of the few MPs with a background in science and engineering, Chi Onwurah has plenty of ideas for how the government could build back better and save the planet. She tells Radhika Sanghani greater urgency is needed to drive change.

“When I first became an MP in 2010, the importance of engineering and science just wasn’t recognised,” says Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for science, research and digital. “No one was particularly concerned. But now everyone’s talking about it. And with the pandemic, science has almost gone to celebrity status. I feel lucky to have entered politics at an important moment, one when science and engineering are now becoming not just more crucial to everyday life, but also in the existential threat facing humanity.”

Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, is one of the few MPs with a background working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). She believes she is currently the only MP who has practised science – she graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to work in technology – and is keen to use her unique insight to help the government become greener.

Boris Johnson recently announced his plans for the UK to become a key leader in the global climate change crisis, and hopes to achieve net-zero – cutting emissions as far as possible, then balancing out any remaining releases – by 2050. “It’s a step forward from previous Tory governments, who just talked about climate change,” says Onwurah. “But my big concern is it’s not going far enough and the talk still isn’t being matched by the action. There’s chronic underinvestment in low carbon infrastructure and technology. And the government isn’t setting the direction forcefully enough.”

She believes that technology is key in achieving net-zero, from the simplicity of standby buttons on a computer or kettle reducing the amount of energy used in households, to the more advanced battery technology and smart houses.

“Technology has a really important role it can play. It’s important to recognise – and I’m speaking as an MP for a north-eastern constituency, which was home of the industrial revolution – the first carbon based industrial revolution was driven by technology change. It laid the foundations effectively for our current climate emergency. But at the same time, as it set in place the problems, it can now contribute to the solution to get us into a net-zero sustainable economy, coming back not just better but greener from Covid.

“All of us, particularly during the pandemic, have seen huge behavioural changes, and technology has had a huge impact on that. Many of us are working from home, and bringing the office to the home. It shows behavioural changes can take place in a relatively short amount of time.”

There’s a sense of urgency now to make real change happen

For Onwurah, there are four major areas where technology can make a difference in creating a greener economy: transport, carbon neutral homes, smart manufacturing, and on an individual basis. “Transport is a huge area. We talk a lot about zero carbon but moving our transport system onto electricity only increases our carbon footprint if that electricity isn’t renewable and there when people need it. A huge part of that has to be battery technology, and investing in it. Every household with a car will have a huge energy storage device on the forecourt – that’s a huge opportunity, but for that to be realised, we need clear strategy, investment and direction.”

Her second priority is creating more carbon neutral homes by moving away from gas central heating and putting proper insulation into place. “The last Labour government had a policy to make carbon neutral homes by 2016 – which the coalition government abandoned. We’ve come back to it now, but lost out many years.”

One of the biggest obstacles to policies like zero carbon homes is making sure workers with the right level of skills are available to do this. Does Onwurah think we’re there yet? “No,” she says. “And it’s not surprising the answer is no. There’s a huge skills shortage in engineering skills generally. The skills necessary to put in a heat pump are not the same as the skills necessary to put in a gas boiler. It’s not a huge difference – it’s not about sending millions to uni for five years. But there needs to be a plan in place to get those skills accessible so we do have the people with the right skills.”

I don’t want us to hit our carbon target by exporting our manufacturing carbon footprint to China

To Onwurah, the answer is investing in lifelong learning and adult education, something that is particularly pertinent now. She references New Zealand offering free retraining as part of its Covid recovery plan, adding: “When the government talks about building back better that should include reskilling the nation, and particular sectors of it. There’s been a huge economic shock, and we will recover, but as part of that recovery people will be displaced and lose employment – so having in place potential training schemes to vault people into new areas is a win-win.”

She is also keen to ensure that a rise in smart manufacturing benefits the local economy. “I don’t want us to hit our carbon target by exporting our manufacturing carbon footprint to China. That’s not good for jobs, but it also doesn’t truly decarbonise our economy. It just displaces it.” Instead, she advocates pilot schemes like one already in place in the north-west to support smart manufacturing.

Onwurah is also keen to see smart tech being used to help individuals gain easier and more access to their own data, whether it’s using a smart meter to find out how much they’re spending on transport and lighting, or even apps to track their movements and recycling. “A lot of people want to do the right thing, but need the data to do so.”

While she praises Boris Johnson’s net-zero goals, Onwurah is concerned by the lack of training opportunities in place to achieve it. “I’m afraid right now we have a weak direction and it’s not consistent. A net-zero economy is significantly different to what we have now, and policy makers may find that hard to visualise. But we need to put in place the right access to resources, like skills, and set a clear direction for the economy so we get the follow-through which enables businesses and innovators to capitalise on it.”

Policy makers and politicians don’t want to look like fools so it can be sceptical of commenting

With her background in engineering, it’s obvious that Onwurah understands the specifics of how exactly technology can help the country become greener – but she’s aware not all policy makers can say the same. “When it comes to technology, it’s fast changing. Policy makers and politicians don’t want to look like fools so it can be sceptical of commenting. Not understanding technology can make it more difficult to make the right policy choices. 

Having worked in engineering, I’ve seen and been part of the massive fall of costs in power. Just look at bandwidth – how much it cost to make an international voice call in 1985 to now when it’s free. When you’ve been part of the transformation changes on an engineering level it makes you more appreciative of the changes that can come, and also understanding the government’s role in that.”

It’s why she is keen to see more politicians with STEM backgrounds enter Parliament, and as chair for an All-Party Parliamentary Group on increasing diversity in STEM, is also working to improve its obvious gender and diversity gaps. “I’m 56 and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. But there’s a sense of urgency now to make real change happen. Don’t blame girls and women for not wanting to be engineers. It’s engineering which is not attracting and supporting girls.”

She is hopeful the climate emergency and the role engineering can play in combating it will lead more young girls to enter STEM careers. “When I go into schools, young people are really excited about what engineering could do to improve climate change. They can see it makes a difference, whether it’s a boiler or wind turbine.”

She’s already seen an uptick in girls wanting to enter STEM for these reasons, and hopes many more – particularly women of colour like herself – will go into science and engineering. “Girls are said to like caring professions. Well, there’s nothing more caring than saving the planet.”

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