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23rd September 2020, Virtual Discussion

For the first time in its 250-year history, the Society held a virtual discussion meeting on Wednesday, 24th September 2020, on the subject of “The Route to Zero Carbon”.

“The UK was the first country in the world to legally set a Net Zero target. Failure is not an option. We have to get to Net Zero - and do it fast. The engineering profession is necessarily at the heart of making this happen.” Richard Threlfall

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The Speakers

The discussion was introduced by Richard Threlfall, Global Head of KPMG IMPACT, the firm’s newly-launched Sustainability, ESG, Climate Change, Economic and Social Development business, and KPMG Global Head of Infrastructure, a Vice President and Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Infrastructure, member of the Infrastructure Board of the Confederation of British Industry, and chairs the Advisory Council of The Infrastructure Forum, an independent think-tank which brings together organisations with involvement in UK infrastructure from public, private and regulatory perspectives. He has over 25 years’ experience in infrastructure policy, governance, strategy and financing, advising both public and private sector clients in the UK and overseas. Emma Pinchbeck, Chief Executive of Energy UK, also contributed some introductory thoughts.

The President, Doug Oakervee welcomed Richard and Emma, who presented opening arguments to the discussion.

Introductory Presentation

The UK was the first country in the world to legally set a Net Zero target, which we should be proud of, said Richard. Achieving this will be hard work, which some consider to be unachievable. But evidence, such as this year’s wildfires, record temperatures and CO2 levels suggests failure is not an option and that achieving Net Zero before 2050 is an imperative. However, whilst COVID-19 has been a significant global challenge, the decarbonization agenda seems to have gathered pace also – perhaps through exposure to human vulnerability. Looking at the progress in four key areas suggests that the UK is doing well, between 6 or 7 out of 10, in energy generation, but not in other areas: 1 out of 10 in transport, 0 / 10 in domestic heating and 0 out of 10 in the construction supply chain (materials and mining).

It has been suggested that the solution to the challenge lies in technology and money, but we probably have all the technology we need and there is no shortage of investors in green technology. The issue is rather the lack of policy to create frameworks to bring technologies and finance together (such as has been achieved for offshore wind) and changes to consumer behaviour.

In order to do this, 21st Century thinking (as defined by Mike Berners-Lee) is required – a big picture perspective, global empathy, future thinking, appreciation of small, simple and local, self-reflection, critical thinking, complex thinking and a joined-up perspective. Such thinking is underdeveloped in global leaders, but is in the DNA of the engineer. Engineers are well-placed to influence UK and global politics, engineering societies could use their reputation to convene and align the necessary participants of change and could support young engineers who have passion but lack the necessary influence.

In essence, we need to think of this as another technological revolution of the likes of agrarian and industrial revolutions before, but one which has to happen within very tight environmental and time constraints.

Richard set three questions for the discussion:

  • How can engineers best influence UK and global policy for achieving the net zero target?

  • How can the Society and the Professional Institutions use their reputation to convene and align decision makers?

  • How can we support the younger generation who have the passion but perhaps, not the means, to effect change?

Emma asked whether we are ready for the scale of the challenge, or the speed by which change needs to be implemented. As well as the need for a system architect to oversee alignment of different constituents (supply versus demand, centralised versus de-centralised energy system, old infrastructure versus new infrastructure), perhaps some of the present measures of economic success need re-visiting. For example, are GDP or Profit and Loss the right measures to use and should investment in the necessary technology come from energy bills or taxation?

Whilst engineers have much to offer, it was suggested that PR skills (not usually associated with engineers) might be more valuable than engineering itself in educating and aligning consumer behaviour. Flexibility will be paramount, and disruptors will be important.

It was also suggested that the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ was not fit for purpose in a green world, and that the ownership of Net Zero should be the Cabinet Office, not departments.


The topic was debated by six discussion groups, who – through the six rapporteurs’ summary presentations at the end of the debate - made the following points:

The Carbon System

The carbon system was seen by all as a ‘system of systems’, and accordingly needed much wider systems boundaries (such as through the supply chain) than at present.

As a system of systems, it needs a ‘systems architect’. The present model where the market treats the environment as ‘no cost’ and does not discount the future is wrong. The systems architecture could be inspired by regulation.

It was not agreed that the technology problem had been solved. Progress had been made, but technology such as batteries – which are key to green transport and energy storage – is still at an early stage. It was also considered that for technology to progress further, industry would need strong assurance around safety.

It was also not agreed than everything needed national thinking. Local thinking should not be dismissed.

It was questioned whether we have the right measures of projects, and whether we cost carbon correctly such that is not a hostage to value engineering.

The ‘Green Book’ (HM Treasury’s guidance on appraisal of policies, programmes and projects) was widely seen as either unfit for purpose or not used properly; it needs to be reviewed and revised.

Government understands the roles of incentives and taxation and may need to make carbon more antisocial and expensive.

It was also seen that too many government departments were involved, that the problem needed to be owned at Cabinet Office level, and that competent policy makers and leaders were required.

It was considered that affordability in a crisis is not an issue, based upon government response to COVID-19, which is a ‘near and present’ danger. For climate change, a continuation of ‘act to survive’ rather than ‘predict and provide’ might be necessary.

Demand led thinking is needed, but not at the expense of investing in energy supply for when future demand comes.

The Role of Engineers

Engineers are well placed to assess, quantify, and advise on different energy technologies (and combinations of technologies) and to predict, plan and quantify the requirements for future systems and structures.

By using mathematics, technical expertise and systems thinking, engineers can advise on optimization of existing systems rather than replacement.

Young people need to be empowered to make innovations and solve the problems.

Engineers and Professional Engineering Institutions do command respect and are considered honest. That honesty needs to be maintained. Greenwashing  and incorrect measures could reduce trust.

It was noted that Climate Change may seem to be the biggest shark at present, but we need to be aware of others in our quest to solve that one.

Clients need help to create realistic zero-carbon specifications for new projects at the very outset of concept creation – engineers can make a massive contribution here – function, design, materials, performance and control systems, sensors, monitoring and measuring. It was noted that getting client demand for low carbon and sustainable materials is difficult, but that increasing use of timber in Europe is a good example of success.


Transport is not as simple as politicians suggest – electric vehicles simply move the point of carbon generation if the whole system is not considered.

The present transport focus on cities has led to several apps to optimize journeys. These do not cover rural areas and much carbon is wasted by reliance on traditional routing and failure of operators to link up to for a better distribution network.

Heating and Housing

The issue of present housing stock is intractable. Seeking the right balance between finance, carbon, and sustainability is not easy.

The current cost model for domestic heating generally assumes heat pump technology, but the use of the present gas mains for distribution of hydrogen could be a more economic cost model.


Net carbon footprint needs to be understood by all.

The issue of climate change altering the future spread of diseases may shift a balance of public opinion away from ‘not in my back yard’.

It was questioned whether it was external PR that was what was needed, or whether encouraging those who were passionate about the topic, for example younger engineers, could influence public opinion. Public empathy is a necessary skill which should be acquired or learned.

Engineering needs a global, vocal, single voice of unity, bringing younger people forward and older engineers needing to be younger. It would be helpful if that voice were to be trans-disciplinary and included professions such as economists and architects.

Politicians listen to the public first as a survival instinct. To influence policy, engineers need to create a virtuous circle between PR, the public and politicians. It was noted that the NIC is a potential portal which bridges electoral cycles and is an open-door for evidence-based thinking.

PR professionals will need reliable data, facts, comparisons, what-ifs, options etc. from skilled engineers to explain the need for change and new investments and to win public support

Governments need honest, timely and reliable policy support from engineers and engineering organisations (e.g. the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Smeatonians, Learned Societies and  professional bodies) to make important and long-term decisions about the future and the process of change.

Projects need a good advocate, but engineers may need to be encouraged to take on this role.

Higher Education and organisations such as the Royal Academy of Engineering have a role in connecting engineers with advocacy and in developing mentors to communicate.

Concluding Remarks

In his concluding remarks Richard argued that whilst there was some validity to concerns over, for example, the sustainability of electric battery production, it was imperative that engineers aligned behind the cause of rapid decarbonisation, and did not allow issues at the margins to lead to a paralysis of action that the world could not afford.

He also noted that rapid progress was being made towards reporting of non-financial metrics, noting a World Economic Forum White Paper “Toward Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation” and the “Statement of Intent” issued by GRI, SASB, IIRC, CDP and CDSB  to work towards common reporting standards; and he touched on the e potential role of regulation and its involvement in the market, such as incentivising when electric vehicles should be charged;

Emma also commented on a number of the points made, in particular:

  • The energy sector feels confident that developing existing technology will solve the need and reiterated that she felt it was the systems thinking that was needed;

  • The conflict between individual choices and system level decisions, such as transport, need to be resolved and that this was likely to be a communication issue.

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