Connecting the dots to address climate change in UK communities

Equans’ zero carbon solutions director Andrew Spencer discusses how a place-based approach to tackling climate change is pivotal to the decarbonisation of UK communities.

Connecting the dots to address climate change in UK communities

The UK is currently experiencing an ongoing cost of living crisis against the backdrop of financial recession. Similarly, our local authorities are facing unprecedented financial challenges and as we progress into an election year, there is a risk that net-zero delivery is slipping into a ‘nice to have’ rather than a fundamental imperative.

Considerable progress has been made in certain areas, such as the phasing-out of coal and the transition to greener electricity – but meeting the ambitious targets outlined in the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget (2033-2037) demands a significant re-evaluation of how we power and heat our communities and facilitate sustainable transportation, as these sectors are lagging behind. In the current economic climate, a joined-up strategy is essential to deliver these net zero measures at scale within UK communities.

A whole system approach

The pace of change varies across the UK’s diverse regions – no two places share the same challenges, infrastructure, or people, so we cannot expect a ‘one size fits all’ solution to a very complex problem. A whole system approach, which is tailored to a specific area, is the only way we can achieve positive results.

Place-based decarbonisation has emerged as a promising strategy, acknowledging the unique challenges and opportunities present in different geographical locations. It is a comprehensive approach that goes beyond carbon reduction, envisioning a transformation of the built environment, economic landscape, and social dynamics, tailoring measures to each region’s requirements, and championing socially cost-effective solutions.

Within these localities, over 50% of the required emissions reductions rely on individuals and businesses adopting low-carbon solutions – choices influenced by local and personal decisions. The implementation of supportive infrastructure and systems significantly impacts these decisions, and whilst local authorities are accountable for just 2-5% of local emissions, they possess various tools to drive broader local initiatives for emission reduction and climate resilience.

An example of how supportive infrastructure has catalysed local uptake of decarbonisation measures is at Swaffham Prior village in Cambridgeshire where Equans has worked with Cambridgeshire County Council to establish the UK’s first rural heat network. The project, which is currently providing a significant number of households in the village with decarbonised heating, removes the need for costly home retrofits therefore making it easier for the community to embrace net-zero. At a time when household finances are tight, a 60-year funding scheme spreads the cost so consumer bills are no more expensive than fuel-oil alternatives.

Blended financial approach

Blended finance, such as combining central government grants with local stakeholder investment and private finance, ensures financial resilience, inclusivity and long-term feasibility.

This approach is already having a considerable impact across the UK in scaling net-zero projects – for example in the West Midlands we are working with Dudley MBC to deliver the UK’s first net-zero neighbourhood, which is funded by West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). In Lancashire, we are partnering with the housing association Onward Homes to decarbonise 126 homes assisted by the Sustainable Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF).

The effective navigation of legal and commercial landscapes is also essential for sustainable development. It will be crucial to reshape frameworks to support decarbonisation and forge new collaborative partnerships between public and private sectors to unlock expertise, facilitate economic expansion and foster long-term resilience and sustainability.

Social value

Decarbonisation isn’t solely an environmental endeavour; it’s a social imperative. Maximising social impact through community engagement and empowerment lies at the heart of Equans’ strategy, ensuring that projects or solutions not only reduce emissions but also enhance wellbeing within local communities.

An example of this is through our partnership with Birmingham City Council where, as part of broader works to maintain council-owned properties, we are delivering a significant decarbonisation programme for 1,600 homes enabled by SHDF funding. Birmingham residents will benefit from warmer, more efficient homes with cheaper energy bills.

In summary, the success of a place-based approach to decarbonisation is measured not just in terms of carbon reduction but across economic, environmental, and social dimensions. By optimising technical systems, implementing a diverse funding strategy, maximising social impact, and fostering legal and commercial innovation, we can attain a future where sustainability is ingrained in the fabric of our communities. The benefits extend beyond carbon emissions reduction, creating resilient, thriving places that serve as models for a sustainable future.

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