Looking to 2050: How the Northern Powerhouse can drive the transition to net-zero

It's fair to say that 2020 has been a dispiriting start to the new decade. The chaos and uncertainty around the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as well as the cliff edge of a Brexit deadline, has made it a challenge to extract any positive messages from today's headlines.

Looking to 2050: How the Northern Powerhouse can drive the transition to net-zero

Lockdown has meant more time to reflect on what our priorities for the future could be. Many of us have taken stock of changes that have been forced upon us, and deciding which of those we would like to retain once the immediate threats of Covid-19 have receded.    

Research for Management Today has shown that most business leaders expect office occupancy attendance to be between 20 and 60% once the pandemic is over, with so-called hybrid models likely to emerge as the more typical modus operandi. During the first UK lockdown, research undertaken by the UK Centre for Climate and Social Transformation (CAST) found that as we stayed at home, stopped driving to work and cut down on flights abroad, the UK quickly saw the benefits of greener, cleaner lifestyle choices.

Now, policymakers are experiencing mounting public pressure to invest in sustainable projects and support an economic recovery package that prioritises a net-zero carbon future.

A properly implemented green recovery plan could generate huge social and economic value. New and rejuvenated businesses within the fast-growing low carbon goods and services sector could lead to a surge in employment figures thanks to the creation of new green jobs. An LGA report puts the number of additional jobs created at a staggering 1.18 million by 2050.  

Meanwhile, there is huge economic potential in our existing industries; in everything from fashion to transport. Rapidly changing consumer attitudes mean business leaders who are looking towards early adoption of net-zero products will be able to capitalise on a vast, emerging global market.  Those who don’t innovate will be left behind.

Of course, there are other influencing factors; geography being one. The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan outlined earlier last month was an encouraging step forward, and showed a real commitment to the green recovery. The North of England has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, both in terms of health and economic costs. Months of stringent restrictions have placed the Prime Minister’s promises of levelling up on the backburner, putting investment and development projects on hold.

Short-term bandaging is no longer permissible; Britain’s ‘Build Back Better’ motto needs to support a sustainable, long-term impact plan to take advantage of existing opportunities and demand a more inclusive transition to the green economy.

The N8 Research Partnership and Northern Powerhouse Partnership are working together to lead that change by developing Net Zero North (NzN), a brand new initiative which will connect the Northern Powerhouse’s science and research capabilities, skills providers and businesses. Through this collaborative environment, we will forge a green recovery from COVID-19 while simultaneously putting the North of England at the forefront of the UK’s drive for net-zero carbon.

Three parallel, pan-northern projects within NzN (Grow Smarter, Sustainable Hydrogen Economy and Skills and Productivity) will accelerate economic growth by creating new job opportunities through a green-skills ladder, promoting upskilling of the Northern workforce and supporting firms to innovate and adopt low carbon business models.

These will in-turn create a sustainable and resource-efficient society, particularly in economically challenging towns, cities and rural and coastal locations, to help with the establishment of skills hubs in Teesside (Sustainable Hydrogen Economy) and Eden North (Grow Smarter), amongst numerous other projects.

Net Zero North is the research and development programme able to stimulate both the green industrial revolution and the levelling up agenda. However, despite repeated acknowledgement from the UK government around the benefits of meaningful employment opportunities, the need for a sustainable hydrogen economy, and the necessity of green recovery programmes; the Chancellor’s spending review left a disappointing gap in both financial and theoretical support for the programme.

The Northern Powerhouse is the vision of a vibrant Northern economy, a highly skilled population and flourishing local communities and businesses. But it is also the starting point for a green industrial revolution for the UK. Without commitment or funding from UK government and businesses, we will struggle to take advantage of the social reset triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, and risk worsening, rather than addressing, the issues it has highlighted.

Actionable support and investment from the public and private sectors will enable us to realise the potential of Net Zero North and allow the UK economy and climate to reap the benefits. Together, we can cement the northern economy as leader in the green charge towards a zero-carbon future and push for a brighter, more inclusive 2050.

Dr Annette Bramley, Director, N8 Research Partnership

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie