Triple Point’s Claire Ainsworth reflects on the need to adopt long-term sustainable solutions to the challenges we face.  

The other day, when I went for my daily exercise up to Clapham Common, I saw something I hadn’t seen since March: a traffic queue. My instinctive reaction was: Oh no! It has been great to be able to cross roads easily, to have plenty of space for social distancing and, most of all,  enjoy the relatively clean air and quiet in London. But my second thought was: well that’s a good sign really. Other than on a Bank Holiday Monday, more traffic is a sign of more economic activity and we need that.

My idle thoughts about the traffic on a Tuesday evening in South West London are just a tiny subset of the challenge and conflict we will face as the economy gets going again, as we adapt to a life either after or with COVID-19.

The current crisis has caused possibly the biggest carbon crash in history. It is estimated that the world will use 4 -8% less energy this year, the equivalent of 2-3 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. In comparison, the financial crash of 2008/9 led to a reduction in emissions of c.450 million tonnes, and the reduction after WW2 was c.800 million tonnes.

But . . . in the past such reductions have always been followed by similar or bigger increases as economies have recovered and grown. A temporary fall in emissions will not of itself make a big difference to solving the climate change emergency. If we are to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees – the level beyond which heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods and food shortages (depending on where in the world you are) are really threatening – then we need to reduce our carbon emissions by about 5% a year – every year – until 2050.  And whatever the delights of the clear blue sky I can see from my window right now, we know that we don’t want every year to be like this year.

Maybe though a taste of a cleaner, if not a cooler world and, more importantly, a taste of what we can collectively do to help all humans when we are facing a common threat, can give us some hope for the future. In the last three months, many individuals, businesses and governments have shown how adaptable, creative, innovative and downright persistent they can be.  Changing production lines, pivoting businesses almost overnight, working, shopping and socialising differently – have been huge successes in this difficult situation.  Maybe we will take less for granted, maybe we will have a greater awareness of our commonality and maybe we will feel more empowered and believe that we can make a difference.

The pathways to reduce emissions on a long term basis will not change. We need to use less power and more of it needs to be from renewables. In the UK, cars and domestic heating are among the two largest uses of energy.  We need to reduce our car usage and switch car fuel to non-fossil fuel – whether electricity or an alternative. And we need to get much more of our heating from alternatives to gas, including biofuel, natural sources and hydrogen. Fortunately, there are viable solutions that are already being deployed across the UK, that form an important part of the plan to reduce carbon emissions.

Heat Networks represents one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing carbon emissions from heating, and their efficiency and carbon-saving potential increases as they grow and connect to each other. They provide a unique opportunity to exploit larger scale – and often lower cost – renewable and recovered heat sources that often cannot be used. It is estimated by the CCC that around 18% of UK heat will need to come from heat networks by 2050 if the UK is to meet its carbon targets cost effectively.

Ultimately, bringing about positive change will require expenditure, innovation and a willingness to adapt.  Let’s hope that the coronavirus crisis will show us that the gains for humanity from a focused application of all of these resources can be worthwhile, and that we can achieve more than we might have thought when we have a common goal.

Triple Point Heat Networks is the Government’s delivery partner in the management of a £320m fund providing loans and grants to heat network projects in the UK which are helping to reduce carbon emissions, develop supply chains and a market to promote district heating.