A leading engineering firm believes we can go beyond net zero carbon emissions and use sustainability goals to rethink social and economic equality through a ‘fair net zero’ framework.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) says that beyond simply thinking about carbon emissions, we need to consider a just transition of all industries, one that will create better jobs and communities in the process of creating a more sustainable planet.
Global professional services firm WSP has taken this message and put it at the core of its service delivery as a new tool for engineers to use in their problem solving.
WSP Sustainability Director Bernadette Fitzgerald said that because engineers are designing projects that impact the lives of people, embedding a fairness metric in that process is the future of decarbonisation.
“The term ‘fairness’ is about recognising that as we experience significant changes both technologically and socially, the groups that are already most vulnerable in our community will usually be most vulnerable to those shifts,” she says.
She offers an illustrative example. Individuals and companies who have the capacity and capital are investing in solar PV panels, electric cars, and similar technology that insulates them from energy price increases. However, by going off the grid, they could inadvertently cause those remaining on the grid to compensate for their absence. In other words, an unforeseen outcome is an increase in costs for those who can least afford it.
“Electrification of the economy is disrupting everything that’s gone before,” says Fitzgerald. “Giving our clients a perspective of how people are going to be impacted in our analysis helps us all make better decisions.”
Paul Williams, WSP’s Director of Mining and Energy for Australia, says that from an engineer’s perspective, fair net zero goals help clients and governments identify incentives and mechanisms to introduce into their projects.
“The mining sector has certainly embraced strategies that have put decarbonisation to the fore. If there’s a thing that’s primarily important for our clients right now, it’s social licence. That comes not only from the product, it’s about what they do and how they do it, where they mine, and how they mine. It’s all wrapped up with how clean and efficient the process is.”
Fairness and sustainability are also issues in the employment market. Williams says that some in the mining space have seen a drop in graduates joining their industry due to ethical concerns. In response to this a lot of mining organisations are placing more importance on the big picture, which helps them to be places where people want to work, he says.
“A fair transition in the competitive market of renewables and a changing electricity system should also be understood more broadly,” says Williams. “For example, is the playing field for the development of new assets fair? Some firms have advantages when it comes to things such as legacy regulatory positions, or access to existing electricity connection points and land.
“The energy industry around the world is still largely an essential service that is heavily regulated. With the massive shifts we have coming – including how the National Electricity Market is shaped, the transition to renewable generation, electrification of entire systems like transportation, and the development of cleaner fuels – we should be asking, is it still a fair playing field for everyone? And is the current regulatory environment still fit for purpose?”
Fitzgerald says that engineers have a significant role to play in the net zero transition as they bring a level of understanding and analysis to a complex range of scenarios.
“We’re being challenged to think about energy in a very different way than we’re used to,” she says.
“One of the biggest risks is also a huge opportunity to achieve greater social and economic equity. As the world transitions away from greenhouse gas emissions we’re going to see changes in how we think about metrics that go beyond capital as a measure of efficiency.”