DR RALITSA HITEVA, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, looks at how Hastings fits into the ‘guilt-free utopia’ to Net Zero outlined by Boris Johnson.

Just two weeks before COP 26, the UK Government introduced the long-awaited Net Zero Strategy. Industry and climate change experts had been hoping the strategy would send a powerful message before what needed to be a decisive COP meeting, a meeting seeking to build on some of the radical changes resulting from two years of global pandemic. 

The domestic context of rapidly increasing energy prices, rising costs of fuel and fuel shortages, rising inflation and reduced benefits, means that the positive effects of a just and accelerated transition towards Net Zero could be significant for places like Hastings, households across the board and those who are vulnerable. 

As the HIP Supplement on Net Zero earlier this year illustrated (p.6-7 Supplement on Net Zero), the most promising ways for reducing carbon emissions in Hastings are through installing domestic rooftop PVs, ground-mounted PVs and solar car parks and large-scale wind power installations. The greatest opportunities for reducing and offsetting carbon emissions would come from improving the performance of existing buildings, limiting the impact of new development and mass installation of low-carbon heating systems, such as air source heat pumps.

CREDIT: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash

In fact, improving the performance of existing housing, public and industry building stock in the town through retrofitting is the first, and often biggest, stumbling block to the diffusion of low carbon technologies like wind and solar systems – and to capturing the key social and environmental value from any action on Net Zero, such as reducing vulnerability and making sure that no one is left behind in the transition. 

The Hastings experience is similar to that of hundreds of other towns in the UK where long standing system issues have led to public transport being the option of last resort rather than being the cheaper, greener and more accessible alternative. And unfortunately, the significant shortfall in funding transport to become zero carbon is expected to be raised through community finance. This could result not only in many people being left behind and struggling to benefit from the diffusion of low carbon tech-nologies and large infrastructure investment such as EV charging hubs, but also in them facing significantly higher transport and energy costs. 

The promise of a Net Zero strategy was in providing a powerful guide for people, local authorities, industry and communities to navigate the trade-offs and competing priorities between multiple sectors; short-term, medium and long-term horizons and objectives; and limited resources. What it really needed to deliver was a reduction in uncertainties through strong political action and investment. It needed to provide vision for how investment in technologies, R&D and innovation could help bridge the immediate gap as well as inspire large-scale behavioural change and the overhaul of multiple systems (transport, electricity and gas, waste and water management) towards zero carbon. 

Sadly, the Net Zero strategy underdelivered, leaving some of the key conundrums and uncertainties unresolved but posing more questions and challenges. Rather than incentivising large-scale retrofitting of the building stock, energy retrofitting is mentioned only a handful of times, implied and taken for granted. Community organisations, the backbone of the transition towards zero carbon (if unconvinced, check the timeline of sustainability initiatives in Hastings on p.3 of the Net Zero Supplement), are only mentioned as ‘vitally important’, once again largely excluded from access to significant pots of funding.  

Zero carbon behaviour is another missing link of the Net Zero Strategy; simultaneously being called upon to achieve local decarbonisation ambitions, but also creating the reassurance of ‘business as usual’, with ‘guilt-free’ flying and driving, with ‘not a hair shirt in sight’.

Local authorities are set to play an ever more important role in achieving Net Zero locally through more direct powers and responsibility around local area energy planning, with help from key stakeholders (utilities, businesses and research institutions) and support and oversight from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). But although developing local supply chains for delivering zero carbon services and products is another building block of the Net Zero Strategy, no provisions are being made to support innovation in local SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and helping them develop plans for decarbonisation. 

Sadly, this got COP 26 negotiations off to a less than optimistic start for ambitious action and strong leadership. And the transition to Net Zero in Hastings will need to look elsewhere for inspiration on how to bring everyone together along the journey to zero carbon. 

To read the HIP Supplement on Net Zero here

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