In conversation with
Dame Julia King
Professor Dame Julia King (Baroness Brown of Cambridge) is an engineer and a crossbench member of the House of Lords, Chair of its Science and Technology Select Committee. She chairs the Carbon Trust and the Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change. Here Julia King explains, in conversation with LDA Design’s Alister Kratt and Peta Donkin, the urgency of addressing humanity’s impact on the natural environment and the climate.
“We have to plan and design for resilience and adaptation. With at least 30 more years of escalating hazards ahead, adaptation is still getting pushed down the line. The last decade has been a lost decade in terms of preparing for the risks we already have and those that we know are coming. Every month that passes locks in more damaging impacts. Action is needed, and we need it now.”
How as a society in the UK can we deal with climate change?
Changing behaviour will have a far greater influence going forward. Almost 80% of our decarbonisation to date has come from technology that we don’t notice—mostly changes to the power system—and much of what remains to be done involves individual choices—how we decide to heat our homes, and how we travel.
Everything we build from now on needs to be designed for our future climate. Government is committed to a net zero electricity system by 2035, and National Grid has to build as much transmission infrastructure in the next seven years as they have built in the last 30 years. That infrastructure will have to last for up to a century, and it needs to have minimal carbon impact and be resilient to everything our changing climate can throw at it. Delivery at that scale and speed will require a lot of calculated risk by everyone involved, including the regulators.
Is enough in place for change like that to happen?
I think that our approach to land-use planning needs to become far more intentional, whether that is for renewable energy generation, or giving more land to forestry to increase timber construction, or to stop new development in floodplains.
At the same time, every initiative needs the best planning and design, and be accountable through high-quality public consultation. People have strong ideas and emotions about the function of the countryside and what it should look like.
All infrastructure design must focus much harder on minimising its carbon footprint. Having looked at how HS2 compares with high-speed rail in France, we seem to create quite a lot more infrastructure to achieve the same end. This brings higher carbon intensity, destroys more woodland to create access and makes the process slower and more expensive.
Do we have a good understanding of what the future baseline looks like?
We have got some pretty good baseline information on average temperature rise. For example, probably another 0.6 degrees by 2050 in the UK. The maximum temperatures in the South East have been rising at almost 1 degree per decade, so by mid-century, we could be experiencing summer peak temperatures of at least 43 degrees.
Climate impacts are already with us, with the last decade being the hottest one on record. Despite this, we still haven’t thought through the extreme scenarios we should be planning for in different sectors. For example, the 40 degree temperatures of 2022 caused problems in the electricity system, ranging from transformers overheating to a shortage of cooling water, to excessive expansion of overhead wires. In terms of impacts on the natural environment and what we can do to increase resilience, we need consistent data to understand the impacts from our actions—indeed in many areas we need much better data to monitor the effects of climate change and of actions we need to take to adapt to it.
We have to plan and design for resilience and adaptation. With at least 30 more years of escalating hazards ahead, adaptation is still getting pushed down the line. The last decade has been a lost decade in terms of preparing for the risks we already have and those that we know are coming. Every month that passes locks in more damaging impacts. Action is needed, and we need it now.
What leadership is needed for a more resilient system?
With renewables poised to become the backbone of our energy supply, the challenge is less about the design of individual assets than about the design of the system. We need to understand all the interdependencies and establish resilience standards.
For example, a couple of years ago there was a significant period of ‘wind drought’. This should drive us to establish the redundancy we need in the energy supply system—the level of storage and/or alternative renewable fuel.
When it comes to systems thinking, we are still in a position where it’s pretty well every energy project for itself, in part because much of the supply is essentially a private development delivery model and interdependencies are not fully understood or factored in. It is Government which has to take responsibility for the system architecture. By way of example, we need companies sharing data, on resilience standards that other players in the system can rely on. Government needs to provide leadership on safe and acceptable ways to allow sensitive information to be shared to support the establishment of a systems approach and accelerate delivery of cost-effective resilient systems for our critical infrastructure.
In relation to resilience, failures within the electricity system can have a cascade effect and it is this type of issue that needs strategic management. I recently heard a company that manages smart vehicle charging for electric vehicles at night through a cellular network say that when it experienced a substation outage, all the cars switched to charge at peak time instead. About 300 cars were involved but imagine the impact on the grid of that kind of failure magnified across a city in the future, say, with 300,000 cars.
“Climate mitigation and adaptation should be absolutely central considerations in the planning system, and we need far more high-quality CPD for professionals to inform understanding.”
Professor Dame Julia King in conversation with LDA Design’s Alister Kratt and Peta Donkin.
How can development move forward at the pace we need to see?
We need to learn from elsewhere about how to get the public on board so we can get on with the new infrastructure we need so desperately. Major infrastructure planning can blight people’s homes for years before the project is finally approved, but we only pay compensation when we finally go ahead with the project. France and Germany are both more generous and also award compensation as soon as the project is announced. We need to reform the system.
There are often conflicts between potential land uses and community needs. We need to explain to people the consequences of not doing some of these things. We need to plan land use positively, and make sure that the people who are affected by new infrastructure share in the benefit. With onshore wind, communities that get cheaper electricity have generally been very supportive.
What does the future look like?
I would certainly hope we had built a zero carbon energy system, that we had really embraced energy and resource efficiency and the sharing economy. Actually, I think we are seeing the latter, especially among the younger generation. Going back to my childhood, on the corner of the street there would be a repair shop. And when the radio broke you got it repaired so it lasted another ten years. Product design needs to allow for update and repair. But this comes back to corporate as well as personal behaviours.
What role should the professional institutions be playing in relation to the climate emergency?
Climate mitigation and adaptation should be absolutely central considerations in the planning system, and we need far more high-quality CPD for professionals to inform understanding. I would like to see the professional institutions making the climate emergency a very big part of their accreditation of undergraduate degree courses, so new project managers have climate embedded in their thinking and have the confidence and appetite to challenge when they don’t see it in the thinking of their bosses and their organisations.
What needs to happen next?
We are awaiting the Government’s third annual National Adaptation Programme (NAP), addressing immediate risks identified in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.
I think Government has got the message that it needs to be completely different from the first and second Programmes, which haven’t been very effective at all.
We need to take up Greta Thunberg’s challenge of ‘cathedral thinking’—by which she meant getting on with it. We could be sitting around for another five years, thinking and planning and designing how the governance could work. We need to start building the foundations now, even though we don’t yet know what the roof looks like.