Monday, June 17, 2024

Decarbonisation of transport and infrastructure: Translating strategy to action

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Amidst the sudoku of degree-centigrade scenarios and emission baselines, and the alphabet soup of acronyms like TCFD (Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosure), SBTi (the Science Based Target Initiative), and SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel), it’s easy to think of net zero as a set of discrete technical challenges. However, whilst there are undoubtedly technical and technological elements to the problem, this is fundamentally about deeper and wider systemic change.

Technology is part of the solution – but not a panacea in itself. For example, electrification of transport modes or the development of alternative fuels are important for the transition, but won’t get us to net zero because of their demands on the energy system and the carbon involved in manufacturing the vehicles and infrastructure required to sustain them. We need unprecedented changes to how we move ourselves and our things – more public transport, fewer personal cars, more joined-up movement of freight on road and rail, and less indiscriminate construction.

For leaders – whether they make policy, manage infrastructure, or run a business – this requires much more than a commitment to delivering technical point solutions. We have seen a tendency among some organisations to create a separate ESG or net zero team to deliver its targets. However, this results in a side-lining of the agenda. Instead, they need to be accountable for carbon, and balance it against other priorities.

Unfortunately, there is no constrained optimisation equation that can provide the answers. Leaders need to untangle a set of complex interrelationships and dependencies, through meaningful cross-stakeholder collaboration and even debate. Whilst our tendency as human beings is to constantly diffuse tension and seek harmony, leaders (and their advisors) have the responsibility to allow the tension to surface and manage it productively. Once tensions are aired and expressed, it is much easier to establish consensus – or at least a range of constructive and plausible ideas – around how, collectively, to address them.

During our work with one client on its net zero implementation plan, the leadership team initially tried to use the formal authority vested in them to define net zero targets and allocate technical interventions across departments. This is because they viewed the problem as a technical one which could be ‘solved’ in a top-down manner through a RACI matrix (a framework to determine who within an organisation should be Responsible/Accountable/Consulted/Informed for or about various activities). However, this approach made both the managers and staff of individual departments reluctant to accept their responsibilities. Within this organisation, the interventions eventually had to be deliberated, and existing roles and mindsets challenged, in a series of cross-department workshops – which took time and energy but resulted in much greater buy-in.

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