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Climate change and the project profession: can we help deliver the 2050 net zero target?

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The concept of net zero has become familiar in discussions about the climate change crisis. Our total emissions of greenhouse gases must be, net, at zero (i.e. balanced between those put in and taken out of the atmosphere) in the years ahead to avoid planetary catastrophe; in the UK, net zero has even been enshrined in law, with a target for 2050. It is an enormous challenge. To put it in perspective, one recent paper in the Nature Climate Change journal said achieving net zero will take an emissions cut equivalent to a COVID-19 lockdown, every two years.

But what if even this ambitious aim isn’t enough?

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, thinks we have to go further. In a major speech in March, he argued that “net zero alone is not enough to save our planet”. What’s needed is ‘net zero plus’, where the plus is adaptation: “making ourselves resilient and ready to live safely and well in a climate changed world.”

He is surely right: a joined-up climate change response has to include adaptation (a theme picked up in APM’s Projecting the Future paper on climate change). Of course, the delivery challenges involved are set to be immense. We need to look at this through a project lens.

Is climate change getting the prioritisation it needs?

This is one of the first questions that we in the project profession must ask. I ask this question because our profession is central to delivery. We need to be fully engaged in debates about how it can be achieved. Net zero, or ‘net zero plus’, will inevitably impact most projects in future, whether new or retrofit projects.

Yet there are mixed signals about current priorities in APM’s latest research, the Salary and Market Trends Survey 2021. Asked about the biggest challenges the profession faces, climate change ranks only fifth – unsurprisingly, COVID-19 takes top billing at present.

Maybe it is tempting to look at the 2050 target for net zero and relegate climate change behind more pressing concerns. Yet that is the story of our collective inaction on climate change over several decades. There are always too many other urgent matters, too many short-term priorities. But if we have learned anything from COVID-19, perhaps it is that ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. When it comes to climate change we need to act now.

It’s encouraging then that the Salary Survey also found that half of project managers say their organisation now has a strategy in place for net zero. This rises to over 70 per cent in carbon-heavy sectors like energy and utilities. Even better, the report also finds “high scores across the board” when it comes to uptake of various mitigating measures: careful resource management, knowledge-sharing and rewarding best practice are all seeing widespread adoption.

The knowledge-sharing point is vital. Education is central to capturing and driving improvement, and it is reflected in the appetite shown in the Salary Survey for a range of educational and knowledge-sharing tools to improve understanding of climate change. The most popular learning tools are webinars, events and/or peer-to-peer knowledge sharing (identified as helpful by 54 per cent of respondents) and ‘bite-sized learning’ packages such as APM Learning (highlighted by 52 per cent). APM is taking these findings and evaluating its learning resources to ensure we identify the right support and content in all areas, whether it’s guidance, toolkits or simply the opportunity to engage and share examples of how net zero is being embedded within projects.

Improving delivery – coherent government action

Many of those examples are set to come from government-backed or publicly funded projects. The government is such an important driver of action on the scale needed to address climate change. If the UK is to keep up the momentum on net zero it needs to learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit – and ensure it gets delivery right, not just policy. Delivery cannot be an afterthought: it should be integral to policy and planning discussions.

There are several elements to this as I outlined at a recent Institute for Government event. It demands comprehensive and continuous stakeholder engagement and public engagement. A proper joined-up approach is key – across government, and with other agents of delivery. The promised investment in project delivery skills and capacity at the heart of government is much needed, and should be promoted and sustained. The Institute for Government has suggested creating the net zero equivalents of the Olympic Delivery Authority to build delivery capacity and tackle infrastructure challenge. And the government needs to embed the latest in project management thinking, for example systems thinking, and adopt a dynamic assurance approach – ensuring delivery as we progress, not at the end.

The project profession is uniquely equipped to deliver this sort of agenda. We have many of the tools and skills that will be needed to achieve net zero – or ‘net zero plus’. Whether we’re involved in making policy a reality, or delivering change across every part of the economy, it’s time for us all to step up on climate change.

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  1. Christopher Davies
    Christopher Davies 31 March 2021, 07:55 PM

    Sustainability is something I'm personally really interesting in and have just undertaken some training with the carbon literacy project to help support my colleagues by delivering training sessions on carbon awareness, I'm currently at the start of my PM journey but can see how project professionals are uniquely placed to support and guide stakeholders in relation to sustainability and net zero. I can't wait to see what the APM will bring into play to support projects professionals to build and develop that knowledge as we have a responsibility as custodians of the profession to make sure we leave this world in a better place than we have inherited.