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Make climate action part of your project

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The headlines around the climate emergency are inescapable. With the UN’s COP26 Climate Change Conference concluding its second week in Glasgow, the hope is that a draft agreement with real bite can be reached because – as we’re all aware – it’s action not words that matter right now. And taking action means everything from the tiniest individual daily change to behaviour, like turning down the heating a notch at home, to leading a huge renewables project at work.

Look across the profession and you’ll find project managers and leaders involved in making some of the most innovative contributions to the UK’s race to net zero. Take for example demonstrator projects like the Energy Superhub Oxford, which recently hooked up the country’s first lithium-ion battery to the National Grid. Listen to APM’s forthcoming From the Frontline podcast with its programme manager Tim Rose.

Or how about APM Project Management Awards 2021 finalist Arup for its work for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s Hy4Heat programme, which overcame widespread scepticism in the gas industry about the technical and commercial viability of hydrogen technology to shift the industry’s mindset and establish the foundations for a community trial? When heating our homes contributes to about a third of all carbon emissions in the UK, it’s projects like these that enable individuals like us to achieve important collective change.

Prejudices, habits, values

Speak to climate and project management experts, and it quickly becomes apparent that this shift towards collective action requires a shift in individual mindset. Andrew Wright, director of Dynamic Technologies, and co-chair of APM’s Systems Thinking SIG, says that a challenge as global in scale and nature as climate change requires collaborative, long-term big thinking across projects.

“What stops people thinking [this way] are their prejudices, their habits and their values,” he says. This means swapping a narrow focus on project processes and short-term outcomes with broader thinking about the environmental and societal impact of a project in the wider world and in the longer term.

As CEO of the UK Green Building Council, Julie Hirigoyen, puts it: “Our mindset should be ‘how do we move away from just doing this as business as usual?’ The question we need to ask is how could we do this completely differently? I think that’s the mindset shift. It’s basically saying, stop kidding yourself that a little bit better is anywhere near good enough.

“[Projects] needs to have no impact at all, so what would that look like? Every single project manager should be trying to figure out, at the very least, from a climate perspective, how do they make the project that they are working on not have any carbon emissions that contribute to the climate at all?”

When the built environment is responsible for 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, you can see the potential for what could be achieved.

Resistance to change

When mindsets change, success factors for projects change too. Glen Littlejohn is a project manager at the Net Zero Technology Centre in Aberdeen, the purpose of which is to develop and deploy technology for an affordable net-zero energy industry. When it comes to the Scottish offshore energy industry, Littlejohn has seen much change.

“Even six years ago, when the last oil and gas price crash hit hard, I think all of us here felt Aberdeen was lost in its own bubble, perhaps embedded in many of the old ways of a 40-year-old oil and gas industry value chain. Thinking and project drivers were all planted in the many paradigms of that industry, and resistance to change was heavy,” he explains. “In this drive towards net zero by 2030, I believe we’re now looking at projects with fundamentally different definitions of success.

“The nature of projects is changing. If we think of high-level success criteria, then a few years ago, they might have been purely economic, but now, carbon abatement is truly a project fundamental. Everybody gets [climate change] is real now, and that’s the fundamental shift in the last couple of years.”

As Barack Obama told leaders at COP26 earlier this week: “It’s time to step up and step up now.”

For a deep dive into project management’s role in addressing the climate emergency, look out for the winter 2021 edition of Project journal.

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