What can project managers do as the climate emergency intensifies?

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This year has seen unprecedented recognition of climate change, clean growth and sustainability. The climate emergency is on everyone’s radar, with mass protests, the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, school strikes, and warnings from the Bank of England - all demanding that we ‘act now’. Today, organisations around the world will be supporting the global strike for climate, proactively encouraging their staff to participate and declaring a climate emergency. We all need to be activists now.

In June this year, the UK became the first major economy to legislate bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero by 2050. The UK’s Net Zero target will need to be reinforced by credible policies across government, inspiring a strong response from business, industry, professional bodies, and society as a whole. In parallel we are
seeing decentralised action - more than half the UK’s principal local authorities have now declared a climate emergency, making it one of the fastest growing environmental movements in history, and the number is growing every day. Professional bodies around the UK are also getting on board, declaring a climate and biodiversity crisis, and encouraging members to sign up to pledges setting out goals for professionals to help avert climate change within their sphere of influence.

Declaring a climate emergency acknowledges the need to act on the causes and impacts of climate change. It is a major leap forward, as political commitment is often the hardest part. Practical guidance is now emerging, which can help project professionals  break down the challenge and deliver effective action plans. You’ve declared a Climate Emergency... what next? outlines nine steps for readers who are perhaps moved by the climate emergency declaration and the clear urgency to act, but want steady, considered action before rushing into a piecemeal approach.

Source: ARUP

Tackling the climate emergency to aid the environment and future generations is also a business imperative. Over the next few years, achieving Net Zero will increasingly influence the markets we all operate in. Expenditure will come in part from governments, but mostly from private sector reorientation and investment. We are already seeing wholesale change in sectors such as oil, pension funds and banks. New policy relations and standards are driving a change in practice and will shape the needs of clients, investors and projects. Society’s expectations of business are also changing - this is causing a shift in strategy from creating shareholder value to creating value for both business and society.

The UK is expected to spend £1tn between now and 2050 to achieve Net Zero. If it helps to visualise this scale and complexity, think of the UK delivering 17 HS2s in parallel. The key difference is that Net Zero involves a far broader spectrum of project workstreams - across power and hydrogen, buildings, industry, surface transport, aviation and shipping, agriculture, waste, F gas emissions, and greenhouse gas removals. It’s ubiquitous and touches everything we do.

Already our profession has a major impact across thousands of projects spanning all the Net Zero project workstreams. In client organisations, PMOs and project teams, project managers are at the heart of it all – from shaping government policy; designing programme blueprints; planning more energy efficient buildings; delivering future proof transport and energy infrastructure; managing operational change of fleets into zero-emission vehicles; through to demonstrator programmes proving it’s safe and convenient to replace methane heating systems with hydrogen. If you want to learn more about the initiatives needed to credibly achieve net-zero emissions, I would strongly recommend reading the Committee on Climate Change’s Net Zero Technical Report.

As Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist says, ‘we already have all the facts and solutions, all we have to do is to wake up and change’. We know what we need to do, but taking the initial steps and commitments needed to solve an existential global crisis inevitably feels overwhelming. This is where project managers can take some real ownership driving Net Zero forward – developing and communicating a clear vision and a roadmap towards tangible action and reality. We need to apply our training, knowledge and skills in every programme and project to increase our contribution, to achieving a sustainable Net Zero future. This will see us developing new services, and using data and digital technology to find creative solutions to increasingly complex problems. It will challenge us intellectually and creatively, providing opportunity for project managers to expand their skills and do work that is both challenging and socially useful.

As with anything of this scale and complexity, collaboration and forming partnerships is essential. The Association for Project Management and the broader project management community should come together to deliver a route map to delivering Net Zero – the profession has a major role to play and must be integrated if it wants a strong voice and influence.

Further reading

Header image source ARUP

Rob Leslie-Carter

Posted by Rob Leslie-Carter on 20th Sep 2019

About the Author

Rob Leslie-Carter is a Director with Arup based in London. He has worked around the world with Arup for 27 years, and specialises in the planning, set-up, leadership and delivery of complex infrastructure and property projects both on client side and as leader of multidisciplinary teams.

His project track record includes the Beijing Olympics Water Cube, the Laban Dance School in Deptford, New Acton Nishi in Canberra, Greenhouse by Joost in Sydney, and currently Europe’s biggest project High Speed 2. He is a regular speaker on leadership, project management, organisational culture and the future of work, and is a guest lecturer at the Bartlett at UCL and the University of New South Wales.  In 2009 the Association for Project Management named Rob in their annual 'Top 10 Impact List’, highlighting individuals who have the biggest influence on the Project Management profession.  

In 2017 Rob created and was lead author for the latest Arup Foresight publication  ̶  Future of Project Management (FoPM).  FoPM is designed to provide the insights, ideas and inspiration to help future proof the way we deliver change through projects. 

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