Environmental activist Zion Lights, who left Extinction Rebellion to campaign for nuclear power.

Why we can’t achieve net zero without diversity

Technological and financial challenges aside to meeting net zero, Sarah Long discusses why a diverse energy sector is also absolutely critical to success.

The recent decision for the UK’s COP26 host team to be all-male has quite rightly angered many climate activists, observers and companies focused on climate action. 

Tackling climate change – the largest challenge our society has ever had to face – is not a task for one group; it must be addressed by everyone because it impacts everyone. This requires a change in public perception and an increase of the workforce in the energy sector, by a heightened focus on diversity. 

Increased diversity brings innovation, different ways of approaching problems and understanding, better decisions, access to the widest talent pool, flexibility, and many different brilliant minds with new solutions. In the energy sector it’s key to developing new ideas, building as fast as we can and challenging behaviours and perception. 

In with the new ideas

As well as building more of what we already have (offshore windfarms, nuclear power stations, biomass etc), achieving net zero means developing new technologies such as energy storage, hydrogen generation, carbon capture and storage (CCS), small modular reactors, and efficient methods for power delivery. Innovative solutions aren’t, and shouldn’t be, left to one social group to source. Greater diversity brings more innovation and ideas. 

Breaking out of echo chambers within industries that have traditionally attracted from the same talent pool will bring better decisions and improved problem solving – and as with all new technology, different approaches to risk. And in turn, diverse thinking will bring greater cross-sector collaboration such as looking at the UK’s old salt caverns and depleted gas fields in the Irish Sea for hydrogen and carbon storage. 

All hands on deck

Over the next 30 years we must replace almost all our current generating capacity (built over 60 years) and build as much again, at an estimated build rate of 9-12GW every year. On the ground, this translates as over 300 offshore wind turbines and three combined cycle gas turbines with CCS every year and one new nuclear power station every five years.  

Hundreds of thousands of people will be required to deliver over 300GW of this new infrastructure and these roles should be equally accessible by all - in both the name of equality and for the success and survival of the industry. With the energy sector ranked eighth out of nine industries in terms of a diverse and inclusive workforce, according to Boston Consulting Group, we have to do more to attract and retain people. Some of the best and brightest minds are choosing fields such as medicine and education, or to move out of the energy industry and into others where they don’t feel alienated, out of place, under-valued or overlooked. We have to address the looming industry skills shortage by ensuring that the industry itself isn’t driving people away.

With unemployment levels rising post-Covid-19, this is also an opportunity to retrain and encourage people to join an industry crucial to combating climate change. 

Challenging mindsets and perceptions 

While admirable and encouraged, personal commitments such as planting trees, cycling, stopping flying, and eating less meat are only a few aspects of this climate revolution. 

How the UK generates electricity impacts 100% of the population, and major energy new build projects have inevitable impacts - both actual or perceived - on the environment, landscape and daily lives of the surrounding communities. This is particularly relevant to the nuclear industry which has long been negatively impacted by societal perception. An energy workforce more representative of society is better equipped to empathise and communicate to a broad range of people, in understanding the root of their perspectives, fears and concerns. With this, megaprojects are more likely to garner the support of the public and community, and do enough to alleviate concerns, justify design decisions, and achieve the required permissioning. 

This can be done through education, listening and feeling of affiliation with those delivering messages. The more diverse the sector becomes, the wider the audience to include in discussions and gain approval from. One example is Zion Lights, formerly a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion and now a pro-nuclear lobbyist – when she speaks, people from different backgrounds, genders and schools of thought sit up and listen.  

All of us working in the energy sector have a responsibility to influence others about net zero, and what is required. We’re not going to meet climate targets without having a diverse cross section of society doing exactly this. Another crucial element is the involvement of the next generation – this is their future and they must be included in the conversation. 

After the COP26 team was announced, the government stated: “The UK is committed to championing diversity and inclusivity throughout our COP26 presidency, and our network of leaders, diplomatic representatives and expert voices reflect this in all of their work.” Actions speak louder than words – and solving climate change needs collaboration from a diverse group of people representing all parts of society – so why are some of these voices not at the table? 

Sarah Long is a bid and strategy lead at Atkins.