How do you turn climate anxiety into positive action – boosting inclusive growth and resilience for Northern Ireland?

By Diane Emerson, Belfast Office Leader, Arup

Reviewing research and listening to clients, it’s clear that levels of anxiety about climate change are high. This is completely understandable – even desirable – given the scale and pace of what needs to be done. Less obvious at times are the exciting opportunities this transition opens for us to create a better future for all – from green growth and nature-based solutions to social inclusion and resilience.

How can we go from ‘we’re all doomed’ to a better future?

The language of climate is dominated by negativity. This sharpens anxiety without necessarily spurring action. Yet, there are also huge opportunities to grasp. Positive action could respond to the climate emergency and solve other challenges too – building more robust supply chains, creating more inclusive economies, tackling the biodiversity crisis and strengthening infrastructure.

Instead of focusing just on mandatory requirements, let’s unlock the power of decarbonisation and resilience strategies to inspire new ways of working. Now is a moment for organisations, cities and people to create something better, something brilliant.

What are our clients anxious about?

First, to address the three main areas of climate anxiety we see:

The race to net zero. Clients worry they don’t know enough about the risks and opportunities of decarbonisation, and they struggle to identify the best solutions. Typical questions include: “There are 10 different technologies; how do we know which one to invest in?” The starting point is always to understand your own carbon footprint – from Scope 1 to 3. This enables you to prioritise and develop your decarbonisation pathway.

Climate resilience. We are already locked into a degree of global warming that will bring wide ranging impacts, including supply chain disruption and flood risks. Here in Northern Ireland, the sea level will rise at least 11cm by 2100, reaching as much as 94cm if global emissions don’t decline.* Forward thinking clients are assessing these risks and seeking to improve their resilience and capitalise on opportunities, whether nature-based solutions, physical mitigation measures or supply chain education.

Perception. There is pressure to be seen to be green. But, in a world where greenwashing is rife, branding is not enough. Those striving to become truly sustainable must provide robust evidence and benchmarking.

How can we push the fast forward button on climate action?

When the pandemic struck, a fast forward button was pressed, accelerating changes to society. But it hasn’t been pushed for climate action – yet – even though it’s urgently required. We must become more agile in moving forward and learning, fast. So, how?

To start, we need to get more comfortable with the idea of making mistakes and then collectively learning from them. Many organisations hesitate to act because they fear making a poor choice. Yet, inertia is currently a bigger climate risk than trying something that, even if it fails, will provide new insights. By waiting for some mystical perfect answer, organisations, cities and governments risk falling behind in the race to net zero and resilience. We should all be acting now.

Greater sectoral collaboration is also vital. By working together, we will build momentum and confidence, along with a platform for sharing and learning. This will demand more openness and transparency. It could improve affordability too, creating opportunities for shared investment, whether in infrastructure, research and development, training and skills or supply chain education. Many times, we hear: “We can’t afford the investment required.” But, at some point, we must all find ways to afford solutions. Like it or not, change is coming.

Who is already turning anxiety into action?

We are working closely with the FCO and Cabinet Office to help them achieve their aim of making COP26 in Glasgow a sustainable and carbon neutral event. We are bringing our global knowledge and expertise on sustainable event management to COP26 with the aim of also leaving a positive long-term legacy for the UK and Glasgow.

Another Arup client, Northern Ireland Water, is undertaking an innovative Oxygen and Hydrogen Demonstrator Project that will deploy a state-of-the-art, 1 Megawatt (MW) electrolyser at a major Wastewater Treatment Works. This will be the first in the UK and Ireland to demonstrate how electrolysis can help to increase processing capacity, reduce carbon emissions and improve flexibility in the electricity grid.

As part of the global 100 Resilient Cities Network, Belfast City Council developed a resilience strategy, supported by Arup. Designed to transition Belfast to an inclusive, zero-emissions, climate-resilient economy within a generation, this strategy shows the value of being in the front wave. Moving ahead of government policy, it will safeguard Belfast’s safety and stability over the long term.

What next for Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is well placed to develop a positive climate response. Our geographic size means we already have a lot of interconnectedness, which feeds agility and creativity. We also have a young population, whose climate awareness and openness to change we can capitalise on.

Across the spectacular landscape that is Northern Ireland, our natural resources could contribute to climate resilience, while enriching biodiversity and promoting health and wellbeing. The wonderful Belfast hills are an example of the nature-based opportunities surrounding us.

In the knotty challenges we face – such as how to decarbonise our agri-food sector and international tourism while looking after people and places – we can learn from other paradigm shifts. These include our earlier transition from heavy manufacturing to a more knowledge-based economy. Transitions must be carefully thought out to avoid unleashing unintended consequences.

As world leaders gather at COP26, it is heartening to see the government put a strong focus on building a greener future for the UK. As we move forward, greater specificity on policy frameworks will give business more confidence to act. I would also like to see continued growth of sustainable investment, so organisations and cities can finance the required scale of change.

Most importantly, I hope more people will pause to consider how they could grow an effective response to climate emergency that brings advantage to their organisations, cities and individuals. It may only take a few people to create a domino effect for whole sectors.

*Met Office, 2019


Click here to find out more about Arup’s partnership with Business in the Community on the COP26 NI Business Hub.