A year of achievements but challenges remain

2021 has gone past in a blur. Working from home and lock downs have sometimes made it difficult to remember which year is which. And the frantic pace of change is unlikely to change. We face the challenge of the energy crisis and the associated surge in the cost of living. We must turn net zero into action and build resilience against current and future climate impacts. Pressures on biodiversity are growing; technology augurs excitement and trepidation. All await us in 2022.

To quote the great poet T.S. Elliott in Burnt Norton, at the “still point of the turning world” where “past and future are gathered”, it is important to reflect on what has gone before and what is to come. This blog summarises some of Sustainability First’s highlights and achievements from 2021 and provides a preview of some exciting things in the year ahead.

Shaping agendas in essential services for a sustainable future

In the last year, we made a significant impact in ensuring that the agenda in the energy, water and communications sectors is focused on delivering environmental, social and economic wellbeing, for both today and tomorrow. In 2021 our major Fair for the Future project helped shift the dial on how decision makers in these areas think about their purpose, and maximise the delivery of public value.

Following analysis for us from law firm Slaughter and May, in early 2021, we held a webinar on how legal and regulatory frameworks in utilities currently deliver sustainability. The answer is that no one should ‘hide behind the law’ and that decision makers have flexibility in how they interpret and implement it. Building on this work and our Fair for the Future primary research from the previous three years, we held a conference in March on ‘Fairness in utilities: What are the implications of public purpose for companies, policy makers and regulators?’

This conference launched our major ‘Regulation for the Future’ report which established recommendations about how policy and regulation need to change to deliver sustainability. We have used the conclusions from this extensive research to shape Defra’s Strategic Policy Statement for Ofwat and have shared this with BEIS as they develop the equivalent Statement for Ofgem.

One of our key Fair for the Future proposals has been the need for longer-term planning. In 2021 we worked with Frontier Economics to help them develop a framework for considering the intergenerational impacts of decarbonisation. Our presentation on long-term adaptive planning and regulation has been shared extensively with utility regulators and the water sector, helping shape long term decision making.

Our Fair for the Future research showed that if we are to avoid ‘green wash’ and a silo-based approach to sustainability, we must actively support the cultural change taking place amongst decision makers. To support this transformational shift in attitudes and mindsets, in 2021 we launched our Sustainability Principles Project. We developed a ‘strawman’ set of principles that we will be testing with civil society groups and decision makers against real life scenarios in the coming months. Our first case study will explore using a principles-based approach to tackle the cost-of-living crisis; let us know if you’d like to participate.

Connecting, engaging and inspiring people on sustainability

To attain transformational and sustainable change, meaningful and enduring public engagement is crucial. In 2021 we stepped-up our engagement agenda. Effective change needs to be done with people rather than to people; we took a different approach to engaging people and organisations in light of the uncertainty and challenges faced.

We had already carried out significant research on ‘established’ engagement mechanisms, culminating in the summer in a report on engagement and public value that we shared with key stakeholders in the energy and water sectors.

To engage further, we have started using art and more creative approaches to engage hearts as well as minds. In the summer we hosted our first art exhibition, on the theme of ‘Reconnecting’ with people and planet around the pandemic, and showcased the fantastic work of Hugo Lamy, our first artist-in-residence who had been working with UKPN in the first lock-down. This was alongside art works from our 2020 Art Prize, exploring how to recover sustainably from the pandemic. The amazing work from Geraint Ross Thomas, our second artist-in-residence, was shown by SSE in their offices during COP26 in Glasgow.

In 2022, we will be working with National Grid and artists in communities along the North Sea Coast to explore the net zero transition and local regeneration. We would be delighted to hear from organisations who’d like to explore similar residencies.

Following the IPCC’s 2021 verdict that we are at ‘code red for humanity’ in terms of climate change, the need for a laser-like focus on net zero is vital. To ensure the transition is fair, and to build social support, engagement is crucial. Throughout 2021 our ‘Together for a Fair Climate Future’ programme worked with younger people, artists, activists and community groups to explore issues around the intersect of social and environmental justice.

Our online discussion events looked at key issues such as how we can listen to the voices of the future, what we value in society, whether technology can be a force for good, how we can live more sustainability and what good leadership looks like for a fair climate future. Recognising that individual action is necessary but not sufficient to tackle the climate crisis, we held an inclusive participatory ‘Shake up the system’ conference which explored how to link individual, social, structural and political change.

To complement this activity, we launched our 2021 Art and Writing Prizes on the ‘Together for a Fair Climate Future’ theme. The amazing entries are summarised in our virtual book on the topic and a video compilation of highlights from the discussion series was shared at COP26. We’ve been talking to some of the entrants to the prizes about how we can use their work to address sustainability with more impact. Please contact us if you’d like more details – or to sponsor our future prizes!

At COP26 we were extremely pleased to participate in Ofgem’s online event for the COP Youth and Public Empowerment Day to announce our joint pilot ‘Sustainable Futures Energy Forum.’ This Forum will seek to give those underrepresented in energy decision making – younger people, those from more diverse ethnic backgrounds and those already experiencing climate impacts – a greater voice. The Forum will begin work in the coming months. If you have ideas about what this might look like, do contact us.

Embedding sustainability in practice

Working together with new stakeholders must lead to action ‘on the ground’ if we are going to build trust in the net zero transition. In 2021 we continued our vital technical work to mainstream sustainability.

The energy network price controls play a key role in the net zero transition. As a member of the Ofgem Challenge Group for the RIIO price control at the beginning of the year, and through our subsequent consultation responses on price review methodologies and environmental reporting, we helped Ofgem ensure these were firmly focused on net zero and issues such as vulnerability. Since then, we have significantly contributed to consultations on issues ranging from energy efficiency and flexibility to the Future System Operator, raising crucial questions about future systems development and governance.

In the water sector we have made important submissions to Ofwat on customer engagement in price controls and the price control reviews and methodologies in that sector with significant implications for issues including affordability and biodiversity.

In the summer, we celebrated the work of our major Public Interest Advisory Group (PIAG) on smart energy meter data that we have been running with partner the Centre for Sustainable Energy with a major event and final report. We were delighted that this was picked up in July by BEIS in their ‘Digitalising the energy system for net zero strategy and action plan’. This accepted our recommendation that DNO data should be used to support wider public interest goals. We are now working with the Energy Systems Catapult to help embed the recommendations in energy thinking in 2022, including in the BEIS Energy Digitalisation Task Force.

For many, 2022 is likely to have a tough start, as the energy crisis and the cost-of-living crisis culminate in a perfect storm. We will use our in-depth knowledge of the energy sector to embed sustainability, ensuring that affordability does not distract from urgently needed decarbonisation. We will work with others to ensure that energy efficiency is given sufficient long-term strategic funding and will press for deeper social protection for the most vulnerable. Radical solutions to the energy retail market crisis are needed to protect people in vulnerable situations whilst maintaining innovation.

Whilst sustainability has in many ways ‘come of age’ in 2021, and Sustainability First has itself clocked up 21 years of activity, we maintain there is a greater need than ever for approaches which align interests, champion co-benefits and push the boundaries for transformational change.

We are moving towards the mid-point of this decisive decade for the climate crisis. Decisions made in the coming months and years will have a lasting impact on how we live, not just as consumers but also as citizens and communities and on the natural world itself. In the next twelve months Sustainability First will continue to press for action at scale and pace to deliver a sustainable future. Partnerships, and prioritisation, are integral to such an approach.

Sustainability First has achieved its successes by working with other organisations and with the support of our sponsors. And of course, the amazing and inspirational work of our team, many of whom have worked tirelessly in the sustainability cause. Thank you everyone – and many best wishes for 2022!