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Understanding the full picture – a whole systems approach to decarbonisation

No single solution is the answer to decarbonisation, it will ultimately be delivered by a combination of known and presently underdeveloped options. Therefore, a whole energy systems approach becomes the most effective way to reduce emissions. Energy sources and usage are interdependent and no one sector, or vector can work in isolation to achieve the change required to become net zero.

Another benefit of applying this whole system approach is that to implement the best solutions, we need to understand the costs and benefits of different options, systems design and decarbonisation pathways alongside a need to understand how the consistent parts of the energy system interact and collaborate to transition to a net zero future.

Fundamentally we need changes that deliver a move from high to low carbon both cost effectively and seamlessly. Viewing the transition from a whole system perspective helps us to understand what is best to do for the most beneficial returns to the entire system. Identifying the most effective solutions to explore will help to understand and inform decarbonisation solutions across the entire energy system whilst identifying the best combinations of emissions reductions.

Through the development of a portfolio of options for clean energy in all its varying uses, modellers and practitioners can fit them together in the best combination to ensure that the transition delivers real value, both economically and environmentally for both industry and the end consumer. This builds a complementary mix of key technologies to take forward and reduce emissions across multiple sectors.

To obtain an effective combination, it is important to understand how the choices made in one form of energy affects what needs to happen elsewhere. For example, how do the decisions taken affecting electricity impact on what happens in the fields of heat and transport. This is particularly important when you are weighing up the pathways of say a largely electrified or hydrogen led energy system.

When we look towards the Government’s recently announced Ten Point Green Industrial Revolution Plan, we do begin to get to see the framework of a whole systems approach to decarbonisation, and a portfolio of technologies feature. The Government has traditionally held back from picking winners technology wise. Whilst offshore wind is going to be a core component of the plan, work will also take place across the development of hydrogen, advanced nuclear power, further investment into carbon capture, usage and storage and the continued development of energy efficiency, greener buildings, and the shift to zero emissions vehicles. The challenge is that advancements in these areas are not made in isolation.

To deliver on these ambitions will require collaboration across academia, government, and industry, with broad engagement from all levels of society. The challenge is too big to not collaborate and a key outcome will be the sharing of learnings to move forward. This is why our Delivering Net Zero project is seeking to build consensus on the path forward, using the best academic and science evidence available to inform decision making. It is best to do this from a whole systems perspective.

You can follow progress of our project at

Follow us on Twitter - @delivernetzero

Dr Mike Colechin

Founder, Cultivate Innovation Ltd.

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