The biggest upside to all this? Having a future planet to live on
After our packed Natural Capital and Renewable Energy Investment conference in London, Ros Clifford, our Head of Energy and Renewables, gives her personal thoughts on the day.
One week on from the finale of COP27, Bidwells brought together leading decision-makers and investors from across the public and private sectors to drive conversations on the potential of natural capital and renewables markets, which are generating both environmental and financial reward - for landowners, investors and developers.
From various panel discussions, speeches and case studies, our Natural Capital & Renewable Energy Investment Conference was in agreement that, to harness the sector’s huge potential, there must be supply and demand reforms that span regulation, finance, products, infrastructure and innovation.
On a basic level, adopting nature-based solutions to conservation, biodiversity net gain and sustainable land management is critical. Lord Deben, the chairman of the UK’s independent climate watchdog and our keynote speaker, pointed out that, as was the case millions of years ago, sequestration is the key to ensuring our earth remains a habitable place.
"We have loaded the world with so many emissions to the point that it can’t cope", he said. "The one bit of science all of us can remember was that the world was once too hot for life forms, but it was the emergence of trees and bushes that took the carbon out of the atmosphere, lowered the temperature, and then we began to have reptiles, fish and mammals."
The comparisons our sector can draw from this are striking: our very existence now relies on cross-sector investment and collaboration to recreate and reimagine this notion of sequestration and biodiversity net gain.
Natural resources are the single most important input to the global economy. Whether it is raw materials, water, flood protection, biodiversity or pollination, nature provides most of the capital businesses need for the production of goods and services. But natural resources, or natural capital as we refer to them as an industry, can also now deliver significant financial returns for investors - as pointed out by Matt Hay and Lisa Bulmer from Bidwells’ Natural Capital team.
However, as raised by Oxygen Conservation’s MD & Founder Rich Stockdale, we must learn from the past and not force ourselves on the natural environment for financial gain. Instead, developers and investors must focus on the specific attributes of a landholding to assess the opportunities to improve natural habitat as well as engaging with local communities to find out what is best for land’s use.
A part of this plays into the knowledge gap and skills gap that exists in what is still a sector in its infancy, according to respected green energy entrepreneur Juliet Davenport and the CLA’s Susan Twining. At both national and regional levels, delivering vital projects - whether they be carbon capture schemes, woodland projects or onshore wind - can be hampered by a lack of skilled resources. Investment in specialist training is essential to meet the opportunities required of the sector.
But is there a conflict between new measures around biodiversity - in England all planning permissions granted will have to deliver at least 10% biodiversity gain under the Environment Act 2021 - and renewable infrastructure? The conference didn’t seem to think so. So, despite already being a world-leader in renewable energy, what is holding the UK back from realizing our potential of becoming the world-leader?
A poll of the conference’s 150 attendees found that grid capacity and planning/regulation were the biggest barriers. Considering the fact that the UK requires a four-fold increase in renewable energy generation to meet its legally binding net-zero commitments, rapid, cost-effective solutions will be vital.
The risks of remaining dependent on gas for our energy needs are now painfully obvious to bill payers across the UK, but the UK’s planning system continues to place onerous restrictions on the development of potentially cheaper and greener sources of energy - like onshore wind.
Therefore it is right for policymakers to look again at the system so that it doesn’t stand in the way of communities embracing emerging technologies that are deemed essential in Britain’s legally-binding transition to net-zero - as Andy Fewings, Bidwells’ Group Partner in our Energy & Renewables division stated.
But to truly reach our potential, we need to enact tangible demand-side solutions - especially among consumers like homeowners. 80% of UK homes are connected to the gas grid, using a boiler and wet-based central heating system. Dr Nazmiye Ozkan, head of centre for energy systems and strategy at Cranfield University, said we must therefore embrace smart, low-carbon solutions like solar panels, air source heat pumps and battery technologies.
Whether it be natural capital or renewable energy, the conference agreed on one thing: ultimately it boils down to the fact that the upside to all this, is the fact we might have a future planet to live on.