A survey of 1,000 young people, from London to Lagos and working in or soon to join the global energy industry, by the Energy Institute’s Young Professional Council found that 60% cite tackling climate change as the reason for choosing the profession. 

As outlined in the resulting report, The Generation 2050 Manifesto, launched in November, these young people believe that the world is way behind on its decarbonisation journey. Moreover, they want action taken by leaders redoubled now – as well as renewed efforts to provide universal energy access to all. 

Heidi Vella (HV): I read the Manifesto as saying: ‘We don’t want to inherit a mess, please take action now!’. Is that an accurate assessment?

Sinéad Obeng (SO): I’m hoping that the views of young professionals will be considered into the tangible actions needed. The five main points emerging from the manifesto highlight that we have a body of young energy professionals that are incredibly motivated to tackle climate change. 

A whopping 60% said that tackling it is partly why they’ve chosen a career in the sector. 90% have a proper sense of purpose in being part of the solution. I think that’s pretty good. From a skills perspective, it’s important that industry and governmental leaders realise there is a cohort of people with the expertise ready to be developed for the future skills needed. 

Three quarters of the respondents of the survey currently believe that we won’t meet the aim of reducing global average temperatures to 2°C [compared to pre-industrial levels]; they think political leaders need to have more legislation and regulatory reforms to drive the transition faster. It’s very timely for the upcoming COP26 in November. 

HV: Is there a generational tension, with young people actively wanting to combat climate change but their leaders historically having taken little action and, in some cases, lobbying against change?

SO: I think we’re past that. It’s important to understand, to make many of the changes needed to our manufacturing and energy industries and the way we consume things, it’s a generational effort. You can’t blame people, it’s just a generational consequence of industrial revolutions. So there needs to be equal effort between the generations to set things right, whether it’s corporate reforms, political or business structures. 

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In fact, we have already had really positive feedback from some really senior industry figures, such as Bernard Looney, CEO of BP, and Ben Van Beurden, CEO of Shell. I personally don’t see any tension. I think if there’s to be tension, it’s around allowing space for young professional voices, or students or researchers, to contribute to building the solutions. 

HV: I thought it was quite interesting that young people in Sub-Saharan Africa are more optimistic about overcoming climate change and energy access challenges than those elsewhere; why do you think that is?

SO: It’s a great question, one that we should develop further with the Generation 2050 programme, because it’s so interesting. We haven’t yet followed-up, but we’re definitely going to. I think it might be because with access to energy being such a problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, many of the decentralised solutions have, in fact, been clean energy solutions. With the off-grid projects, the end consumer is very aware they’re consuming renewable energy. 

That’s unlike in Europe, where our energy networks aren’t decentralised but really complex systems mashed together. Decentralisation cannot be achieved as simply in Europe as in Sub-Saharan Africa. So that might be represented in that difference in the attitudes, but we’ll find out. 

HV: The report looks at the UN Sustainable Development Goal of providing universal energy access for all; can this be done while also combatting climate change? Where should we start?

SO: I think it definitely can be done. I also think we need to acknowledge that many dirty fuels in some regions are a sign of growth and prosperity. A balance needs to be struck between ensuring prosperity and continuing clean energy access in developing economies. The next generation is incredibly motivated to solve this problem. 

It’s everyone’s responsibility to change their behaviours, their choices, and their day-to-day lives. Generation 2050 really wants to encourage the general public to actively improve their awareness and their knowledge of their consumption habits as well. 

The IEA’s ‘World Energy Outlook 2020’ highlighted that behavioural changes around the world could have a huge impact on CO2 emissions; adjusting the ways in which we use transport and heating and cooling could cut emissions by nearly two gigatons by 2030. The conflict between energy access and climate change is not so straight forward. It needs achieving in a sustainable way and on the understanding that the more established economies are substantially more polluting than developing countries. It needs to be looked at with an international perspective, with developed countries reducing their consumption.  

HV: Bearing this in mind, what would you like to see come out of COP26?

SO: I’d like to see ambitious entries from all countries that put us on a critical path to net-zero. China’s commitment to net-zero by 2060, and the election of President Biden [in the US] already puts us on the right track. There are 120 countries, covering 70% of the global economy, that have now pledged to achieve net-zero, we just need the rest of them to commit. And the sooner we can do that, the better, the easier, and the cheaper the transition will be. 

There’s been lots of talk about introducing new assessments of everyday things that we don’t normally attribute to climate change. The discussion is around examining areas such as company balance sheets in the compliance process to see how much of the investments come from dirty fuels, or using that as part of credit requirements when doing business. There are so many small processes that play into company transactions, and I’d be really interested to see if something on that comes out of COP26. 

HV: What can we learn from the Covid-19 pandemic that can help us reach global climate change goals?

SO: Covid-19 has shown we can mobilise at pace and at scale. Similarly, those kinds of efforts need to be made to achieve net-zero as governments plan their recoveries. The Institute’s members want a resilient green recovery post-Covid-19. Specifically, in a survey, they identified a job’s rich, energy-efficient retrofit of UK housing, as a top priority for both economic recovery and meeting net zero. 

If we look at the success the UK power industry has had decarbonising – last year we had the longest periods without coal in the system – we’re seeing a transition already. In general, I’m pretty optimistic that industry and energy professionals can continue to adapt and make their operations more innovative and more sustainable. 

HV: How does the Council intend to maintain pressure on government and industry leaders to act fast on climate change?

SO: I don’t know how much I can share, but so many things are in progress. The Energy Institute has a podcast series called Energy in Conversation and the next season is an Energy 2050 takeover where we will be discussing things like the grid system and different views on careers from young professionals. 

We are also planning further participation as part of COP26, talking to the relevant officials ourselves to make sure we have representation. Additionally, we’re planning more editorial content and webinars in the lead up to November. We also have some big ideas specific to Scotland that I know I definitely can’t share. 

HV: Anything else you’d like to add?

SO: Yes, I want to encourage young professionals and students within an organisation, whether they’re about to enter the energy industry or otherwise, to not be afraid to speak up when they see opportunities and to share ideas that are relevant to improving climate. I think now is the time to really raise the bar, raise attention for those opportunities, because it’s on everyone’s agenda and everybody’s thinking about it. It’s definitely a great time to use that to shine in your career. 

I’d also say, externally, I’ve noticed there are lots of requests for papers on various climate issues from different NGOs and organisations that are seeking expert views for upcoming conferences. And I encourage young professionals to participate in those because they’re looking for a diverse range of voices, including young voices. 

Even if you’ve just got two paragraphs to say, as a concerned citizen, I think it’s really important to encourage people to be engaged in these things. Because many times, in my day-to-day work, everyone’s intentions are the same when setting regulatory policy.  But unless the right people are involved in the policymaking process and the discussions, the solutions are not always fit for purpose. 

Now we can’t really afford to have solutions that aren’t fit for purpose, even if they have the right intention. So, that would be my – perhaps harsh – but closing thoughts on what I’d like to see people do.