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Message to Davos: only proven climate solutions can regain public trust

As the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting returns to Switzerland this week, Jenny Curtis, MD at Vattenfall, one of Europe’s foremost clean energy companies, wants leaders to focus on energy technologies we know will work, rather than speculative concepts.

aerial photography of a snowy village during nighttime

As we start 2024, we can only hope- the coming year is one of resolution and recovery. The world is still facing devastating conflicts, a cost-of-living crisis and fragile energy and food security. Hanging over them all is the intensifying climate emergency, which is causing an increase in heatwaves, floods and extreme weather.

In this alarming context, world leaders are gathering in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting – based on the highly pertinent theme of ‘rebuilding trust’. At Vattenfall, one of Europe’s leading energy companies, we believe that one of the main ways for those in power – both in the political and business spheres – to rebuild public faith is by accelerating the creation of a fairer and cleaner future through the urgent mass implementation of proven low carbon energy solutions. 

At Davos, many conversations are planned on driving change through innovation and technology to create a long-term global strategy for climate, nature and energy. Fundamental to those discussions must be the need to focus on technologies that we already know work when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions – rather than those that aren’t yet ready. Thankfully, many exist, but we’re just not making use of them. Now is the time to deploy them at scale.

One such technology is district heating, which can decarbonise the heating and hot water of entire cities in one fell swoop. Already commonplace in Scandinavia – particularly in Sweden, where it provides half of all heating – it is an underground network of insulated pipes connecting multiple buildings to a central heat source. Our district heating networks are powered by a combination of local renewable energy and waste heat. For example, from nearby commercial premises like factories, sewage plants, waste plants and water courses. 

Making use of this urban waste heat makes so much sense. To give an idea of its potential, wasted heat in the EU amounts to almost exactly the EU’s total energy demand for heating and hot water in residential and service sector buildings. Now we’re ‘living through climate collapse in real time’, as the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said at COP28 in Dubai, why would we not make use of these huge volumes of readily available, pre-existing energy?

Offering a vital shared resource, they can be captured and recycled as heating and hot water for local people and businesses – significantly reducing their carbon footprint, while lowering fuel bills. District heating networks come with numerous other benefits, including the regeneration of inner-city areas, the enhancement of national energy security by keeping energy sources local and the creation of clean energy jobs – another hot topic at Davos.

As countless studies demonstrate, there are more jobs to be created in the burgeoning renewables sector than in sticking to the fossil fuels driving climate breakdown. The number of jobs in Scotland’s clean energy sector has recently grown by 50%, for instance, helped by the country’s political and corporate leadership focusing on turning net zero goals into a practical reality. 

Now is the time for all business and governmental leaders to collaborate on the radical transformation of the world’s energy systems. As a case in point, half of all buildings in the UK are in areas suitable for connection to a district heating network. With heating accounting for more than one third of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, district heating represents an incredibly powerful opportunity to drive systemic change at the pace required.

Trying to replace each boiler in every building with a heat pump could well take too long. Financially, it’s unlikely to be cost effective. Practically, it presents the huge challenge of enlarging the national electricity grid so it has enough power to support millions of individual heat pumps. 

We are living through a pivotal moment in human history. According to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, an ‘unstoppable shift’ towards renewable energy is underway. However, we are not ditching fossil fuels fast enough. Even though we already have most of the technology we need for the clean energy revolution.

To regain public trust by creating the cleaner and fairer world everyone craves, business and political leaders must come together at Davos and commit to a real-world plan for mass decarbonisation at scale. The priority must be on ramping up proven solutions, especially ones which address multiple needs and bring societal benefits. Change is still possible. We just need our leaders to be bold.  

More features and opinion:

Green futures: a masterclass in inclusive, sustainable community placemaking

Resilico: the flood defence app regulating mitigation, insurance and recovery

Quick question: What does organisational sustainability look like in 2024?

Image: Damian Markutt

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