Launching the Scottish Research Alliance for Energy, Homes and Livelihoods: an event summary

On 10 October 2023, we held our official launch for the Alliance at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This gathering brought together Alliance partners and key external stakeholders for focused discussions centred around the three Alliance themesSustainable Households, Decarbonising Heat, and Financial Pathways to Net Zero. There were over 50 attendees representing various sectors, including academic and research institutions, community groups, non-governmental organisations, governance bodies, and industry.

The event offered a unique and exciting opportunity for these stakeholders to collectively discuss their roles in shaping and advancing the Alliance’s mission. Participants engaged in collaborative exploration of their contributions to a sustainable, net-zero future in Scotland, and as they shared their insights and experiences, a shared sense of purpose filled the rooms. For the Alliance leadership team, the event was a great chance to meet people active in their respective fields of research and activity, learn about diverse projects and initiatives, and begin conversations about possible wide-ranging cross-sector collaborations.

Dr Mette High introduces the Alliance to attendees

Discussions and group work continued throughout the day, delving into multifaceted aspects of sustainability, decarbonisation, and financial pathways to a net zero future. To capture the essence of these discussions, our theme leads have skilfully summarised the ideas, findings, and aspirations shared during the event.

Financial Pathways – Dr Sean Field

The Financial Pathways breakout sessions at the Alliance launch generated many fruitful conversations that will feed into the Financial Pathways to Net Zero Incubator in January. The conversations highlighted the many challenges associated with finding a pathway to financing net zero – from consumer and creditor confidence in skilled tradespeople to undertake work to finding financial vehicles with the appropriate risk, return, and time provisions.

Participants also discussed at what scale financial interventions should be targeted, ranging from households to councils, and possible solutions, ranging from bonds to fiscal spending. The consensus among the majority of participants was that private-sector solutions are needed to meet the challenge but that the UK and Scottish Governments must play a central role in facilitating these solutions through private-sector incentives and by structuring markets.

Financial Pathways breakout discussion

Sustainable Households – Dr Faye Wade

We had two really productive discussions framed around sustainable households. During both sessions, we started by asking participants to explain how they understood the term ‘sustainable households’. It was fantastic to uncover very broad and varied responses here, encompassing energy efficiency but also consumption, biodiversity, greenspace, community and wellbeing. However, when we then moved the discussion towards trying to pinpoint mechanisms for delivering sustainable households, participants tended to revert to policy and financial mechanisms for energy efficiency. This highlighted the need for a more integrated approach to understanding and achieving sustainability more broadly and that, perhaps, policy efforts to date have focused on the more narrow (but maybe more tangible) strategies for making buildings more energy efficient. 

The need for greater public awareness of sustainable households also came up in both sessions. For example, the role of the media was discussed a lot, and suggestions for increasing the role of the media included, for example, a plotline on Coronation Street about retrofitting buildings. Connected to this was the role of younger people, with recognition that knowledge of climate change amongst young people has grown significantly. There were concerns that younger people needed better understandings of resource scarcity, but also acknowledgement that young people are great at thinking radically. In addition to the media and young people, participants highlighted the need for collaboration between local and national governments, housing associations, community groups and industry, including tradespeople. Within the sustainable households theme, we will be looking at how to foster such collaborations and work towards broader understandings of sustainability amongst key stakeholders.

Sustainable Households breakout discussion

Decarbonising Heat – Dr Jen Dickie

The ‘Decarbonising Heat’ theme launch workshop aimed to address the overarching question, ‘What do you need to help sustainably warm (and cool) all of Scotland’s households?’  A broad range of stakeholders were in the room, including practitioners, industry, local government and academics from across engineering, social sciences, geosciences, architecture and more, bringing diverse perspectives to the table. Nevertheless, a number of common threads were identified.

The discussions centred around the complexity and wide-ranging nature of heat decarbonisation as a wicked problem and that it will take many people from across sectors and disciplines to work together to solve it. It was evident that decarbonising heat in the Scottish domestic sector is very context-specific: place-based approaches are essential. The key themes coming out of these sessions spanned and interlinked economic, technical, environmental, and social aspects. Technical aspects included technological challenges associated with treating the diverse housing stock in Scotland, but particularly retrofit, issues around over-heating buildings, insulation, and ventilation. The development of archetypes enables the variety of housing stock to be considered but must be granular enough to account for variety (e.g. the refurbishment history of adjacent buildings) and need to incorporate human factors and living conditions within the home. Economic issues included challenges of financing the sector, economies of scale and the need to think more about neighbourhoods rather than individual properties in some locations.  The importance of understanding public perceptions, awareness, trust (in installers and the reliability and serviceability of green heat systems), and behaviours to ensure a just transition was also clear from the discussions, with the negative role of the media highlighted as a significant cause for concern in negatively shaping public views. Interestingly, long-term positive impacts of tackling the challenge of decarbonising heat was an important cross-disciplinary theme, from considering the sustainability of supply chain locations and technological advances to the implications of warmer homes on human health and well-being.

Figure 1: Keywords from participant sticky notes exploring different routes to energy efficiency; impacts on people, and benefits or negative consequences on sustainable living.

Research gaps and requirements focused largely on the urgent need to identify and consolidate the existing research and data around the decarbonising heat sector, particularly research that has been carried out by private or government organisations, and for closer collaboration and communication between academics and these organisations. There was a call for industry, government, and academia to ‘speak the same language’ and to align teaching, training and research more to industry needs and at a pace and time scales that are commensurate with the need to rapidly decarbonise heat in the domestic sector.

Decarbonising Heat breakout discussion

The official launch of our Alliance last month was a defining moment that brought together diverse voices and ideas to drive Scotland’s journey towards a sustainable, net-zero future. If you share our vision and wish to join this collective effort, we warmly welcome your involvement – together, we can make a lasting impact on our shared goal of building a brighter, more sustainable future for all!

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The Alliance leadership team, from left to right: Dr Sean Field, Dr Mette High, Prof Zoe Shipton, Dr Jen Dickie, and Dr Faye Wade.