A Systems Approach

DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/RNBR2694

Taking a systems approach to reaching net zero

Jim McDonald

Professor Sir Jim McDonald FRSE FREng is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde. He co-chairs, with the First Minister of Scotland, the Scottish Government’s Energy Advisory Board. He is Co-Chair of the Independent Glasgow Economic Leadership Board. He currently holds several senior business appointments with organisations including the Weir Group plc, Scottish Power plc, the UK National Physical Laboratory and the UK Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult. He was elected President of the Royal Academy of Engineering in September, 2019, through which he is a member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology.


  • A systems approach to delivering net zero is essential
  • Policy needs to be driven by the underlying data driving the development of sophisticated modelling
  • Many of the technologies needed to deliver net zero are already available
  • Investment in new ideas is still required however on the journey to 2050
  • Public acceptability and citizen engagement with this is absolutely essential.

In August 2020, the Council for Science and Technology (CST) submitted a letter and accompanying advice to the Cabinet Office about the need to take a systems approach to achieving net zero1. This was important because there is no ‘silver bullet’ technology or single intervention to achieve this goal, so a wide-ranging systems perspective, one which is supported by the whole of Government, will be essential.

It is sobering to reflect that we are less than 1500 weeks away from 2050: time is ticking away. So, in this decade it is essential to adopt the key policy frameworks which will place the UK on the pathway to achieving net zero. Furthermore, we need to expand the scale of deployment of existing low carbon technologies and systems as well as commit to ‘low regrets’ investments to accelerate and prove technologies including hydrogen and Carbon Capture, Usage & Storage (CCUS).

The Energy Systems Catapult is continually refreshing its 2050 scenario analysis. Under some of these, we can explore what happens when two to three times the electrical supply is required due to extensive electrification and changes in the way we use power, as well as the way we decarbonise industrial systems. There is a range of possibilities, including offshore wind, nuclear, bioenergy and, of course, carbon capture and storage. So, there will be significant technological changes in actually getting to net zero. That journey needs to start sooner rather than later.

A systems engineering perspective is vital in assessing those options. The CST report made a number of recommendations to Government (see Table 1). That included strengthening cross-Governmental networks underpinned by an analytical base and a means to generate the impacts of certain scenarios. In that way, policy has been driven by the underlying data, not just technical models. All of that is aimed at ensuring policy moves forward at pace, because there is not a great deal of time.

Table 1. “ Achieving net zero carbon emissions through a whole systems approach” (CST advice to Government)
1. Strengthen the institutions, governance frameworks and leadership structures needed across central Government to galvanise action to achieve net zero.

  • Integrated multi-disciplinary analytical hub supporting all Government decisions on climate.
  • Translate net zero target into all areas of policy.
  • Stable leadership from the top of Government.

2. Develop the analytical capability, flow of information, and reporting needed to inform decision.

  • Ensure that all Government bodies are collecting the right data and passing the information to the analytical hub.
  • Publish carbon emissions assessments for all public sector policies, including major infrastructure projects or investments.
3. Maximise the contribution of technology, mobilise financial systems and galvanise international collaboration.

  • Mission-driven research and innovation
  • A National Infrastructure Investment Bank
  • International collaborations on trade, investment, finance, technology, capacity building and R&D.


The CST stressed the role of technology, including the development and demonstration of new energy systems, which will need strong public and private sector alignment, having innovation and investment at its heart.

We welcomed the statements by Government that it wants more science, more engineering and innovation. There is also the new science and technology and innovation function – NCST and OSTS – that is being built within the Cabinet Office, which is encouraging. It provides a channel, not just of course for academic institutions but also for innovative industries and for National Academies, such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society and others – all driving that analytical capability within Government and society. The Energy Systems Catapult has also been a great source of independent modelling and analysis.

Many of the technologies that we need to achieve a net zero future are already available. The challenge now is deployment and integration at scale. But it is important to maintain a balance: strong investment in the science base is essential, because good new ideas are still needed and then these have to be developed and tested right up to full-scale demonstrations with a requirement for public and private co-investment in late-stage R&D to de-risk investment and commercialisation from industry.

In terms of the challenge facing the world today, there is the urgency of decarbonisation. At the same time, security of supply through reliable energy sources must be maintained. Of course, affordability is a really important consideration as well. There are other dimensions too. Public acceptability and citizen engagement with the energy transition is absolutely essential. The vast majority of people in society understand that there are real challenges associated with climate change, that something needs to be done about it and that time is of the essence. It is important that the transition is both inclusive and just to ensure success for everyone.

Another dimension is the impact on the wider economy: jobs growth, industrial opportunities and new markets. What are the options and what are the costs? Here, systems engineering, modelling, and understanding how these systems are designed, deployed and operated, matter.

I have the privilege of chairing the Scottish Government’s Energy Advisory Board with the First Minister. The director for energy and climate change who supported EAB five years ago was Chris Stark, who is now of course Chief Executive of the Climate Change Committee. So, in many ways, the concept of taking a systems perspective was influenced by the Scottish model and then repositioned in terms of UK requirements – and beyond that, the international situation. This involved, for example, understanding the need for an integrated approach towards heat, power and transport. Next, there is the issue of the fuels and energy sources that underpin electricity production, notably offshore wind, and also the generation of hydrogen, as well as CCS. All of this contributes to the overarching target of, from the Scottish perspective, getting to net zero by 2045.

The Prime Minister’s Council on Science and Technology recommends creating policy driven by underlying data, not just technical models.

Systems design

There are some really exciting projects that have already advanced beyond late-stage R&D. Project Orion in the Shetland Islands, for example, is a partnership embracing a wide array of companies, many from the oil and gas industry, but all with a commitment to be part of the energy transition journey. It has a systems design underpinning it, using offshore wind, offshore oil and gas platforms, energy conversion to hydrogen (and potentially ammonia as well). There is industry funding behind it and big ambitions that are being driven by the Islands Council vision for achieving net zero by 2030.

Still in the northern isles of Scotland, there is the Big Hit project in Orkney. It is small scale, but with a systems approach, which uses community wind turbines to drive electrolysers producing hydrogen that is also produced through tidal turbines. The hydrogen is then transported to the main island for transport applications and for hydrogen boilers. Again, this is an example of a system driven by collaboration, one where a single system can be expanded to embrace different technologies and have consumer engagement.

In my own city of Glasgow at COP26, the council leader Susan Aitken made a very significant commitment to drive Glasgow to be net zero by 2030. I and some of my colleagues have met with the Head of the ‘Sustainable Glasgow’ initiative to discuss the use of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s systems modelling approach to help identify opportunities, whether in transport, energy use, the built environment, or elsewhere.

A final example is CoRE – the Community Renewable Energy project. A sizable project of £25 million underpinned by one of the UK Government’s Growth Deals, it is a partnership between UK and Scottish Governments providing an opportunity for town and rural Ayrshire communities to embed energy transition techniques and build jobs in some of the non-citybased communities.

These are just a few examples that have a systems perspective at their heart, focussing on modelling, technological advancement, but also socio-economic inclusion, which are going to be key to delivering 2050 futures.

A systems perspective on modelling, technological advancement and also socio-economic inclusion is going to be key to delivering 2050 futures.