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China’s questions about net zero targets aren’t helpful in moving international negotiations forward but are understandable. Having seen other countries rise to prosperity through decades of fossil fuel use, why should China obstruct the economic progress it’s now making by cutting back its own use without some compensation?

Politicians use hardlining to achieve a compromise they are happy with, and China’s position seems to be softening at the same time as it makes some effort with technical developments like ramping up renewables. If recent research by the IET is to be believed, its companies are also making the running when it comes to implementing net zero strategies and tackling a shortage of green skills.

The IET engaged the independent research firm YouGov to survey over two thousand global engineering employers in 2023. The survey explored the sustainability skills they need, the challenges in hiring people with these skills, and their strategies to address sustainability issues.

At least 80% of respondents in most countries surveyed say that they are concerned about the impact of climate change on their organisation. Fewer than 5% of companies across 8 countries say they have all the skills to be resilient to climate change. A lack of skills is also the most common barrier to reaching net zero for engineering employers.

Regardless of their concerns over the impact of climate change, at least two-thirds of organisations in each country surveyed have a sustainability strategy.

In China, 98% or organisations have a strategy, 98% have made organisational changes and 99% have made technological ones to lower their carbon impact over the last three years.

Impressive figures, but China still shares concerns about a significant skills gap that threatens the success of these initiatives with its competitors around the globe. Worldwide, less than 15% of all organisations surveyed think that their organisation has the skills needed to meet their sustainability strategy. Only 1% of respondents in Egypt said they think they have all the skills, 2% in India and China.

The UK and China are both among a group of five countries, with Egypt, India and the USA, where a lack of specialist environmental or sustainability skills and knowledge was identified as the most chosen skillset that businesses are lacking.

And although UK engineering employers are among the most likely to think specialist sustainability skills are generally needed, they are among the least likely to believe that their organisation is missing those skills. Are they blasé, or does it mean they have already embedded the specialist skills they feel are necessary?

Meeting new market regulations is a common aim of sustainability strategies, but those in the UK are focused on reducing emissions. The second-most selected aim by UK engineering employers surveyed is for the organisation to reach net zero (50%). This is one of the least commonly selected aims globally; Egypt is the only other market where it is among most selected objectives. In China, companies are more likely to select gaining an environmental qualification as an aim of their sustainability strategy than any other country.

Asked about what skills are needed to deliver sustainability strategies, half the countries surveyed identified specialist environmental/sustainability skills or knowledge as the most common answer. Elsewhere, top answers included technical or engineering skills, specialist digital skills, innovative thinking and whole systems thinking.

It’s clear that each country has different ideas of what skills they need to deliver their sustainability strategies, possibly because their motivation varies. In China, it’s about gaining environmental qualifications, elsewhere the focus is on meeting regulations for new markets or appealing to customers.

With the exception of the UK, at least 90% of companies in every country say they have already made organisational changes designed to lower their environmental impact, and 88% have made technological changes. (For the UK, those figures are 78% and 71%.) Introducing or enhancing flexible working options was one of the main organisational measures mentioned, while the most popular technological changes involved online communication or networking applications.

Can artificial intelligence help on the path to net zero? China is one of the countries that thinks so, along with Germany, India, Australia and the USA, who all named increased use of AI as a technological change that’s already being implemented. Its advantages in some applications are undisputed, whether it can fill the skills gap that challenges the path to net zero is a much bigger question.

Talking points

The most common factors that companies say are driving sustainability strategies are pressure from governments (regulations), ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) requirements, customer pressure and organisational adaptation and resilience. Is this likely to change over time, and to what extent are government pressure and public policy influencing the green skills agenda?

Read the full report on the survey and tell us what you think.