From eco warriors Extinction Rebellion paralysing London transport to highlight climate change, to Sir David Attenborough's TV plea on behalf of the planet, saving the world has become a mainstream message - and utilities are centre stage, writes Utility Week editor Suzanne Heneghan (pictured)

The race to save the planet is on and utilities are at the heart of it.

This may not be breaking news to energy and water company bosses, long committed to facilitating decarbonisation and environmental protection. Yet, as the groundswell of public concern builds over climate change – fuelled by protests from the headline-grabbing Extinction Rebellion (XR) group – utilities have suddenly been thrust into an escalating global debate.

Screens have been filled with footage of eco-warriors staging various stunts to achieve “The Pause”, their bid to bring London to a standstill and make authorities think and act on global warming.

Agree or disagree with XR’s tactics, they have done much to raise awareness of their three core demands, that government “tells the truth about climate change”, reduces carbon emissions to zero by 2025, and creates a citizens’ assembly to oversee progress.

Grist to their mill has been Sir David Attenborough’s film Climate Change – The Facts, which aired over Easter and has added to the noise about what could happen if global warming exceeds 1.5 degrees and CO2 emissions fail to fall in the next decade.

Warnings of animal extinction, extreme weather, rising sea ­levels, deforestation and warming straying beyond man-made control are chilling, and not just for the public. The Beast from the East’s freak storms and flooding have been difficult shadows for the utilities industry to shake off.

When the most famous champion of the world steps up with a call to arms to protect the planet, you know it’s serious – something energy giant Shell discovered when protesters paid its London HQ a visit as part of a “creative disruption” drive that led to several arrests.

And protesters cranked up the pressure by staging a demonstration outside biomass plant operator Drax Group’s AGM, about the company’s receipt of green energy subsidies.

Yet unwelcome demos aside, this could all surely be music to the ears of utility companies also working towards a zero-carbon future but calling for more government acknowledgement of the challenges they face. (As highlighted here by Energy UK’s chief executive Lawrence Slade)

Parts of the industry, such as solar and wind, are already emerging as key enablers of a cleaner future. But there is no sign of the finishing line yet. The move to a smart, green energy future requires greater joined-up policy and regulatory support.

Environment secretary Michael Gove reportedly told XR that we had “got the message”.

Utilities, increasingly in the media firing line, will be hoping he and his colleagues act on it.

Climate change and investing in a net zero carbon UK is a key theme for Utility Week Energy Summit 2019 on 13 June in London, chaired by Utility Week editor Suzanne Heneghan. Speakers include Eon UK CEO Michael Lewis; Lawrence Slade, CEO Energy UK; Keith Anderson, CEO Scottish Power and Simone Rossi, CEO EDF Energy. Find out more about the event here

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