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Now the force really is awakening

Posted on 08/11/2016

Climate change is, in the view of the vast majority of scientists and a very large section of the global population, the biggest risk to humanity that we have ever faced.

Climate change poses a major risk to all of us and will require major technological and societal shifts.

There are new and old players in the space game this week. UK astronaut Tim Peake reached the dizzying heights of the International Space Station, travelling on a Soyuz ticket originally issued by the Soviet Union. And scavenger Rey, played by British actress Daisy Ridley, apparently joins veterans Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in fighting the terrors of the intergalactic Empire. Whether real or fictitious, both of these stories represent masterpieces of imagination and collaboration.

Another masterpiece of imagination and collaboration of even greater proportions was represented by the international agreement on Climate Change, announced in Paris. The 12th of December 2015 could in future be remembered as a turning point in history, the start of a genuine transformation in the way we do things, as important as the first Industrial Revolution. Green Business 3.0, as the Guardian newspaper called it on December 8th.

Climate change is, in the view of the vast majority of scientists and a very large section of the global population, the biggest risk to humanity that we have ever faced. But agreeing on how it should be tackled, and who should pay for the technological and societal shifts that are required, was always going to be tricky. The promises of 195 nations to attempt to deal with climate change problems, and the setting of associated targets and a review mechanism, are genuine cause for celebration. In fact the agreement went further than might have been anticipated, with an ambitious shared commitment to attempt to maintain global temperature increases below 1.5oC, rather than the 2oC average that was the starting point for most debaters. The pleas of anxious Pacific island nations threatened with extinction through sea level rise proved very persuasive, even to hard-nosed negotiators from China, India and the USA. Not that this is the end of the show, as Sir David King pointed out yesterday at an Aldersgate Group meeting; this is only the beginning of a period of exceptionally hard work by scientists, technologists, industrialists, educators, voluntary agencies and the rest of us. Not just the politicians.

One of the most significant breakthroughs at the summit was the involvement of major businesses, whose leaders pushed way ahead of governments in demanding urgent action. If the risks of major crop failures, large-scale inundation of deltas, and mass migration in our childrens’ lifetimes are to be minimised, new technologies and innovative applications are obviously going to be required. Pioneering nations can profit from this. Industrialists are predicting a large surge in demand for, and investment in, cleaner and greener technology. This will impact not only on renewable energy providers, but across a far wider range of products and services. The cost of installing renewable energy systems is already falling dramatically, and setting aside the existing subsidies (both for renewables and for fossil fuels) many renewable energy technologies are already cheaper than their dirty counterparts. Moreover people find them more acceptable. But CEOs from across the world also pressed the case for the co-benefits of decarbonisation, including human health improvements in smog-ridden areas such as Beijing and Delhi, where the paybacks go well beyond the economic. Regulation is certain to follow now, and disinvestment in a fossil fuel–based economy is starting to look less like fiction.

A lot of money is being aimed at innovation, whether in the drive for increasing the sequestration potential of forests (by 2050, the aim of 38 countries including the UK is have reforested an area the size of India, thus achieving carbon neutrality, but without cutting food production) or through the less well-tried carbon capture and storage. The UK Government was also instrumental in driving forward something that is now being called ‘Mission Innovation’, having previously demonstrated commitment by becoming the first nation to pass a binding Climate Change Act in 2008. Others are following, in some cases adopting UK policy almost unchanged. Twenty major countries are now on board with the idea of public investment of $20 bn per annum into low-carbon energy and related technologies such as smart grids, energy storage, new materials, zero carbon buildings, clean manufacturing and ingenious forms of transport. That is probably double the current figure. Bill Gates corralled 25 billionaires to put up a further $1 bn each for ‘pursuing literally dozens and dozens of paths’: creative ideas that might (just ‘might’, not necessarily ‘will’) deliver solutions, even if they are financially risky. The UK already puts a creditable £6bn per year into its international aid fund, and this too is a potential source of funding for infrastructure innovation, as is the funding increase for this activity that is expected to come from RCUK, the Research Councils.

Speaking at the Environment Industries Commission annual conference in London in November 2015, Rory Stewart, Minster for Environment, invited clean tech developers to work with DEFRA to remove some of the obstacles to the wider take up of environmental technologies in more natural settings, as well. “We are increasingly aware as a government how much we have to learn in the field of technology and data and how much this can help us – and how bad in many ways that governments are in responding to this,” he said. “What I would like to do is corral together a group of ten to twelve technological ideas in the water, air, soil and nature [fields] which we could really challenge our chief scientist with and which we could challenge ourselves with.”

So, what role for Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) in all of this? Despite austerity, there seems to be real public money on offer for research and development, but innovation often requires partnerships, and usually some stimulation as well. The development of ideas from small and medium enterprises in particular needs accelerating. Information about opportunities and incentives needs disseminating, introductions need making, partnerships brokering, mechanisms simplifying, and the overall climate for industrial and commercial innovation strengthening. As Stewart said, Government itself may need challenging. The KTN is well placed to respond and should not be slow in coming forward. The UK has been a consistent global leader in addressing issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation in its policies. Now it also needs to marshal the work of its universities, its start-ups and its major corporations to the same end. Let’s awaken the force.