Leading experts urge PM to replicate Covid vaccine innovation push in search for climate solutions

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The UK is one of the world’s innovation superpowers, ranked as the fourth most innovative economy and hosting four of the top 100 science and technology clusters globally. But on the green solutions needed to solve the climate emergency, it lags well behind other leading global economies such as the US, Germany and Japan. Failure to invest in this type of innovation would put UK business at risk of losing out in fast growing green markets, at a time when the country is hoping to develop new trade opportunities across the world.

Business, academic and civil society leaders, including former CBI Director-General John Cridland and UCL Professor Paul Ekins OBE, have today jointly written to the prime minister to signal that a paradigm shift in green innovation is needed. Solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss must be developed and rolled out with similar focus and urgency as the development of Covid vaccines.

A similarly comprehensive set of factors, that go beyond R&D investment, is needed to turbocharge innovation in environmental solutions, say the experts. The letter calls on the prime minister to establish a new Green Innovation and Sustainability Transformation Council and spearhead a programme that matches government ambition for a green industrial revolution with a new, more comprehensive approach to green innovation, ahead of hosting the Glasgow climate summit this year.

As part of this programme, the government should tap into the UK’s strong track record in pioneering ‘regulatory sandboxes’ to co-design regulation for new low carbon solutions; use pre-commercial public procurement as a way to strengthen the market for green alternatives, enabling the private sector to invest with confidence in the technological leaps the UK needs; and use the new National Infrastructure Bank to boost investment in green solutions that are close to market.

The recommendations stem from a two year investigation by the UCL Green Innovation Policy Commission (GIPC), chaired by former CBI Director-General, and signatory to the letter, John Cridland. The GIPC’s final report, published today, emphasises that the government must pay more attention to deploying proven technologies and solutions that are close to market, rather than focusing primarily on R&D, and it must target a broader range of technologies and sectors in its policymaking.

Building on the findings of deep dive investigations into five sectors of the economy, analysing the drivers for green innovation, and what is holding it back, the report concludes that government action will be key to address a number of barriers and policy gaps.

The GIPC also calls on businesses to play a stronger role in the transition to a green economy. Companies should embed sustainability in their corporate culture and adopt net zero commitments and delivery plans, with sectoral associations taking a leadership and coordination role. Companies should also work together, with the support of government, to experiment with alternative business models, institutional arrangements and disruptive technologies.

John Cridland, chairman of Home Group and chair of the GIPC, said: “The success of Covid vaccine development shows what’s possible when we set our mind to solving a problem. Now it’s time to boost solutions to tackle climate change and kick start a green innovation revolution across the UK economy.

“The UK can make a wholehearted decision to lead in the development and roll out of new low carbon goods and services, with the opportunities that can bring, or it can sit back and wait for others to take the risk but also to gain all the benefit.”

Professor Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at UCL and director of the GIPC, said: “The climate and Covid crises are very different – but they are both crises, and so far the push for rapid scale up of climate solutions has seen nothing like the scale of efforts that was put into developing a Covid vaccine.

“Now is exactly the moment when government should be doubling down, making the most of public support for decarbonisation and the need for economic stimulus to futureproof our economy. We can’t afford to address decarbonisation a few technologies at a time, we need progress across the board, in less glamorous areas like water treatment as much as in showy new infrastructure.”

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