Advanced materials like Graphene could help reduce emissions (copyright:www.shutterstock.com)
In debate around the UK’s energy bill and gas strategy one could be mistaken for believing that the only policies which deliver on the government’s green agenda are those which establish new structures for energy infrastructure, under the remit of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. But in reality environmental policies don’t need an environmental or energy label.
The first place to look is to the sectors of the economy where there are science and technology based innovations, where the UK has strength and where those innovations can be connected to substantial global markets which produce export led growth and employment in the UK.
As a member of the PM’s business advisory group, I had an opportunity to make this point to the Chancellor, George Osborne, using the example of Britain’s world leading status in materials science research. Across the country we are developing innovative materials that are lighter, stronger and more resilient. Manchester University’s Graphene is just one example. Investments in materials are environmental investments in my book..
The big transformations we need in the energy will not necessarily emerge from the energy sector
For example, if you take material science and marry it with the automotive sector to reduce vehicle weight, there are considerable resource efficiency gains that are also environmental gains. -legendary Formula 1 designer, Gordon Murray, is applying his innovative research into the design of city cars. And this is really for Business Secretary Vince Cable here - we can export this innovation to a global market. But that means we don’t hand out money to the steel sector because it’s a waning industry in the UK and the carbon price benefits the alternatives.
When it comes to innovation, environment’s not a cost - it’s a clear benefit to the economy.
We all know that infrastructure is a tried and tested - and sometimes abused - technique for job creation and economic stimulus. There are lots of roads to nowhere, but we know it’s a technique that can work.
What the US did in the Roosevelt era was an astonishing transformation that worked. Today, in the UK, everything we do to stimulate our economy that is related to infrastructure should have resource efficiency and resource productivity built into it. Take rail networks - if you electrify and you displace diesel, it’s not just a nice thing to do, but also you can build an infrastructure to open up branch lines without diesel. If you do that, then the US engineering giant, General Electric, may say, that’s great, we’ll start manufacturing our hybrid engines for trains in large numbers and perhaps established a plant in the UK.
But there are some things we don’t think about as environmental at all. If you roll out broadband and increase WIFI demand, it’s true that it panders to our insatiable demand for power and gadgets, but it also increases the basic infrastructure for smart grids that help manage and monitor our energy consumption, so do it together, get the people together and get national grid, and make the two big infrastructure ideas one.
The government happens to be quite good on open data, as an idea, the PM has had discussions with Obama about how the two governments can work together on open data.
I believe that open data is a fantastic resource for problem solving on the environment. If you build open data systems on the environment, corporates and government, you will rapidly increase the information cycle as a feedback loop on environmental problems.
That means you can crowdsource information - you can allow our fantastic creative industries to build apps for smart phones that allow people to actively participate in solving the world’s problems.
I met a young Kenyan woman at Davos who showed me on her mobile phone an app that she had developed in Nairobi that maps where all the power blackouts are happening in the world. And all of that material is crowdsourced by thousands of people around the globe.
My sense is that the big transformations we need in the energy will not necessarily emerge from the energy sector and the examples I’ve given are not the only ones. Advances in gene science and bio-engineering, liquid fuels or new ways to synthesise sunlight into energy could all change our energy future.
By driving investment and creating public policy incentives for these areas, with the expressed aim of increasing economic growth and improving resource productivity and efficiency, I expect to see huge advances in the way we use and manage energy devoid of the progress made via the traditional energy debate or energy players.
James Cameron is chairman of Climate Change Capital Ltd and chairman of the Overseas Development Institute.