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How Britain can become a Net Zero superpower

A temperature of 40°C was recorded in the United Kingdom (UK) for the first time in 2022. Last year was also the warmest on record in Britain, according to datasets beginning in 1884 and 1659, respectively. Changes in the climate pose many risks to the UK, including – but not limited to – human health and wellbeing, the economy, soil health, crops, and livestock. At the same time, Britain’s economy is sluggish; growth rates have halved since the global financial crisis over 15 years ago. 

The UK should raise its ambition and develop a bold and proactive strategy if it is to recover from its economic malaise. The UK was the first country in the world to industrialise; it must now be the first Net Zero superpower. A vision for prosperity centred on science and green technology would not only be to Britain’s strategic advantage, it would also be good for the planet. 

But the UK is currently paralysed by indecision. Important policies are decided and defended by ministers, before being unceremoniously discarded – and Britain suffers as a result. This timid approach to big decisions does not inspire confidence; it makes long term planning difficult for businesses and investors because they do not know where the government stands. And it means that the UK is constantly prioritising short term aims at the expense of a long term vision. Striving to be the world’s first Net Zero superpower would provide the direction and impetus Britain needs to prosper.

Take, for example, the recent decision to set back key Net Zero pledges. The delay in banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars shocked parts of the car industry, which had invested in electric vehicle manufacturing on the basis that the ban would come into effect in 2030. If the UK is now locked into a green technology race, where leadership in energy infrastructure and technology is critical to prosperity, Britain’s lack of clarity and consistency will prove short-sighted as competitors, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the European Union (EU), and the United States (US), race ahead.

More recently, there was the announcement that the northern component of the HS2 high speed rail system would be scrapped as the cost of the project spiralled. Rail is the most environmentally friendly form of motorised passenger transport, but Britain’s lack of investment in connectivity and transport infrastructure is seriously hampering its ability to thrive. In addition, the poor state of the UK’s urban transport makes it harder to travel across British cities compared to European counterparts, hinders access to employment and education, and costs the UK an estimated £23 billion a year

Scientific research and innovation can help Britain to become the world’s first Net Zero superpower. This drives productivity and sustainable growth, creates jobs and industries, provides strategic advantage, and enriches lives through a myriad of other ways, such as through benefits to culture and the natural environment. 

The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review stressed the importance of areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, engineering biology, nuclear technology, and space. But green technology should be added to this list as a priority for Britain’s strategic advantage. 

The cost of reaching net-zero is less than 1% of gross domestic product per year, and that is before the benefits of such policies are factored in. Achieving Net Zero, if properly implemented, will provide many opportunities. It will make energy in the UK cheaper, and also make Britain more resilient as it is less dependent on unfriendly and unstable suppliers.

But the UK’s potential to use green science and technology to create prosperity and security are currently being hampered by many barriers. This includes problems in leadership and strategic direction, investment, connectivity, housing and infrastructure, and skills and education.

For Britain to become the world’s first Net Zero superpower, it needs an internationally competitive immigration offer to attract the world’s brightest and best researchers. In 2021, HM Government estimated that the UK needed 150,000 more researchers and technicians by 2030 to capitalise on planned increases in research and development investment effectively. However, the UK’s visa system is one of the most expensive in the world, and the upfront costs of visas are substantially higher in Britain compared to other research intensive countries. This risks making the UK less attractive to global talent compared to competitors.

Britain requires a joined-up research and innovation system which spans research and development all the way through the ‘valley of death’ to successful technology deployment and adoption, particularly for toughest-to-decarbonise sectors. The UK’s ecosystem currently lacks clear incentives for energy innovation, and there has been volatility in policy efforts to reach Net Zero so far. This is not helped by the fact that Britain has also taken more of an ad hoc approach in its industrial strategy at times, which has been criticised as short-sighted.

The UK also needs to stay focused and be guided by a clear strategic direction about the outcomes and advantages it wants to achieve through investment in science and technology. As the Royal Academy of Engineering notes: ‘strategic direction elevates being good at science and technology to realising and reaping the benefits from harnessing science and technology.’ 

UK investment in science and technology is increasing, but countries such as Germany, Israel, and South Korea are investing more. And Britain is failing to invest in key areas, such as in renewables, which risks making the UK uncompetitive in comparison to competitors such as the US and EU.

Britain is struggling with localised housing crises in its most prosperous cities and towns. Employment opportunities in technological hubs such as Oxford, Cambridge, and London attract large numbers of new residents and create significant inequalities in housing. This shuts people out of opportunities in some of Britain’s most productive areas, which undermines social mobility and potential co-location benefits to important industries. Currently, many new housing developments end up forcing residents to rely on cars over public transport, particularly in areas outside of London.

Science, research, innovation and skills provision are key to driving greener productivity and economic growth throughout the UK. With the right focus, Britain can capitalise on these strengths and foster the local ecosystems which can support green innovation and sustained growth, while stimulating national prosperity. 

With these issues in mind, we have initiated a new project, kindly sponsored and advised by John Caudwell – to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s science and technology ecosystem against the backdrop of its infrastructure, institutions, education, and skills. In doing so, it will reveal risks to Britain’s research and innovation ecosystem, as well as opportunities for the UK to become the world’s first Net Zero superpower and to build a more competitive and resilient science and technological base. Science and green technology are the best route to Net Zero – and they are good for the planet too. This will unlock the country’s potential for enhanced prosperity and security, and help protect the environment for future generations.

Dr Mann Virdee is a Senior Research Fellow in Science, Technology, and Economics at the Council on Geostrategy

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