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

Caterina Brandmayr Caterina BrandmayrHead of climate policy020 7630 4516cbrandmayr@green-alliance.org.uk

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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] Solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss must be developed and rolled out with similar focus and urgency as the development of Covid vaccines.
Over 230 Covid vaccines are now in development across the world, an incredible feat of innovation from the start of the pandemic. [4] Significant late stage direct investment, a strong underlying science base, institutional oversight and direction, as well as the private sector’s awareness of the prospective market, were crucial to this unprecedented achievement.
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. [5] [6]
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.”
Prof 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.”
Notes to the editor
The letter will be sent to the Prime Minister’s office on Tuesday, 12 January. An embargoed copy of the letter is available at www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/sustainable/sites/bartlett/files/letter_to_pm_on_boosting_green_innovation.pdf
Further information on the set of policies highlighted in the letter is available in Innovation for a green recovery: business and government in partnership, a new report by the UCL Green Innovation Policy Commission, which will be published on Tuesday 12 January 2021. An embargoed copy of the report is available at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/sustainable/sites/bartlett/files/the_commissions_final_report.pdf.
The commission’s recommendations to policy makers are summarised in the report How to fast track innovation for a green industrial revolution, by Green Alliance. The report will be published on Tuesday 12 January 2021 and is available at www.green-alliance.org.uk/resources/Fast_tracking_green_innovation
The two reports will be launched at an event on Tuesday, 20 October 2020, 10.00 – 11.00, with opening remarks from Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP. The event is jointly hosted by UCL and Green Alliance. For more information about the event and to register, please follow the link here.
The full membership of the UCL Green Innovation Policy Commission, with affiliations as of September 2020, is: John Cridland (Chair), Chairman, Home Group; Paul Ekins (Director), Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy; Angela Francis, Chief Advisor, Economics and Economic Development, WWF; Ian Gardner, Director & Arup Fellow, Global Energy Leader, UKIMEA Board, Arup; Peter Harris, Vice President, International Sustainability, UPS; Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Veolia; Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation & Public Value, University College London; Nick Molho, Executive Director, Aldersgate Group; Benet Northcote, Sustainability Strategy Adviser, BSI Group (until April 2020 Director, Corporate Responsibility, John Lewis Partnership); Jeremy Oppenheim, Founder and Managing Partner, SYSTEMIQ; Graham Southall, Group Commercial Director, Northumbrian Water.
Research was conducted by UCL with additional support from think tank and environmental charity Green Alliance.
[1] The Global Innovation Index (GII) compares 130 economies in the world based on 80 indicators. Britain is ranked fourth in the most recent GII 2020. The country hosts four S&T clusters ranked in the top 100: London (15th), Cambridge (57th), Oxford (71st) and Manchester (93rd). Cambridge and Oxford are the world’s most S&T-intensive clusters. (Cornell University et al., 2020)
[2] The absolute number of environment-related patent applications submitted to the European Patent Office remains significantly below that of other leading global economies, such as the US, Germany and Japan. In the
most recent Eco-Innovation Index (Eco-IS), focusing on measuring green innovation in the EU member states since 2010, the UK ranked seventh and it has never made it to the top three EU performers.
[3] An embargoed copy of the letter is available at www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/sustainable/sites/bartlett/files/letter_to_pm_on_boosting_green_innovation.pdf
[4] https://www.ft.com/content/ac5e5ef8-bccb-482b-9f8d-0dab5cac6f9a
[5] Further information on the policy needed to accelerate green innovation is provided in Innovation for a green recovery: business and government in partnership, a new report by the Green Innovation Policy Commission, which will be published on Tuesday 12 January 2021 and is available at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/sustainable/sites/bartlett/files/the_commissions_final_report.pdf 
[6] A regulatory sandbox is a virtual or physical space where selected firms work with regulators to jointly explore, trial and test innovative products, services and business models without having to meet all the usual requirements for compliance. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) ran the world’s first regulatory sandbox in 2016. In recent years, other UK regulators followed suit and introduced similar programmes, including Ofgem and the Civil Aviation Authority.

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