UK’s low-carbon innovation 'faltering'

Offshore wind farmA Green Alliance report released today (14 January) warns that innovation in low-carbon technology is 'faltering' in the UK, and that we are at risk of having to import technology and paying more to decarbonise. In ‘Nurturing UK cleantech enterprise’, Green Alliance director Matthew Spencer and low-carbon expert Paul Arwas set out a four-step plan for a longer term, more focused approach for the UK to become ‘a leader in the cleantech industrial revolution’.  

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex, says in the report’s foreword: “Nurturing UK cleantech enterprise presents an important argument and series of steps that provide the vision, mission and plan towards a green-led recovery. Green is starting to define the next technological revolution, which includes both the technologies and the direction through which all sectors are transformed, as they were with electricity and the internet.”

Mazzucato goes on to suggest that the UK is losing out on jobs (and hence profit and economic recovery) because of its ‘lack of a green vision’. The report concludes that successful innovation could save the UK up to £160 billion in energy supply costs by 2050 and generate UK-based business activity contributing up to £89 billion to GDP over the same period.

Other key findings in the report include:

  • The UK’s £5 billion a year low-carbon deployment programme is not being properly exploited. Too little attention has been paid to clean technology development in the UK, reducing the business and economic benefits of the programme;
  • Chopping and changing of technology development institutions by successive governments has spread funding too thinly and support has been too inconsistent to get promising low-carbon technologies through to the market;
  • Financial markets are failing early stage companies with innovation potential: less than 30 early stage venture capital funded cleantech deals were made in the UK in 2011 from a pool of over 1,000 companies seeking finance.

Commenting on the report, Matthew Spencer said: “The UK gained its economic power from the technological innovation of the last industrial revolution. It can benefit again in the global race to commercialise clean technology, but only if it takes low-carbon innovation more seriously. Without decisive action we risk losing a generation of new UK cleantech enterprises, importing more technology and paying too much to decarbonise.”

Paul Arwas added: “It is hard to get innovation policy right – it takes patience and learning. Technology development is unglamorous work which requires steady efforts to improve performance over many years. We’ve identified the steps needed to reduce the costs of our low-carbon transition and increase the economic benefits of innovation.”

The report’s four steps to support UK low-carbon enterprise are:

1. Invest in existing public innovation institutions but focus on fewer technologies; governments should stop setting up new innovation institutions;

2. Create a new £100 million venture capital fund to be run by an existing innovation institution for the benefit of small, high growth-potential cleantech businesses and using some of the existing R&D tax credit currently benefiting large companies; 

3. Provide open data from all publicly-funded research to speed up innovation: only a sixth of the projects supported by a major government programme have openly shared their full technical data;

4. Support technology experimentation in the UK’s £50 billion offshore wind programme. 

The full report is available on Green Alliance's website