Low carbon economy will transform world like the first industrial revolution
Britain could be a world leader in new low carbon technologies but risks squandering the opportunity
This year is the 300th anniversary of the first industrial revolution which brought in the age of fossil fuels. In 1709 Abraham Darby successfully smelted iron with coke near Ironbridge, an innovation which led to iron-making on a massive scale, changing the lives of millions of people and helping to create the modern industrial world.
We now face a similar game changing challenge. We need to unleash a new revolution that fast tracks the deployment of a new set of technologies. Low carbon ones. This requires a faster acceleration in innovation and technological development than we witnessed 300 years ago. This new low carbon economy is poised to be the mother of all markets and will be as transformative in its impact as the first industrial revolution. It offers a huge commercial opportunity for the UK to again become a global hub of innovation and generate economic benefit for the nation.
Recent research indicates this revolution has begun and some green roots have been planted. UNEP data released earlier this month shows that overall, renewable energy investment last year was more than four times greater than in 2004. Global investments in renewable energy overtook those in carbon-based fuels for the first time in 2008 with the overall market for clean technologies last year valued at some £3 trillion.
But what will Britain’s role be in this new industrial revolution. We stand at a crossroads. Will we be among the first movers and leaders? Or will we be the laggards and adopters of these new low carbon technologies? Despite our country’s strong potential, the clock is ticking for us to truly lead the way. Without bold leadership we risk squandering the opportunity to capture our share of this “mother of all markets”.
Countries such as the US, China and India are already attracting significant investment in clean technology. We are in danger of losing out unless we urgently adopt a new approach to fast tracking the commercialisation of low carbon technologies in the UK. To ensure we benefit from this new age of low carbon industrialism we need to urgently establish where Britain can lead in developing new technologies and where Britain should adopt technologies once their development elsewhere has made them less expensive.
Tackling climate change is a fantastic business opportunity but we have limited time and limited amounts of public funding to apply. We need to quickly work out what the investment opportunity is for the UK and set about, like a business, in pursuing it.
We need a new bold strategy. It’s time to prioritise and to focus. We must end the old scatter gun approach to commercialising these new technologies. Of course we must back technologies based on their potential to deliver on our 2050 carbon targets. But, and this is the important point, we must also decide based on their potential to provide positive economic benefit to the UK. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand. We then need to back technologies with a renewed urgency, grit and determination, leaving no barrier in place to slow or hinder their development and roll out.
Ending the old scattergun approach to commercialising technologies will be a challenge for politicians, academia and business alike. But if we don’t we risk squandering a fantastic commercial opportunity – we must focus on technologies where the UK has competitive advantage, and capitalise on it. Our new economic analysis of low carbon technologies to date has shown that we can profit from world leadership. It shows that we can be world leaders in offshore wind and wave power and in turn deliver major economic benefit for the UK by capturing a significant share of their global markets. These two technologies alone can deliver 250,000 jobs and some £70bn of net economic value for the UK by 2050.
Britain can be a green global leader; we can spawn the Amazon, Apple and Intels of this new low-carbon revolution. But only if we are bold and take some tough decisions. We must rise to this 21st century challenge and grab it with both hands. Abraham Darby, James Watt and the other fathers of the first industrial revolution would expect nothing else from us.