By Charmian Love and Stephen Kelly

Last week, Boris Johnson fired the starting pistol on the UK’s sprint to net zero. Huge spending commitments for wind power and pledges to back science and innovation to deliver a green recovery for Britain backed up a bold idea — that UK tech has a truly central role to play in halting climate change.

The coronavirus, the most urgent issue currently facing the UK, demonstrates just what a catastrophic impact global crises can have on our local communities. The other global storm picking up strength is climate change. Yet, as the virus disrupts ‘normal life’ we are presented with an opening — to take on the climate emergency.

A “green recovery” presents exciting opportunities for new technologies and the jobs they create.

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The UK’s chance to lead

Just as France has led the global nuclear industry and the Japanese the hydrogen industry, the UK government’s statement of intent is a rallying cry to businesses to step up and drive UK cleantech exports around the world. The sector, which is projected to reach $44.61bn by 2026, is set to achieve explosive growth as countries seek to meet their net zero targets.

By ushering in a new era of public-private partnerships and innovating with AI, cloud, data analytics and IoT technology, the UK can support the ‘Race to Zero’ and emerge as a true global leader in the same way as it did in the first industrial revolution.

This summer, the UK’s legal commitment to deliver a net zero carbon economy by 2050 (the first signed by a G7 country) turned a year old. As we prepare to host COP 26 in November 2021, we need to put words into action and set an international example: accelerating our deadlines to phase out coal in the UK to October 2024, for example, and ending UK petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2035.

Building on such legislation, the UK is uniquely placed to lead a just and green recovery by supporting businesses which have made net zero commitments and creating the conditions to translate these commitments into action.

UK businesses were already pivoting to net zero before the pandemic, wanting to play their part in building a greener and more sustainable future. The Guardian, innocent drinks and The Body Shop are just some of the nearly 800 global B Corps that have committed to achieve net zero by 2030, while 120+ companies have applied for the Tech Nation Net Zero programme, which launched in September. These early signs point to the emergence of a cluster of UK-based net zero companies, with cleantech at the heart of it.

The critical role of such a cluster is to highlight the societal changes and cutting-edge innovations required to usher in a sustainable future, while serving as an industry platform for UK cleantech leadership. To maintain this early momentum, the country must cultivate certain essential elements:

A supply of robust technology

First, maintain a supply of robust technology. 

UK-based company, Cervest, uses earth science artificial intelligence to inform decisions on climatic and extreme events. Robotics companies, like the Small Robot Company, are improving how food is farmed on a mass scale. Hummingbird Technologies is using satellite technology and artificial intelligence to reduce the carbon impact from farming. 

From household smart meters, to devices helping to reduce waste in agriculture, IoT technology is similarly having a transformative impact.

Invest in innovation

Next, invest in innovation. 

Research by Tech Nation identifies 251 VC-backed cleantech companies based here in the UK. Helping these firms to research and develop, fund and grow their businesses supports delivery of our 2050 commitment while strengthening our economic recovery.

UK cleantech companies attracted 73% more VC investment in 2019 than in 2018, almost doubling China’s 37% rate of investment growth. Encouraging signals from the government include the joint funding of a £40m venture capital fund to supercharge development of next generation clean, low-carbon technologies and support green startups across the UK.

Listen to public sentiment

Finally, both businesses and government must be attuned to UK public sentiment — our clearly expressed unwillingness to return to “business as usual”. Covid-19 has challenged fundamental principles as to who and what are “essential”, even our relationship with the concept of going to work.

We can’t continue with business as usual

The UK public sees major flaws in our current economic system where businesses put shareholders before customers, employees — and the environment. A national poll commissioned by B Lab UK and ReGenerate shows that 76% of the population, across all ages and party affiliations, believe that the system either isn’t working properly or is harmful; while 72% of the UK public think businesses should have a legal responsibility to the planet and people, alongside maximising profit.

By tapping into this collective re-examination, government and business can seriously upgrade, not simply rebrand, our economy to support the environment, workers, communities, customers as well as shareholders.

This should begin with a straightforward legislative amendment to The Companies Act — requiring that the duty of a company director is to promote the purpose of the company, and operate in a manner that benefits the members, wider society, and the environment.

This is a fundamental first step in championing sustainable business, and coupled with fostering our cleantech cluster, it is possible to reinforce UK leadership in addressing both global crises while creating new economic opportunities.

Stephen Kelly is chair of Tech Nation and Charmian Love is chair of B Lab UK