Net Zero is within reach, if we back the right innovators

11 Jan 2021

For all the misery of the Covid-19 pandemic, for the fear of hospitalisation and worse, for the stress and worry of lockdown and furlough, could there be a glimmer of environmental optimism? Not in the short-lived fall in emissions in spring, built on the back of economic misery – but in the widespread ambition and determination to build back better.

The government has launched a 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, and committed significant sums to infrastructure that helps to deliver it. There is broad agreement across parties that the economic recovery should be built around the clean, green industries of the future. 

Targeting Net Zero must be at the heart of the national effort to regain the lost ground of 2020.

The response to the pandemic is a sign of what we can achieve when we have an urgent, shared mission. Society adapted almost overnight to the new normal – homeworking, social distancing, helping neighbours. And critical institutions from supermarkets to the NHS reconfigured themselves to meet the new challenge. If we can do that in the space of weeks – then just think what we can achieve in the next three decades if we set our minds to the challenge of Net Zero.

Covid-19 may be the collective kick up the behind that we all need to make it a successful reality.

Boris Johnson has called for Britain “to build back better, to build back bolder”. He wants to “drive economic growth in all parts of the country” and he says, “we must work fast”. He wants the UK to be a “science superpower”. These are noble goals, they are achievable too, and they can be at the heart of the Net Zero agenda… if there is the long-term will to match the rhetoric. 

In the spring Budget, the UK Government said it aimed to double R&D spending in the next five years and establish a new agency to promote ‘moon-shot’ innovations, modelled on ARPA in America. Though the mood music around a British ARPA has waned and there was no mention of the five year goal for R&D spending the recent Spending Review, there does still seem to be a desire from government to explore more diverse funding mechanisms for innovation, including challenge prizes.

To those unfamiliar with them, challenge prizes encourage innovators to develop solutions to problems we face, with the promise that the first or the most effective solution is rewarded with a financial pay-off. This flips the traditional model for funding R&D, where grants are given upfront to companies (often large established incumbents) who seem best placed to come up with a solution, whether they eventually deliver it or not, and whether that solution has any meaningful impact or not. 

Challenge prizes level the playing field

They allow small businesses and disruptive start-ups with little or no track record, but bright ideas, to compete alongside the usual suspects. The prize money goes to the most effective idea, once it has been demonstrated to work – rather than what looks like the safest bet. They let governments take bold choices without being reckless with public money. 

Achieving Net Zero will not be solved by one single discovery, it will require myriad changes in every part of life and industry to overcome the obstacles that currently prevent each sector from going green. We’ll need social and behavioural change as well as technological innovation, and we’ll need public buy-in.

We cannot only rely on the same few engineering consultancies to help; we must find ways of crowding in innovative thinking and disruptive approaches to fight the battle on multiple fronts. Greater use of challenge prizes can help Britain achieve its ambitious goals whilst creating new world-leading industries in green technology. 

Our recent Great Innovation Challenge paper explores possible opportunities where the country could excel in the green recovery. 

Negative emissions technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration for instance, could be part of our arsenal in combating climate change – provided it’s not just used as an excuse by big polluters to keep doing what they have always done. A prize could incentivise small-scale, distributed approaches to carbon capture, and incentivise the creation of businesses whose entire model is to leave the environment in a better condition than it is now.

A challenge to create smart green shipping solutions could tackle the emissions of an industry we are so reliant on as a globally connected island, but that are very difficult to cut. It could create opportunities for small British businesses to compete successfully in the maritime industries and make logistics more efficient as well as cleaner. 

These are just some areas where prizes could be relevant.

What about reinventing the electricity grid to cope with electrified mobility and heating; low and zero carbon alternatives to concrete and steel in construction; regenerative and carbon negative agriculture;  zero and low carbon aviation; or retrofitting of buildings for energy efficiency. There are so many areas that would benefit from new innovation and innovators contributing to change. But we need mechanisms to propel this expertise to become the new businesses, employers and wealth creators for a carbon neutral (and carbon negative) world. 

Net Zero is a bold and brave ambition, it requires bold and brave approaches to achieving it. If we are to ward off the damage we have done to the climate, we must invest now and grow the industries and companies that will help us thrive in the green economy. Investment in research and development, in science, in ground-breaking ideas will be essential. Making challenge prizes a part of the mix will help us unlock the potential of innovators across the country, to build back better, faster and, most importantly, greener. 

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