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04 October 2019

841: Don’t miss this opportunity to redirect the UK

Today’s entry is nothing to do with Brexit but to do with the UK’s future in science, manufacturing, jobs and trade.

If it can avoid other distractions, the government has a great opportunity to set out a bold vision for the future direction of the UK. This is because technological innovation, climate change concerns, and the government’s obligation to respond to a blueprint for infrastructure over the next 30 years have all coincided.

This blueprint, the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), sets out steps to improve and update the country’s infrastructure, but that should only be the tip of the iceberg – it can be underpinned by a revolution in manufacturing, innovation, enterprise and export of British products and technology.

On the energy front, the focus is, not surprisingly, on low-carbon energy, in which great strides are being made but to which more policy clarity could be brought. The NIA calls for half of UK’s power from renewables by 2030; that requires encouraging renewables but also much more: electricity storage, whether batteries or hydroelectric, the encouragement of UK-based research, development and manufacturing, and the training for the jobs that will come with that.

Methods of electricity generation are only one side of the energy coin, though. The consumption of energy needs to correspondingly switch to electricity or other direct low-carbon methods and only about a third of energy consumption currently comes from electricity. That means a revolution in transport and heating, the main unelectric energy consumers. The NIA calls for ‘preparing for 100% electric vehicle sales by 2030’ but again much more could be done. Ubiquitous electric charging points, interoperabilty between batteries and full electrification of railways; improving the responsiveness of electric heating and cooking and incentives to adopt it. Again there are opportunities for technological investment and jobs in implementation too.

What carbon emissions remain should be captured either at source or through projects such as tree-planting. Having a net zero policy is great but needs a strategy for it to be implemented. The government can’t just leave this to ‘the market’. As the Committee for Climate Change notes;

‘a major ramp-up in policy effort is now required…Reaching net-zero GHG emissions requires extensive changes across the economy, with complete switchovers of several parts of the UK capital stock to low-carbon technologies. Major infrastructure decisions need to be made in the near future and quickly implemented. These changes are unprecedented in their overall scale…Speculative options [necessary to achieve net zero] currently have very low levels of technology readiness, very high costs, or significant barriers to public acceptability.’

Moving on to transport, separately to what powers it, which is dealt with above, this is principally about connecting people to jobs, whether it is commuter services or urban regeneration. I personally don’t see us all sitting working at home separately and don’t agree that communications (broadband etc) and transport are complementary, they are both needed. Indeed on comms, the NIA urges nationwide full fibre broadband by 2033, but why can’t we go further and make wifi available wherever we go in town and city centres?

Water and waste should not be neglected either. Water supply needs to be more agile, and while the NIA calls for resilience to drought through supply and demand reduction (presumably supply *increase* and demand reduction), there should be more water transfer projects to create a smart network like the electricity network; we must also be resilient to flooding and coastal erosion. Waste is not glamorous but it is another area where technology can come to the rescue and investment should be directed, in minimising uncompostable waste and not contributing further to the Great Pacific garbage patch, which is three times the size of France. The world is looking for solutions to this problem and we could lead the way.

The opportunity is there, and the timing is auspicious, I urge the government to be bold.

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