9 October 2019

Capitalist innovation will do more for the planet than any protest


Even if your commute has been undisturbed by their antics, most of us will have heard about recent antics of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Indeed, since Monday of this week, several thousand “uncooperative crusties” – as the Prime Minister has termed them – have been clogging up our nation’s streets, demanding more government action on climate change.

One of their key demands is to bring forward the net zero carbon emissions target from 2050 to 2025. Their target has been rightly dismissed by virtually every reasonably minded person involved in the environmental policy debate – achieving it would be prohibitively expensive and require a total reworking of both our political and economic systems in the space of just five years.

But there are other reasons to be apprehensive about the efficacy of such targets. Even if in three decades’ time the UK boasts a squeaky-clean economy, this will only lower global emissions by perhaps one or two per cent. Currently, the UK’s emissions are about 4% of what China produces in a year. While it’s right that we do our best, there really is a limit to how far UK emissions reductions can address what is, after all, global warming.

Meanwhile, though international pledges like the Paris Agreement might get headlines, they are poorly enforced, America remains sceptical, and there is continuing discord between rich and poor countries about who should shoulder the burden of adjustment.

With this in mind, one might be left feeling despondent. On one of the biggest issues facing the world, the UK has a seemingly marginal role to play – if any at all.

But this is a false analysis, and there is a way to square the circle. It is capitalism, and the technology it so readily develops, which will save the world. If the UK leads in creating new inventions over the coming decades, it can reduce its emissions at home, while helping other countries do the same.

Britain has a rich pedigree when it comes to engineering solutions. The UK started the industrial and agricultural revolutions, and it has all the skills and knowhow to lead another technological revolution to tackle climate change.

An obvious starting point on the pathway to a cleaner world is more sustainable energy. This means increasing research into battery storage, as well as continuing work on wind and solar power. But refining other, wrongly maligned technologies will also be critical.

Several companies in the UK have staked their bets on ‘small modular reactors’ – essentially miniature nuclear power plants – which could be deployed en masse across the world to dispatch reliable streams of zero-carbon power. Similarly, nuclear fusion, which replicates solar physics to generate energy, continues to benefit from research funded by venture capital. It may well be a long shot, but given the potential payoff of near limitless power, it is one worth pursuing. Oxfordshire-based Tokamak Energy has recently made some exciting breakthroughs which offer reason for hope.

Such change could occur in nearly every sector. In agriculture, for instance, lab-grown meat – made from genuine animal tissue – does away with virtually all of the negative environmental impacts associated with animal agriculture. In 1931, none other than Winston Churchill mused on the “absurdity” of growing meat on a chicken instead of “under a suitable medium”, and today British research institutes are doing just that. Further strides in developing lab-grown meat will be made easier once we have left the European Union and its hyper-precautionary regulatory regime.

In aviation, British companies are pioneering hybrid and electric planes, as well as turning biomass and household waste into jet fuel to cut emissions from flying.

In all these sectors, British innovation will not only cut our own emissions, but boost our export markets as other countries use our technology to decarbonise their own economies. Sadly, Extinction Rebellion’s leadership has either set its face against many of these technological solutions or simply shrugs its shoulders and says it will be for their fantasy ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ to decide.

There is, therefore, no conflict between the nation state, free-market capitalism, and solving climate change. Britain should embark on a national mission to provide the conditions to support capitalists, scientists, and entrepreneurs to deliver emission-cutting technologies. Doing this won’t just help the UK, but the entire world. It is a perfect example how individual nations, innovation, and capitalism are forces for good, rather than the outdated bogeymen of the extinction rebels’ imagination.

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Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies