Cleantech London: Accelerating the shift to a low-carbon economy

16 October 2018

By Prof Richard Templer, commissioner on the London Sustainable Development Commission


2018 has been a remarkable year – one in which the reality of a warmer planet and our route to a better future have both become clearer. 

So, what's the reality of a warmer planet? 

Well, in 2018 virtually the entire northern hemisphere experienced an extended and intense heatwave. One that had temperatures at the Arctic higher than parts of Europe and caused fires in the northern reaches of Norway. 

In the UK, the heatwave was compared to that of 1976. But the comparison does not recognise that in 1976 the heatwave was geographically very localised. In 2018, half the globe was simultaneously experiencing extreme summer temperatures. The extent, endurance and magnitude of the temperature extremes mean that one can say with a high degree of confidence that this was climate change in action.

Whilst this was going on colleagues of mine were involved in preparing a study for the UN to look at the difference between a world with an average increase in temperature of 1.5ºC compared to a rise of 2ºC. The results of this huge international study, released last week, are not comforting.

A jump from 1.5ºC to 2ºC could mean three times as many severe heatwaves as now. An eight-fold increase in the frequency of Arctic summers in which all the sea ice melts. The disappearance of all coral reefs. Droughts that on average last twice as long as today. A four-fold increase in the number of tropical cyclones. The increased impacts on the natural systems that enable humans to live on the planet are severe.

That’s the bad news and indeed, it’s really bad. 

However, the challenge before us is now very clear. To limit global warming to 1.5º​​​​​​​C is both necessary and possible. 

The challenge is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide, CO2) by 45 per cent by 2030 and to zero by 2050. This is roughly twice as deep and fast as the reductions that would reach the 2º​​​​​​​C target. It’s without doubt a major challenge but one which avoids huge future costs and sets us on a path to a more equitable and prosperous future.

This is where London can make a difference. The Mayor of London has set out an ambition for the capital to be zero carbon by 2050. Fortunately, to help meet this challenge, London is a global hotspot for cleantech innovation – innovation that addresses the causes and effects of manmade climate change. Over 190,000 Londoners are working in companies that have solutions to the climate change challenge and their businesses generate more than £30bn annually. These numbers are impressive and world-leading, but in 2015 the London Sustainable Development Commission wrote a report, Better Future, in which we made the case for growing cleantech in London even faster. We now know that this call to accelerated cleantech innovation is an absolute necessity if we are to limit global warming to 1.5º​​​​​​​C.

So why is London’s role so important and what do we need to do to be at the forefront of reshaping the world’s economy?

Well, London is important because it's Europe’s global city. It's a destination for global creative talent, a nexus for global trade, the global financial capital and a global thought leader in addressing the challenges of climate change. This means, that in common with other great global cities, London has all the ingredients to both shape its own and the world’s low-carbon future. And of course, London is also at risk from climate change effects. We must therefore act both to survive and prosper. 

In pure economic terms the prosperity prize is vast. Globally, upwards of $1tn will be invested annually in low-carbon infrastructure throughout this century. Infrastructure on its own will not solve the entirety of the challenge – goods and services will have to be resilient, sustainable and low carbon as well. In human terms the prize is of course even greater. Global cities that do not engage in creating this new economic and social construct will cease to be globally relevant.

The Better Future report called for London to develop a cleantech innovation cluster as a means of speeding up the growth of low-carbon innovation. This challenge has been taken up by a consortium of the Mayor, Sustainable Ventures and Imperial College London, who have set up a £1.6m project funded by the European Development Fund called Better Futures. It has brought the policy, business and technical strengths of these organisations together in support of cleantech start-ups and provided them with the opportunity to co-locate in accommodation in Bankside. This is a first step, and more is to come. Keep watching this space. London is getting ready to lead the low-carbon race.

About the author

Richard Templer
Richard Templer is the Hofmann Professor and Director of Innovation at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment. He is in charge of developing and running the institute’s Centre for Cleantech Innovation (CCI). CCI’s mission is to develop cleantech innovators and entrepreneurs. It does this through programmes of experiential learning for innovators and entrepreneurs from the start-up, student, research and corporate communities. Richard was also a co-founder of Climate-KIC, a knowledge and innovation community working to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy, and Director of Climate-KIC UK. Richard continues to deliver parts of their programme in the UK through CCI.

About Better Futures

Better Futures is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and is designed to accelerate the growth of London's cleantech industry, and led by a consortium of the Mayor of London, Sustainable Ventures and Imperial College London. The programme offers London's cleantech entrepreneurs the opportunity to work with specialist Innovation Advisers to help their businesses develop and grow. 

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