by Ian Constance, Chief Executive at the APC.
As the dust settles on Capitol Hill, the world waits with bated breath for President-Elect Joe Biden to take that familiar oath and open a new chapter for the United States.
As well as ushering in calmer and less divisive politics, many will hope that Wednesday’s inauguration triggers a new era in the global effort to tackle climate change.
The signs are encouraging. Biden’s climate change plan commits the US to a “clean energy revolution” supported by a $2 trillion package to remodel and renew its infrastructure. His ambition – in his own words – is to make America the world’s “clean energy superpower”, using US influence on a global scale to ensure all countries play their part in a full-scale decarbonisation of transport, energy and heavy industry.
The mood music, in other words, couldn’t be more different to five years ago. But what does this signify for the UK’s much feted “green recovery” – for our own prospects in securing our position at the heart of a resurgent global market for zero-carbon solutions? Are we ready for the revolution that Biden has promised to unleash?
Certainly, 2021 does feel like an important turning point after an uncertain period for the UK’s automotive sector. With the effect that the Brexit deal will have on delayed investment decisions, and the looming prospect of a safe passage to a post-COVID future being mapped out by leading scientists and health professionals, the new president’s arrival should contribute to a growing confidence in the strength of the UK green technology credentials and a renewed determination to project them on a global stage.
Of course, we shouldn’t be under any illusions of the intent behind Biden’s mission, which is conspicuously focused on creating domestic jobs and promoting US-made innovation and enterprise. Yet within this framework, I believe there will be opportunities for British firms; in a way that reflects not only our expertise but also the enduring strength of the relationship between our two countries.
In the three months since the American election, I know of several UK green technology firms who are already making serious in-roads with potential US partners exploring novel battery solutions. I am confident that Biden’s presidency will open up many more opportunities.
How then do we make the most of them? From a transport perspective, I think there are three really important things we need to do to capitalise on this “golden window” for UK green technology.
The first is to continue growing our pipeline of innovation, giving inventors the support to create viable businesses and increasingly enabling those businesses in a way that makes them competitive in the marketplace.
This is a fundamental part of what my organisation’s support programmes for SMEs have done over the last six years – our advantage is that we have had a decade-long running start into developing this pipeline. We need to build on this, with new urgency, in 2021.
Secondly, we need to get behind collaborative research and development projects where they are most likely to bring about solutions that are commercially viable, while increasingly looking not only for opportunities that support local needs, but also ones that are capable of resonating around the world. US-UK collaboration is an increasingly important focus for Innovate UK’s funding, as seen for example in recent competitions seeking research proposals on composites.
Finally, we need to make significant progress in building a world-class supply chain for the electric era, specifically by ramping up our battery production capacity to support the expanding global market for electric vehicles.
We’re already doing this via the £500 million Advanced Transformation Fund, which seeks to stimulate the strategic investment required to build so-called ‘gigafactories’ capable of producing batteries on an industrial scale. Yet whereas the current focus has been on securing the infrastructure required to give our domestic market the volumes they need, it’s now the moment to be more ambitious in attracting the inward investment necessary to enable Britain to stand out as a truly global player.
Across successive administrations, British and American politicians have famously revelled in their “special relationship”. Yet the history of automotive manufacturing – from Henry Ford’s first UK factory in Manchester onwards – tells a similar story of an enduring partnership driving profound innovation and change.
At this seminal moment, we too can write a new chapter in that history. With courage and vision, we can reimagine this partnership for the 21st century – focused on inventing and embedding the new technologies that will support jobs and create a greener future for both our respective nations.