UK announces £60m green tech competition – but cuts EV subsidies

UK announces £60m green tech competition – but cuts EV subsidies

British innovators and researchers are being invited to pitch new ideas to help tackle the effects of climate change on towns, cities, and the countryside as part of the government’s new Industrial Strategy.

On offer is £60 million in funding, announced as part of the first Green GB and NI Week, a government-led week of campaigning to encourage businesses, communities, funders, and academics to renew their efforts to confront climate change.

Whitehall said it is welcoming a broad range of projects, which may include anything from sensors that monitor the environment to new software to help organisations and citizens adapt to low-carbon technologies.

Four new programmes

This morning, business and energy Secretary Greg Clark announced four new research programmes to boost the UK’s resilience to climate change, develop new digital environments, promote clean air, and investigate how to “use land to boost health outcomes”.

The aims of the research programmes are to: produce better data on climate risks to the UK; build a digital picture of the natural environment for monitoring and analysing the impact of climate change; cut air pollution and protect vulnerable groups from its effects; use the land better for the benefit of the environment and communities; and develop new ways for the UK to adapt to climate change.

The government has put clean growth at the heart of its Industrial Strategy. The new programmes, administered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will bring together a broad range of research disciplines, ranging from mathematics and biology to climate science and technology development.

Competitions for the four funding programmes will open in the coming weeks. They are:

UK Climate Resilience

Led by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Met Office, with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), with total funding of £18.7 million.

This programme is designed to harness multidisciplinary expertise to deliver “robust climate risk and solutions research”, ensuring that the UK is “resilient to climate variability and change, and better positioned to exploit the opportunities of adaptation and green growth”, said the government.

Clean Air: Analysis and Solutions

Led by the NERC and the Met Office, with EPSRC, ESRC, Innovate UK, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), DEFRA, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), and the Department for Transport (DfT), with funding of £19.6 million.

With air pollution responsible for up to 40,000 early deaths and a cost of up to £20 billion a year, this programme is “designed to predict future air quality challenges, identify the most vulnerable groups in society, improve new technologies and policies for reducing air pollution, and create a system for providing consistent advice to decision makers”.

Constructing a Digital Environment

Led by NERC, with EPSRC, Innovate UK, DEFRA, and the Cabinet Office, with funding of £10.4 million.

This programme will “apply the latest technologies to environmental data from sensor networks across the UK, to deliver information in unprecedented detail”, said the government.

“This will enable the construction of an integrated, digital picture of our natural environment, bringing benefit to policy-makers and other users by enabling better decision-making across a range of sectors, and increasing the opportunity to gain value from natural resources and mitigate environmental challenges.”

Landscape Decisions

Led by NERC, with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), EPSRC, ESRC, and DEFRA, with funding of £10.5 million.

This programme will develop “a new understanding to help individuals, communities and country make the best choices regarding land use in the UK,” said the government.

“Experts from the environment, biology, health, social, and arts and humanities will research together, supporting real-world decisions with solutions for the informed use of land, and deliver improvements to our health, well-being and economy.”

Chief scientist of the Met Office, professor Stephen Belcher, welcomed the announcements, saying, “These programmes will allow the Met Office and our partners to make real progress in two areas of significant environmental impact: air pollution and climate change.

“Working together with other world-leading scientists from the UK’s academic community, we will be able to deliver tools and services which will benefit the lives and livelihoods of people across the UK.”

So how do the programmes sit beside other recent policy announcements?

Internet of Business says

In recent months, the UK government has appeared to put green initiatives front and centre of policy decisions. For example, in September, it announced that low-emission cars, vans, and taxis could be equipped with green number plates under new plans to promote awareness of ‘clean vehicles’.

The special plates, which are already used in Norway, Canada, and China, could be available on vehicles such as electric and hydrogen-powered cars. The government believes the plates may encourage drivers to take up the technologies, and support local incentives for electric vehicles, such as access to bus or low-emission vehicle lanes, electric charging bays, or ultra-low-emission zones.

In September, the UK hosted the world’s first Zero Emission Vehicle Summit, and announced £2 million in new funding to support the uptake of e-cargo bikes – electric bikes for last-mile delivery.

Also in September, the government launched a £25 million funding competition to develop new battery technologies for next-generation electric vehicles – £23 million for industrial research and development programmes, and up to £2 million for feasibility studies.

So the government’s decision last week – in advance of Green GB week – to cut subsidies for buying greener cars is a baffling about-face.

From 9 November, grants for new plug-in hybrid vehicles will be scrapped, while discounts on all-electric cars will be cut from £4,500 to £3,500.

The cash incentives have been offered since 2011 to help promote cleaner cars and meet the UK’s emissions targets, so sweeping aside central support can only be seen as a backward step.

The move was condemned by motoring organisations and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which called it “astounding”.

Indeed, the change comes only months after the government published its Road to Zero strategy, with a proposal to remove all cars powered by petrol and diesel from UK roads by 2050.

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for motoring organisation the AA, said: “The government wants to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars, but scrapping grants for low-emission cars may well stall their progress. This announcement will simply put more drivers off from buying greener cars.”

It may be that the money saved by scrapping or reducing these incentives is funding these new competitions, suggesting that the government’s financial commitment is running some distance behind its policies.

To put this in context, on 19 October, the government announced a £60 million fund to “find the UK’s next Peppa Pig, Grange Hill, or Byker Grove” (popular British children’s TV programmes from over the decades) in order to halt what the government sees as a decline in original children’s content.

While no one doubts the importance of children’s content or of the UK’s creative sector, the timing of that announcement was unfortunate, at best.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.