Chris’s role is to deliver expert advice to the UK government on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to monitor and implement the fourth and fifth Carbon Budgets. The Committee also advises on how well the UK is preparing for the impacts of climate change. Chris was previously Director of Energy and Climate Change and one of the Scottish Government’s youngest Senior Leaders.
In a nutshell: the UK has done well in cutting greenhouse gas emissions over the past decades – largely by phasing out coal-fired power stations – but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. Indeed, not only must the decarbonisation of power generation be completed, but massive challenge lies ahead in the form of the stubbornly high carbon emissions from transportation and from buildings.
For Green Angel Syndicate investors, backing the innovative companies that will transform the transportation and buildings sectors is an opportunity that we live for.
Green Angel Syndicate is at the fulcrum for the change we need
This chimes perfectly with Chris’s vision that such massive behavioural changes cannot be achieved by government intervention alone but need a large impetus from the private sector, at all levels – and as Chris himself put it, as the only angel syndicate in the UK specialising in support for technology innovation in green sectors, "Green Angel Syndicate is at the fulcrum for the change we need”.
The UK Has Done Very Well
Since 1990, the UK has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 43%, whilst at the same time growing its economy by around 70%. As Chris put it, this is brilliant. On this measure, the UK is the best performing country in the G7.
The chart below, plotting the trend, gives the reassuring feeling that the country is well on track to reach its target of at least an 80% reduction by 2050.
The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and the 2050 target
The risk of false pride
This very satisfying achievement has most notably been achieved through the transformation of UK electricity generation – a sector where greenhouse gas emissions are down by 60% since 1990. This is mainly the result of the replacement of coal power plants by renewables such as wind and solar but also by gas-fired power plants (which emit less CO2 than coal).
Sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK
However, Chris highlighted the “risk of false pride” that can be drawn from this. As remarkable as the UK’s achievement can be, halving carbon emissions cannot be sufficient. CO2 concentration continues to add up – this is a cumulative phenomenon. The real prize is not to slow down the rate of growth of CO2 concentration, but to stop it altogether.
Transportation and buildings: the big challenges ahead
And this cannot be achieved solely by moving to zero-carbon electricity (as Chris said, the gas power stations are only a short-term fix, not a long-term solution). Some tough decisions are needed to address two other essential sectors where progress has so far been too limited: transportation and buildings.
Transportation – in 1990, transport was ‘only’ 16% of the UK’s GHG emissions, but this has now grown to 28%. Emissions reductions in this sector have been poor, decreasing just 1% over the last 25 years. EVs are finally making progress, but slowly.
Transport is a key area for the future - the markets are not quite ready for a tax neutral policy like in Norway - but it’s coming! We need to see a joint plan between charging and the vehicles. There is a need for an integrated plan.
Chris said: “Transport is a key area for the future - the markets are not quite ready for a tax neutral policy like in Norway - but it’s coming! We need to see a joint plan between charging and the vehicles. There is a need for an integrated plan.” We couldn’t agree more, as detailed in our series of articles on the Clean Transportation Revolution.
Buildings – Even without counting commercial and public buildings, residential homes alone represent 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions are only marginally coming down from residential (1.6% per year in residential buildings between 2009-2015, on average).
Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings is mainly about 1) increasing their energy efficiency, a concept which, for us, refers to old-fashioned insulation but also to high-tech developments in smart buildings; and 2) decarbonising heating, i.e. finding a viable alternative to gas boilers.
Chris highlighted that buildings are “one of the toughest sectors to tackle” and this is very true in the UK, with its large stock of historic housing and high proportion of owner occupiers.
The need for behavioural changes
The energy transition was (and remains) about large companies making big changes – decommissioning coal plants; investing in renewables. The next challenges, in transportation and buildings, will also require big investments from corporates, but this will not be enough.
To succeed, they will require that every citizen changes his or her behaviour and Chris pointed that this means the government cannot act alone but must “better interact with the market to understand behaviour change”. For example, he hinted at the possibility of “really disruptive change to consumer energy consumption (…), for example introducing a single monthly subscription to your energy service” – a very interesting idea in our view.
We would add that behaviour change on a massive scale is also an essential ingredient if we are to transform transportation from individually-owned fuel powered cars to a much more efficient ‘mobility as a service’ model based on fleets of electric vehicles.
The key role of the private sector
Chris did not shy away from an issue he is facing at the CCC: his main interlocutor, the UK government, seems to have other pressing matters right now, beyond climate change – Brexit for example. As such, it may be key for the CCC to continue to develop its links with the private sector as well.
Transforming the transportation and buildings sectors are huge economic opportunities that businesses will no doubt reach for. These are large markets in the UK, but even more so globally. As Chris put it, the UK should follow the example of China, which is not investing massively in these areas only for altruistic reasons
Unique among angel syndicates in the UK, Green Angel Syndicate is at the fulcrum of change. Helping technology companies develop innovative solutions that benefit the green economy is our raison d’être.
Every day, we actively look for attractive start-ups enabling not only the clean energy revolution, but also the widest possible range of green investments, from the transformation of transportation, to the energy efficiency of buildings, from revolutions in agri-tech to the decarbonisation of heat.
Thank you very much, Chris, for sharing your vision, and for encouraging us in our enthusiasm for supporting the next wave of entrepreneurs who will make the zero-carbon future come true.