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Governments must ‘get’ sustainability to truly capitalise on UK innovation

Governments must ‘get’ sustainability to truly capitalise on UK innovation

The New Energy & Cleantech Awards have come and gone for another year, with Ecology Building Society scooping the sought-after Company of the Year award in 2013. Alex Blackburne reflects on the event, and looks at what it might mean for the future of sustainability.

The great out-of-consensus entrepreneur Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower”.

The late Apple co-founder knew a thing or two about breaking away from the market to create exceptional technologies, having led the development of some of the most successful and innovative products in history.

At the London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square on March 21, the New Energy & Cleantech Awards 2013 recognised some of the UK’s finest sustainability-minded businesses, investors and individuals, and perhaps, the next Steve Jobs.

It was a night to celebrate innovation, progress and leadership.

Climate change, energy efficiency and sustainability have become key considerations in running a successful business.

The overwhelming scientific consensus that says humans are the primary cause of climate change means we have a moral imperative to nullify our impact on the planet for future generations. But good businesses don’t see this as a hindrance to their operations; they see it as an opportunity.

It’s basic mathematics. Using less water and energy cuts costs; generating electricity from clean sources that don’t pollute is more sustainable; developing technologies that tackle the biggest sustainability challenges creates long-term opportunities for investors.

Every business on show – and particularly the ones honoured with awards – understand and factor in the triple bottom line of society, the environment and profit (or people, planet and prosperity) into their core structure.

Because of that, these are the businesses that will be leading the future economy.

Fast forward even 20 years’ time, and the FTSE 100 of 2033 is likely to look an awful lot different to the one we see now, with the dominance of fossil fuels and financial services firms being replaced by renewable energy and clean technologies.

But what became abundantly clear at the New Energy & Cleantech Awards (and particularly at the preceding conference) is that it’s imperative governments ‘get’ the industry.

In the western world, the pick-up by the marketplace is predominantly driven by government subsidies”, said Perry Carroll, founder and CEO of The Solar Cloth Company, at the afternoon conference .

If the governments don’t get it, they don’t give subsidies. If they don’t give subsidies, the market doesn’t get created. If it doesn’t get created, the technology doesn’t get created. It’s just a vicious circle.”

The encouraging growth of cleantech and renewables witnessed in UK market has been somewhat blighted by politicking and infighting within government. If it’s not arguments over the feed-in tariff for solar PV, it’s an energy minister criticising onshore wind.

And while the most innovative businesses in the sustainability space ignore the goings-on in Whitehall, investors usually don’t.

The lack of a decarbonisation target in the energy bill, for example, was seen by many as a shattering failure of leadership by the government at a time when leadership was desperately needed.

Investors – and most importantly, jobs and economic growth – will go elsewhere if this squabbling continues, so it’s vital that the government starts singing from the same hymn sheet. Consistency is the key.

But all is not lost. The industry can take solace and positivity from the achievements of the businesses at the New Energy & Cleantech Awards 2013: those that went home with gongs, and those that didn’t.

It is these businesses that truly ‘get’ the scale of the task ahead. And it is these businesses that are acting on the marvellous opportunities that tackling sustainability challenges present.

Further reading:

Ecology scoops top gong at New Energy & Cleantech Awards 2013

We need a credible green innovation growth strategy

Jonathon Porritt: the wonderful world of clean energy technology

Home-grown innovation that might just change the world

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2012

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