Now the long-heralded COP21 climate change talks in Paris have concluded, we have a broad consensus on the enormous threat to our planet posed by rising CO2 emissions. But at the same time the Paris Agreement will herald massive economic opportunities afforded by the transition to a future low carbon economy.
In contrast to the Copenhagen summit six years ago, where some nations were at best reluctant participants, we now see the emergence of the world’s biggest economies – the USA, China and India – joining the EU as strong backers of urgent action.
This is not wholly altruistic. All these nations recognise that the first movers in low carbon technologies can reap significant economic rewards, most notably in the opportunity to commercialise research innovation into fully developed industries with high quality jobs and significant export receipts.
China tops the world tables in solar panel production and has deployed more than 75 gigawatts of onshore wind turbines – dwarfing the levels of activity here in Europe. They have now emerged as a key financial backer of Hinkley Point C – the first of the UK’s proposed new nuclear power plants – and hope to capitalise on EDF’s French know-how (which the UK once had) to also build out the remainder of the UK new nuclear fleet.
When it comes to energy innovation, getting in early, and lasting the course, is key. Sadly, the UK has a great track record in innovation, but is less strong in capitalising on this and building lasting industries based on that early lead.
Nuclear energy is one example, and so is onshore wind. Scotland built some of the world’s first turbines, but it was a Danish agricultural gearbox firm that took the idea and ran with it. Fast-forward 30 years and that firm, Vestas, is a multi-billion euro concern and Denmark is a global leader in wind turbine technology.
So, when it comes to our future energy choices, where does Scotland and the UK lead and how can we capitalise – with returns not only today, but in 5, 10, 20 years from now and the decades to 2050 and beyond?
With clean ocean energy we are already clearly in the lead. Scotland boasts the world’s leading grid-connected offshore test centre at EMEC, and we have the world’s most sophisticated onshore wave and tidal test tank facility – FloWave – at the University of Edinburgh. Add in decades of leading academic research and practical offshore deployment experience and Scotland has a compelling advantage.
The size of the ocean energy prize is huge. The European Commission estimates that ocean energy will deliver more than 20,000 highly skilled new jobs in Europe by 2035, and that that total market volume could reach 100GW installed by 2050. Increasingly other countries – such as France, Ireland, Japan, Chile and Canada – are looking to overtake the UK’s hard-won first mover advantage, yet Westminster appears to have given up on the sector already.
It is clear ocean energy has seen some setbacks in the last 12 months – but that is inevitable for any emerging technology – after all no-one flies in an airliner made by the Wright Brothers! The lesson of the past is that when the going gets tough, we should not throw in the towel, but we should continue to invest, to develop, and above all to stay the course.
Decades ahead, will we look back to 2015 and 2016 and see that we were right to back ocean energy, or will we be disappointed in only being able to buy the technology in from elsewhere, subsidising another country’s jobs and another country’s expertise?
Now is not the time to lose faith. Now is not the time to drop the ball. Now is the time to invest, to develop, to expand, and yes, to lead.