Wednesday 7 October 2020 5:38 am

Investing in a greener future: How do we make the sums add up?

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official

By 2030, the UK will produce enough wind from offshore sources to power every home in the land. 

That was the pledge the prime minister made to the Conservative Party Conference this week, promising to turn us into the “Saudi Arabia of wind” (a subtle joke? One can never tell with Boris). Household appliances, he declared, “will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands”.

It’s quite a promise. Beneath the sub-Churchillian rhetoric (Boris Johnson invoked Sir Francis Drake and Nelson at one point, neither of them notable innovators in the renewables sector) lie hard facts.

Read more: Boris Johnson to unveil £160m for offshore wind power

His target means we have just 10 years to reach the stage of generating 40 gigawatts of electricity from offshore turbines; we currently produce about 10.5 GW offshore and a further 13.5 GW from onshore wind. So we are looking at the prospect of more or less doubling our capacity within a decade.

This is, of course, classic Boris: expansive, optimistic, big-picture policy, with round numbers — 40 GW by 2030 —  and a general direction with which few will argue. 

Moreover, taken on its own terms, it is important. The government has committed to ambitious net-zero carbon emissions targets by 2050, a commitment reinforced by legislation and one which will keep us in step with the measures of the 2016 Paris Agreement.

The need for action is plain. Sir David Attenborough, the world-famous naturalist, has just released a film entitled “A Life On Our Planet”, which he describes as his witness statement to man’s depredation of the world’s natural resources. In it, he details not only the damage that has been done, but what might yet be enacted to reverse that damage before it is too late. Along with Greta Thunberg, Attenborough is the icon of the environmental lobby, with a reputation that carries enormous weight with ordinary people. No one now can say we didn’t know.

The stumbling block, of course, is money. The Prime Minister has talked of spending £160m on new turbine technology, but that, in truth, is a drop in the warming and rising ocean. Meaningful change will only come through a mixed economy of energy generation — and yes, that includes nuclear — and private investment on a revolutionary scale.

If global capitalism has caused much of the ecological damage, then it must also be part of the remedy. The environmental lobby will have to become more comfortable cooperating with high finance and demonstrating the profit-earning potential of its cause. 

The signs are promising: investment in funds with an environmental, social and governance (ESG) priority have never been more popular. Between April and July, some £1.2bn was invested in UK-based ESG funds, and some investment managers are expecting perhaps one third of all their work now to be with such sustainable projects.

Some of the attractions are obvious. Investor interest is now coming from a younger generation which has had awareness of ecological concerns drummed into them from the cradle. Furthermore, those companies which most successfully embed ESG principles in their fundamental structure tend also to be profitable and responsible businesses in the longer term.

But if the UK is to meet its ambitious targets, it must encourage and host much bigger ESG projects and attract much greater investment — multiple billions of pounds in technology and infrastructure. The money is out there, and this can be done. More than that, it must be done — because there really isn’t an alternative.

But rhetoric about windmills alone won’t get us there.

Read more: Name your price: How better carbon pricing can help the fight towards net zero

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.