It really only takes a short walk though one of the UK’S many national parks to find yourself in awe of our natural environment. Our environment and the species who live within it, (including us) need to be protected, yet we find ourselves in a collision course with climate change and unsustainable practices which threaten our very way of life. But fret not! Where there are problems, there are always the innovators who will solve them. Outlined here is just an overview of some of the exciting ways we are making our world more sustainable!
Written by: Tanay Sonawane, Varshith Uppalapati, Jonathan Ouyang and Jasper Wigley
In 2022, the growth of renewable energy faced various challenges, including rising costs, supply chain disruptions, and trade policy uncertainties. However, the tables have turned in 2023, there is a strong expectation of accelerated growth in the renewable energy sector, driven by robust demand and substantial clean energy incentives, such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the EU Green Deal. The United Kingdom has made amazing progress toward achieving its net-zero emissions goals. They have successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over 50% compared to 1990 levels and now generate 33% of their electricity from renewable sources. However, the journey towards net-zero involves tackling more significant challenges, such as decarbonizing transport, homes, offices, and completing the transition to low-carbon power generation.
Offshore wind energy is positioned as a critical element in the transition to carbon-neutral energy production. Europe, in particular, boasts a vast offshore wind resource. With targets to achieve 450 GW of offshore wind by 2050, offshore wind is anticipated to play a substantial role in meeting 30% of Europe's electricity demand in 2050. However, this ambitious goal comes with its own set of challenges, such as the need to accelerate site development, address environmental impacts, and build offshore grids to support this massive growth. Moreover, recent macroeconomic factors such as high inflation, interest rates have made many offshore wind projects too expensive leading to developers like Orsted to cancel projects around the world, further intensifying the challenges.
Hydrogen is emerging as a versatile clean energy solution for sectors that are challenging to decarbonize, such as industrial processes, heating, and hard-to-electrify transportation. Hydrogen comes in different forms, including grey, blue, and green hydrogen, each with varying environmental impacts. As global demand for clean hydrogen is projected to increase significantly, the key challenge lies in scaling up its production, reducing costs, and creating a competitive market for this essential energy carrier. British companies like ITM Power, Johnson Matthey, and Ceres Power are at the forefront of developing low and zero carbon hydrogen technologies, driving continuous innovation. Noteworthy projects in the Orkney Islands have showcased how hydrogen can address local energy challenges by utilising excess renewable electricity for production, aiding in decarbonization efforts. Pioneering initiatives across the UK have provided valuable insights, promoted further research, and paved the way for expanding hydrogen production capacity as a low carbon fuel across the energysystem.
However, cybersecurity is becoming increasingly crucial in the clean energy sector. As clean energy gains prominence in global energy production, it has also become a prime target for cyberattacks. The UK’s energy sector was the target of 24% of all cybersecurity incidents in the country last year. These threats are expected to rise in 2023, endangering both utility-scale and distributed renewable energy resources. The threats encompass a range of actors, including ransomware attackers, nation-state-affiliated cybercriminals, and individual hackers who often exploit vulnerabilities in industrial control systems through phishing and malware.
Zenobe energy is a firm which has been working in bringing clean energy to our economy, focussing on electrification of logistics fleets and providing clean energy to those firms. Newcleo is another example, a company designing future nuclear reactors to be as efficient and safe as possible.
As we move further into 2023, the commitment to clean energy remains paramount in building a sustainable and environmentally responsible future.
In a traditional economic system, we often see a conventional linear approach - the ‘take-make-dispose’ economic model. The circular economy sets out to challenge this type of economy activity by prioritising resource efficiency. In this sense, the model’s main objective is to extend the life cycle of materials, maximising value extraction during usage and at the end of product life. In other words, the materials are not discarded at the end of their lifespan, but are instead recovered and regenerated, thereby forming a circular structure.
In a more nuanced sense, the circular economy is an economic system that is restorative by design – where we aim to optimise both human wellbeing and ecosystem functioning, thus striking a balance between environmental and social dimensions.
Relating to environmental sustainability, the circular economy is a significant contributor towards minimising waste, reducing the need for new resource extraction, and thus greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, it encourages the increased use of renewable resources and sees waste as a valuable resource that can be utilised to achieve a sustainable production and consumption pattern.
Furthermore, by encouraging practices such as reuse, repair, refurbish and recycle, the circular economy enables business innovations, where the life of products is prolonged, and the inherent value of materials are preserved. It also encourages businesses to find ingenious ways to reduce the environmental footprint of new material production. In this sense, the adoption of the circular economy is immediately connected with sustainable economic growth where it actively contributes to the increase in GDP while simultaneously conserving the environment. Indeed, it is a system with considerable environmental, economic, and social ramifications, strongly influencing the methods of production and consumer behaviour.
Some of the big ideas operating in this genre of sustainability include IntelliDigest, a company tackling food waste within the catering sector. Other examples include Dizzie which in the UK is creating reusable packaging in grocery shops.
Thus, it is evident that the circular economy introduces a gateway towards delivering benefits for both the environment and society. By tackling the issue of finite resource consumption through enhancing the lifespan of resources, the circular economy is undoubtedly a pivotal shift in the journey towards environmental sustainability.
In a world more congested than ever, sustainable mobility lies at the core of unlocking net-zero targets and tackling climate change. In all its guises, transport represents a significant aspect of the economy which must necessarily move with trends of increased conservation to address global warming. Indeed, when we think of Sustainable Mobility, many might think of walking more, or driving less, but the picture is more complex than that. Everything from diverse public transport systems in metropolitan areas to mainstream adoption of carbon-neutral electric cars must play a role in this sustainable movement.
So, what is it? Sustainable mobility encompasses environmentally conscious transportation practices aimed at minimizing fuel consumption and emissions to support ecosystem regeneration and reduce ecological impact. This essentially describes a new mindset towards transport that looks for the intersection of environmental benefit and public efficiency. However, this is easier said than done. Traditional transportation methods, namely cars, HGVs, buses & trains, are currently responsible for 34% of the UK’s carbon emissions. With internal combustion engines still widespread, its no wonder the government have stressed the importance of sustainable mobility. With issues of air pollution, traffic congestion and volatile supplies of fossil fuels only compounding the matter, the need for action is only becoming more pressing.
The first method of increasing sustainable mobility is that of public transport. Whether via metro systems, rails or networks, driving more efficient transport use via group travel can play a significant role in the green transition. With cities like London leading the way, metropolitan leaders everywhere should strive to enact policy which encourages this. The second method of note is active transportation. Referring to walking and cycling, active transportation has also been on the rise across Europe as cities become more geared towards it, now accounting for 20-40% of all journeys across the continent. The third, and perhaps most flashy, is that of electric vehicles (EVs). With Musk’s Tesla bringing EVs into the mainstream for the first time, the profile of battery-powered cars has risen to the forefront of public consciousness. Though still hampered by constraints of technology, affordability and accessibility, EVs are steadily beginning to infiltrate every country and economic system.
Arrival is a firm that recently has emerged in the UK, focussing on developing electric vans for commercial use. Other startups include ONTO which focusses on delivering an electric car subscription allowing individuals to access electric cars more easily and for better value.
At the heart of driving the previously discussed sustainable components, will be government policy, regulation and urban planning. Beyond just setting ambitious (or not) net-zero goals, creating and investing in the infrastructure to provide the foundation for success in these areas is critical. This encompasses both public and private investment, which will need to work in tandem to drive significant progress, as shown by Musk’s extraordinary success in the US Space Sector. This means the combination of ongoing private technological innovation and relevant policy, like EV incentives and developing public transportation networks. With the correct governance, private and public institutions can work hand-in-hand with communities to ensure that these trends move in the direction and create a greener future.
From what we have explored today it does look like our sustainability space is truly growing, and becoming a key facet of our economy. In the future we can now truly imagine ourselves relying on Hydrogen power and electric cars. Ultimately sustainability’s greatest challenge is keeping up with an ever changing political and policy agenda, but we can see that there is much opportunity in this area of startups and entrepreneurship. Where this industry goes is certainly unclear due to its infancy, but what we do see is enormous potential for both profit and benefit for many people around the world.