There is also no shortage of ingenuity or innovation. We run an Emerging Technologies Competition to support chemical innovators who are tackling global challenges. The standard of entries is incredibly high. For example, one of our recent winners is developing am easy-to-apply film that could raise the output of solar panels by 20 per cent. But we can and must do more, particularly in “hard to abate” sectors like metals manufacturing, minerals and chemical processing.
Just as the first industrial revolution brought prosperity across the UK, the green revolution can revitalise and rebalance our economy. There is a huge regional factor at play here – and this presents a risk. For example, base metal manufacturing in Wales employs thousands of chemistry-using professionals, as does the mineral industry in in the North East, Yorkshire and Humber regions.
We must have a clear transition plan for these industries, so that these regions are not adversely affected – because there is also great opportunity: investing in greening these industries will not only improve the environment, but it will also create jobs. The Government’s Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge, which provides funding for this, is a step in the right direction.
Just as the first industrial revolution relied heavily on coal, the green revolution requires certain raw materials. Unfortunately, the elements we need for solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, are much scarcer. As demand rises, we’re facing global shortages. The UK urgently needs a strategy for replacing, recycling and retaining these critical raw materials.
We must also learn from the mistakes of the past. In the first industrial revolution, we didn’t anticipate the longer-term impacts of new technologies, and we’re now dealing with the fallout. In the green industrial revolution, we must be mindful of unintended consequences: Persistent pollution, leading to adverse health effects, and damage to environmental species Equally, innovations won’t have an impact if they are not accepted by society. We need transparent, science-led regulation to build trust and protect people.
Scientists understand the risks and the opportunities very well. We can help develop a framework for safe and sustainable innovation. That’s why we’re asking the Government to set up a fully-funded, independent UK chemicals agency, like those we have for food and medicines.
With our strong reputation for science, the UK is also well-placed to influence international policymaking. At the moment, the voice of scientists is sorely lacking in the global debate. The RSC is working with the rest of the scientific community to rectify this. At a recent UN meeting, our President called for a new UN panel to bring together scientists and policymakers on chemicals, similar to the IPCC. The UK government needs to show leadership by committing financial resources to making this happen.
The green industrial revolution is within our grasp. We certainly don’t lack the ingenuity or the capacity. Then what do we need? A framework for safe and sustainable innovation, informed by scientific evidence. The right infrastructure to deliver it. Re-skilling and up-skilling our workforce. A whole-system approach, inclusive of education and continuing professional development. And of course: the investment to make all of this happen. That’s why we’re calling on the government to involve scientists in chemicals regulation and policy at a national and global level.