In what could prove to be a parting gift, Business Secretary Greg Clark announces £80m of funding for electric car and aircraft projects, and unveils a £60m sustainable plastics challenge

In what is likely to be one of his last acts as Business Secretary, Greg Clark, will today unveil two multi-million pound research programmes designed to accelerate the pursuit of the UK’s net zero target across the aviation, automotive, and packaging sectors.

As part of the government’s Industrial Strategy, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will today announce £80m of funding to support the development of next generation electric cars and planes, and unveil a new plastics pollution ‘challenge’ that will see £60m of government funding aim to mobilise £149m of investment from across the private sector.

The new £80m electric transport programme aims to bring together over 130 academic and business organisations in a bid to accelerate the development of so-called Power Electronics, Electric Machines and Drives (PEMD) technologies – the family of products that sits at the core of many electric and hybrid engines.

The government said the aim was to develop technologies for domestic use and export what would “help cut carbon emissions from a range of industries including transport, energy, agriculture and construction”.

The funding will focus on supporting proof of concept programmes or initiatives to address gaps in supply chains, developing “industrialisation centres”, and accelerating the development of UK supply chains.

Clark said the investment would help support the UK’s fast expanding electric vehicle (EV) sector and also provide a boost for the fledgling low carbon aviation space.

“Companies like Jaguar and Lotus are choosing the UK to develop their new electric vehicles, while Easy Jet and Rolls Royce have chosen the UK to develop their hybrid planes – all recognising and investing in the expertise and talents of the UK,” he said in a statement. “Building on our Faraday Battery Challenge and Battery Industrialisation Centre this co-investment from Government and industry is a key part of our modern Industrial Strategy, building on our strengths and helping to create the next generation of net zero technologies that will transform entire industries.” 

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The move builds on the government’s Industrial Strategy and its Future of Mobility Grand Challenge, which aims to eliminate diesel rolling stock from UK railways by 2040; accelerate the delivery of electric and hybrid aircraft by 2040; and ensure fully net zero road transport systems by 2040.

UK Research and Innovation chief executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said investment in next generation transport technologies will be essential to meeting the UK’s net zero target.

“Driving the Electric Revolution will strengthen the UK’s capability to deliver next generation electric vehicles, hybrid aircraft and smart grids,” he said. “It will ensure these industries, both large and small, are rooted here in the UK attracting inward investment into our manufacturing base.”

The new funding is likely to be welcomed by green businesses and campaigners. However, it comes as the government continues to face criticism over its track record on curbing transport emissions.

Emissions from the transport sector have risen in recent years, prompting warnings the UK is not on track to meet its medium term emissions target, let alone the more ambitious net zero goal. Moreover, the government continues to face fierce criticism from environmental campaigners for approving aviation expansion, while arguing that technologies that are yet to be invented will enable low carbon flight in the future.

The announcement comes on the same day as Clark is also due to announce the government will invest £60m in a new “plastic pollution challenge” designed to leverage a further £149m of private investment in new sustainable plastic and alternative packaging technologies.  

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The funding – which forms part of the Industrial Strategy’s Clean Growth Challenge – is expected to support a wide range of initiatives, including projects to curb supply chain food waste, make plastic from plants, wood, or waste feedstocks, enhance materials’ recyclability, and develop new business models.

“We have put a record level of research and development investment at the heart of our Industrial Strategy – investing to support our best minds and businesses in developing the solutions and industries of tomorrow,” said Clark. “This government and business co-investment clearly demonstrates that when it comes to cutting plastics pollution there is a shared ambition. This is a unique opportunity for our world-leading businesses and innovators to develop the materials of the future with the potential to transform our economy as well as our environment.”

The new initiative was welcomed by supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, which is today set to become the latest major retailer to remove plastic bags for fruit and vegetables at some of its stores.

“The plastics challenge is one of the greatest issues for our planet, so today’s announcement is fantastic news for retailers like Sainsbury’s that are already committed to reducing single-use plastics,” said Judith Batchelar, director of Sainsbury’s Brand. “But this is an issue that affects all retailers and manufacturers so it’s only by working together that we can make genuine progress and significantly reduce the nation’s reliance on plastic. This fund will act as a catalyst for this ‘coalition of the willing’ to address the research and innovation opportunities together and Sainsbury’s is proud to play our part.”

To support the new funding the government will today also publish a call for evidence on standards for bio-based and biodegradable plastics.

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Advocates of the technology argue it can lead to significant environmental savings, but some experts have questioned the impact of sourcing biomass-based feedstocks and the extent to which biodegradable plastics break down in the environment. The government said the new call for evidence would seek evidence from scientists, manufacturers and the research community, on “the sustainability and wider impacts of biodegradable, compostable, and bio-based plastics and asks whether new and improved standards and labelling for these materials would be valuable”.

The new programmes are expected to be two of the last announcements Clark makes as Business Secretary ahead of this week’s confirmation of a new Prime Minister.

If, as is widely expected, Boris Johnson wins the leadership race then Clark – who has argued consistently against a no deal Brexit – is tipped to be ousted from BEIS.

There had been speculation Clark would also release a major new Energy White Paper detailing plans to mobilise investment in new nuclear, carbon capture, and energy efficiency projects. However, recent reports suggested the Treasury was blocking the release of the document amidst arguments the plans should be presented to the new Prime Minister.

The new R&D funding also follows several weeks of fierce criticism of the government’s decarbonisation track record, after the Committee on Climate Change issued a progress report confirming the UK was still off track to meet its medium term emissions targets and had made scant policy progress in the past year.

Last week Environment Secretary Michael Gove, whose future as a Cabinet Minister also remains in the balance, told an audience of green business executives and environmental campaigners that the government’s climate policies were “just not good enough yet”.



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