In March 2023, Rishi Sunak announced his plans for cementing the UK as a science and technology superpower by 2030. The government pledged to:
... foster the right conditions for industry innovation and world leading scientific research to deliver high-paid jobs of the future, grow the economy in cutting-edge industries, and improve people’s lives from better healthcare to security.
I suppose the “right conditions” for such ambitions are, to some extent, subjective. What is less ambiguous though are Rishi’s plans for supercharging tech start-ups through injections of public cash and attracting inward investment:
... we are putting the full might of the British government and our private sector partners behind our push to become a scientific and technological superpower, because only through being world-leaders in future industries like AI and quantum will we be able to improve the lives of every Briton.
My point in highlighting these quotes is not to make the case that Rishi Sunak is being insincere in his statements of intent with regard to technology. In fact, it is quite clear that he believes that the UK tech industry has a significant part to play in shaping the way AI technologies are adopted. The technology is high up his agenda for both establishing the UK as a leader in AI governance, and his own personal legacy on the global stage, with his AI safety summit. Given the international cooperation necessary for the success of his aims for the UK technology industry, establishing the country’s leadership credentials on the world stage are the key to unlocking that potential.
Fast forward to September 2023, when Rishi Sunak stood behind a podium emblazoned with the slogan “LONG-TERM DECISIONS FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE”, and with all the conviction of a pre-recorded ‘on-hold’ message, informed us that the government would no longer be forcing us all to have seven bins in our house. Whether or not this policy was real (it wasn’t) is seemingly irrelevant to Rishi Sunak and the current Conservative government. The speech was red meat for an entirely imaginary voter base. I have never met a single person with seven bins, nor anyone with any particular concern about the number of bins they may be required to maintain in the future. In fact, most of the people I know don’t have enough bins. The bin problem, as I understand it, is one of scarcity rather than superfluity, but I digress.
Despite the way the speech was written and delivered, the message was clear: the UK Government is no longer prepared to commit to the Net Zero pledges they made previously. A massive disappointment to most, but it may be worth noting that many felt the UK government’s Net Zero pathway lacked credibility in the first place, with too much emphasis placed on carbon offsetting and carbon capture and storage. The rollback on these Net Zero pledges, aside from being damaging to the environment on both a short and long term basis, presents the United Kingdom on the global stage as not a leader, nor a centre for global excellence, but instead as an uncooperative centre of instability and inconsistency.
The tech industry is increasingly centred around sustainable innovation, with many startups and established companies aligning their goals with the global push for environmental sustainability. This is consistently the case with startups across industries, and investors are keenly aware of this trend and are more inclined to support ventures that have a strong commitment to sustainability. Sunak's abandonment of Net Zero commitments sends a confusing message to investors who were counting on a supportive government to foster a green tech ecosystem, hindering the sector's competitiveness on the global stage. Instead of supercharging the UK tech industry, Rishi’s row back appears to be having the opposite effect on the battery life here.
The U-turn also makes the government ambitions for the UK as a global center of AI regulation seem, quite frankly, laughable. Sunak's failure to make difficult decisions in pursuit of his own environmental goals contradicts his vision and begs the question: how can the UK be seen as a trustworthy authority in shaping the ethical and safe use of AI if it can’t demonstrate a strong commitment to environmental responsibility?
The international cooperation required for the UK to become such a leader is evidently absent, much like Sunak himself at the most recent UN summit. Antonio Guterres declared there would be “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters, or repackaging of announcements from previous years” at this years event, and Rishi presumably avoided it on the basis that such requirements would leave him with very little material left to work with.
The critical infrastructure required for the proper functioning of industries and economies are also at risk from a loosening of environmental regulations. For example, the semiconductors, trade routes, data centres and connectivity required to sustain and grow the tech industry are all vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Those threats may come in forms of droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, natural disasters, or societal collapse. The failure to join up the dots between environment and economy shows not only a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the challenges that we face, but also a misunderstanding of the very material nature of the world we live in.
Rishi Sunak’s speech was a desperate attempt to garner favour from a voter base that simply will not materialise. The implications of the policy announcement and delay of Net Zero ambitions will be felt not only on an environmental level, but on an economic level, and perhaps most importantly, they are in direct contradiction of his own stated ambitions for his legacy as a politician.
One might hope this is his “mini-budget moment”, and someone will soon set up a live stream of a wilting lettuce for us to watch in glib anticipation of leadership that might take the UK forwards, rather than backwards.