6 December 2021 • 8 min

Ilaria Regondi

Interview on Net Zero Innovation

with Maurits van Tol, Chief Technology Officer of Johnson Matthey 

By Ilaria Regondi, Her Majesty's Deputy Trade Commissioner for Europe, Department for International Trade (DIT)

Murits Van Tol

Maurits van Tol, Chief Technology Officer of Johnson Matthey, a global leader in sustainable technologies, sat down with the UK's Deputy Trade Commissioner for Europe, Ilaria Regondi. They discussed the role of government and business in combating climate change, the importance of diversity of thought and representation, and the role of innovation.


1. Why does clean growth and net zero matter to you?


Ilaria: Clean Growth matters hugely, to all of us. It certainly matters a whole lot to the UK. The United Kingdom is a leader in the green agenda, putting Clean Growth at the heart of its industrial strategy and its post-Brexit raison-d’etre.

And it has done so not just in words but through concrete commitments. For example, the UK was the first major economy to commit to reach Net Zero by 2050 and set a legally binding target to do so. Since then its greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 45% below 1990 levels.

Additionally, in line with the recent recommendations from the Climate Change Committee, the UK has renewed its pledges, setting the world’s most ambitious climate target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035. Published in October 2021 the Net Zero Strategy sets out clear policies and proposals for keeping us on track for our coming carbon budgets, our ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), and then sets out our vision for a decarbonised economy in 2050.

Last but not least, the PM’s 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution sets the ambition for up to 250,000 green jobs by 2030.

Given this, I am thrilled that the eyes were on the UK when it took on the presidency of COP26 in Glasgow in November, following on from the G7 Summit held in Cornwall in June.

We already see business like Johnson Matthey AND governments stepping up and taking firm climate action by joining and advocating the UNFCCC’s Race to Zero.

It goes without saying that business is absolutely essential - we need the innovation, influence and energy of the private sector on our side to deliver net zero.

What we would like to see is even greater ambition from companies and investors by encouraging them to join the Race to Zero.

We need large businesses and smaller ones to sign up and are calling on those businesses already committed to become advocates for a positive vision of the low carbon transition, working with peers, customers, and crucially across their supply chains and with governments of countries they operate in.

We as a country and as a government are responding to this changed business context.

Recognising a changing landscape, as a region we have reshaped ourselves to create a dedicated Clean Growth campaign to focus and drive efforts towards the green sectors of the future, and to help businesses grasp the many and growing commercial opportunities in the green space, by making sure the right support, promotion activities and financing are in place for business. We even have analysed our own carbon footprint and are taking action.

We are running a whole host of activities across the 33 countries that are part of our region. These are designed to foster partnerships between UK and European business – so necessary to solve the challenges ahead collaboratively.

Clean Growth makes good business sense: businesses wanting to keep a competitive edge are ramping up investments in clean growth solutions and greening their supply chains as consumer preferences shift towards more sustainable goods and services.


Maurits:  We recently made a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 and became a signatory to the Business Ambition for 1.5C, so JM became a member of the UNFCCC’s “Race to Zero” campaign ahead of COP26.

We really are at a turning point in history. Ensuring global temperatures only rise by 1.5 degrees (or as close to this as possible) will require action on a scale we’ve never seen before.

We need to work on four major societal transformations: 1. the mobility transition from internal combustion engines to battery and fuel cell electric vehicles, 2. the drive towards clean energy, the hydrogen economy, 3. the drive to produce the basic chemical building blocks that society needs to thrive in a low carbon way, and 4. the creation of a circular economy for the critical materials and precious metals that are key components of many sustainable technologies.

Being founded more than 200 years ago, Johnson Matthey has a deep understanding of metals chemistry and great experience innovating in it to solve big complex problems. Sustainable technology is at the heart of what we do. That expertise has never been more relevant than it is today, helping us enable and accelerate the big transitions to decarbonise transport, energy and chemicals production, and recycle scarce metals.

Clean growth and net zero matters to everyone at JM as we are all affected by the effects of climate change! It’s also high on the agenda for many of our external stakeholders, from our investor community to customers, partners and, importantly, the talent we’ll need to deliver on our vision. It’s great to work for a company that has the contribution to a cleaner and healthier world at its core.


2. Do you agree that both innovation and diversity of thought are central to progress?


Maurits: Innovation has never been more important than it is today: the drive towards net zero that we see around the globe is fuelling an urgent need for more innovation and the scale up of new ideas as quickly as possible.

Companies that have sustainable technologies at their core will show “the art of the possible” and will perform techno-economical and life cycle analysis evaluations. This will in turn again fuel the deployment of such technologies, and will help governments to set standards around the best available technologies.

One thing that’s clear to me is the importance of diversity and inclusion in our innovation teams. Research shows that a diverse team, with many different points of view, is a stronger team, and that’s certainly my experience.

What is Johnson Matthey’s experience with Innovate UK? UK Research and Innovation funding has been a great support for us especially in developing new collaborative projects and exploring high risk (low-mid TRL) technologies; and developing new partnerships with other corporates, SMEs and academia. We are currently collaborating on around 10 Innovate UK projects.

In general we currently sponsor over 100 students around the globe (but majority are in the UK).

What is Johnson Matthey’s experience with R&D tax credits? The support we get helps us to do more, to take on more challenges in the cleantech space. We are grateful for the support we are getting from the UK government and from other sources. It helps us and our customers and partners to develop and deploy new technologies, faster.


Ilaria: I am a firm believer in the notion that innovation benefits from diversity of thought. From my experience, people and teams with different backgrounds and experiences look at problems differently, leading to better, more innovative solutions.

But it’s not just my hunch. The evidence actually speaks for itself - research conducted by Deloitte shows that organizations with inclusive cultures are 6 times more innovative and agile, 8 times as likely to achieve better business results, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets than organizations that are less diverse.

There is always room for improvement but on the whole I’m pretty proud of the UK’s commitment to the diversity agenda.

Fundamental to the very identity of the United Kingdom – which brings together 4 countries with different cultures and customs – is the belief in the strength of difference. And I think that the tolerance, the space that the UK creates for diversity has an impact on outcomes and more specifically on innovation.

In turn: innovation obviously turns ideas into economic growth; it translates discoveries into new products, services and jobs, creating positive change in businesses, public services, government and wider society.

At a very practical level, Innovate UK, for example, has published a study to help inform how diversity and inclusion within the organisation can promote business innovation.

Diversity and Inclusion is also key element of the COP Presidency.

Essential to these two outcomes is meaningful engagement with, and the involvement of, all Parties and non-state actors, including marginalised voices. Including countries that are coming at the problem from total opposite ends of the spectrum will be the key to getting an agreement and securing the legacy of the Paris accords.

In summary, diversity, inclusion and climate change go hand-in-hand: and this trio is what we need to turn the UK into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, enabling a sustainable future and laying the foundations for decades of green-fuelled prosperity.


3. What is the role of governments in fostering innovation to deliver net zero?


Ilaria: You might expect me to say this, but Governments have a pivotal role to play in innovation.  First and foremost, they ought to put the right, long-term policies and frameworks in place to give business the confidence to invest in innovation. They are critical to creating the right environment to enable innovation to take place.

Policies like the Contract for Difference, for example, have massively contributed to cost-reduction in the offshore wind industry, not only in the UK but around the world. Governments can also set strategies, set the direction of travel, set the framework within which businesses operate, can set the way.

The Ten Point Plan I mentioned earlier sets out the approach government will take to build back better, support green jobs, and accelerate our path to net zero. It will mobilise £12 billion of government investment – which signals that govts also of course have a role to play in seed funding, in setting the example.

The Ten Point Plan focuses, for instance, on increasing ambition in the following areas: zero emission vehicles; green public transport, encouraging cycling and walking, new and advanced nuclear power and so on.

The UK invests hugely in innovation and I should mention that our Business Department (BEIS) has launched a £1bn innovation portfolio and specifically includes:

  • Launch of a £20 million programme to support the development of floating offshore wind technology across the UK
  • £240m Net-Zero Hydrogen Fund to increase low carbon hydrogen production
  • A new £68 million UK-wide competition to implement several first-of-a-kind energy storage prototypes or technology demonstrators
  • A £4 million UK-wide competition for the first phase of a biomass feedstocks programme, to support the rural economy in making improvements to the production of green energy crops and forestry products.
  • The Faraday Battery Challenge, investing £318m into the research and development of long-lasting, recyclable batteries.

Government also has the power to incentives and reward positive behaviour of course.

Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation agency, supports innovators across the UK, helping them access the knowledge, partners, investment and markets they need to innovate and grow.


Maurits:  I believe that consistent policies around clearly articulated industry and net zero targets are very helpful. The mobility, energy, low-carbon emitting tech transformations are enormous tour de forces, need heavy investments, and hence a steady long term approach/security.

It’s also really important that we take a ‘learn by doing’ approach to these new technologies. The first applications of, say, creating clean hydrogen at scale will never be one hundred percent perfect.

But if we get on with pilot projects we will learn so much and move with the pace needed to meet the challenges of reaching net zero. And to do this, we’ll need the business models in place that will help make these technologies commercially viable for the producers in the short term.

The piloting and scale up of new technologies, supported by government, will help us establish the UK Plc as a leading exporter of sustainable technologies.


4. How do partnerships and innovation help Europe - including the UK - deliver Net Zero?


Maurits: Many of the core technologies needed to achieve net zero are there already. However, several need to be scaled-up still. Governments can help in that scale-up process by subsidizing the first deployment of new technologies at scale.

We work very closely with many parties, customers, knowledge institutes, etc. Examples I would like to mention are the Hynet and Acorn consortia that are pioneering the transformation of large parts of society towards a hydrogen economy.

These projects both feature our award-winning low carbon hydrogen production technology. It is exciting to see our new tech being brought to scale. I am confident that this pioneering technology will become a major export product for JM, for the UK, as the interest we experience in our blue hydrogen technology from around the world is impressive.

Climate change is a global issue and needs global cleantech deployment, at pace. Europe, with its outstanding science base, can develop further into a global cleantech powerhouse if we continue to collaborate across borders.

And we are a global company with significant expertise and keen to develop further collaborations with other corporates, start-ups or regional governments around hydrogen projects, valleys and hubs in Europe.

Moving forward we will explore how we can develop new collaborations in R&D with other corporates, start-ups, regional governments (public-private partnership) etc to be part of some of these initiatives.


Ilaria: For me, this question is all about working collaboratively in the innovation space to achieve common goals.  The UK and Europe, together, play a big role in delivering net zero. We share and drive similar ambitions and values and both invest hugely in innovation.

Europe is the UK’s leading trading partner – with around half of UK trade taking place with the continent.

In a brilliant example of partnership we were hosting COP26 - in partnership with Italy - in November, in a year where we are implementing the Trade Cooperation Agreement with our European neighbours.

It might sound a bit cheesy but it feels like stating the obvious that the biggest challenges of our times can only be achieved together.

Interestingly, and despite the headlines, the EU and its member states share similar Net Zero ambitions to the UK: The EU aims to be climate neutral in 2050 with the European Green Deal, an action plan which resonates with Our Plan for Growth. As mentioned earlier, the UK launched the £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, while the EU has the Innovation Fund.

This goes to show that the need to accelerate the commercialisation of innovative low-carbon technologies, systems and processes is understood by all parties.

It also means that trade of clean technologies and solutions between the UK and Europe are key for a green recovery and the net zero transition

Only by working together internationally can we accelerate the transition to global net zero at the pace required.

Working with our European partners, we need to ensure our excellence in discovery research, design, engineering, data science, and creative arts translates into commercial applications to deliver net zero by 2050 the latest – increasing the productivity of our existing industries and creating new growth opportunities for the UK and across Europe.

The UK government has a target to raise total investment in research and development to 2.4% of UK GDP by 2027. Association to Horizon Europe, which was announced by the UK government in January, furtherss the UK’s ambition to become a global science superpower - continuing important collaboration on scientific research with EU partners.

This means UK scientists, researchers and businesses would be able to access funding under the programme on equivalent terms as organisations in EU countries. Association will continue to give the UK access to cross-border networks, supply chains for new products and access to global talent. Our participation in these programmes should be a “win-win” for everyone – UK and EU researchers and businesses have a long history of collaborating. Combining our resources helps all of us achieve the shared aims of the programmes.

In terms of specific partnerships to mention: As part of our new Plan for Growth, the UK announced over £7bn structured funding and support through UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) as well as £85bn to fund large-scale collaborative research and innovation projects through Horizon Europe 2021-27. This is a really important step in addressing the challenges and opportunities ahead – as we deliver net zero for current and future generations.

Our hydrogen partnership is another key example of collaboration. By way of context, the Prime Minister’s 10 Point Plan is clear on our aim to have 5 Gigawats of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for use across the economy.

Through the Hydrogen Advisory Council (in which Johnson Matthey is involved) government and industry work together to identify and promote concrete actions required to enable the supply of low carbon hydrogen at scale for use across the energy system.

One specific partnership my team is involved in is Mission Innovation on Clean Hydrogen. Launched at COP21 in Paris, Mission Innovation is a global initiative to accelerate public and private clean energy innovation to address climate change, make clean energy affordable to consumers, and creating green jobs and commercial opportunities.

Through Mission Innovation, we help shape the priorities for hydrogen across Europe and the globe, accelerating pace of innovation and cost reduction, fostering strategic partnerships between European governments, research centres and businesses.

We have built a dedicated Clean Growth website which provides an overview of the opportunities for UK and European business to connect, form R&D partnerships and simply do business together to deliver net zero.

5. Looking ahead – what are you most excited about in the coming year?

Maurits:  Post-pandemic, I feel in general people have become more aware of the importance of protecting our planet. This will provide opportunities to build a cleaner society, at pace. For us at JM this provides an opportunity to leave a positive legacy regarding cleantech deployment and I find that particularly exciting.


Ilaria:  I’ve talked about it a lot but it has got to be the activity across our region and the role we, as a government, as a team, as individuals have to play in the movement towards greater sustainability as we deliver beyond COP26.

We have built a dedicated Clean Growth website which provides an overview of the opportunities for UK and European business to connect, form R&D partnerships and simply do business together to deliver net zero.

The path is full of opportunities.