Investors need to “get outside the petri dish” of Earth if the UK is to effectively tackle climate change, space industry expert Will Whitehorn has said.
Speaking to The Herald, the former president of Virgin Galactic said last week’s launch of the UK’s first-ever National Space Strategy was a positive step towards improving the funding environment. However, more needs to be done to stoke domestic enthusiasm for local firms working in the industry.
“Most of the investment is happening in America,” he conceded. “The governments in China and Russia are obviously investing in space, the French government, the Italian government and German governments spend more on space than we do, but we are increasing the amount.
“In that National Space Strategy they talked about the Government now upping its investment in space, and they also talked about this climate issue as being at the core of why we need a national strategy. There is a genuine opportunity for the UK here which I am exceptionally keen to see come to fruition.”
Mr Whitehorn’s comments came ahead of this week’s Beyond COP26 conference organised by Edinburgh Napier University, where he recently took over and Chancellor. Also currently serving as president of industry body UKspace, he will be giving the conference’s closing keynote speech.
To help tackle rising CO2 emissions from proliferating numbers of data centres, Mr Whitehorn said these facilities should be moved into outer space where they can run on non-stop solar power. He says the technical ability to do this is “no longer in question”, though it will require a coordinated effort between government and industry.
“The new technology systems for launching technology in space, like Elon Musk’s, are just so much more environmentally efficient and cheaper than ever before, we can now get the kit into space to start building this stuff,” he said. “And AI robotics has now reached the sophistication you can actually do the building without risking too many human lives.”
Mr Whitehorn is chairman of Seraphim Space Investment Trust, which in June became the UK’s first listed space technology fund when it was brought to market by Seraphim Capital chief executive Mark Boggett. The listing raised £180 million, with the proceeds to be invested in early-stage space technology firms.
The trust has received support from both retail and institutional investors, Mr Whitehorn said, opening up what has been the preserve of private capital.
“That is what I have been working on really, really hard over the last year and a half with Mark Boggett and others, trying to convince the government to create an investment atmosphere for space in the domestic market,” he said. “That is one of the reasons Mark and I went ahead and did Seraphim, to prove that we could raise money from institutions in Britain.”
Looking ahead to COP26, Mr Whitehorn is daunted by the “almost religious concentration” on reducing fossil fuel consumption, to the exclusion of pursuing other technological solutions.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that one of the other problems one perceives around COP is that there are a lot of people emotionally invested in non-technological approaches to solving the problems we have,” he said.
“I have great sympathy for those – I am a great believer. I live in a little place where we have a smallholding, we produce our own food organically, and I am very invested in that kind of thing.”
The problem, however, is that the world’s population of nearly eight billion people can’t all currently be fed through organic farming.
“We use natural gas from the North Sea in this country to make fertiliser,” Mr Whitehorn said. “We use oil in the United States, China, Vietnam, and Africa to make fertiliser.
“But we couldn’t possibly produce enough fertiliser to fertilise the land if we went organic…because there wouldn’t be enough of it.”