Tackling the environmental export challenge

Just about the only thing the environmental industry could welcome in the recent Budget was the increased support for exporters.  We all know that the size of the global environmental market is huge and that the UK has potential to capture a bigger slice of this market.  

One of our roles at the Environmental Industries Commission is to support our member companies in accessing these overseas markets and in the past year we’ve made this a bigger priority. We’ve worked extensively with the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences on access to the Chinese market for UK companies with expertise in air pollution control, contaminated land remediation and waste management.  I’ve also made three UKTI-sponsored visits to the Mediterranean area to scope waste management opportunities – one to Cyprus and two to Egypt.

"We have many great environmental firms in the UK and by working together we can boost our green exports further."

All three of these country markets are of course very different.  The scale of China and her belated but determined attempts to start to address the environmental ravages caused by economic growth are well known. Cyprus in contrast is a very small EU Member State (the whole Island is legally regarded by the EU as a Member State but EU law is not applied in the Turkish controlled north) with a reasonably stable political and legal system which faces a huge challenge to meet its EU Waste targets.   Egypt is keen to modernise its waste management system against a backdrop of population growth and urbanisation (Cairo has 20 million inhabitants), but has limited financial resources and ongoing political change. 

From my experience of these three countries over the last year, I’d draw out five conclusions:

First, and unsurprisingly, converting the potential opportunities into actual business is hard.  It is possible to get lucky – one specialist British waste firm was recently approached in the UK out of the blue by Egyptian officials who wanted it to bid for a contract to build a pilot recycling plant outside Cairo for a particular waste stream.  But usually a lot of research and relationship building is needed to get anywhere.

Second, UK green technology has a generally good reputation, though it is sometimes viewed as on the expensive side.

Third, the legal framework makes a huge difference.  For example  Cyprus is not only covered by the same EU Directives as the UK but the British historical link means that the legal system is similar to ours and transpositions of EU environmental directives into Cypriot law are often copies from UK transpositions.  This instantly opens up opportunities for example to UK environmental consultancies who have expertise in the implementation of and compliance with UK regulations. 

Fourth, understanding the political complexities of target markets  and the consequent policy uncertainties is crucial. In Egypt companies from continental EU countries who have invested have sometimes been caught out by the politics around the role of the informal waste collector community known as the Zabhaleen.  Likewise while there is general agreement among Egyptian stakeholders that the current waste management system must be modernised and made more resource efficient, there is little consensus on how to do this and the national Environment Ministry has limited influence over the regional Governates.  In contrast in more centralised, autocratic middle eastern countries once a policy is decided it tends to be followed up.

Lastly, the role of UKTI.  The impact of the pressure put on embassies to support UK exports is plain to see and the UKTI officials both in UK and in embassies with whom I’ve worked have been committed  and knowledgeable.  But the bureaucracy of Government can be a problem.   Financial year deadlines can mean initiatives are undertaken at less than ideal times and the ‘seedcorn’ funding allocated to new initiatives can be too small to get to the point where the market opportunities are clear enough that UK firms will move in. 

Overall though, I’m optimistic.  We have many great environmental firms in the UK and by working together we can boost our green exports further. 

Matthew Farrow is executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission


This article first appeared on Business Green