The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
The world is not on track to avoid catastrophic climate change. Current policies are putting the Earth on a trajectory that is up to 3.9°C hotter than the pre-industrial average. At this temperature level, we will see heat waves, droughts, and floods of a magnitude humankind has never experienced before.
The United States is the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world after China and has the highest CO2 emissions per capita. The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States in November has therefore brought renewed hope that the world can avert the direct consequences of a warming planet. Biden’s climate plan—drawn up with vice-president-elect Kamala Harris—is a pragmatic acknowledgment of the challenge ahead and a burning manifesto for building a more resilient and sustainable economy. Meanwhile, the nomination of John Kerry—who signed the Paris Agreement on behalf of the US in 2016—as the first ever US climate envoy also underscores the president-elect’s commitment to make the climate a top priority of his presidency.
Innovation is widely recognised as a key to achieving the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. It is telling, however, that Biden’s climate agenda uses the term only in connection with the development and commercialisation of clean energy technologies. This reflects a traditional understanding of innovation, one that has dominated climate action in the past two decades. Yet it may no longer be appropriate for addressing the problem in front of us.
As we enter what many call the “decisive decade”, climate change is no longer primarily a problem of technology development but of technology deployment. The world has all of the building blocks it needs to lower the economy’s emissions and strengthen society’s resilience. That is not to say that having cheaper batteries and more efficient solar cells would not be helpful. But unlike ten years ago, when President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pushed traditional research and development, our most urgent priority now is accelerating the scale-up of what we already have.
The challenge, though, is that even where compelling technology is available, its route to market is not guaranteed. The UK’s Green Deal—a finance mechanism for building retrofits launched in January 2013—provides a cautionary tale. While heralded by the then-government as “Europe’s most innovative and transformational energy efficiency programme”, it was a spectacular public policy disaster, achieving a meager 0.3% of its original ambition.
The president-elect’s climate plan wants to upgrade four million buildings over four years to make them more energy efficient. How can this be done? There is no straightforward answer, but what is clear is that technology alone will not do it. Single-point technical solutions designed to incrementally improve existing economic systems will not be able to unleash change at the scale and pace required. What we need is to weave a new fabric of society with a yarn spun not only from technological advances but also from cultural, political, social, and economic innovation. This requires a radical change in innovation paradigm, moving from single-point solutions to systems innovation.
In systems innovation, technology still plays its part but so do policy and regulation, education and re-skilling, consumer behaviour, and finance. Systems innovation also emphasises the need for new narratives and other forms of social and cultural innovation, particularly in those communities for which fossil fuels are a source of identity and belonging.
In addition, system innovation prioritises the involvement of citizens through new participation mechanisms and governance innovation. This is critical to ensure the local effectiveness of climate action and strengthen its acceptance. It will also help to instill a sense of agency and environmental justice within the communities most affected by transformative change, a key objective of the Biden-Harris plan. One example is provided by the American Just Transitions Fund, which supports coal communities in New Mexico in creating equitable, sustainable, and inclusive economic futures.
The implications of adopting systems innovation are manifold. It requires a marriage of top-down policies with bottom-up interventions that allows for the inclusion of citizens and the emergence of locally optimal climate strategies. And it warrants different partnerships, with entrepreneurial governments leading the way and joining forces with the private sector and with innovation actors outside the R&D mainstream.
Take Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent announcement to ban the sale of new diesel and gasoline cars in California by 2035. Over the next 20 years, the fifth largest economy in the world will have to build a zero-carbon transportation infrastructure. Simply replacing each of the 15.1 million carbon-emitting cars on California’s roads with electric vehicles is not going to deliver this goal. The state will also have to aggressively build out public transport, reduce urban sprawl, lower transportation demand, and upgrade its power grid. It must also trigger a mindset shift amongst its citizens away from individual car ownership toward walking, cycling, public transportation, ride sharing, and virtual mobility. To pull this off, the government will need to engage all the levers of change at its disposal in a concerted and connected manner.
In Europe, the paradigm shift from single-point solutions to mission-oriented systems innovation is already underway. Horizon Europe, the bloc’s new multi-year research and development framework, has been designed with a missions-mindset and applies systems thinking to a diverse set of topics ranging from conquering cancer to protecting oceans and waterways and restoring soil health.
Before following suit, the US may first have to overcome its steadfast belief in the “technology will save us” dogma and its romance with the Silicon Valley entrepreneur that characterises its present-day econo-cultural identity.
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