The global pandemic has bought us more time to make the changes necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. But innovation solutions need to have a global appeal to be truly impactful, says Elena Bou, Innovation Director at EIT InnoEnergy
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pressed start on the world’s climate change catastrophe countdown clock. Two years on, we have little over a decade left to prevent irreversible damage to our climate and, echoing the sentiments of General Assembly president María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, we are the only generation that can stop the clock.
When the energy transition began, there was a wide margin for action. Think of it like a funnel. At the wide end, most businesses and countries were safe from climate-related extinction. We had time to explore all manner of potential solutions, reach a dead end and circle back to try something else.
But that time has now passed. As the world’s tolerance to carbon emissions decreases and population and consumption patterns increase, society is under increasing pressure to transition to sustainability—the funnel’s walls are closing in. Stray outside of the funnel’s edges, and climate catastrophe awaits. We need to begin consolidating our ideas.
Europe has raised its ambition accordingly. The European Commission’s Just Transition Mechanism will help mobilise at least €150 billion from 2021-27 to ensure no one is left behind by the energy transition. At the same time, the European Investment Bank has pledged €1 trillion for climate action and environmental sustainability investments to 2030.
But then the covid-19 pandemic happened; the scale and gravity of which could have very easily derailed the plan. But as the old adage goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade (and sell it for a profit too, if you are the enterprising kind). The near stop of the climate change clock thanks to the temporary reduction in carbon emissions, has created a once in a generation opportunity to make an even greater leap forward in the energy transition, one that was simply not possible before.
To make the most of this pause, we must reset our focus. We need a new litmus test for energy innovation: can this innovation transcend borders?
Millions of people are still without access to electricity, and billions still rely to some extent on fossil fuels. We no longer have time for innovations that can only be applied to a small corner of the world. Instead, we need innovations with strong global business cases that can be scaled to benefit millions of people at a time.
A focus on scalability requires an important change in the way we problem-solve as an industry. If an energy innovation works in Zimbabwe, will it also work in Germany or Malaysia? If not, can the application be tailored to suit, while the underlying premise of the innovation remains the same?
In a nutshell: innovators should think about solving a problem, not about a technology or a product. And, especially in sustainability, climate change problems are global. As with viruses, there are no borders for climate change.
And the same attention should be paid to the entire energy transition ecosystem—from investors and industry to entrepreneurs and markets and graduates and employers to researchers and students. We no longer have the time to double up on research or chase incremental improvements. We need to cross-pollinate all our work to accelerate the energy transition.
This is one of the stand-out learnings from highly-successful pockets of innovation such as Silicon Valley. Nearly half of all the entrepreneurs and innovators who work there are not American; diversity is part of its fibre. Ideas, learnings, research, and know-how from every corner of the world all connect there and forge synergies. The shift to virtual events, such as EIT InnoEnergy’s TBB Connect creates another opportunity to connect across borders.
Silicon Valley in its entirety will never be wholly replicated elsewhere. But Europe, with its 26 legislatures and cultures, can take inspiration to forge its own path. With more connections, we stand to multiply the opportunity by finding others that align with our objectives who can share in our plans.
EIT InnoEnergy is often the bridge between two worlds. When we see a challenge that has relevant implications, or an opportunity to deepen the impact of an energy innovation we crowd in everyone necessary so that it can play out at scale.
Much like the human towers of Catalonia, innovation needs many components to support it and for it to reach the highest level possible. These human towers are not so much about the physics but about the community that creates it; highly committed and talented individuals that share a common purpose.
With the recent focus on a sustainable recovery, there has been a flood of news, initiatives, and issues to think about. Decisive in its nature, a litmus test can cut through to where industry needs now to focus its attention.
The test is simple: whatever your thought or action, ask yourself, can I scale it so that it is widely applicable? If the idea or innovation cannot be of benefit to millions globally, then it may no longer make enough of an impact to help us beat the clock.
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