Climate innovation: “The purpose is people, everything else is just the means”
In The News
07 Nov 2022
Massamba Thioye is leading the UN climate change Global Innovation Hub (GIH), an initiative launched by the UN Secretariat at COP26 to enhance the effectiveness of the way innovation is used to support climate and sustainability. As a core partner of the Global Innovation Hub, EIT Climate-KIC will participate in GIH sessions during COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh. We had a fascinating conversation with Massamba Thioye to talk about climate challenges and opportunities.
Visit the Global Innovation Hub at COP27
Anne-Sophie Garrigou: Can you introduce us to the challenges that you are trying to solve with the Global Innovation Hub?
Massamba Thioye: There are four main challenges to promoting innovations that support climate and sustainability solutions, and the objective of the Global Innovation Hub was to address these challenges.
- Firstly, the lack of climate and sustainability solutions, on the one hand, and the low ambition of entities setting climate and sustainability goals, on the other hand, are somehow locked in a vicious circle, where each of the two is at the same time the cause and the consequence of the other.
- Secondly, the space for innovation is quite narrow. One of the objectives of the Global Innovation Hub is to expand this space for innovation, particularly to address the type of innovations that are the most transformative.
- Thirdly, innovation has historically focused mainly on technology. But big challenges such as climate and sustainability cannot be addressed with technology alone. What we need is an integrated approach, where innovation takes place not only in technology, but also in policy instruments, cooperative approaches, financial instruments, new business models, and also social innovation.
- Finally, such an innovation hub would face the risk of being a space where you stockpile solutions that are not used on the ground. To avoid this situation, the development of climate and sustainability solutions at the Global Innovation Hub is 100% demand-driven.
ASG: How will the Global Innovation Hub concretely expand the space for innovation?
MT: The way innovation currently serves climate and sustainability is with a strong focus on the sectoral level. This means that the objective is mainly to reduce the carbon footprint of existing products and services. But when you keep existing processes and products and only try to improve them, you can only achieve incremental change. This doesn’t help to find opportunities for climate action that are much more transformative, that can truly disrupt your products and processes and bring new ways to meet the needs that the previous processes and products were satisfying.
What we are doing is going back to the core human needs that are met by the products and services, and we explore how innovation can be used to satisfy these core human needs, for instance with alternative value chains that provide well-being to people while being aligned with the 1.5-degree goal and the other sustainability goals, such as increasing biodiversity, land regeneration, and doing all this within the planetary boundaries.
ASG: Can you give us an example of what this means in practice?
MT: We are currently surveying some cities about how innovation can serve them and sometimes, they respond that they would like to see innovation to support the increased use of electric vehicles in their city. What we are saying is, if you want to expand the space for innovation, you first need to ask why people need cars in the first place? What need are they meeting? Can we use innovation to satisfy the same need with fewer cars? Because we know that moving from combustion to electric vehicles is good, but having fewer cars is even better.
Instead, we can ask ourselves: Can innovation promote car sharing and carpooling? Can innovation help design cities to be more compact with most products and services within walking or biking distance? By asking these questions, you address the need for access to products and services with less need for cars.
You can even reduce the need for mobility by asking: Why do we need mobility in the first place? Mobility is not a purpose, it’s a means. The purpose behind mobility is access to products and services. Can we use innovation to access products and services with less mobility? For example, by using innovative digital solutions for teleconferencing? Or can digital technology provide us with access to municipal services without a trip?
By going back to the core human need, which is access, you can identify the type of solutions that are not apparent if you focus only on the sectoral level. If you focus on the car, you will not see the transformative solutions that disrupt the entire value chain and bring new value chains that are aligned with the climate and sustainability goals.
Creating the value chain of the future
MT: The Global Innovation Hub is trying to identify what are the value chains of the future. The first question we are trying to answer is: ‘how to satisfy the core human needs like food and shelter for the 10 billion people who will be on the planet? What does it mean concretely to satisfy these needs in a way that is aligned with the climate and sustainability goals?’
We know that some of the current value chains will need to be disrupted and that some new value chains will need to be created. Now, how can innovation support the development and upscale deployment of the value chains of the future?
In nutrition and health, we come across solutions such as plant-based protein, beans and millet. These products can satisfy the core human need in a healthy way while being aligned with the climate and sustainability goals. Then our question is how innovation – including innovative policy instruments, innovative financial instruments, and innovative technologies – can support the development and upscaling of these solutions.
ASG: The goal of businesses is still to make more money, sell more cars, more meat. How do we convince them to get on board and disrupt the way that works for them?
MT: If you want innovation to provide solutions that will be implemented, they need to be solutions that are of interest to all the key players, including existing businesses. In this specific aspect, I very often engage with carbon intensive industries. I tell them: ‘If a specific value chain doesn’t fit into a 1.5-degree world, trying to leverage innovation to improve that value chain is time and effort lost. If I were you, I would work on developing alternative value chains that can accommodate the repurposing of your current knowledge and skills, and the repurposing of your current assets. If you don’t do it, and others come up with innovative solutions that disrupt your value chain, they will not worry about whether this new value chain can accommodate your current assets, skills and competence.’
I often share the example of the Danish company, Dong, Danish Oil and Natural Gas. They were operating in the oil and gas sector and ceased all activities in these sectors to focus on offshore wind power. They became the world’s number one offshore wind power company. The most interesting part of this story is that the skills and competencies they were using to develop platforms for oil and gas exploration are precisely the same skills and competencies that they are now using to build offshore wind farms. This is a concrete example of repurposing assets, competencies and skills.
Innovation should be done in such a way that we develop alternative ways of satisfying needs, but that accommodate the repurposing of current assets and knowledge so that we limit the number of stranded resources and people.
ASG: We know that technological innovation isn’t going to be enough. Another essential stakeholder is the government. But governments aren’t designed to facilitate these transitions at a fast enough scale. So is it even possible to achieve the scale of the transition we need in the short timeframe we have?
MT: It’s not about whether it is possible or not. It is needed, and it has to be done. One of the reasons why we sometimes get stuck in this vicious circle is that we focus too much on what we – governments in particular – are perceiving as possible. That is not the right approach.
Governments should focus on what they need to do to contribute to building a world that can provide well-being while being aligned with climate and sustainability goals. The gap between what they perceive as possible today and what is needed is precisely what innovation needs to fill.
And I agree with you that technological innovation alone is not enough. We need to innovate everywhere: we need new policy instruments, new collaborative frameworks and so on. This means that all key stakeholders need to be involved. They will need to reinvent themselves and play their part.
Now, governments are elected by the people. This means that it is extremely important to raise the awareness of individual citizens, and that citizens must also have the opportunity to act, and they need to be empowered. And it is only if governments feel that pressure coming from everywhere that they will be in the obligation to move at the pace and at the scale that is required.
Governments need to be pushed because they have many things to consider. For example, before implementing policies that are aligned with the climate goals, they’ll ask themselves if this would have a negative impact on finances and the economy. And sometimes they see this as a trade-off. ‘Either I implement a policy that is aligned with the climate and sustainability goals, and this will lead to a financial crisis, or I try to avoid a financial crisis and go slower.’ But that will lead to a climate crisis. And when you have a climate crisis, everything is in crisis, including finance.
So, I think it’s important to mobilise all the different stakeholders in society, to make governments move at the pace that is required.
ASG: Going back to the Global Innovation Hub, how do you make sure that all the stakeholders work together, how do you make that happen?
MT: A key component of the Global Innovation Hub is the digital platform. As I mentioned earlier, we want the development of solutions and their scale of deployment to be driven by demand. We want to better understand what the real needs are.
This is very important for us, because most of the time we are working on the wrong problems. For example, the current NDCs (“Nationally Determined Contributions”) are not aligned with the 1.5-degree goal, and yet we are putting all our energy into trying to implement them. We need to understand what the real problem is and recognise the gap between what is needed in terms of the target, and what is considered possible. This gap will translate into demand for climate and sustainability solutions. We want decision-makers at the national and city level turn this gap into a demand for climate and sustainability solutions that will be found on the platform.
We will encourage national governments, subnational governments, corporates, and financial institutions, from the Global North and the Global South, to contribute. This is the kind of collaboration that is needed across nations.
Within a nation, we need a multi-level approach to climate action with vertical coordination, where the national government talks to sub-national governments. Very often subnational governments are not involved in the preparation of the NDCs, and they have a strategy that is completely different from the strategy of the national governments.
What is needed is a longer-term strategy for low-emission development in all countries that involves both subnational governments and non-party stakeholders such as companies and financial institutions. The Global Innovation Hub can be a place where all these actors will work together.
There is also a need for horizontal coordination with all the different ministries, because if the Ministry of Environment develops NDCs that are not aligned with the strategy of the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Finance, they will not be implemented.
ASG: What is EIT Climate-KIC bringing to the Global Innovation Hub?
MT: EIT Climate-KIC brings in the systems thinking approach, which is extremely important and not seen very often when we are trying to tackle climate. And we are really trying to bring together thought leaders who can promote that system thinking into the climate space.
Another important aspect is the EIT Climate KIC’s experience and expertise in innovation for climate and sustainability in general, and more specifically climate and sustainability innovation for cities. Cities are critical to us because they are closer to people, and the Global Innovation Hub would like to focus innovation on people rather than on the system for wealth production.
Our visions align and the work we are doing has a huge potential for synergy.
ASG: I’m glad you mentioned the focus on people. Often when we talk about climate innovation and climate technology, we forget why we’re doing it in the first place, we forget that this is about providing a better life for people. Why do you think that is?
MT: Very often the problem is that we are mixing purpose and means. The purpose is people, everything else is just the means. But when we focus on the means, we forget why we are doing it.
So everything at the moment is trying to support and serve the system for wealth production and we tend to forget that this is supposed to be done for the people. Even when we innovate, we do it on a sectoral level to maintain the system of wealth production. We forget that at the centre we need people.
Another example that says a lot about our mindset, is that we allocate the carbon budget to sectors. We say that we have to be aligned with the 1.5-degree goal, and there is a certain amount of CO2 that is left for the world to emit, but that amount is still allocated to sectors. We say that the energy sector will have that share, the cement sector will have that share, etc.
Why don’t we allocate that to the core human needs? Why don’t we say that this share goes to nutrition and health, this share goes to shelter and access. That would translate into a focus on people. But the fact that everything is just trying to serve the system of wealth production is a big issue.
ASG: As COP27 is taking place in Africa, a continent that is already heavily impacted by the climate crisis, do you think the discussion will focus more on adaptation, and therefore on people?
MT: Adaptation is important for Africa, but I do not agree with those who focus only on adaptation. Mitigation is also relevant to Africa, but what brings the confusion is that mitigation is seen as decarbonization and emissions reduction. If you go to rural Senegal and talk about emissions reduction, they might say, ‘That’s not relevant to us, we do not emit, so what do we need to reduce?’
But if you take a different perspective and talk about clean development and emissions avoidance, then mitigation makes a lot of sense in Africa. All of these countries have great potential to develop, their percentage of growth is among the highest in the world, and the challenge for them is not to reduce emissions but to avoid them. They have to develop in a clean way. So while the North will focus on decarbonizing its current infrastructure, the South should focus on clean development and then be the provider of solutions.
ASG: But one of the obvious issues here is the lack of access to finance. How do we tackle this?
MT: We have developed a financial instrument as part of the Global Innovation Hub that has been pilot tested by the Bank for International settlement, Goldman Sachs and several other partners. It is a new green bond framework. Green bonds are a very important tool, but the problem is that there is a lot of greenwashing, and very few of these green bonds are really green.
How can we address this greenwashing, make the green bonds really green, and at the same time make them attractive to mainstream financial institutions?
We came up with a new definition of green bonds, which says a green bond is a bond that has a future contract attached to it that includes a commitment to deliver, at maturity, the carbon credits generated by the project that is being financed with the proceeds of the bond.
This way, you create additional revenue for the project developer, and instead of an ex-post reward, as is currently the case in the carbon market, where you have to implement your project, to demonstrate that you have reduced emissions, and then get the credit to sell on the market, the scheme uses carbon finance as ex-ante enabler.
ASG: The final question I wanted to ask was: what does a climate-resilient future look like for you?
MT: For me, a climate-resilient future is first a future that provides flourishing life to all people in an inclusive manner, ‘no one left behind’, but doing that in a way that is aligned with the climate and sustainability goals. We want innovation to be used to build that future for 10 billion people by 2050, in a way that enhances biodiversity, and contributes to land regeneration, within planetary boundaries. This is only then that we can claim contributing to the implementation of the vision of peace, security and human dignity on which the United Nations is founded.