Boosting climate adaptation with innovation, an Opinion by Dr. Tom Mitchell

Innovation can help overcome the climate adaptation gap and create jobs in the new adaptation economy, but only if we seize the moment, writes EIT Climate-KIC Chief Strategy Officer Dr. Tom Mitchell.

On January 25 and 26, 2021, world leaders address the Climate Adaptation Summit against the backdrop of ever greater threats from climate change and a yawning gap in the money needed to address the adaptation challenge. While COVID-19 has bumped climate disasters from the headlines, $US125 billion worth of damages in 2020 and millions of people plunged back into extreme poverty are screaming warning sirens.

Surviving and thriving in the face of extreme weather and climate is already a major challenge for many people around the world. But working on climate adaptation solutions today could create significant opportunities for improvements in health and wellbeing as well as for innovation and job creation globally. Whether growing crops in deserts, harvesting water from the wind, creating porous cities, or finding natural ways to cool our homes, the adaptation economy is booming. The consultancy PWC estimates climate-focused start-up investment has increased by nearly 3750 per cent in the last six years, and research commissioned by EIT Climate-KIC found the adaptation economy in 2016 was already worth €279 billion globally and was forecast to grow at 11 per cent per year.

To accelerate adaptation solutions to scale faster, UNDP, EIT Climate-KIC and partners are launching, on 25 January 2021, the Adaptation Innovation Marketplace (AIM). It brings together funders, investors, entrepreneurs, as well as market catalysts and offers a place for governments to go if they want to capture a slice of the action. But world leaders can go further, seizing the moment to trigger an adaptation innovation wave and helping resilient economic recovery from COVID-19 at the same time, by: 

  • Supporting and growing domestic climate adaptation innovation clusters, especially in the most exposed and vulnerable places, rather than relying on technology transfer from richer countries.
  • Helping adaptation-focused start-ups and SMEs get to market faster, bringing new adaptation technologies to the challenge and creating jobs too. 
  • Involving investors from the start and creating strong policy signals to encourage long-term growth of the local adaptation economy. The demand-side is crucial, so we need ambitious local adaptation strategies and targets embedded with economic development strategies.
  • Committing to sustained efforts to build the market systems needed to grow the adaptation economy – like access to finance, regulation, skills, supporting tax regimes, policy and legal frameworks, and healthy, stable labour markets.

This approach has been at the core of EIT Climate-KIC’s decade-long work in Europe. We have built climate innovation hubs that have triggered €1.5 billion in follow-on start-up investment, launched more than 500 new products to the market, trained 40,000 innovators and entrepreneurs, and created more than 10,000 jobs. Through partnerships with governments, incubators, and multi-lateral agencies, we are now ready to use our knowledge to help establish climate adaptation innovation hubs beyond Europe.

Putting societal impact first

But in the face of mounting climate risk, does this business-led innovation model create the ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented’ changes the IPCC calls for? Will it be enough to bring the improvements in resilience we now need? In an attempt to start answering these questions, EIT Climate-KIC launched its strategy Transformation in Time in 2018. We believe a new model of innovation is needed. One that aims to shift whole systems to strengthen resilience through new ideas applied to multiple barriers to progress simultaneously – known as systems innovation. It involves deliberately designing and sourcing climate adaptation innovations across finance, policy, regulation, citizen engagement and technology in a test-learn-adjust approach that appreciates adaptation is a property of complex system dynamics.

Our teams are now working with regional leaders in Andalusia (Spain), Nouvelle-Aquitaine (France), the Dolomites (Italy) and Glasgow (United Kingdom). These European regions are facing risks of more frequent floods and other dangerous weather events, resulting in damage to homes, roads and railways, and stresses to hospitals and emergency services as global temperatures rise due to climate change. Our efforts there put climate resilience at the heart of a mission-driven innovation strategy, while also creating the conditions for business and job creation. Glasgow City Region’s Adaptation Strategy, Choosing to Flourish in Our Future Climate is the most recent example of taking EIT Climate-KIC’s systems innovation approach to adaptation.

This innovation model also appreciates that many different people and groups have great new ideas about how to adapt to climate change. It creates a space and process to drive unprecedented co-operation between multiple stakeholders and moves beyond the project-by-project mantra that has dogged international efforts to support adaptation locally. 

For decades, the focus of climate action has been given to mitigation. Yet, the burdens of adaptation are predominantly falling on the world’s most vulnerable populations and we still need massive financial support to answer those needs. With the Adaptation Innovation Marketplace, we hope to use the increased political momentum for adaptation and resilience to drive forward progress on locally-led adaptation and accelerate innovative technologies, practices and businesses models for adaptation. We understand EIT Climate-KIC’s efforts on business creation as one of many essential factors that must all be part of a collaborative endeavour and whole economic and social approach to solving climate adaptation. And today, we are looking forward to building the connections between the locally-led business creation efforts that we have and the ways in which investors and the marketplace can help bring those solutions to scale.

 
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