Learning out loud

First published in FORESIGHT.

Connecting the public, private and knowledge sectors so regions can innovate together and learn from each other at every stage of the process is vital to ramp up climate action and the energy transition, says Kirsten Dunlop Chief Executive Officer at Climate-KIC, a European knowledge and innovation community.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of the world’s leading climate scientists advising governments, makes stark reading. We are not on track. Preventing catastrophic climate change and achieving the “well below 2°C” Paris climate agreement target requires a speed of decarbonisation at least six times faster than anything the global community has achieved so far. If we are too slow global temperature rises as fast as we need to, Europe must achieve net zero carbon emissions by the mid-2030s. A child born in Europe today will need to leave school living a net zero carbon life. This can only be achieved if regions and cities have the support and financial backing to innovate together and find solutions to decarbonise and develop sustainably.

The launch of the IPCC report coincided with the European Week of Cities and Regions, bringing together leaders from across Europe to “showcase their capacity to create growth and jobs”. Discussions around the 2021-2027 EU budget, the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework, formed the backdrop to the event, where it was noticeable that only 10 per cent of the programme was focused on climate, energy, environment or mobility.

The Commission foresees that in the next EU budget, 35 per cent of the Horizon Europe innovation budget and 25 per cent of the cohesion budget, aimed at boosting the economies of poorer EU member states, should be spent on delivering Europe’s commitments under the Paris agreement. EIT Climate-KIC and our 350 strong partnership would argue for a much more ambitious provision if we are to break the cycle of underachievement to date.

The lack of focus on climate and energy at last week’s event also suggests most European cities and regions have not yet fully realised climate action as an opportunity to catalyse investment to meet climate and sustainable development goals. The global economy needs an estimated $26 trillion by 2030 if efforts to prevent the worst impacts of climate change are to be scaled up in time. If Europe is serious about this — and about achieving green and equitable pan-European economic development — cities and regions need support to turn climate challenges into opportunities.

Continuing to work through gradual, incremental changes will not be enough. We need a fundamental transformation of regional economic, social and financial systems to trigger exponential change in decarbonisation rates and strengthen climate resilience. This means leaps forward in energy efficiency, in the clean electrification of energy, transport and industry, in recycling rates, radical changes in how we use and design materials, and how we manage our forests, farmland and wetlands.

Lack of capacity

This is unfamiliar territory for many cities and regions, which often lack the policy, financial and implementation tools to translate ambition into action. Few have the capacity to encourage innovation since this tends to be a national, sectoral or corporate competence.

Climate action, so far, has neglected the regional context, with Europe’s governance structures prioritising European, member state or city action. Further, regional funding via the EU’s structural funds has tended to focus on the status quo in terms of energy supplies. There has also been little acknowledgement that central-eastern and southern Europe is most at risk from the impacts of climate change, yet most innovation and economic capacity is concentrated in northwestern Europe.

Cities have fared better in placing themselves closer to the centre of the climate debate. But much of this, and the harnessing of funds to act, has served larger cities. Most of Europe’s urban population, however, lives in smaller cities and towns co-existing in more complex regional geospatial, economic and social contexts.

Connecting the public, private and knowledge sectors across regions to innovate together in a trusted open context is vital to redress these imbalances. We are developing a pan-European network of start-up accelerators to support the creation of new businesses, to build innovation capacity and help translate the transition needs of cities and regions into demand-led challenges, which result in innovative solutions. Building on a Nordic Open Innovation pilot, EIT Climate-KIC this year extended its urban challenge to Sofia, Bulgaria which suffers from some of the poorest air quality in Europe. This led to a shared bike scheme in the city. Our Climathon, which we will host on 26-27 October, has evolved into a global movement of cities involving their citizens in solving climate challenges. This year it will focus on air pollution, the circular economy and sustainable mobility.

We believe that agile, multi-faceted open innovation will help regions move beyond linear, sector-level interventions and help leaders target the right leverage points to decarbonise whole systems and make them more resilient. We want to bring together policy, finance and implementation communities to create conditions locally to develop portfolios of initiatives that can be developed, tested and modified in a design-led experimental circular, rather than sequential, fashion.

No one organisation or country has the resources to meet the climate challenge alone. We expect that future EU budgets will acknowledge this and reward new ways of working where we learn out loud — where new technologies, business models, policy and funding experiments are available for others to see and learn from at all stages of their development, and that the best are scaled up across Europe as fast as possible.

 
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