Tools for transformative change:
UN Climate Change Global Innovation
Author: Massamba Thioye, United Nations Climate Change Global Innovation Hub
A key barrier to transformative innovation to support combatting climate change is the absence of a moonshot mindset when setting targets.
That is why the UN Climate Change Global Innovation Hub was launched in November 2021, during the UN COP26 in Glasgow. It aims to promote transformative innovations for a sustainable
low-emission and climate-resilient future. The Innovation Hub complements the current approach to innovation for climate solutions — an approach that has tended to be incremental, sector-based, and problem-oriented—with a transformative, need-based, and solution-oriented one.
Currently, most of the climate actors tend to set climate and sustainability targets anchored on what is perceived as possible. Rather than following the ambitions of what is needed to achieve the desired goals, they limit themselves by financial, policy, and technological considerations. Their perception of what exists now and is available to them, and what they can achieve dictates their level of ambition. The perceived restricted availability of climate and
sustainability solutions limit the level of ambition.
This lack of ambition in return negatively impacts the development of climate and sustainability innovation by signalling a low demand, creating a vicious cycle. The perception of a lack of climate and sustainability innovation hampers the setting of ambitious goals, which in turn impedes the development of climate and sustainability solutions.
Transformative innovation will not focus on just reducing the footprint of existing products and services. It will envision ways to germinate alternative valuechains that satisfy the core human needsMassamba Thioye, UNFCCC
The repercussions are that we are currently unaware of the real gap between what is currently possible and where we need to be. We are not tackling what needs to be tackled. Metaphorically speaking, this is as if one had lost its key in the dark area of the street but insisted on looking for the key under a streetlight – you can see your surroundings under the streetlight, but the key was lost in the
Breaking the cycle
To allow innovation to flourish in a transformative way for tackling climate change and to achieve our 1.5°C climate goal, a change of mindset is needed. Innovation needs to go beyond and become
transformative, need-based, and solution-oriented in its approach.
In our current system, innovation often has a wealth production goal which binds it to a too sectorial and problem-based focus. For example, when currently we speak of improving the environment in a city, we think of the transport sector and car usage, which immediately leads us to the development of electric vehicles (EVs).
While replacing a combustion car with an electric one is an important climate action that needs to be scaled up, it will not suffice. We should also need fewer cars. In addition to the development of electric vehicles, innovation can place the thriving of all people at the centre, combined with the need for a healthy environment. The exercise would focus on why people need cars. The answer is mobility.
Hence, innovation could be used to lessen the need for cars to address the demand for mobility in daily life by making our cities more compact and more complete so that all products and services are within walking and biking distance.
We can also go one step further by using innovation to reduce the need for mobility to satisfy access to products and services. For example, digital technologies can be used for telecommuting and replace trips to the office as well as office surfaces. It can also be used for teleconferencing and replace trips to the conference venue, for online shopping.
Trans-formative innovation will not focus on just reducing the footprint of existing products and services. It will envision ways to germinate alternative valuechains that satisfy the core human needs (nutrition and health, leisure, shelter, access, and clothing) with alternative products and services while being aligned with the climate and sustainability goals.
Future climate commitments need to ensure demand is globally created. A focus on a sector or a single problem is not enough, a larger transformation is needed.
When we think of innovation, naturally what comes first to our mind is technology, which is key, but not enough to face our challenges. We need an integrated approach to innovation with innovative
technologies combined in a cluster with innovative financial instruments, leadership, policy, capacity building, business model, and social innovation – and all to be demand-driven.
Only through the increasing demand for climate-positive and sustainable solutions will innovation become the driving force and the great enabler we all believe it to be–breaking the vicious circle. The increased availability and the rise of global demand for climate change actions and sustainable solutions would give way to real collaboration and start enlightening us about the gap–between
possible and needed–is.