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COP26 Day 5: Bridging the Action Gap

Decarbonization and a net zero future will require transformative leaps in clean energy investment and innovation, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency. Investments in net-zero between 2016 and 2020 totaled about $1.2 trillion. However, there need to be investments to the tune of $4 trillion by 2030 if net zero by 2050 is to be achieved. 

This mind-boggling number set the backdrop for an event on Day 5 of COP26 at the Business Pavilion. The Business Pavilion was hosted by the We Mean Business Coalition, a group of seven non-profit organizations like BSR, Ceres, CDP and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). With a board comprising leaders drawn from these partners and staffed by a secretariat, the Coalition’s mission is to “catalyze business and policy action to halve emissions by 2030 and accelerate an inclusive transition to a global net-zero economy by 2050.” They’ve done this through publishing guides for businesses and advocating for policy changes, including aat COP26. The event drew me in with its title – “Innovating Our Way to Net-Zero: How Startups Can Solve the Climate Crisis.” Being the Environmental Innovation Fellow and helping students do just that, I knew I had to find out what was going on behind the bold title.

Innovating Our Way to Net-Zero [COP26]

Moderated by Lisa Lambert, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at National Grid, the panel promised an interesting dive into how clean energy organizations were spurring and supporting innovation. Ms. Lambert is the Founder and President of National Grid Partners, the venture investment and innovation division of energy company National Grid that invests in seed-stage and mature startups in the energy and IT space. However, they have also gone a step further and created an alliance of utility companies - called the NextGrid Alliance.

According to John Pettigrew, CEO of National Grid, the energy industry is unique in that utility companies don’t really compete with each other in their service delivery areas, which means that there is an incentive to work together. The more utility companies can work together as an industry, the more new technologies can be scaled up. I was cautiously optimistic to hear this intrinsic motivation to collaborate on clean energy innovation coming from utility companies who enjoy near-monopoly power over customers. 

Mr. Pettigrew also acknowledged that working with startups can be hard for regulatory utilities, since they are mandated to provide clean and continuous energy to their customers, and trying out new technology may not always allow that. One way to combat that - engaging with customers early on.

Mr. Pedro Pizarro, President and CEO at Edison International, continued talking about the need for investment in innovation. He talked about the launch of the Carbon-Free Technology Initiative by the Edison Electric Institute along with several environmental and technology-focused NGOs - focused on the implementation of federal policies that can help ensure the commercial availability of affordable, carbon-free, 24/7 power technology options by the early 2030s. He emphasized the role business needs to play to drive regulatory processes to reflect the urgency to scale new technology.

Mr. Arshad Mansoor, President and CEO of Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), talked about how several companies are investing in new technologies, and that there is value in collaboration - since one pilot project can inform several utilities. Exemplifying collaboration to accelerate innovation, Mr. Mansoor highlighted Energy Impact Partners, a collaborative energy investment firm that brings the expertise of energy companies to startups to help them accelerate new technology needed for the next decade. 

Feeling like I had come full circle after hearing about collaboration in action, I couldn’t still help but feel a little disappointed that not one startup founder was included in the discussion. Having just also heard about how there was a need to drive policy forward, I was excited to learn that the afternoon’s official stock-taking plenary would feature prominent speakers like Vice President Al Gore, Wanjira Mathaai and Professor Johan Rockström. 

Plenary sessions open to observers quickly ran out of seats, so I made sure to get there early to secure one. Vice President Gore opened the session and highlighted that the current form of capitalism is in dire need of reform, and that we have the tools we need to solve this crisis. It will however take tremendous amounts of work and creativity to achieve the pledges that have been made by nations. 

Ms. Mathai came on stage next, and began her speech with a passionate poem as an invitation for everyone

Wanjira Mathaai at COP26

watching to do their part, acknowledging that the climate crisis is embedded within the global context of historic, systemic and growing inequality. She further talked about how the transition away from fossil fuels has to be just, inclusive and equitable. As part of a panel following that, Ms. Tasneem Essop, Executive Director at the Climate Action Network, emphasized the disconnect between the conversations we tend to have in the corridors of COP and the reality out there, and how those most vulnerable to climate change are already facing impacts, now. 

Clearly, action is key. Pledges need to be substantiated with action. And that action will need to be ambitious, inclusive and urgent. I am always inspired by the community of innovators we have here at Yale and beyond who are taking action, now. 

After the conversations I’ve had in Glasgow and the things I’ve learnt during my week there, I’ve realized that there are different ways to define action. The activists on the streets of Glasgow are taking as much, and perhaps more action, that world leaders gathered in the halls of COP. Innovators and grassroots organizations are taking action to help communities adapt to the changing climate. For me, I’ve become even more intimately aware of the privilege I hold, and how the conversations about climate continue to exclude those people most vulnerable to its impacts.  Plus, action that causes harm, even unintentionally, and doesn’t add value, doesn’t mean anything. 

For me, action means that as I continue my journey as the Environmental Innovation Fellow, I look at the work we are doing with a critical and a systems lens. Recognize the power I have, and use that to amplify the work of innovators and empower others to see themselves as innovators. 

The most common definitions of innovation are always neutral - a new idea, product or method. But we live in a world now where we can’t afford to be neutral when it comes to innovation. As I reflect on my experience at COP, I would go so far as to say it’s only innovation if it is a new idea, product or method that adds value without causing harm, is just and inclusive and centers the people most impacted by the crisis we face.