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Can Clean Tech Innovation Empower Us?

How much can innovation of low carbon technology empower us to act on climate change? Student Oliver Schmidt of the Grantham Institute in London argues in this blog that it is key: He writes, "Channelling our innovative energy into the right technologies can empower us to take individual action whilst ensuring that switching to low-carbon energy is simply a matter of common sense."

He argues that developing low carbon alternatives to conventional technology that are cheaper, more efficient and more 'sexy' will be more powerful than appealing to individuals to change their energy use and dietary choices.  What do you think? What innovations have made your life both easier and more climate friendly? Did you choose them because they were 'sexy' or because they lowered your carbon footprint? And what new innovations would you like to see?

It's a pity that these discussions tend to be polarised - this method is better than that. Either you adopt new technologies or you address your diet.

If we're to address the urgency of climate change, the reality is that we need to tackle it from all angles. Governments need to move the energy mix away from fossil and into renewables and creating policy and incentives to support green initiatives, Businesses need to innovate us away from energy hungry technologies, especially in the field of transport, Communities have a role to play in developing local renewable energy supply and individuals play their part by reducing their consumption, addressing their diet and adopting and implementing green technologies. 

It's not a matter of either/or, but all. 

What I found really interesting in Oliver Schmidt's post is the idea that technological innovation may play a role of accelerator of behavioural change, a role that it has amply demonstrated over the past 20 years of so when internet, the web and apps transformed the way we live, connect, learn, make friends, work, trade, take part in public life, and so many more things. The key to digital innovation is that it's open, it's accessible and affordable, it's collaborative. It empowers people in being innovators themselves or simply use what is available, very often for free or at a generally low cost. When applied to respond to climate change, digital innovation can have an equally powerful transformative role by making it easier for people to transition to renewable energy, to shift to low-carbon transport, to grow and buy local organic food, to closely monitor environmental change and take action, among many more things. We are testing this hypotheses and are mapping existing green digital services, to really understand what is there and make it visible and available to as many people as possible. To do so, we have built If You Want To ( an open, collaborative platform where anyone can find the best services available where they live to take sustainable actions. We currently have nearly 4,000 services in our directory and have curated dedicated pages to present nearly 600 services in greater detail. I'd love to hear what you think of this initiative and invite you to share on the platform green services that you use, like or have simply come across.

If You Want To looks like a really interesting initiative. I'd be interested to know what standards you set if any for inclusion in the site. While many sites claiming green credentials are legitimate, others are simply greenwashing. How do you distinguish between them?


He argues that developing low carbon alternatives to conventional technology that are cheaper, more efficient and more 'sexy' will be more powerful than appealing to individuals to change their energy use and dietary choices.  What do you think? What innovations have made your life both easier and more climate friendly? Did you choose them because they were 'sexy' or because they lowered your carbon footprint? And what new innovations would you like to see?

 I strongly disagree with his point. If the general public sits and waits for governments, local, national, regional, municipal to coordinate the large scale adoption of cleaner technologies and ultimately, lower carbon emissions, we will be far beyond the 3 degree scenario and on the way to 4 degrees. So I would counter with the argument that lowest-hanging fruit, the cheapest solutions for society, for reducing emissions comes from improving energy efficiency. Individuals choose how efficient a product is when they buy it, consciously or not, every time they make a purchase. Secondly, an economic argument for the power of consumer (individual) choice is our ability to direct the market toward cleaner, more efficient technologies, over time companies will try to compete for this piece of the pie and they will innovate to keep up with our insatiable demand for better. (Think of the iPhone and how much it does, yet every new model has to have something new and different, or why upgrade?).


Lets get into my first point. A lot of people want to do something about climate change, the majority of Americans (59%) think the effects of climate change have already begun, 31% think it will happen (source), other studies have shown that Americans nitpick over the cause of climate change, but the majority of Americans also think it's a threat to the security of the US (source), including the Pentagon itself (Source, Feb 2016). Now, to say that being able to participate directly in the fight against climate change is not "appealing" or "sexy" misses the point, the desire to do something is there, whether it's appealing to spend $150 on new LED lightbulbs around the house or install a $30,000 solar array on one's roof is highly individual and I think in the blog post he generalises too much here. Individuals can feel involved by doing small things in their own homes, it's cheap, almost instant (hello, don't we love instant gratification in today's fast-past society?) and in the long run they can save money by improving the energy efficiency of their home, the carbon footprint of their diet, the carbon footprint of their purchases by doing their research and changing their spending habits.

This leads into the power individuals have to shape the type of products available in any given market, consumer demand, in my opinion, can be like voting with your dollar. Yes, the government needs to help a lot of clean technology generation and infrastructure get off the ground, but why would they in the absence of demand? (Exceptions would be a forward-thinking government as in California, or Germany where they have ploughed ahead with incentives and investments for clean energy). I would argue that the popularity of Tesla in recent years, and the number of people willing to buy an $80,000 electric car, turned heads in the Auto industry, now we have the Chevy Bolt/Spark EV, BMW i3, Kia Soul EV, and Toyota RAV4 EV, Pruis Prime available in parts of North America, with many states/governments offering incentives, there's plenty more electric vehicles planned too. (Slight tangent, lets get back to my point). As demand increases for more efficient products, companies will begin to take advantage of the low hanging fruit of efficiency, then once that fruit has been picked, funds will be used to innovate, it's not a fast process, but it's a process individuals can initiate by choosing what to buy. Yes, higher efficiency tends to be a little more expensive and that's a big barrier for some consumers, which is what I think the blogger's argument is founded upon, but, if the desire is there to make a difference/contribute to the solution, etc, then the market will begin to adjust.

The Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change recently spoke about working with trump and had this to say: 

“It’s very early days, so it’s hard to know where this administration is going,” she said. “It’s much more about the markets. I guess I just believe in the market. And when the market moves and sees opportunities, it’s going to be smarter to invest in renewables than it may be in other sectors.”

Whilst I don't think anyone should rely solely on the market, I think it has a bigger role to play through individual choices and actions than people give credit for. Yes, governments must step in and assist younger companies in clean technology fields, yes they should providing funding and grants to education and training programs for those wanting to work in the clean energy industry. But in the US, the clean electrical generation industry can now stand on its own two feet, it employs more people than fossil fuels in the US:

According to a new reportfrom the U.S. Department of Energy, solar power employed 43 percent of the Electric Power Generation sector's workforce in 2016, while fossil fuels combined accounted for just 22 percent. -Forbes, Jan 2017

There is enough momentum in the market to encourage more innovation and growth, and hopefully further dent the profits of the fossil fuel industry, especially in respect to petroleum purchases (EV sales!) and electricity generation. I agree with Biba that it's not a choice of either/or, but an obligation to future generations that we embrace all the potential solutions and adaptations available to us. Some will fail, some will work, that's how we innovate. Compartmentalizing is fine, but thinking one thing takes precedent over another in a world full of political motives, skepticism, and since early 2016, xenophobia, works against the cooperation and urgency needed to adapt to climate change and prevent a rise above 3 degrees. Individuals are important, governments at all levels are important, local is just as important as national challenges, commitments, and actions. I think that is what the blogger overlooks because he doesn't seem to have faith in such cooperation, but grassroots and local is where to look first for progress and change in my opinion. Look at the size of the recent marches and protests, that's grassroots and it's powerful. 

What innovations would I like to see? Here's a list:

  • Improved battery storage for home solar.
  • EV's with greater range for around $30-35k new.
  • Hydrogen cars (a few in development and one on the way to market) and related infrastructure. 
  • Energy efficiency improvements for home appliances, and space heating. 
  • Food waste reduction (Any innovation to help reduce food waste is a good one!)
  • Microsolar and small-scale solar techologies (solar windows, blinds, roadways/paths).
  • Electric public transportation systems - more advancements would broaden what's currently available and make it easier for cities to adopt.