Future of the Environment

We need a new approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions: and it's all about innovation 

A woman walks across a field on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 13, 2017.

How can we move from a reduction to a solutions focus when it comes to emissions? Image: REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal

Robert Andrén
Director General, Swedish Energy Agency, Sweden
Max Correa Achurra
Executive Director, Solar and Energy Innovation Committee, CORFO Chile
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Getting on track to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C requires us to think beyond business as usual. We not only need to reduce emissions from current technologies and business models but must also develop and implement new transformative solutions that are resource and cost-efficient and support rather than undermine other global sustainability goals. The IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5°C report includes a Low Energy Demand (LED) scenario in which social, business and technological innovations result in lower energy demand up to 2050, enabling rapid decarbonization of the energy system.

Current focus on reduction commitments

Even so, our current climate discussions and initiatives focus almost entirely on how those responsible should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Climate leadership during the Fourth Industrial Revolution can not only be about commitments to reduce emissions from operations and the value chain but must also include action to deliver new disruptive solutions that help society reduce emissions at scale.

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This is why the IPCC’s LED scenario is so important: it focuses on new, smart ways of delivering what we need and not just on how current production systems should be improved. An example of a traditional reduction approach is the airline industry seeking to reduce the emissions from business travel by replacing hydrocarbon aviation fuel with biofuels. The transformative solution approach would be to question the need for physical meetings and to consider alternatives to flying such as train travel and virtual meetings to enable the radical and fast reductions needed.

Establishing a solutions-based approach

An initiative to hasten innovation in clean energy, Mission Innovation’s 1.5°C Compatible Solutions Framework, developed and led by Sweden, is supporting the expedited uptake of disruptive solutions by providing increased transparency of actual and potential emissions reductions, making it easier for governments, companies and investors to identify, support and fund the next generation of innovators.

The framework builds on existing initiatives from small and large companies, incubators, academia and other organizations that have begun to quantify the greenhouse gas impacts of goods and services.

A dual lifecycle comparison approach with rebound effects to assess avoided emissions

At the heart of the methodology is a comparison between two life-cycle assessments. First, the emissions from the existing system are assessed, including the underlying infrastructure where relevant; then the emissions from the new way of providing the service using a new solution is assessed, together with the rebound effects. The difference in emissions between the two scenarios is known as avoided emissions. The avoided emissions assessment can be used to inform strategic decisions, enabling the comparison of different options according to their reduction potential.

The reduction potential is calculated as follows:

The framework enables:

  • innovators to assess their solutions to maximize emissions reduction;
  • incubators to identify start-ups with 1.5°C compatible solutions;
  • investors to evaluate options for investment;
  • and cities to move beyond incremental improvements to the existing system to transformative solutions with a positive impact.
100 solutions in the spotlight

We have already begun to see how a solution perspective is generating significant interest. At Mission Innovation’s ministerial meeting in May 2019, 100 solutions were presented with the total potential to avoid 3 gigatonnes of emissions if rolled out globally by 2030.

A thousand solutions with a potential to avoid 40-60 gigatonnes – more than the total of global emissions – will be brought to the table at the 5th Mission Innovation Ministerial in mid-2020.

Some examples of the strategic solutions that have been analysed through the Mission Innovation 1.5°C Compatible Solutions Framework are shown below: (The estimated GHG reduction potential is a comparison with the business-as-usual baseline and assumes global rollout of the solution.)

1. Redox flow battery for energy storage (Delectrik Systems Private Limited, India) – Energy storage products based on vanadium redox flow battery technology. Delectrik has also lowered the cost of its products to the extent that it says they are competitive on upfront capital expenditure even at low manufacturing volumes compared to other solid-state batteries. Estimated GHG reduction potential of 17 megatonnes CO2e per year by 2030.

2. Business model for hydrogen generation and supply (Phineal, Chile) – H2PV seeks to develop a business model for the generation and supply of hydrogen obtained from photovoltaic cells. Estimated GHG reduction potential of 27 megatonnes CO2e per year by 2030.

3. Electric three-wheeler city taxi (Bzzt, Sweden) – An app-based taxi service for urban areas using small electrically powered 3-wheel taxis at the price point of public transport and with zero local emissions. Estimated GHG reduction potential of 64 megatonnes CO2e per year by 2030.

4. Carbonlites – innovative biogas production (Carbon Masters India Pvt. Ltd, India) – Waste is collected and then treated anaerobically to produce methane gas and organic slurry. The gas is purified, compressed and used as a substitute to LPG for cooking and as fuel in vehicles, while the slurry is treated to produce organic manure used as a replacement to chemical fertilizers. Estimated GHG reduction potential of 45 megatonnes CO2e per year by 2030.

5. Producing climate-friendly food (Gigafood, Sweden) – A restaurant and catering service that serves low emissions products. All their dishes are certified with WWF’s label, One Planet Plate, which means they are climate-smart and have a climate impact within the limits of the planet. All its catering is delivered by cargo bike and its packaging materials are ecologically sustainable. Estimated GHG reduction potential of 152 megatonnes CO2e per year by 2030.

Application of the framework

Many large companies are already assessing the impact of their products and services (Scope 4 emissions) in response to consumer awareness. The framework offers a mechanism to move beyond assessing emissions from operations and the supply chain (Scope 1 to 3 emissions) to a comparison of transformative approaches to the products and services that are being supplied. It also enables financial organizations to identify investment opportunities that align with the IPCC 1.5°C scenario.

Graph shows global growth in CO2 emissions to 2017
A mountain to climb
Solutions on the agenda at COP

COP25 will be a great opportunity to bring the solutions perspective into international climate discussions. Now is the time for innovators, investors, cities, academics and youth to get involved.

At COP25, the framework team will present disruptive innovations from Sweden, Chile, India and other Mission Innovation members with the potential to avoid more than three gigatonnes of emissions. This work is led by led by Sweden in collaboration with the Solar and Energy Innovation Committee in Chile and an international team from participating Mission Innovation members. The identification of potential innovators and users of the framework is done with leading organizations engaged in a solutions agenda around the world.

We want COP25 to send a message that the transition to a low-carbon society is an exciting journey to the future, rather than a cumbersome commitment. Let’s make COP25 the first UN Climate Change Conference focused on exciting and innovative solution providers.

You can be part of this transformative initiative by nominating your solution for assessment by the team or by volunteering to use the Framework to assess solutions.

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Future of the EnvironmentClimate Crisis
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