Davos Agenda

This is how social innovators are leading the race to zero emissions

Image: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Pavitra Raja
Programme and Engagement Lead, Europe and Americas - Schwab Foundation, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Race to Zero Dialogues
  • Social innovators are leading the charge to create solutions that combat greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
  • The Schwab Foundation of Social Entrepreneurship has helped mitigate more than 192 million tonnes of CO2.
  • Solutions include making biodegradable plastic out of seaweed and empowering women to build and instal solar panels in remote parts of the world.

We are running out of time to combat climate change – and we need innovative, scalable and sustainable solutions.

Social innovators are using their ingenuity, drive and compassion to tackle some of the world’s greatest threats. The Schwab Foundation’s social entrepreneur community has improved the lives of more than 622 million people in 190 countries and mitigated more than 192 million tonnes of CO2.

From creating biodegradable plastic bags out of seaweed to teaching rural women to build solar panels, members of the social innovator community are posing innovative and scalable solutions to combat climate change before it is too late. Here are some of those solutions.

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Eliminating single-use plastic

Single-use plastic is one of the most persistent pollutants on Earth – and it is not only clogging landfill sites and threatening our oceans and marine life, it’s also a serious climate change hazard.

The impact of plastic production on the world's climate in 2019 alone equated to the output of 189 coal-fired power stations. By 2050, when plastic production is expected to have tripled, it will be responsible for up to 13% of our planet's total carbon budget - on a par with what 615 power stations emit, a study found. More than 90% of plastic is never recycled.

Tom Szaky, the CEO of TerraCycle, had an idea to address this problem with a "milkman model" that delivered products to consumers' doors and then collected the packaging to reuse. In 2017 he pitched the idea to leading consumer product companies such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Carrefour, Tesco, Mondelēz, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars, Nestlé and Unilever, and by the end of the meeting, they agreed to consider partnering with him on his initiative. In 2019, the Loop Alliance was born.

In Indonesia, Sugianto Tandio and Tommy Tjiptadjaja from Greenhope are making biodegradable plastic out of seaweed to combat our plastic crisis.


Greenhope’s goal is to create packaging products from renewable resources with lower carbon footprint and lower energy consumption than the market alternatives. At the same time, these products build a value-added industry in Indonesia, and the raw materials are sourced from small and medium farming cooperatives to increase the income of the poor.

In Brazil, Guilherme Brammer, was so frustrated by the lack of adequate recycling he saw in his home city, São Paulo, that in 2011 he set up a company looking for innovative solutions to give raw materials new life. “We need to turn what would be junk into a real business," says Brammer.


Lighting up lives

While the global electrification rate reached 89%, meaning 153 million people gained access to electricity in 2019, the challenge remains to bring electricity to the remote areas globally, where hundreds of millions of people still live in the dark.

Enyonam Nthabiseng Mosia says that 87% of Sierra Leone’s 7.65 million people lack access to a reliable grid – 99% of people in rural areas. “If you drive outside the capital Freetown at night, most people are in the dark,” she says.

To connect the poorest and hardest to reach households, Nthabiseng Mosia and Alexandre Tourre founded Easy Solar, a pay-as-you-go solar distribution company in West Africa that makes energy affordable to those under-served the grid. Easy Solar has installed its solar home systems in 50,000 homes, providing access to electricity to more than 350,000 people.


In India, Bunker Roy and Meagan Fallone from the Barefoot College are training rural women to build solar panels to empower them to meet their community’s needs and address the pressing challenges of economic inequality, human rights and climate change at a global scale.

Today, Barefoot College has impacted people in 96 countries, providing more than 1,000,000 people with access to light, and replaced 500 million litres of kerosene with clean energy for light, heat and cooking, while empowering rural women around the world.


Turning fishermen into climate-change advocates

Oceans play a major role in climate dynamics, absorbing 93% of the heat that accumulates in the Earth’s atmosphere, and a quarter of the carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels. Further, more than 3 billion people depend on fish as a major source of protein.

“To continue to fish sustainably requires adopting new ways of fishing”, says the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an organisation that works for marine conservation through the certification of sustainable fisheries and the eco-labelling of seafood products.

Today, Rupert Howes, CEO of MSC, works with more than 200 fisheries (representing 8% of the global wild capture harvest). About 20,000 seafood products bearing the MSC ecolabel - ranging from fresh, frozen, smoked, and canned fish to fish oil dietary supplements that can be traced back to the certified sustainable fisheries - are on sale in 106 countries.


In Spain, Javier Goyeneche is creating high-quality 100% sustainable clothing from plastic recovered from oceans. Goyeneche started by enlisting the help of fisherman near his town to collect plastic from oceans and deposit them into a recycling bin – the contents of which, he saw as “premium quality raw products”.

Today, with the help of “his heroes,” more than 2500 fisherman in Europe, Ecoalf has collected more than 500 tonnes of waste from the bottom of the ocean and recycled more than 200 million plastic bottles to make high-quality and 100% sustainable fashion products.

Setting forest trends

“Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people,” said former US President Franklin Roosevelt.

Dharsono Hartono, a former banker, is trying to apply what he learned on Wall Street to the jungles of Indonesia. Hartono is saving one of the largest areas of peat swamp forests in Indonesia while offering local populations sustainable income sources by implementing a sustainable land-use model that reduces deforestation and degradation, promotes conservation, enhances ecological integrity and grows economic opportunities for rural communities in Central Kalimantan.

In Mexico, Martha “Pati” Isabel Ruiz Corzo, is responsible for achieving Biosphere Reserve status for the Sierra Gorda under an exceptional public-private co-management system. Through her work and advocacy, 33% of the State of Querétaro is now protected as a Biosphere Reserve, engaging more than 34,000 people in community environmental education programs, solid waste management, soil restoration, productive diversification and conservation.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Schwab Foundation Awardee and the UN High Level Climate Champion for Chile, Gonzalo Muñoz, and Nigel Topping, the UN High Level Climate Champion for the UK, have fired the start gun on a race to the top on climate action – it looks like social innovators are leading this race.

Learn more about the Schwab Foundation and nominate Social Innovators of the Year 2021 here.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaClimate CrisisSocial Innovation
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