Leadership

7 leaders share how innovative thinking can tackle climate change

Rania Al-Mashat, the Egyptian minister for cooperation, is one of several leaders in this special compilation episode timed to the COP 27 Climate Summit in Egypt sharing surprising and innovative approaches to scale action for climate change.

Rania Al-Mashat, the Egyptian minister for cooperation, is one of several leaders in this special compilation episode timed to the COP 27 Climate Summit in Egypt sharing surprising and innovative approaches to scale action for climate change.

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • In this special compilation episode timed to the COP 27 Climate Summit in Egypt, Meet The Leader, CEOs and government leaders share surprising and innovative approaches to scale climate action.

As delegates gather at the COP 27 Climate Summit this week in Egypt, we’re reminded of the need for swift action and ideas that scale. The leaders in this week's podcast are investing in new technologies, new incentives, and most importantly, new approaches. That can get us to a more sustainable world.

These interviews recorded at the annual meeting in Davos, the Sustainable Development Impact meeting in New York and the Urban Transformation Summit in Detroit show the range of ideas that change makers of all stripes are pushing forward.

Each drives home one key idea: that while sometimes new technologies or capabilities can always be developed, there's so much we can accomplish with the tools, will and creativity that's already in place.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Empowering countries to drive their own initiatives, sustainable change

Rania Al-Mashat, Egypt's Minister of International Cooperation and Egypt, shares how a special platform that helps governments drive the developments for their own adaptation and mitigation programs. This platform, NWFE, tackles the nexus of water, food, water, and energy leveraging a multi-stakeholder approach by deploying innovative financing tools such as concession loans and blended finance and more to stimulate private sector investments for a green transition – one that could be a model for other countries.

Rania Al-Mashat: There's so much for all of us to do. There's so much when it comes to innovative ideas. We're trying to focus on how we can see projects in different countries materialize. In the case of Egypt, being one of the biggest countries in Africa, and the president of COP, we wanted to also give an example, and that's why in June, when we published our 2050 Country Climate Strategy, we took a subset of projects out of that strategy. And this strategy links climate to development.

There’s so much when it comes to innovative ideas. There's so much for all of us to do.

Rania Al-Mashat, Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation

What we've tried to do is take a group of projects that are both adaptation and mitigation. It's called the Nexus of Water, Food, and Energy [NWFE]. All of us today see the importance of food security, energy security, and water security, and the nexus of water, food, and energy, from those projects we created Egypt's Country platform for the nexus of water, food, and energy. It's pronounced in Arabic ‘no-wef-ee’ which means fulfilling promise. So we're trying to take this as an example of how a country can bring climate and development hand in hand.

And we are mobilizing different stakeholders be it ourselves as government, the multilateral development banks, private sector philanthropists, to basically see how we can show an example, a country-led platform, to move from pledges to implementation in projects which affect people. It's very people-centric. It’s applicable to other country cases as well. It's designed to be very similar to the G7 Just Energy Transition platforms.

We're not a country that uses coal. Nonetheless, we do have a green transition and we do have green ambitions. That's why Egypt's country platform for the NWFE program is one that we want to showcase as an example moving from pledges to implementation.

Xylem CEO Patrick Decker explains how innovative incentives can spur investments in climate change progress.
Xylem CEO Patrick Decker explains how innovative incentives can spur investments in climate change progress. Image: Xylem

Innovation goes beyond research and development and technologies.

Patrick Decker, CEO, Xylem

Incentives for economic – and social – value

Patrick Decker is the CEO of Xylem, a leading water technology company committed to ‘solving water’ - tackling a range of challenges from water scarcity to the resilience of water infrastructure to climate change. Decker explained to Meet The Leader how special sustainability accounts – ESG demand deposit accounts that link the yield clients earn on their deposits to the achievements of their own ESG targets - can create much needed investing incentives for businesses and business leaders. Here’s how they work and what’s need to scale them.

Patrick Decker, Xylem, CEO: It's one of the first of its kind where we have now entered into an investment fund whereby we've made very explicit commitments around very measurable, auditable KPIs, or metrics, around our own environmental footprint. In this case, it's an investment fund that we can actually tap into and get access to borrowing if need to. Although we're a very strong balance sheet, so that really was not the motivation behind this. It was really to create even further motivation within our own organization, but also to business at large to say, ‘take advantage of these funds and these financing tools whereby we actually get incrementally higher yields as we deliver on our specific sustainability metrics.’

One of those key metrics is that within 22 of our largest major production facilities around the world, we've committed that we would get to a hundred percent recycling of our own water. And as we make progress against that, we get increased yields on that investment.

This is very much tied to the societal impact that business can have, and needs to have, and ties to very specific metrics in that area as opposed to traditional financing metrics of return on investment or what our kind of debt rating is, what our borrowing levels are. It has nothing to do with that. It's all about what our impact is on the environment.

Every company needs to have a clear purpose. That purpose is your true north. But that purpose needs to be grounded on things beyond purely economic value.

Patrick Decker, CEO, Xylem

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Xylem is the first to do this. Why is that? What makes this so hard and so challenging for others to put into place?

Patrick Decker: You know, at Xylem we believe that innovation, which is so vitally important to making a company truly sustainable, and I mean sustainable in that every company needs to have a clear purpose. You know, what is the purpose of that organization? That purpose is your true North. But that purpose needs to be grounded on things beyond purely economic value.

Economic value is critically important. You know, we are a publicly traded company. We have shareholders and investors, and they expect, as I do, for us to deliver a very attractive growth and financial return as a company. Without that support, we will not be sustainable because we will not be around. But at the same time, other stakeholders are looking for us to create social value, and so we talk all the time about the importance of creating both economic and social value. Key to that is having an innovative mindset. And innovation, in our view, goes beyond research and development and technologies. Those are critically important, but it's also business model innovation. You know, how do you partner with other organizations that may not look like us, but together we can ‘let’s solve water.’

So, why have we done this? We just view this as another way to, to put the message out that we can create both the economic profit and the social profit - so to speak -through these kind of innovative ways. There needs to be a growing awareness that these tools and opportunities exist. And so I do believe, and I'm confident over time, that there will be a faster rate of adoption of these kind of financing tools.

Pooling resources can accelerate and scale innovation for climate change said George Oliver, Johnson Controls CEO.
Pooling resources can accelerate and scale innovation for climate change said George Oliver, Johnson Controls CEO. Image: Johnson Controls

Scaling innovation for hard-to-abate sectors

George Oliver is the CEO and chairman of Johnson Controls, a provider of smart building technologies. He's a member of the First Movers Coalition, a World Economic Forum program that helps scale innovation for hard-to-abate sectors through a special type of initiative where members commit to purchasing the materials they need from suppliers using near zero or zero carbon solutions. Here's Oliver on how this approach helps open the door wide to much-needed green innovation.

George Oliver, CEO and chairman of Johnson Controls: We're part of the First Moves Coalition, and this is an initiative where companies have come together focusing on high carbon industry materials that ultimately drive a significant portion of the carbon footprint globally.

So it's steel, it's transportation, it's cement. These high-carbon industries. And the idea is there that we all begin to commit because there's incredible technologies today that are replacing these high carbon materials with much lower carbon.

And so companies making commitments that for some percentage of their material buy, they'll commit to buy a certain percentage. And it's typically starting out at 10%. But that allows these new technologies and new companies to scale and become competitive with the replacement materials that ultimately are going to reduce - significantly reduce - the carbon. And the idea is if instead of taking a decade or longer to mature, how do we put our resources together to accelerate not only the innovation, but then to be able to scale it, to be able to have the effect that we believe it can have in how we reduce carbon? And so I think it's not one technology, but I think it's multiple innovations that are taking place.

There's a lot of opportunity and that is going to be a game changer in how we ultimately make buildings net zero.

George Oliver, CEO and chairman of Johnson Controls

Within our own space, we fundamentally believe that we changed the game in buildings with our digital platform Open Blue. And this is where, historically, buildings have been built with systems ‘separate and apart,’ as I say. And really has been an industry that's lagged many other industries along the digitalization journey.

So what we've done within buildings is taking all of our building systems, whether it be HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning], building controls, fire security, and you can imagine all of the data that exists within those systems. And by applying AI, we can reduce energy being consumed by 30, 40, 50%. And then making sure we're looking at not only reducing the demand, but also engineering what the right microgrid is to be able to support their, their remaining demand with renewable supply. And so there's a lot of opportunity and I think for us, that is going to be a game changer, you know, in how we ultimately make buildings net zero.

Have you read?
Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary interaction for climate change, says Siemens Corporation CEO Barbara Humpton.
Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary interaction for climate change, says Siemens Corporation CEO Barbara Humpton. Image: Siemens

Making expertise accessible

Barbara Humpton is the CEO of the Siemens Corporation. Siemens is developing a range of technologies helping to slash emissions for infrastructure while driving other benefits such as energy efficiency.

Barbara Humpton, CEO, Siemens: Siemens is focused in on areas of technology that really are embedded in the backbone of economies around the world. And so we talk about trains, we talk about buildings, and we talk about manufacturing a lot.

In the field of buildings, you know, they're the biggest carbon emitters. I mean, taken to all together it's maybe 40% of global carbon emissions is from buildings. And by the way, tackling this isn't going be easy because it's an infrastructure that's owned by so many people. And so one by one by one, we are needing to make changes and evolve.

One of the big steps forward is this new technology that integrates into an HVAC system that gives variable control over the airflow within the HVAC system. With the aid of artificial intelligence, it can adapt to the environment and make good decisions that will keep air flowing, keep the space at a comfortable, temperature, and at the same time, control and optimize energy use.

And I'll tell you one of the extra advantages of this is that you can put it into sort of a health mode so that if you need higher flows of fresh air because of - you're in flu season and you don't want the virus spreading - those same controls give us that kind of ability as well.

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Meet the Leader also asked Humpton how leaders can think more innovatively as they prepare to tackle climate change. She stressed the importance of new models for working together, especially in the infrastructure space where cities and governments could tap into existing bodies of knowledge.

Barbara Humpton: Well, it depends on leadership in what realm, right? So in in the fields of technology, we see probably the thing we've learned the most over the last decade is the power of interdisciplinary interaction. You know that where we tend to make the greatest leaps forward are where we bring together two fields that we thought didn't go together, like healthcare and engineering. (‘Healthineering’ actually is taking giant steps forward.)

I would tell you that then in city management, in urban planning, thinking in those interdisciplinary terms can make a big difference, too. I think one of the things that we are going to want to do is pool our resources, quite frankly.

In technology, the thing we've learned the most over the last decade is the power of interdisciplinary interaction.

Barbara Humpton, CEO, Siemens

And so I've been talking to people about the idea that as infrastructure money flows or as chips money flows that we dedicate at least a small stream of that to create the institutes think tanks, the, the bodies of expertise that can flexibly move amongst jurisdictions and help everybody. One of the things I've been encouraging is that we establish, - I think of them as institutes - but think of organizations of people with expertise, (maybe solving a water problem, solving a grid problem).

A city or a county is really going only to do a project like this once. They can't be expected to invent everything themselves. I'd love for them to be able to tap into pools of knowledgeable experts who can say, ‘Hey, here's how it's been successfully executed previously.’

Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D'Oyen McKenna shares how digitalization and new tools can help us tackle the food crisis - while helping communities better adapt to climate shocks.
Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D'Oyen McKenna shares how digitalization and new tools can help us tackle the food crisis - while helping communities better adapt to climate shocks. Image: Mercy Corps

How digitalization can build resilience and tackle hunger

Tjada D'Oyen McKenna is the CEO of Mercy Corps, a global team of nearly 6,000 humanitarians working in more than 40 countries, helping people affected by crisis such as poverty and climate change. She talked to Meet The Leader about the food crisis and how places like Somalia are today on the brink of famine. Here’s what she saw on a recent visit:

Tjada D'Oyen McKenna, CEO of Mercy Corps: People are already dying of starvation there, and about 300,000 are facing famine conditions. Over 1 million people in Somalia have been forced to leave their home since the drought started in 2021. And what's happening is that people from these more remote areas you know, they've lost everything. They've lost their cattle, they've lost their livelihoods, and they have kind of moved into camps and setting up tents, closer to cities where they think they can get humanitarian aid.

I met a mother in Somalia who had seven children, and she and her family had walked about 13 days from where they were living to the outskirts of town to get support. And en route one of her children had died on that trek. And so they were forced to stop and bury that child right there. I heard multiple stories of children dying along the way and being buried.

The level of malnutrition was stark and it was very, very evident seeing, women and children just really skin and bones and even elderly people. I saw one elderly man in the hospital. It was just heart-breaking to see that level of malnutrition.

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She explained how a digital platform called Agrifin could help build the critical resilience and, in the long term, prevent future scenes like the ones she saw in Somalia from becoming more common. This programme has already helped 6 million farmers since its start in 2012, making available products like crop insurance or videos on farming best practices, and facilitating the sharing of critical satellite data from NASA to help reduce risk when farming.

Tjada McKenna: It's a digital platform that has brought together more than 150 private, public and development sector actors to support the design, test and scale of digitally-enabled products and services for small holder farmers in eight countries. So we are across Africa plus Indonesia, and it's reached more than 16 million farmers.

So Agrifin acts as a catalyst at the hub of an ecosystem of farmers, buyers, suppliers. An example of that is crop insurance. In Kenya we are working to leverage blockchain technology with an organization called Acre Africa to bring crop insurance to smallholders. And this has allowed us to get insurance payouts to farmers in two days instead of two months after a climate shock.

So it's those things where we're bringing together products and markets, and also providing information like weather data and other things for people to figure out what resources are going to work for them and how to leverage it.

So we're looking at how to leverage solutions like this for different groups like pastoralists in Somalia. So, looking at programs that can increase herding and agro-pastoralist communities’ use of climate-smart range land management information.

We've done a lot of weather and climate and topography work with NASA which is great as a partner. And, now for Somalia for instance, we're looking at if there's a way that we could do a digital participatory landscape mapping so that people can understand like biomass coverage, grassland health, ground water flows. It's something that can help decision makers really understand the risks that are being faced and the economic potential of range lands. NASA also, the climate and weather information services are invaluable because that also helps with early warning systems, seasonal forecasts and weather advisories to really help people make smarter decisions about what they're planting or to reduce risk.

In Somalia, we're still very much focused on saving lives, and one of the things that Mercy Corps encourages is it encourages donors and funders to also be investing in the long term as well because unfortunately these climate shocks will keep coming and coming. So I think for Somalia, there's getting food and just meeting the acute needs of those hundreds of thousands who are still at risk of famine. But it's also working with those, working in the communities that they left, and trying to provide - you know -getting them services to get their livestock going again or helping them to replenish their herds. Looking at different water solutions to bring water to those animals in the short term. Really looking at the pastoralist ecosystems and helping people to kind of recreate healthy and more resilient herds and livestock in those areas, to withstand the next shock.

climate change Mohammad Jafaar Kuwaiti Danish Dairy Company CEO
Mohammad Jafaar, Kuwaiti Danish Dairy Company CEO, stresses that we must understand the impact of our solutions to ensure they truly help people and planet. Image: World Economic Forum

Food designed for people and planet

Mohammad Jafaar is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Kuwaiti Danish Dairy Company (KDD). KDD has developed a prototype for how food could be re-engineered with a more scientific approach, a metabolic matrix, creating foods that are better for bodies and the planet with metabolically supportive ingredients and processes. They're using this approach to re-engineer their own foods, but this approach to nutrition could also make smarter use of agricultural land while keeping generations healthier.

Mohammad Jaafar: The cost of the food industry worldwide is $9 trillion. These are the costs that can be measured. There are other, hidden, costs, and you might say, ‘Well, what are these hidden costs?’ And how much are they? Of these $20 trillion, $6 trillion are related to the environment, and $11 trillion are related to health and healthcare. We've got a problem. How do we solve the problem? And this is where the metabolic matrix kicks in.

We went to the University of California in San Francisco and to a number of other scientists – independent - and we created a science panel.

We said to them, ‘We want to check if our foods are any good. How do we go about it?’ They said, ‘Well, really, you need to find out how these foods that you're making, or any food for that matter, is metabolized in your body.' So it's not farm to fork, it's farm to body because this is where it's processed.

They said, ‘Well, for food to be, in our opinion - scientific opinion - be nutritious or healthy, it must protect the liver, feed the gut and it must support the brain. Do your foods do that?’ I said, ‘Well, we don't know. Let's find out. How do we find out?’ They said,’ There's one way: to chemically test these products.’

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So we sent all of our product to be tested to find out what they did to the liver of our consumers, whether they fed their guts and whether they're kind to their brains. And we pledged that those products that don't meet these three criteria would have to be moved, would have to be improved, would have to be re-engineered to meet those criteria so that we can look ourselves in the mirror and say the foods that we make are truly nutritious. They're not a greenwash.

We're looking at every product that we've got and we're saying, ‘we must find a solution to this’ so that the products that we make, the 9 trillion that others make worldwide, do not contribute to this problem, the 11 trillion, to the health and healthcare system, and go about bankrupting Medicare, the NHS or the insurance companies. And that would mean that we have to really examine every food that is being produced to determine whether it is good or not.

So basically, there are solutions. Do you like ice cream? There are products that are currently being used in the United States. One of them is called allulose. Now, unlike sugar, this product - and there are others - but allulose does not spike your insulin level. So you can replace this product, you can remove the sugar from your ice cream and replace with allulose instead. Then when you eat that spoonful of ice cream, the allulose is not metabolized the way that the sugar is metabolized in the liver on one hand, but also a product like that would be suitable for diabetics.

So now you'll say, ‘Well, why doesn't everyone put all allulose in their ice cream and be done with it?' Ah, allulose is expensive. It's about six times the price of sugar. We really need to bring [down] those costs - to make them disappear is the ideal, really.

Not just for health. I need to touch a little bit also on the environment. So regenerative farming is on the agenda today. The land has been used and abused over a period of time, and basically, it's unable to give us the bounty that it did before without taking a lot of water. And so regenerative farming is a way of dealing with the soil so that it retains more carbon so that it's not exhausted. So we need to improve the process of growing foods and making sure that it's done in an environmentally sustainable way.

Before we channel all the capabilities that we have, we need to define exactly what we want. Otherwise we're replacing one problem with a similar problem or with something worse.

Mohammad Jafaar, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Kuwaiti Danish Dairy Company

There hasn't been a time in history such as we live in. You've got all sorts of innovations happening right, left and center. There's the good, there's the bad, there's the ugly, there's the exceptional. But before we channel all the capabilities that we have, we need to define exactly what we want. Otherwise we're replacing one problem with a similar problem or with something worse.

Investing in existing technologies and approaches, says Eric Rondolat, Signify CEO, can help the company grow while fueling progress for climate change.
Investing in existing technologies and approaches, says Eric Rondolat, Signify CEO, can help the company grow while fueling progress for climate change. Image: Signify

Investing in what’s proven

Eric Rondolat is the CEO of Signify, a lighting technology company, that achieved carbon neutrality in September 2020. He shared with Meet the Leader what the company is doing now and its key areas of focus to enable the company to grow the business while contributing to climate progress.

Eric Rondolat, CEO, Signify: We want to grow the company, but not at the detriment of the planet. So our sustainability programme is completely embedded in our strategy, and we are really focusing on five clear domains that we believe are critical for the sustainability of the planet in the coming years. And this is where we are investing.

So for instance - combating climate change, it’s climate change and clean energy. We are investing in connected lighting, to save energy. We can save up to 80% of the energy which is consumed by lighting. We invest a lot in solar lighting because we believe in decentralized renewable energies.

Second: food security. We've invested a lot in what we call large recipes, how to grow crops faster with higher yield in a complete climate controlled environment without pesticide, herbicide or additives in a completely natural environment.

Circularity is the next objective that we have, and we are developing fully-serviceable product and also 3D-printed luminaires. We are the only lighting companies that does that. And we have eight plants all over the world where we are 3D printing our luminaries. Why? Because we can give the raw material a life of 80 years, instead of 15 today.

Safety and security - health and wellbeing with UVC disinfection units are also what we have been developing. So at the end of day, all these technologies are interesting because they can help us grow. They are clearly targeting domains where a lot of investments are going be made, while at the same time they bring solutions, to make the planet, at our humble level, a little better.

Rondolat used to attend the COP27 Climate Conference but does not anymore. he reminds us that there are enough gains to be made with the tools we have at our disposal.

Eric Rondolat: I used to participate to these conferences and I'm not anymore because I think the moment is not about discussing. I think we need to do. There's so much that can be done.

I think we are too much looking for big moves, and intellectualizing the matters to the absolute extreme on what should happen for the world to move in the right direction. Where at this point in time there's so much existing for all of us to move in the right direction doing things that we feel we have to do. And if that was happening, we would go a long way.

The possibilities are there. There's so much that we can do now, pragmatically, simply using existing technologies, using existing capabilities, and we would go a long way.

Eric Rondolat, CEO, Signify

The technology is available today in my industry, but in many other industries to help us do big, big jumps.

I give you just an example. We created a few years ago the 3% Club, made of 15 countries and 10 companies who believed that if we were improving the objective of improvement of energy efficiency not by 1.3%, but 3%, if we were also improving the rate of renovation of buildings, not by 1.5%, but by 3%, we had a clear route to carbon neutrality for the planet in 2050.

So the possibilities are there. There will always be a bigger objective. There will always be something that is very interesting and that we can talk about, but there's so much that we can do now, pragmatically, simply, using existing technologies, using existing capabilities, and we would go a long way.

This transcript, generated from speech recognition technology, has been edited for web readers, condensed for clarity, and may differ slightly from the audio.

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