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As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) approaches, we are collectively inundated by big national and corporate climate pledges. At least on paper in press releases, we’re moving closer to the goals that climate science suggests society needs to meet. This includes cutting carbon emissions by half by 2030, and to zero by 2050, to avoid exponentially worse impacts as temperatures increase.
The details of getting there, however, are often hazy, and so the implications of these pledges are frequently missing. We need to build an astonishing amount of new infrastructure to meet a 50 percent reduction goal in eight years, even if we plan much more efficient buildings, transportation, and land use going forward—not a given.
Even with their ambition, actions to meet big climate pledges may still miss the pile of separate but interlinked problems—cars being geometrically incompatible with cities, the extinction crisis from industrial agriculture and expanding development, US land use being incredibly socially isolating, or the damaging legacy of colonialist extraction.
While we hope that discussions at COP26 help to close the gap in national actions and international financing, and that US climate policy…happens, the details of implementation—the housing, transportation, agriculture reworked on an absurdly short deadline—will come from innovation in tech and through at-scale equitable deployment.
MIT Solve gets to work with the innovators that will drive not only zero-carbon solutions, but deploy them in ways that meet those other challenges (and more). We know that ingenuity is distributed around the world, in local communities solving local problems, often in a way that can help out other communities near and far. We’ll need all of them to face this crisis, and they’ll need financial and other support to scale.
Luckily for us, we also work with those that are trying to drive social and environmental impact. Climate tech is a small (6 percent) but rapidly growing portion of the VC pool, though it’s still only 1 percent of the philanthropic pool. The scale of the challenge means that everyone with wealth—individual or institutional—needs to do more to understand how they can support climate action in their work. To help, we wanted to share four lessons to mitigate three risks in our response—moving too slowly because things are too different, uncomfortable, or indirect.
A climate-ready world will often feel unfamiliar. The same tools—solar panels, batteries, aquaculture—in different contexts will lead to different solutions, and we must learn to face our own biases towards familiar approaches. One example: HEAL Fisheries, a Resilient Ecosystems Solver, is protecting peatlands by raising snakehead fish: a species that is widely invasive in the US, but endemic to Indonesia. Good work, driven by communities impacted by the problem, often doesn’t conform to our expectations; we need to support it anyway.
Those with wealth from the current system need to move uncomfortably fast. We need the funding and will to build or rebuild much of our world in the next eight years, rather than the decades it took us to get here. It’s easy to see risks of moving quickly while missing the much larger risks of moving too slowly. Work at the scale of the climate crisis will be riskier and faster than we feel comfortable with: we need to support it anyway (and think about how to go even faster!).
Pursuing specific technologies misses the potential for a better and more equitable world. For every advance in heat pumps, we need a company like BlocPower focused on fast, simple deployment that can benefit underinvested communities; innovation around process and equity, not (just) tech. More walkable, denser places to live with durable, high-efficiency housing leads to happier people, more open space,and also a low-carbon society. The most promising innovations may have less patentable IP and feel grander and harder to hold; we need to support them anyway.
We need more stories that share inspiring and realistic futures—as Lucille Clifton said, “We cannot create what we can’t imagine”, and per Kendra Pierre-Louis, Wakanda doesn’t have suburbs. We risk getting caught in negative narratives, and missing the inspiration of a shared vision. Climate work is a long haul and can feel overwhelming; we need to find the courage to do it anyway. Here’s a starting point.
Two opposing facts to close. First, the climate crisis will cause immense suffering based on previous emissions, generally to communities that did the least to cause it. But the biggest factor in how much more suffering we encounter is still up to our choices—as communities, institutions, corporations, and countries.
Solve is here to help, with an amazing array of climate innovators, and capacity for more action-oriented partners every year. Come work with us on speed, diversity, and on a vision for an equitable zero-carbon world, made real through a community of impact.