Using technology, innovation and entrepreneurship to turn the tide on climate change

Using technology, innovation and  entrepreneurship to turn the tide on climate change
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Last month’s UN conference on climate change in Poland put into operation national commitments made during the landmark Paris agreement. But these frameworks, focused on reducing carbon emissions through electricity production, missed a prime opportunity for nations serious about climate change to replace existing technologies with more efficient, lower-carbon solutions.

Cooling technologies present opportunities for investment and public-private partnerships that can disrupt industries in need of change and provide long-term national economic security and growth.

As the developing world connects to the grid and warming raises average temperatures in the tropics, the demand for cooling will grow exponentially to ensure human health and economic productivity.

A recent report from The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates a fivefold increase in the number of room air conditioners (RACs) on the market in developing nations by 2050 -- from 1.2 to 4.5 billion units globally.

These cooling technologies typically rely on climate-harming refrigerants and electricity produced primarily by burning fossil fuels. Alone, RACs could potentially result in carbon emissions equivalent to a 0.5 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature by 2100.

Project Drawdown found that among 100 climate solutions, refrigerant management could lead to the greatest reductions in atmospheric carbon by 2050.

As HFCs, a refrigerant with the capacity to warm the atmosphere 1,000 to 9,000 times greater than carbon dioxide, are phased out in conjunction with the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol that took effect this month, a RAC replacement can both reduce the electricity emissions burden and capitalize on new experimental refrigerants to forge a future where cooling is affordable and has minimal climate impact.

The democratization of science and technology has opened the door for millions of new engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors to enter the marketplace. However, some industries like the cooling industry remain siloed, resistant to change and under-regulated by policy structures. Innovation and entrepreneurship, driven by new market incentives, can change this narrative by attacking the underlying drivers of climate change at the source of emissions and by harnessing existing market demands.

These investments can send powerful market signals and build the kind of incentives that break industry barriers down when regulation fails or does not exist. The Global Cooling Prize, a $3-million international competition led by our organization Conservation X Labs, the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Government of India to develop a new generation of cooling technology, fills this role in the cooling space. More nations, industries and impact investors should follow this model by creating market incentives to drive disruptive innovation that tackles climate change through replacement technologies.

Open innovation — prizes and challenges — is one method to build such an incentive. While talent may be everywhere, opportunity is not. USAID's Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge for Development has demonstrated how everyone from an Argentinian car mechanic to some of the largest medical device companies could contribute to saving the lives of mothers and newborns from a hut to a hospital.

Open innovation breakthrough effect can galvanize others to enter into a space or jumpstart the flow of private capital by serving as a pre-vetting mechanism for market-based solutions much like how The Ansari X Prize spurred the development of the private space industry.

The Global Cooling Prize and similar partnerships can only achieve global impacts by breaking down existing industry barriers that prevent technologies from scaling. Governments can offer advanced market commitments to purchase new low-carbon technologies. Private and social sector partners can create pathways to access capital and build pipelines to manufacture new products at scale.

A critical question for scientists, especially when global policy lags, is ‘how can new ideas and new entrants drive change from the bottom up?’ Problematically, the discipline traditionally positioned to develop and test environmental solutions —conservation —has not kept pace with other applied scientific disciplines, like global public health, when it comes to technology and innovation.

Open innovation competitions provide entry opportunities for non-experts and experts alike to shape problem-solving for global environmental change. International public-private partnerships like the Global Cooling Prize mark an unprecedented opportunity to disrupt entrenched high-carbon industries, address the underlying drivers of exponential climate change and meet the public health and economic demands of a growing global middle class.

Alex Dehgan is the Chanler Innovator in residence at Duke University & CEO and co-founder at Conservation X Labs. Chad Gallinat is senior program manager and Jay Sullivan is the open innovation project manager at Conservation X Labs.