How to net zero – policy vs tech

Published 09 Feb 2021

By Will Soutar & Chris Lee

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Finally, some good news. With the vaccine rollout on the near horizon and the economy trending upwards, it feels like we can all take a breath, take a break from doom scrolling, and start thinking (again) about our collective future on this planet. And it’s well and truly time.

The World Economic Forum’s recent Global Risks Report rates “Climate Action Failure” as the number one risk facing the world. Even amid a world-wide pandemic, they warn that the near-term catastrophic consequences of climate change add up to a planetary emergency.

So, if it’s time to get our act together, how is Australia thinking about climate action and the unprecedented, rapid and far-reaching transitions needed in our energy, land, urban and infrastructure and industrial systems? Scrolling through Climate Twitter™ and environment-related media, Australian opinions on how we get to net-zero broadly fall into two buckets:

  • The tech crowd: who think we just need large investment roadmaps in breakthrough technologies. “If we build it, they will come.”

Arguably both are wrong. Or, if not wrong, too simplistic, siloed and fragmented.

What’s missing from these conversations is the complexity of the problem and the connective tissue that allows solutions to succeed over time. Preventing catastrophic climate change and achieving the “well below 2°C” Paris Agreement target requires a speed of decarbonisation at least six times faster than anything the global community has achieved so far. No single intervention — policy or technology — will get us to that scale and speed. Both are important but neither will succeed in isolation and more is needed. We need interconnected economic and societal transitions at macro and micro levels.

The tech crowd would do well to acknowledge the goal of climate action is not technology development but technology diffusion. Our shared challenge is weaving technological advances into the fabric of our industries along with institutional, cultural, social, political and economic innovations.

The policy crowd could benefit from realising that policy change is part of that diffusion, but not a silver bullet. European countries who have ambitious political leaders and targets are still struggling to unlock change at the required pace and scale. We need to address the leadership vacuum in Canberra, but then mature our thinking to understand what lies ahead is unprecedented and far more difficult.

Our shared challenge is weaving technological advances into the fabric of our industries along with institutional, cultural, social, political and economic innovations.

Reaching net-zero will require systemic thinking. The IPCC highlights the importance of integrated technological innovation, radical policy reforms, behaviour change and upscaling of investment. The Sustainable Development Goals call for the integration of climate action into the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. The European Commission calls for system-level innovation, promoting sector-coupling so that the individual elements of decarbonisation fit together in a coherent whole.

Consider carbon-free mobility in cities as an example of one of the many systems we need to transform. A huge amount of technical work has been done already to develop alternatives to the combustion engine. Every day, we get better at building electric cars or hydrogen buses. A holistic approach forces us to answer a broader list of questions — How might we reduce demand for individual car ownership? How might we drive a switch to zero-emissions public transport? How might we change the way we live and work?

Technology and policy are important levers but so is the coordination of interventions across green infrastructure for charging, skills and jobs for repairers and mechanics, reshaping finance and insurance to incentivise demand, building pedestrianism and non-motorised transport into a city’s health and well-being strategy, supporting clean mobility-as-a service business models, citizen engagement and reshaping cultural norms, industry and incentivising local production, and utilising public funds in more catalytic ways to unlock blended public private investment, and so on.

Systemic change cannot be achieved through single-point interventions and single sector goals and approaches. For this reason, at Climate-KIC Australia, we are focused on Systems Innovation and providing the connective tissue for a systemic response. Connecting silos, filling gaps and coordinating interventions as coherent portfolios across all levers of change to create synergies.

That is, it’s not a question of policy ‘or’ tech, it’s policy ‘and’ tech ‘and’ many other levers of change including information flows, skills and capabilities, relationships and networks, production systems, business models, demand and markets, finance and investment, organisational governance and community empowerment. We also understand the systems we are intervening in behave in complex, adaptive ways and that deterministic solutions can fail. So, we learn by doing, testing ourselves through real-world experience, exploration and sense-making about what unlocks systems change.

It’s not a question of policy ‘or’ tech, it’s policy ‘and’ tech ‘and’ many other levers of change

In Europe, Climate-KIC is using a System Innovation approach at a local, regional and national level. For example, helping 100 cities become carbon neutral by 2030, supporting Slovenia become the world’s first circular economy, reshaping land use and food systems, and accelerating the just transition of heavily industrialised regions. Here in Australia, Climate-KIC is using a systems approach for our industry energy transition initiative with heavy emitters across critical Australian supply chains including aluminium, steel and chemicals.

We hope as a country and community we can a start thinking about our collective future on this planet and climate action in a more systemic way and support a coordinated effort across various change levers. If 2020 taught us one thing, it was how to think about systems. The global nature and universal impact of COVID-19 unveiled the enormous complexity of our systems and the cross sectorial and multifaceted nature of solutions to complex problems.

This is the part of a series of thought pieces where we unpack our work at Climate-KIC Australia and our systems innovation approach.

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