03 Jun.
2021

Addressing global sustainability challenges

Sustainability transitions are not yet unfolding at sufficient scale and speed, says Frank Geels.

I recently had the pleasure to contribute to the first Nobel Prize Summit entitled Our Planet-Our Future, which used its convening power to draw attention to the need for major sustainability transitions. It was organised by the Nobel Foundation and other organisations, and included speakers like the Dalai Lama, Al Gore, Ursula Von der Leyen, Sir David Attenborough, and a host of Nobel laureates. 

I was a panellist in the Science Session on the theme Breakthroughs in Technologies and Social Innovations for Resilient Societies and Global Sustainability, which emphasised the role of innovation in the coming critical ‘decade of action’ for addressing global sustainability challenges.

During the session I highlighted several issues related to transition dynamics and governance. I particularly emphasised that sustainability transitions are beginning to unfold in some sectors and countries, but not yet at sufficient speed and scale. Acceleration therefore requires stronger policy support, deeper societal and business engagement, and a willingness to take on vested interests.

Breakthrough innovations

Many ‘green’ breakthrough innovations already exist. These include technical innovations like electric vehicles, solar and wind energy, heat pumps, and biogas. They also include social and business model innovations like community energy, urban farming, car sharing, and alternative food networks.

The problem is that most of these innovations are still confined to small niches and demonstration projects. They are not yet diffusing at sufficient speed and scale to address global problems like climate change and bio-diversity loss.

Addressing global sustainability problems therefore not only requires the emergence of breakthrough innovations but also their diffusion, because only that will bring about system transformations in energy, mobility and agri-food domains. 

Diffusion: External shocks and endogenous drivers

The diffusion of ‘green’ innovations can be accelerated by external macro shocks (like the Covid-19 pandemic) that disrupt existing systems and create windows of opportunity.

But diffusion also depends on endogenous drivers such as cost reductions and performance improvements, business investment and innovation races, consumer enthusiasm and adoption, positive cultural narratives and visions, and supportive policies that actively create markets through subsidies, capital grants, or even regulatory bans. The latter are now being used, for instance, to phase out diesel and petrol cars in many countries.

Positive feedbacks between these drivers are presently accelerating the diffusion of some innovations like solar energy, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. But they are not yet driving many other green innovations, which therefore remain stuck in small niches. Stronger policy, business, and consumer engagement are thus needed to help diffuse these innovations in the coming years.

Resistance

Sustainability transitions are also contested, however. Resistance to change from powerful incumbent industries such as fossil fuel companies and agri-businesses remains strong. Many companies in these industries have woken up to the threat of sustainability transitions and, to protect their vested interests, are trying to slow down the pace of change.

So what could policymakers do to address this resistance? There are essentially three strategies they can adopt.

Firstly, they can use stronger regulation and financial incentives to force or entice incumbents to reorient their innovation strategies and business models. Secondly, they can help companies and workers in coal mining, gas boiler plumbing, or dairy farming, to learn fresh skills and find new jobs so that sustainability transitions are just, inclusive, and ‘leave no-one behind’ (to use a phrase from the European Green Deal). Thirdly, policymakers can move around incumbents by supporting new entrants who are more willing to drive radical innovations.

Governance style

However, faced with these challenges policymakers and scientists should not adopt a top-down and technocratic approach as this is likely to fail because there are too many uncertainties and disagreements about future transition pathways.

In the early phases, in particular, policymakers are well-advised to use participatory, deliberative and ‘learning by doing’ approaches. These allow stakeholders to express their views and enable policymakers to learn about the pros and cons of different innovations.

In later phases, however, policymakers should be more interventionist and push harder to drive diffusion, both with generic policies that increase selection pressures (such as carbon taxes and regulations) and with technology-specific policies such as adoption subsidies, investment grants, or deployment targets.

Written by

Frank Geels is a Professor of System Innovation at Alliance MBS

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