There is No Them, We are All Them: Reflection 1 from Cleantech Forum Europe

Richard Youngman

One message struck home hard to me last week at our 15th annual Cleantech Forum Europe, back in Stockholm this year for the second time. It came to me in a number of forms across the event, but it was striking for how it kept reappearing, whether I was in a private, off-the-record discussion session with 20 investors, in plenary listening to the key findings of the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap or in topic-specific breakout sessions (for example, listening to the “rock-star” panels we had on the future of carbon or being educated on the wastefulness inherent in the linear world of the clothing industry).

There is no “them”

We are seven months from the start of the 2020s, a decade in which we, as a human race, and industry, as its economic engine, need to initiate nothing short of the world’s biggest and fastest ever industrial revolution, making major, major transformations to all we do and how we do it. To have a 66% chance (according to the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap) of staying within the 1.5 C world referenced in Paris as the ultimate target, we need to halve carbon emissions during the 2020s, and lay an achievable path for further halvings in both the 2030s and 2040s.

There is no “them” conveniently getting that done for us

We, the innovation community spending all our time developing, supporting and investing in resource-efficient technology companies, are not “them.” We cannot fix this mega, existential crisis on our own. We are of course making a worthy contribution in producing a steady stream of promising technologies but let’s not kid ourselves that this private enterprise, this global R&D effort if you like, will be enough on its own, and certainly not for the 2020’s 50% challenge. More, we are providing the solutions that can make their major impact in the second and third halvings needed for 2031-2050. The solutions to achieve the first halving are not in today’s younger start-ups. Those are already at some kind of proven scale, awaiting the will of “them” to finance and scale them to mainstream volumes, at the required emergency speed.

CEOs and the boardrooms of the major industrial corporations and the major investment houses of the world are not “them.” Sure, they are best positioned to catalyze the necessary change in private business, but the right incentives need to be placed on them, ones with the right levels of ambition and understanding of the risks of inaction or slow action. Incumbency, as frustrating as it is, acts rationally in holding onto its past investments (funded by shareholders) for as long as they can. Only decisive policy can make them act far and fast enough to combat the crisis (assuming you accept the argument there is one). With their brands and their license to operate – maybe now add to that, their environment to operate – under attack, they will act. Growth and shareholder value would no longer be the sole driving short-term objective, survival would be.

Politicians, mayors, and policymakers are not “them.” Again, they can be crucial, in unequivocally committing us to the more ambitious pathways we have to take and engaging citizens in a more honest conversation on the realities of our lives and times, and our choices and responsibilities. (Oh, for global geopolitics today to have its energies directed into such a unifying mission, in contrast to the petty, divisive and isolationist tendencies of the vainglorious, optimizing us for self-harm. Sorry, couldn’t resist).

There is no them, we are all them

Citizens are the closest we can get to a “them,” for the effect every one of us could have – not only by halving our own emissions irrespective of what we are doing professionally, but more the effect we can have on our corporate and political leaders if we collectively demand they react appropriately to what is now, in the language of The Guardian, a crisis and a heating, no longer a change and a warming, and give them the confidence it is not only achievable, but the only road to lasting popularity and prosperity.

And as both citizens and professionals engaged in some aspect of the cleantech innovation theme, we have more responsibility than most. We have the knowledge and access to the solutions-rich portfolios to show what is possible, not only to our private networks, but even more to give our policy leaders what they need to defy the corporate lobbyists’ agendas to slow the pace of change down.

For me, Stockholm represented a growing realization that our “as is” community, on its undoubted positive upward trend extrapolated forward, is not enough. We need to act professionally and personally and urgently, with the “there is no them” as a matter of practical reality.

We might be surprised how we can positively amplify and accelerate our already important work, if we are together louder and more unreasonable. Our business goals are well-aligned.

If you know innovators and startups developing innovations that will help to solve our problems, nominate them for the 2020 Cleantech 100