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The four conditions of regenerative innovation

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

I was a guest of the Africa Business School and the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University at this year’s IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Marrakesh, speaking to the M6PU Climate Finance Forum. 

I had a few core messages for our global institutions when it comes to turning the corner on climate change. 

My first piece looked at the risks of a climate finance bubble.

The second article addressed the need for more tailored, local solutions for climate resilience. 

This third article in the series addresses the future of innovation. 

When lightning strikes

One million or so years ago, homo erectus gazed upon a raging wildfire and thought, ‘I wonder if I could start that…’ 

Today’s inventors and pioneers are far more likely to look at a wildfire and think, ‘We need to find a way to stop that.’

Innovation has always been a cornerstone of the human experience.

For all the problems that the last few centuries of invention created (thanks, internal combustion engine…) it is a credit to our species that so many people today are working to create a sustainable future.

Of course, we stand on the shoulders of giants. As the world changes so quickly around us (and yet not fast enough!) it’s easy to forget how new is so much of our sustainable technology. Sure, windmills have been around for centuries; but the silicon-based solar panel only dates back to the 1950s, and the vast majority of cleantech is younger still.

That history should all be celebrated, but we also need to ask: can the methods that got us this far still serve us in the future?

Four conditions for regenerative innovation

We need a secular pivot in the nature of green innovation. So far, we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit: solving easier, more profitable problems using modernist techniques. That is completely understandable and has generated the momentum we currently enjoy.

But to really get to net zero in time – and to do so regeneratively and fairly – we need a shift in the nature of innovation along four axes:

  • Firstly, we must go from solving simpler problems (clean energy generation, for example) to harder problems such as aviation fuel and green cement. 
  • Secondly, we need to get serious about the circular economy. We live on a finite planet. Cleantech must also wean itself off our take-and-waste manufacturing process.
  • Third, our technologies need to become not just carbon-free, but regenerative in a wider ecological sense. Nature-based solutions are the future to ensure that we don’t solve one problem (climate) by exacerbating others such as biodiversity and water health.
  • Fourth, innovation must turn its focus to questions of justice. We need to create novel solutions that work with the conditions of developing economies, rather than just solving profitable problems for wealthy consumers. That means allowing space for appropriate development.

Any one of these shifts alone would be a profound change. To face all four of them as a simultaneous necessity only reinforces the magnitude of the climate challenge. But achieve them we must – and it is possible. Here’s an example of how.

The new black gold

We’re currently working with Queens University Belfast on a project that demonstrates the possibility of meeting all four of these conditions.

Biochar is a remarkable product. It is a charcoal-like material formed by burning organic matter in an oxygen-deprived environment. Many of you will be familiar with biochar as a green technology. There is nothing new about it – indeed, it dates back thousands of years to indigenous land practices in the Amazon. So where is the innovation?

Our project with Queens Belfast is investigating whether biochar can become a part of the circular economy. By inputting waste products from anaerobic digestion – itself a form of clean energy generation – and then using the resultant product as a feedstock for a more sustainable form of concrete, we hope to close the materials loop.

Firstly, this is an example of tackling not one hard problem, but two. By developing a biochar process that can feed into concrete production, we are both locking away carbon cheaply and easily for a very long time (CCUS) and also reducing the footprint of concrete production itself.

Secondly, it is truly circular. The input is a waste product, and the output becomes a feedstock for something else. The process is clean, has little impact on the environment, and even produces its own form of thermal energy. 

Thirdly, it is nature-based, using waste biomass and simple, non-extractive methods that require very little synthetic inputs.

Innovating with tradition

What about the fourth point – justice? Again, it’s all about tailoring technological solutions to local contexts.

Charcoal production is a big business in Africa. Seven of the top ten producers in the world are in Africa; places like Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria and the DRC produce nearly 2/3 of the world’s supply between them. That has a real impact on their biomes. Nearly a third of harvested wood in these countries goes to charcoal, which contributes to deforestation.

Plan A is for renewables to become the dominant energy source for Africa, which should reduce these pressures. But what about all the jobs, economic networks and centuries of expertise locked into the charcoal industry?

By introducing innovations like circular biochar for CCUS, we can retain these economic networks, transforming them from extractive to regenerative. And if they can produce a feedstock for more sustainable concrete too, that helps clean up the appropriate development – in things like critical infrastructure – that such countries still have ahead of them.

Biochar-CCUS is ideal for somewhere like Ghana or the Congo basin; less so for Namibia or Djibouti. But as part of a mosaic of regenerative innovation, it can play an important part in helping parts of Africa decarbonise and develop at the same time.

Ambitious, circular, nature-based, and just. This can – it must – be our future. Let’s get out there and create it.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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