PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MONICA GUAN
As the climate crisis gets deeper, the solutions get bolder. MaRS Climate Impact, a virtual gathering of cleantech entrepreneurs, environmental experts and investors, showcased the latest technologies that will help us live more sustainably. But it also delved deep into the changes that are needed across society, from reworking our financial system to reconsidering how we ensure all groups get a seat at the table when solutions are being discussed.
Here are six key takeaways from MaRS Climate Impact.
Fossil-fuel companies have a problem hidden on their balance sheets: Their share prices are propped up by claims of vast untapped oil and gas reserves. To avoid catastrophic global warming, most of those resources must stay in the ground. With no obvious way for oil companies to square that financial circle, Mark Campanale, founder of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, says the fossil-fuel industry is a bubble that’s set to burst. He warned of an epidemic of stranded assets as black gold loses its lustre and the value of pipelines, oil rigs and refineries plummets. “Trillions of dollars of assets are going to be written down,” he said.
Intriguing ideas: Campanale is a fan of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. “The idea is to get countries to realize that it’s a mistake to think they can be the last-man-standing in regards to fossil fuels.” He also wants a ban on IPOs from coal, oil and gas companies, and he has called for banks to stop issuing bonds for fossil fuel projects.
The enormous — and barely tapped — potential of women entrepreneurs was on display during the Women in Cleantech Challenge finale. Over three years, six finalists developed their technology and grew their companies while also competing for a $1-million prize. Their technologies included a system for artificial photosynthesis that turns greenhouse gases into valuable chemicals, a nanofilm that makes air conditioners more efficient, and an autonomous boat that collects data on the oceans. The winner was Amanda Hall, whose company, Summit Nanotech, has built a highly efficient system for extracting the lithium used in electric vehicle batteries from underground brine lakes. Announcing the result, author Margaret Atwood, who was one of the judges, told the finalists, “You will be inspirations to a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and problem solvers.”
There’s still much work to do: Women bear the brunt of global warming — the UN estimates they make up 80 percent of people displaced by climate change. And yet women spoke for half as long as men at the recent COP26 climate summit.
Assets in ESG funds will hit $53 trillion by 2025. But a gulf remains between their intentions and impact. “Buying or selling stocks in public equity markets doesn’t change anything in the real world,” said Jason Jay, director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative. To influence corporate decision-making, investors need to be organized and take an activist stance. “The might of the institutional investor community — that’s very important,” said Desiree Fixler, former head of sustainability at Deutsche Bank’s DWS arm. But smaller players can make a big difference, too. Jay highlighted the success of Engine No. 1, a small hedge fund that owns just 0.02 percent of ExxonMobil, but ran a successful campaign to get two environmentally-minded nominees elected to the board.
Overlooked issues: With investors focused on emissions, several speakers warned the social part of ESG is being crowded out. “The climate crisis is a human crisis,” said Pietro Bertazzi, global director at environmental disclosure platform CDP, but “the market looks much more at climate than human rights.” He called for more convergence between the climate change agenda and the sustainable development agenda.
Technical solutions to environmental problems abounded at MaRS Climate Impact. There was ALT TEX, which turns food waste into carbon-neutral textiles, and Novamera, which makes resource extraction more sustainable with “surgical mining.” There was even a discussion on whether it might be necessary to bleach clouds or seed the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s heat. But there is a growing appreciation that protection and restoration of natural habitats also has a huge role to play. Pointing out that concrete defenses alone cannot hold back catastrophic floods like those in British Columbia recently, former environment minister Catherine McKenna said that nature should be viewed as a type of infrastructure.
What’s involved: Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, suggested that practising smart agriculture, planting cover crops, restoring coastal wetlands and supporting healthy, complex ecosystems can play a huge role in creating new carbon sinks. “These are all ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere where we don’t want it and put it back in the soil and the biosphere where we do.”
Outside Brantford, a 1,000-megawatt clean energy storage facility is being planned. Developed in partnership between energy company NRStor and the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation, the project highlights the role of Indigenous communities in combatting climate change. With many sustainability initiatives either taking place on Indigenous land or impacting it, approaches are needed to ensure the solutions are community-driven and sensitive to cultural practices. Myrna Bittner, CEO of RUNWITHIT Synthetics said progress is being made, with managers of sustainability initiatives increasingly seeking ways to measure Indigenous participation in consultation processes to ensure they are involved.
However, Matt Jamieson, CEO of the Six Nations Grand River Development Corporation, said that the level of preparedness to build partnerships to deliver clean technology projects varied among communities. “Developers need to understand the chief may be strapped in terms of capacity — so they need to ensure that the Indigenous community understands their value proposition.”
The bottom line: “Indigenous communities need to be drinking from the firehose of private capital, not the straw,” said Jeffrey Cyr of Raven Indigenous Capital Partners.
Several panellists came to MaRS Climate Impact fresh from the UN’s global climate summit two weeks earlier. The consensus: COP26 was a small step in the right direction. “My expectations were somewhat low going in,” said Hayhoe. “But we did see increased ambition. If you include net-zero targets, an analysis by Carbon Brief showed that current policies and pledges would take us to 1.8 degrees [of warming], which is a lot better than we were a month ago.”
The good: Agreements to reduce methane emissions and phase down — but not phase out — coal. The fact that the words “fossil fuels” made it into the conference accord for the first time ever.
The bad: The separation of protesters and power. McKenna noted that while oil executives were mixing with politicians, activists and Indigenous peoples were kept on the periphery.
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