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December 22, 2015 | Entrepreneurs Don’t Need Treaties to Fight Climate Change

International climate change negotiations are a painfully slow process. Any observer present at COP21 could attest to that. The recently signed accord in Paris, decades in the making, took thirteen days of relentless deliberation among 195 countries, and even then was only signed at the last second — the evening on the day after the official end of the conference.

Knowing how sluggish these things can be, the conference organizers even preemptively booked the Le Bourget negotiation space for a week after the conference ended, just in case.

But on the opposite side of the spectrum from this lethargic bureaucracy stands another group of people anxious to sprint: entrepreneurs.

“Rather than waiting for diplomats to stop squabbling, entrepreneurs need to recognize the enormous market opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid … to stave off climate change,” claims Jigar Shah, founder of the Carbon War Room.

And why entrepreneurs specifically?

Entrepreneurs have a reputation for challenging the status quo — and that’s exactly what is needed in this game. Climate change is not a run-of-the-mill issue, and innovators are not run-of-the-mill people. We are facing a challenge at a scale that we have never seen before, and it will take some wide-thinking, bona fide brilliance to solve it. Fortunately, the opportunities are plentiful.

“There’s 30 to 40 trillion dollars in infrastructure that needs to be turned over. That’s a huge opportunity,” observed John Woolard, VP of Energy at Google, on December 6 in Paris.

And it’s a huge opportunity situated perfectly for entrepreneurs.

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John Woolard, right, speaking on a panel at the World Climate Summit
on December 6, 2015, Paris

It’s not surprising, then, that entrepreneurs are starting to involve themselves more in the climate change movement. This was especially noted in Paris the last few weeks.

“[This COP] is so different from Copenhagen [in 2009], when we were waiting for governments to build the solution,” recalled Natura co-founder Guilherme Leal. This time around, in Paris, there were both new and old businesses working alongside “civil societies and governments.”

However, between these two "ages" of the private sector, the real breakthroughs are not going to come from existing companies — they are going to come from the new ones.

Large, established companies entrenched in carbon-intensive industries may gab and advertise that they are working hard in the renewable and climate-friendly sectors, but experts agree that they will never truly innovate like their younger counterparts. Tony Seba of Stanford puts it simply: “There is no reason for an existing company to uproot its own market.”

Instead, it’s the underdogs and eager enterprisers that will lead this green revolution.

It would seem as if the stage is flawlessly set for young entrepreneurs to take the limelight. But every good actor needs supporting roles — and luckily, there are plenty of those, too.

One example is the city of Vancouver.

Through the Green and Digital Demonstration Program (GDDP) commenced in 2014, Vancouver is beginning to provide “clean technology and digital entrepreneurs with exceptional access to city-owned infrastructure for proof-of-concept trials and pilot testing,” according to its website. By granting a number of vetted innovators temporary permission to buildings, streets, and fleets, the goal of the program is to promote a “stronger, more diversified group of companies developing sustainable technologies” in the city and around the globe.

In return, the entrepreneurs who capitalize on this opportunity must simply provide the data they collect on public lands back to the city government.

A bit further south, the state of California is also throwing green entrepreneurs a bone.

“California is mandating 1300 MW of electrical storage by 2020,” Governor Jerry Brown declared last Wednesday in Paris. “A very big utility company in California has already bought 250 MW. Now, it’s very expensive, but we are driving technology through government, the law, regulation, and response.”

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Governor Jerry Brown (R) addresses a crowd at the
International New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference
on December 9, 2015, Paris

With the help of large state actors like California essentially serving as publicly funded investors, entrepreneurs are afforded the opportunity to develop their green tech without having to cater to the needs — and prices — of everyday consumers. Instead, they can focus more on making larger-scale innovations that may be slightly riskier and, in the process, achieve true breakthroughs.

Then, with the help of these state-sourced investments, entrepreneurs can continue developing their breakthroughs to become better and cheaper. Eventually, with a bit of luck, their green products can start to circulate through and disrupt the market, to the benefit of the climate.

In addition to these public contributions, there are also a number of private ventures that are funding these entrepreneurs. Foundations such as XPRIZE support innovators, but through a radically different mechanism: dangling massive cash prizes and international renown in front of their noses.

Since 1995, XPRIZE has been designing and managing international competitions that, according to their website, result in “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” Over the last 20 years, XPRIZE has successfully concluded four of these challenges — including the well-known 2004 Ansari XPRIZE that led to SpaceShipOne — and has six more currently active.

One of the current six is the Carbon XPRIZE, which challenges teams from every corner of the globe to convert power plant CO2 emissions into valuable, usable products. The appeal: $20 million awarded to the best solution.

Yet, even though this Carbon XPRIZE has a very narrow and specific aim, the XPRIZE team readily realizes it will have much broader repercussions.

“Ultimately, the impact of the prize will go far beyond the critical demonstration of innovative technologies, by inspiring transformation, enabling new markets, and empowering people to be a part of the solution to one of our world’s greatest challenges,” cites the Carbon XPRIZE site.

Paul Bunje, the principal and senior scientist for energy and environment at XPRIZE, is understandably excited about the possibilities of this prize. Although some think that the prize is unrealistic, he remains hopeful.

“The day before breakthroughs are made, they are considered crazy ideas,” he reminded an audience at the World Climate Summit in Paris last week.

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Paul Bunje (R) being interviewed at the
Earth to Paris summit in Paris

These tremendous efforts and support systems have been applauded by experts across the board, including by Ernest Moniz, the US Secretary of Energy. “Certainly, increasing this innovation pipeline is absolutely critical,” he noted in Paris a couple Wednesdays ago.

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Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of Energy, poses in Paris
at the International New York Times Energy for Tomorrow Conference

Programs such as these, coupled with the clear signal sent via the recent success of the COP21 negotiations, will help new entrepreneurs flourish in the green space.

But even without these agreements and collaborations in place, entrepreneurs still have the capacity to seriously tackle climate change. In fact, before these programs or accords existed, the world was already beginning to see its fair share of climate change billionaires: Elon Musk, Tom Steyer, and Roger Sant, to name a few.

And as more green moguls enter the scene, even more will follow.

In an address to businessmen in Paris last Wednesday, Ernest Moniz underlined the true urgency of tackling the climate change issue: “We don’t have any time. We need to really move briskly,” he asserted. “Nature’s clock keeps ticking, and we don’t have the luxury of resetting it.”

Fortunately for us, entrepreneurs don’t have to wait for the alarm to ring. In fact, they don’t have to wait for anything.


Zach Bielak is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Zach is a social sustainability research fellow who was graduated from Rice University in Houston, Texas.