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Sustainable innovation meets public policy at COP23

Sustainable World

Sustainable innovation meets public policy at COP23

World leaders are gathered in Bonn to discuss the next steps in implementing the Paris Climate Agreement.



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It’s been two years since the Paris Climate agreement was signed – a landmark global agreement to limit global warming to two-degrees Celsius.

It’s a call to action to governments, business, and private citizens to drastically change our behavior, which includes implementing sustainable innovation.

The private sector has always been the incubator for innovations that change the world, while public policy has often shaped how those technologies are implemented at scale. But does innovation drive public policy, or is it public policy that lays the groundwork for innovation? 

That chicken-or-egg question was at the heart of the Sustainability Innovation Forum (SIF), which took place in futuristic tents on the COP23 campus right next door to DHL’s global Post Tower headquarters in Bonn, Germany. SIF brought together global leaders in sustainable business innovation to talk with politicians, tech startups, and environmental advocates about the business case for saving the planet.

Sustainable business is good business

One of the first panel discussions at the Sustainability Innovation Forum was about ways to accelerate the energy transition. One of the panelists, Jakob Askou Boss, shared a remarkable example from his company Orsted, where Boss serves as Senior VP of Corporate Strategy and Stakeholder Relations. Ten years ago, Boss says, Orsted was one of the most oil and coal-intensive energy companies in Europe. But when the company’s fossil fuel business started to suffer, it was time for a change.

“We decided to quite radically change our strategy and to shift our entire portfolio from black to green,” he said.

Orsted is now one of Europe’s leading producers of off-shore wind farms, and Boss notes that it is now cheaper to build an off-shore wind farm than it is to build a coal and gas-fired power plant.

BMW shared how its corporate strategy now centers around the pursuit of sustainability and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. That also required a dramatic shift in thinking at a company that has produced traditional automobiles for decades.

“Ten years ago, we asked ourselves: is our traditional business model a viable solution for the future?” said BMW spokesman Wieland Bruch. “We came to the conclusion: no, the future of driving will be electric.”
In addition to BMWi electric cars, BMW has also made it a point to look beyond the car, addressing the related question of how electric vehicles can be charged. Their solution, which was also on display at the SIF, are street lights that can be used to charge electric vehicles.

Leading by sustainable example

While some companies completely embrace the sustainable business revolution, Scottish Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham knows that other businesses sometimes need a “push or a pull” in the form of government policy. Still, she admits, direct government involvement isn’t always the most effective measure.

“There is nothing more important for one business than to hear the success story of another business,” she said at the SIF. “That is what will persuade them, not just a minister standing there saying you need to do this.”

Sharing success stories was certainly part of the SIF, and the delegates from Aclima – a start-up from San Francisco – found many willing ears.

Aclima’s simple concept – using sensors to precisely measure environmental data at a hyper-local level – has already produced seismic results that make the link between environment and health strikingly clear.

“Health is where climate change becomes personal,” said the company’s CEO and co-founder, Davida Herzl, “and it is where it becomes actionable.”

To demonstrate the fact, one of Aclima’s sensors was set up inside the SIF tent to monitor CO2 levels in the air the delegates were breathing. At certain times throughout the day, the CO2 levels exceeded 1,000 parts per million – enough to have a negative impact on the delegates cognitive abilities.

Closing the (Hyper)loop

While some delegates at the SIF are devoting their careers to the tiniest particles that make up the air around us, others are focusing on gigantic shifts in how our lives will be shaped in the future.

Tim Houter is one such visionary. He’s the head of Hardt Hyperloop, a team of Dutch engineers seeking to change the way we travel using Hyperloop technology – a sustainably-powered pod that runs in a near-vacuum tube along the ground at the speed of an airplane.

Houter and his team got their start as engineering students at Delft University, where they came up with a working prototype of a Hyperloop model that won best-overall design in a Hyperloop competition put on by Elon Musk.

As private-sector players, Houter and his team at Hardt have a good handle on the technical side of Hyperloop implementation, with tests already occurring on a low-speed test track in the Netherlands and plans for a high-speed test track in development.

The bigger challenge is getting all the elements in place to rollout such an ambitious project, which would fundamentally alter transport and travel.

“Implementing Hyperloop is kind of a big thing for a government,” Houter said. “They don’t make that decision in one or two days.”

Policy of innovation

That is where the private sector must pass the baton back to policy-makers – to set up conditions for new innovations to thrive and grow. Houter says his company works closely with the Dutch government to make Hyperloop research and implementation a truly national project. BMW anticipated the policy discussions that would come as e-mobility was embraced by the public and is now in a good position to help steer the discussion and even profit from it. Aclima’s data can have an immediate impact on health regulation if the right policy-makers take note.

Innovation driving public policy, or public policy driving innovation? By the end of the Sustainability Innovation Forum at COP23, it was clear that the answer is irrelevant as long as both sides are pursuing a sustainable future.


"Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen."

Michael Jordan

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2018 © DHL. All rights reserved.