Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Beyond the climate jargon: Reflections from climate conference season 2023

For professionals of many sectors, fall is the season for a marathon of conferences, panels, webinars and events. For the climate sector, this is no exception and Climate Week NYC kicked it off with a bigger-than-ever crowd, next it was VERGE in San Jose, culminating to COP28.

The development of many conversations and discussions in this space, more than usual, left me feeling hopeful. Hopeful because it felt that an overwhelming number of climate conversations explored specific topics deeply, were centered on action today, and strove to rise above, or even slice through, the depths of jargon that often make it difficult to get to the “so what really are we going to do about it?” part of important conversations. These critical sentiments, conversations and questions explored included the following.

There is no “Net Zero” without nature.

For a while now, climate action is often used simultaneously with carbon reduction. To reduce carbon, we look to engineering new, more sustainable, efficient technologies. However, in a comprehensive carbon strategy, there are solutions to reduce carbon emissions, remove carbon from the atmosphere, and protect or preserve natural carbon sinks. In recent years and conferences, airtime and large-scale efforts by large stakeholders were often paying most attention to the reduction of emissions as well as engineered carbon removal. It was prevalent in this year’s events that a multitude of actors and capital providers showed up energized, informed, and ready to ensure nature-based solutions alongside the preservation and restoration of nature not only were present in strategic discussions, but center stage in them.

How do underserved communities themselves define a “Just Energy Transition”?

Thankfully, the intersectionality of inclusion and clean energy is a shared interest across the climate space. However, as commonly occurs, this intersection was given a jargony title that we began seeing painted across projects, strategies, and conversations at length. As the title became common and shared, I could not help but question if we – both the diverse climate community as well as the public – really do have a shared, comprehensive definition of what this phrase means and if this meaning is still capturing the voices of underserved communities themselves. Reflecting on such, I took the opportunity to ask a local Indigenous leader from Arizona and an inner-city community leader from New York City what this phrase meant to them and was both enlightened and refreshed by their different takes on the same topic. Additionally, Nantu Canelos, Director of Territorial Autonomy of Cisco Foundation grantee, Kara Solar, also shared their thoughts on the topic, “In the remote communities of the Amazon rainforest such as Achuar territory, where I live, we are transitioning our energy use from gasoline to solar, and from not having energy to having energy. We use solar energy for transportation, for communication, for light, and other purposes. We see energy as a way to improve the lives of our people, and to alleviate pressures on the ecosystems we live in and depend on, which further improves the lives of us humans, creating a beneficial cycle. When we work with technologies, we focus on building local understanding. Local technicians are trained, and solar energy is embedded in the school curriculum so that children learn about it from a young age. In that way we can make sure that the benefits are sustainable, and that this energy transition is truly just.” In a typical pass by interaction, another climate enthusiast shared gratitude for posing this question publicly and expressed that she too found herself reflecting on the intentionality and reality behind and beyond our most used climate jargon. It was clear people were questioning, redefining or even looking past the jargon all around, especially those capturing themes of justice and inclusion.

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How do we materialize the repetitive call for “blended” and “innovative’ finance?

Conversations around climate finance only continue to mature and acknowledge the unique capital stack necessary to reverse the impacts of climate change. Discussions of this week did not harp on “what” we need and “why”, but rather dissected and challenged capital providers of all sorts to think about “how”. For example, for corporate climate financiers, Salesforce at Climate Week NYC published The Corporate Climate Finance Playbook. Additionally, the  Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance (the Lab) endorsed six innovative financial instruments to accelerate climate action in emerging markets, including Cisco Foundation investee, The Catalyst Fund. Maelis Carraro, Managing Partner of Catalyst Fund, shares more about their approach to materializing this call to action, “Catalyst Fund was intentionally designed as a blended finance structure so that a concessionary capital layer could provide downside risk protection for senior investors and catalyze more private investment to climate adaptation and resilience in Africa.  This type of structure can be incredibly powerful in leveraging multiple types of capital (concessionary and commercial) to invest in nascent sectors, underserved and frontier markets, and unlocking benefits to underserved communities. Climate resilience and climate tech more broadly in Africa remain a nascent asset class and we were proud to be endorsed by the CPI Lab as one of this year’s most innovative instruments for climate adaptation!”

We cannot have “breakthroughs” in Climate Tech without acknowledging the challenging landscape of Climate Hardware.

The 2020 International Energy Agency’s Clean Energy Innovation perspectives report expresses: “Almost 35% of the [reductions needed to avoid a 2 degree C temperature rise must] come from technologies that are currently at the prototype or demonstration phase which will not become available at scale without further R&D. About 40% of the cumulative emissions reductions rely on technologies that have not yet been commercially deployed in mass market applications.” This will require new hardware innovation. A sector which has significant capital requirements, long time frames, and a high level of technological risk. To develop these hardware breakthroughs will require capital providers coming together to provide a diverse capital stack as well as potentially a new investment model. Azolla Ventures is an innovative investment fund trying to tackle just that. Matthew Nordan, General Partner at Azolla Ventures shares, “To avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we have to pair both emissions reduction and carbon removal at mass scale. We’re not going to forestall climate catastrophe solely with the technologies that exist and are ready now such as solar, wind, short-duration energy storage, and electric vehicles. We need new innovations that are neither developed nor deployed today. There is some irony that the innovations that are most potentially impactful are often the ones least likely to be financed at the earliest stages because the risk is so high and the time frame is so long; our approach is purpose-built to fill this gap.” During this conference season, we not only heard these points from Azolla Ventures, but in climate tech roundtables as well as presentations from other investors like Third Sphere.

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As we continue to provide financing for solutions via the Cisco Foundation Climate Commitment, these discussions and progress in how we think about the solutions we need and how to finance them are vital to the success we will have in playing our part in driving climate action. We are eager, energized, and enthused to continue to co-learn, support, and collectively act alongside an array of innovators, capital providers, ecosystem builders, and visionaries to build a more sustainable and regenerative future.


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