Is Climate Innovation a Distraction?
Purposeful innovation alongside maturing technology accelerates change.
New technologies often seem magical when they first appear on the horizon, but does that make them a distraction?
“It’s frightening because they see this as a new business opportunity, a new way to make money and continue as before,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, a climate researcher at the University of Exeter, of the hopes being ladled upon carbon removal technologies, during a talk delivered at COP26.
Friedlingstein was specifically referring to the strategy of carbon capture and storage, to offset ongoing fossil fuel emissions, vs. doubling down on the proven technologies we already have. The article linked above goes on to describe fixations on innovation as distractions from the real work to be done.
When is innovation a distraction?
A focus on innovation can be a distraction when it enables inaction or delays in the other work that we know needs to be done. We see this in lazy product development all the time: “This is just a proof-of-concept.” “They’ll fix that in detailed design.” ‘They’ll fix that in software.” “The next version will be better.”
We see that with fossil fuel companies’ investments in carbon capture: they use it as an excuse to continue doing things known to be harmful. It’s like a diabetic injecting extra insulin to compensate for a candy addiction, or like a waste management company refusing to invest in recycling technology because it’s easier to just truck things to the landfill that don’t meet overly-strict standards for curbside recycling.
We see it in adding innovation for the sake of innovation without an understanding of customer and business value. We see it in Innovation Teams that push back against any effort to measure their contribution vía ROI or hold themselves to deadlines, when the core business has weaknesses that need reinforcing and could use innovative thinking to find solutions.
Innovation needs to be purposeful.
Climate tech should be measured first on the contribution it can make towards stabilizing the climate — its future potential at scale. Any impact in the pre-commercial stage is a bonus. We know that more greenhouse gas emissions is bad; less is good, so we optimize our technologies and our investment portfolios for that.
We know that technologies will not be widely adopted if they don’t meet a threshold for affordability and reliability, and that takes time, money, and people willing to go first with a sub-optimal solution so that we learn what we need to build a better one.
A lot of climate tech — at least 50% of the tech we’ll ultimately need to transform our world, according to some studies — is still in the pre-commercial phase. We can’t afford to wait until every home in the world has a heat pump to continue evolving even the technology around heat pumps.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait because it’s not Either/Or.