Global search uncovers proven innovations in clean energy, climate solutions

Last week, I was at the United Nations Habitat’s World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, sharing ideas with city leaders about how to tackle the climate crisis. I was there to shout about 44 proven solutions — a collection of ground-breaking projects and enterprises from Yemen to Guatemala.

These innovations, from the longlist of finalists for the 2020 Ashden Awards, show the awesome power of clean energy and climate action.  

Final winners in our 11 award categories will be announced in June at a ceremony during London Climate Action Week — but every organization, and many more that didn’t quite make the cut, can teach the world valuable lessons.   

Showcasing proven, ready-to-scale solutions is fundamental to tackling the climate emergency and giving everyone access to clean, affordable energy. Too often we hear the same grumble from climate ditherers and delayers — that climate solutions are impractical, unaffordable or unpopular. It’s crucial that we counter these dreary myths everywhere we find them. To do so, we all need stories about inspiring solutions at our fingertips.   

Climate deniers, while infuriating, are not the only barrier to progress. The huge array of panels and workshops at the World Urban Forum, as at so many such events, was a powerful reminder of the competing pressures on even the most forward-thinking leaders, from providing better health to more jobs, an end to poverty and inequality to tackling biodiversity. This is why we are always looking at the additional benefits to people from climate action that also safeguards the planet. Corny but true: we can tease out those win-wins.  

Take two very different examples from our longlist. Kenyan agriculture enterprise Mucho Mangoes helps farmers use solar-powered drying equipment, giving them the chance to add value to their harvest, so raising their incomes. Thousands of miles away in the United Kingdom, smart technology from Guru Systems improves the efficiency of heat networks through tech, lowering energy waste in social housing, cutting emissions and creating financial savings for tenants. What’s not to like?  

New systems can drive radical change 

To get to this longlist, we at Ashden scoured the world to hunt out solutions that could drive systemic change — the sorts of radical shifts necessary given the climate crisis. For example, the built environment contributes to 40 percent of the U.K.’s carbon emissions. So, what if we re-imagined everything about how we build, and how we improve existing buildings? 

We found that across the U.K., organizations are driving better use of passive design and sustainable materials such as timber, and techniques that allow whole house frames to be created quickly and cheaply. Others, such as the Ecology Building Society, are leading the development of discounted mortgages for more energy-efficient homes.  

Such developments can create a new, localized model for cost-effective green housebuilding —supporting local economies, slashing the industry’s carbon footprint and creating greater resilience.  

The U.K. government has committed to reach net zero by 2050, so it must capitalize on the demand for change, backing entrepreneurs and supporting the shift above with every tax, investment and policy lever available. In the run-up to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, and with the U.S. position unsure, Britain must commit to world-leading action — in order to have the credibility to secure the badly needed increases in voluntary commitments.  

Holistic thinking, community action 

As applications poured in for the Ashden Awards, we were impressed by big-picture thinking from around the world. Togo is taking this approach to electrify every corner of the nation, drawing on the talents of the public and private sectors, extending the grid and also investing in off-grid energy. 

We also saw organizations offering finance solutions that open the energy access sector up to a greater diversity of enterprises and approaches: outfits such as Energise Africa, offering a clear and simple way to invest in the continent’s energy startups. This is crucial, as we’ll only crack the energy access problem by building a flourishing ecosystem of innovation, not by pinning our hopes on a handful of bright stars.  

We saw many more organizations installing, managing or supporting microgrids around the world — confirming the growing importance of this model of energy delivery. The rise of local energy grids highlights another key theme of the longlist: partnerships; co-operatives; and community-driven solutions. 

Again and again, we saw the power of communities to deliver climate action (something world leaders and huge corporations often find challenging, to say the least). To take just one example, BuildUp Nepal has trained thousands of rural people, with a particular focus on women, to build their own homes from sustainable compressed earth bricks.

Neglected challenges 

This year, we have sought to shine the spotlight on some neglected climate challenges. One is the need for efficient cooling solutions. As the temperatures tick higher, people turn up the air conditioning, using more energy, releasing more harmful gases and feeding a vicious circle. Hence the search for cool solutions.  

The longlist for our cooling award features four very different organizations in Vietnam, India and Egypt. The Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan includes a comprehensive range of measures to keep city residents safe during heatwaves, whilst a German Red Cross project in Vietnam is using climate data to trigger early funding for heatwave responses. ECOnsult is the designer of a naturally cool desert village for agricultural workers, and Fairconditioning is training the next generation of architects in sustainable cooling techniques.  

Another hidden crisis is that many of the world’s 70 million refugees and internally displaced people live without reliable energy for cooking, heating or communication. Our new humanitarian energy award uncovered innovation in the most hostile of environments.

Women in Yemen are running microgrids, while in Jordan, a Norwegian Refugee Council program provides solar water heaters to landlords in exchange for lower rent and tenure security for refugees.

But we also saw that the humanitarian system needs to be radically overhauled, with governments offering serious investment and long-term commitments. Clean energy innovators are held back from reaching more people by the humanitarian sector’s short-term funding models.   

2020 also brings our first award for natural climate solutions. A growing body of evidence shows that indigenous people are better placed than governments, charities or business to maximize the climate benefits of forests. In violating the rights of indigenous people by claiming their land and planning new pipelines, we are committing an act of global self-harm. We need to reverse this fast and put indigenous people at the forefront of the climate fight.  

So, what unites this diverse list of 44 innovators? They will all need investment and political backing in order to scale-up at lightning speed and share their hard-earned knowledge. The innovation is there in spades — now we need money on the table and leaders putting their weight behind our longlist and others’ longlist. That was the message I took to Abu Dhabi.