Poppy Kalesi, Director of Global Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund and IP Week 2020 speaker, delves into the cultural changes to the way we work that will be needed to successfully decarbonise the global economy.
As energy demand steadily rises, and with it greenhouse gas emissions, decarbonising the world’s energy system has become one of the most promising opportunities we have today to ensure humanity’s survival within the natural limits of the planet.
It is also proving one of the toughest nuts to crack. For decades, governments and industry have been trying to solve the issue as if it were a one-dimensional, linear challenge; a question of engineering, or of overcoming market or regulatory barriers.
While some of these efforts have borne fruit in both North America and Europe, they are far from delivering the potential emission reductions at the scale and speed required to respond to what is a dynamic and vitally urgent problem.
Why is this?
Understanding the insufficiency of industry’s climate response to this point is very much a question of mindset. The energy industry is one which operates in high-risk environments – physical, market and regulatory. Navigating this complex risk picture has promoted a low-risk culture; working with likeminded people, from the same sector, discipline, culture, and even gender has become the norm.
This mindset supported the industry well when socioeconomic and physical developments were linear and predictable. But this is no longer where we are.
The non-linearity of the climate emergency has demonstrated the shortcomings of linear, siloed approaches and is demanding that we do everything in parallel through global networks. This has transformed learning from being an incremental, solitary affair to participating in large, collaborative networks, sharing knowledge and learning together to navigate an uncertain and ambiguous future.
Collaborating from a place of humility
But let’s be honest. Collaboration remains hard. Collaborating across disciplines and sectors is not immediately obvious when our action is driven by different motives and contexts. It is even harder when we’re used to being the big fish in our own small pond.
As ponds connect to form lakes, we all find ourselves somewhere new, like a new country. As an immigrant myself – I have done this three times now – I want to share an attitude which has supported me well: learning from a place of humility.
After the frustrating first years of being somewhere new, where you neither speak the language nor fully understand the new culture or ways of doing things, it gets easier when you master it. But to do so one has to be open and accepting of learning a new way of doing things, with no judgement.
Despite our different contexts and backgrounds, we all agreed to “emigrate to Paris by 2030”, a land where global temperature rise will be contained to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This first learning phase showed that we’re not all ready to integrate in our new land. We keep designing markets to deliver lots of cheap goods, make money out of producing things that are not good for the environment and we keep consuming things that are not good for our children or us.
Decarbonising the energy system will require a “both ..and” approach to diverse types of knowledge and perspectives, not an “either…or”. Civil society organisations and industry do not always share the same views of the world or global priorities for the energy transition. Since both are falling short of developing the solutions we need for the transition, maybe it is time to start having more of those hard discussions with each other in a spirit of appreciation for the added opportunities to find novel, promising solutions that will turbocharge the rate of decarbonisation.
Another area with a lot of untapped potential is womens’ participation in energy. Women still account for only 22% of the energy sector workforce. My bet is that 2030 will be the year when we will see how female participation in energy drove decarbonisation. For digitalisation and AI to deliver for humanity and energy systems to deliver for climate, the development process will need to benefit from diverse inputs, knowledge, and perspectives.