“Does anyone else have a knot in their throat?” Christiana Figueras welled up as she walked to the microphone to deliver her keynote speech at the Ashden Awards at the Royal Geographical Society on 14 June. Wiping away a tear, she said “It is difficult to listen to these stories and not be overcome by the beauty the world brings forward.”
She was referring to the videos illustrating the pioneering award-winners’ work. (Watch them here.) Staggeringly, 1.3 billion people today are without energy and the Ashden awards celebrate initiatives that make a crucial difference in creating access to sustainable energy – in a way that lowers carbon emissions, develops clean, sustainable solutions for cities, and provides vital health and economic benefits.
The Ashden Awards were one of the most uplifting an inspirational, moving and enlightening events I think I have ever been to. Not just because of the stories told in the short videos about the inspirational initiatives that were awarded. Not just because of the heartfelt speeches by the international, diverse array of people collecting their awards. (Winners receive a prize fund of up to £20,000, tailored mentoring and support to help them expand – and a global platform to showcase their work.) But it was the keynote speech by Christiana Figueras that galvanised all the disparate pieces of information, and lifted my spirits and those of everyone present. It has been a while since I have felt so optimistic about the possibility of a better, healthier, more sustainable world.
Figueras is the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was a key architect of the historic Paris Climate Agreement. She brought together governments, corporations, activists, financial institutions and communities of faith, think tanks and technology providers, NGOs and parliamentarians, to jointly deliver the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. The agreement to limit future warming to below 2 degrees entered into force in less than a year: a record for the UN.
I went along because the event was organised by my great friend Mandy Duncan-Smith and Jo Walton for the past 17 years, and was expecting a good evening but I did not expect to be so awe-struck by the diversity and inventiveness of the winners – and the technologies they employed. You can see videos here: https://www.ashden.org/winners/awards-winners .
This year, they included Q-Bot: a robot that provides under-floor insulation. Floors let in cold draughts, and insulation reduces energy use. There’s no need for disruption because the robots gain access through a small hole in the floor and use clever on-board sensors to carry out the task with dazzling precision. Chargemaster develop plug-in points for electric cars, encouraging the uptake of the clean-air transport solution. Ecozen from western India make solar-powered container-style cold rooms to store crops at the point of harvest. Farmers can control the temperature and humidity with a smartphone app. They now also have greater control over distribution and can reduce the amount of food wasted due to a lack of sustainable power for refrigeration. Shuttl reduces commuter traffic pollution in India by providing private, air-conditioned buses. Pre-booking guarantees a seat. In Delhi the company has cut the 2.6 million car journeys that are carried out every year down to 1.6 million, saving between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. MASS Design group helps meet the growing demand for buildings of all types in Africa. It has become a standard-bearer for architecture that meets the social and environmental needs of the community, using locally sourced materials and training local people building techniques, ensuring a sustainable legacy.
Sarah Butler-Sloss, who set up the awards had a vision back in the 1990s (“That’s last century!”, Figueras exclaimed), that everyone in the world needs and deserves energy – and has worked tirelessly to help make that happen. She initially gave grants to new initiatives but she was astute enough to realise that it would benefit small companies much more if she moved the endeavour into the awards-space. An award would allow them to access greater public support, as well as more investment from the financial sector – which they would need to up-scale. Christiana credited Sarah’s work with inspiring the invention of a new word: philanthro-capitalism, a term that encapsulates what her Ashden Awards do.
It is really exciting to see the commitment to the environment of entrepreneurs in such different areas of endeavour: in farming, the transport sector. And the building sector! It’s hugely inspiring to see that it is possible to retrofit, as well as be more responsible about new building, combining traditional materials and new technologies.
The work highlighted here doesn’t just improve access to and use of energy – it also affects women’s empowerment, health, and better cities. Figueras told the delegates: “I see each and every one of you as a concentrated cube of SDGs.” Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aka Global Goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. And it certainly felt like a room filled with people with good will and dedication to the common good.
Figueras complimented the winners for a significant collective breakthrough. “We used to think that there were barriers to stop climate change. Tonight’s winners are breaking through those barriers – which can now be understood as mythical barriers. They no longer exist.”
The first barrier used to sound something like: ‘There’s no solution to climate change, there’s nothing we can do, it’s too expensive, it’s too complicated, it’s too late anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ But thanks to these small companies that are making a difference, those days are gone. That mythical barrier has disappeared, because we do have solutions, we do have innovations, and they are here to be used and to be up-scaled. And what an array of solutions, from the UK to India to Rwanda to Nigeria to Kenya – what a diversity of solutions! They show that it is possible to use financial technology, hard technology, as well as soft, social technology to address climate change in a timely fashion. It seems that maybe the carbon constraint has actually been the impetus for a huge amount of innovation. So: hurray for constraints: they are not a barrier, but an impetus.
The second barrier was the idea that there was an unsurmountable stacking of imperatives. For Figueras the basic imperative is always a moral one. “How is it possible that we have done this to the next generation, that we have got 1.3 billion people without energy? There is a moral imperative to change that.” But on top of that, the award-winning initiatives have shown that there is a technological imperative. Because they are actually developing the technologies that can address the changes. On top of that, there is the financial imperative. Capital is beginning to shift – in part as a result of the Ashden Awards – from dirty technologies to clean technologies, and it is beginning to shift at scale, which is what is needed. Finally there is the policy imperative. We are beginning to see policy shifts. “How blessed are we that we are all alive in the moment in the evolution of humankind when we can do the morally right thing; the financially profitable thing; the technologically advanced thing; and be able to put them all together into coherent packages that are actually addressing climate change. That is a privilege, my friends. Our parents didn’t have that, they didn’t have the tools. We do. And with every privilege, as we know, comes a responsibility to use all those tools in an intentional way.”
The third mythical barrier that these innovators are helping to break down is the attitude of doom and gloom around climate change in relation to what is known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’. The term, originating in social sciences, describes a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users act independently, according to their own self-interest, which is contrary to the common good of all users. This individual, self-interested behaviour results collectively in depletion or spoiling of that resource. Figueras pointed out that what we have seen today is that it is not so much the ‘tragedy of the commons’ but actually ‘the opportunity of the locals’. Because there is nothing top-down about the projects we saw at the Ashdens: they are all from the bottom up. They are all solutions that speak to the conditions in the areas where they were developed, in their local client base. “How wonderful to be able to understand what the needs and interests are where you are working, and respond to them.” This, Christiana pointed out, is very much in the spirit of the Paris Agreement, which was also not a top-down, but a bottom-up collaboration, where everyone brought their contribution to the table. The agreement, and this process of arriving at a concensus, underlines the fact that “all incentives, technologies and policies need to be aligned across all levels: from the local to the sub-national, to the city, to the state, and to the federal government”. Somewhat ruefully she pointed out that in the whole of the world, there is just the one exception. One government did not sign up to the Paris Agreement, courtesy of Donald Trump.
Finally, she decided, it was clear that we, the audience, were “all fantastic stubborn optimists. What do I mean by that? I call myself an optimist, but I don’t refer to the kind of optimism you get from reaching your goal and then sitting down. I am talking about the optimism that is not the destination, but the start of the journey. And that is where all of you are.
All of you know that there is not a single achievement in the history of humankind that has been won if it started with defeatism, if it started with pessimism. That just doesn’t work. It is only if we engage in these fantastic journeys, whether it be at the local level or at the global level, and everywhere in between, it is only if we start with optimism, and we inject the entire process with that confidence, that trust, and the radical collaboration that comes with it, that we can move forward. Why do I call it stubborn? Not only because I was designated as stubborn when I was 3 years old but because I have realised that it is very, very good to be stubborn as long as it is for the common good. We will always have to confront challenge, but we all of us have to remain stubbornly optimistic.
“This is it!
“Climate change is absolutely the most challenging and deeply revolutionising challenge that mankind has ever faced. We are going to address it in a timely fashion. But we are not going to do so unless all of us join in a very powerful family of stubborn optimists, a family – to which I invite you all.”
I went away with a spring in my step and a renewed belief in the potential for change.
Part of the reason I went along was to network and do some more thinking and talking about an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of Media Natura. Some of the old guard have been gloomy about the potential for effecting change. But after this evening, I feel pretty stubbornly optimistic that there is still much that we can do.