Green innovators – and why we need more of them

While efforts to tackle climate change bring a host of major challenges, there are opportunities too. This fact is not least demonstrated by the entrepreneurial individuals who are coming up with so many innovative emissions-busting solutions.

As we approach Climate Week (12-18 March), and as we continue with the debate about how best to rejuvenate the economy, it is perhaps timely to have a quick look at the work of the ‘ecopreneurs’ who are bringing new energy and imagination to the job of cutting emissions.

In addition to coming up with great business ideas another thing that strikes me about these new pioneers is how they are so effectively challenging the received wisdom as to the apparent choice between meeting environmental goals and economic ones.

Take solar outfit Eight19, for example. This company was set up by scientists at the University of Cambridge to provide affordable solar-powered lighting to homes in developing countries. They did this to assist the 20 per cent of people in the world who don’t have electricity and instead use dirty fuels such as kerosene.

Eight19 developed a concept based on the fact that 600 million people who do not have electricity are mobile phone subscribers. Its IndiGo service allows off-grid communities to use mobile phones for ‘pay as you go’ solar power.

Individuals pay $10 to install the solar lighting system and a keypad (IndiGo box). They can then buy power for any period of time they wish – purchasers receive a passcode via text message.

Power from the solar cell charges the battery in the IndiGo box, making electricity available for lighting or charging other devices, such as mobile phones.

First introduced in Kenya and then trialed in Zambia, Malawi and Southern Sudan, Eight19 this January signed a deal with charity Solar Aid to distribute an initial 4,000 Indigo systems in East Africa.

Other micro-scale innovations are supported by a programme called SEED – a global partnership for action on sustainable development and the green economy run by the United Nations. The scheme awards funding to small, local entrepreneurs across the world whose businesses provide social and environmental benefits.

One of these, based in The Gambia, sells briquettes made from groundnut shells alongside fuel efficient stoves. This uses a waste product to make affordable fuel for local people with stoves produced by local welders. It is piloted by partners including restaurants and school kitchens and is promoted through women’s networks.

It seems to me that alongside large scale initiatives relying on multi-billion dollar investments that it is a myriad of small innovations like these that will help to make a difference. Of course,  all changes need to come alongside legislation and targets agreed to by governments. But even in well governed western countries legislation is rarely enough by itself – innovation and behaviour change are also key factors in determining how we use natural resources and protect climatic stability. And there are plenty of examples here in the UK of how that is happening.

One individual, a young engineer called Laurence Kemball-Cook, has designed paving slabs which generate electricity from footsteps. The Pavegen system works by harnessing the kinetic energy generated when footsteps depress the slab. The energy can either be stored in a battery or connected directly to a piece of equipment such as a light or sign.

The latest version of Pavegen is made from 70 per cent recycled materials to minimise its environmental impact. The young engineer has toured Pavegen around schools, music festivals and town centres to help build awareness of the possibilities of renewable energy. He believes that it could be possible for all kinds of devices, such as ticket barriers at underground stations, to be powered by his micro-generators.

Designs like Pavegen are so exciting because they have been conceived to meet needs, as well as reduce environmental impact. In making this kind of step are a growing band of mainly young ‘ecopreneurs’. It seems to me that they are at the forefront of a new age of environmentalism – ensuring it is workable as well as good for the planet. But these people need more than brilliant ideas, drive, commitment and imagination. As well as help from policy-makers they could do with a bit more recognition and encouragement, and that is what the Climate Week awards are all about.

Designed to recognise and celebrate those who are devising ingenious ways of combating climate change, a total of 56 initiatives have been shortlisted covering a huge array of categories, including individuals, business, education and events.

As one of the judges who sifted through a wide range of inspired and inspiring entries, I have to say that I was left feeling how there is every good reason to be optimistic about our ability to solve even this gravest of global challenges. While most politicians and large companies give every impression that they wish the problem would just go away, there is a mass of activity going on, driving us toward a better future, and in many cases being pushed forward by tomorrow’s leaders.

Originally published by The Independent.