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Story | Community
19 November 2020

Op-ed: Can nonprofits be game-changers in responding to climate change?

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Image source: Mike Hutchings, via REUTERS

Omran Hamad Al-Kuwari, a Doctoral Researcher in the Institute for Sustainable Resources, writes about the important role nonprofit organizations have played in the response to fighting COVID-19, but can they also continue to find solutions to problems that neither public nor private organizations can solve alone in addressing climate change

In 2020, the world faces a challenge unlike any seen in 100 years: the global pandemic. Governments, universities and industry are working at a furious pace to try and stave off the worst effects on lives and livelihoods. In November – eight months after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic – world markets soared on the news that two companies had produced what may prove to be the first effective vaccines against COVID-19.

Notably, both vaccines employ “mRNA” technology, a never-before approved approach for use against infectious diseases. Behind the rapid delivery of a potentially breakthrough vaccine was years of research on mRNA techniques. And behind that work by the companies’ talented scientists was, in some part, years-long partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While it is too early to say whether the role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in supporting mRNA research at Moderna and BioNtech were decisive in helping develop the vaccine, it will be months or years before the full story is told of how the breakthroughs were achieved. It is clear that a major nonprofit spotted the potential of mRNA to be a promising method for combatting HIV and other infectious diseases and supported the research with grants. 1 2 3

Nonprofits have played an important role globally in the response to COVID-19. Could they also be a key element of a response to energy transition and climate change?

Combatting climate change to mitigate its worst effects is a generational, global challenge unlike any the world has faced. Under the most optimistic scenarios envisioned by the Paris Agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the remaining carbon budget to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is rapidly being spent.

Image source: Sergey Novikov, via Shutterstock

Far more progress, and at a faster pace, is required for energy transition. However, the barriers remain more organizational and conceptual than technological.

Transition from a primarily fossil fuel-based energy system to one where renewable energy sources dominate is seen by most observers as one key step to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. And on the technology side, progress is now at a tipping point. The International Energy Agency recently reported that the best solar power schemes offer the “cheapest electricity in history”.

For the past 50 years, the rules of the corporate world became dominated by one simple principle – maximize efficiency. Corporate thinking was transformed by a revolution in business practices. Taught at places like the Harvard Business School, and implemented by management consultants across the world, these practices sought to spot and remove inefficiencies. This helped maximize profits and fast track the development of companies and economies around the world.

This change, it must be remembered, has benefitted billions of people, primarily in the Global South. The number of people in absolute poverty has been halved while the global middle class has doubled from 1.9 billion people in 2009 to 4 billion by 2021, and is expected to grow to 5.3 million people in 2030, with the majority in Asia. With that growth comes increased consumer expectations. Demands on energy and other resources will become unsustainable in their own terms and disastrous for the climate if those expectations are in line with what has taken place in the past 50 years.

But why should the developing world be at a disadvantage due to historical patterns and cumulative emissions of industrialized countries who largely used up the Earth’s carbon budget?

Image source: Aonprom Photo, via Shutterstock

Today however, a paradigm shift is needed. As Lord Nicholas Stern concluded the groundbreaking 2006 The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, if no mitigative action is taken, “the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year, now and forever.”

As Michael Porter of Harvard wrote in his seminal 2011 essay, Creating Shared Value, “businesses that escaped the traditional constraints of relationships with people and places found themselves caught in a vicious circle with an outdated approach”. Defining the problem as either pursuit of economic development or climate action is, as Lord Stern concluded, a false choice. A “virtuous circle” of shared value “resets the boundaries of capitalism”, “applies equally to advanced economies and developing countries” while serving new needs, gaining efficiency and creating differentiation. How that new model is brought to life, and what elements are seen as key components, also matters.

“Innovating our way out” of climate change – finding a way to sustain a growing global middle class while trying to stop and reverse the carbon emissions that threaten irreparable harm – has been a comforting notion for techno-optimists. But the very engines of innovation we expect to deliver this “have your energy cake and eat it too” future are themselves the product of the system that produced and accelerated the climate crisis.

The innovation model that has dominated in the past few decades is a dense set of relationships between government, industry and universities. This framework, dubbed the “triple helix” by Dutch sociologist Loet Leydesdorff in the 1990s, is most visible in science and technology parks anchored near major cities throughout the world. The most famous of these being the Stanford Industrial Park, where Stanford University encouraged faculty members to start companies, leased land to technology firms, and ultimately combined with government investments by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that created the basic structure of the internet, and ultimately led to what we know today as Silicon Valley.

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That model led to fantastic advances in consumer technologies, software and internet-based businesses. But it has not worked as well in driving innovation in other sectors. In part, the role of private and venture capital – with a model of low initial investment (relative to hardware and infrastructure sectors) for potentially huge returns – means investment can sometimes fail at the key point between an invention and its widespread use. Some call this the “Valley of Death”.

The ‘Valley of Death’ is a metaphor for how long it can take to scale up innovations and inventions. Jetta Wong/Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, CC BY-SA

Public concern about climate change has led to rapidly growing appetites for action, even ahead of what governments may require.

Over just the past year, discussions about ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investing have become mainstream. When BlackRock, the world’s largest investment corporation with some US $7 trillion under management, announced that it would divest from thermal coal and vote against corporate directors who failed to make progress in tackling the climate crisis, the news was welcomed by environmental activists.

The energy industry itself has made significant investments that have contributed to a virtuous circle of increasing deployments of solar and wind, leading to a growing market for suppliers of the infrastructure, hardware and software, leading to a growing capacity. Large energy companies have made net zero commitments and increased transparency in measuring their emissions across their supply chain.

These developments are all welcome. But the pace needs to quicken if the world is to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. Can this be an area where nonprofits play a role?

Nonprofits have some distinct advantages. Generally, they are purpose-driven organizations that while not immune to financial concerns do not measure return on investment in terms of quarterly earnings. They can afford the patience and time to tackle complex challenges that governments and industry cannot tackle alone and where private investment capital often cannot see the immediate return, but also have the ability to work with the private sector.

Qatar Foundation, where I work, was founded 25 years ago as a nonprofit with the mission of ensuring that wealth of the nation created from supplies of oil and gas could be invested to ensure the education and health of my country, and enable Qatar’s transition to a sustainable economic future.

Qatar, like other nations around the Arabian Gulf, is forecast to experience climate change effects that are more severe than many other places in the world. If global average temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, the average temperature rise in the Gulf is forecast to be three times as great – at 6 degrees Celsius. Our arid climate, already one of the driest in the world, will increasingly threaten secure access to water and food supplies.

So, it won’t surprise you to learn that sustainability and combatting climate change are areas in which Qatar Foundation is already active as we seek to be a sustainability pioneer in our country, our region, and the world. We try to lead by example at our 12 square-kilometer Education City campus outside of Doha – eliminating single use plastic, installing a world-class smart grid system supported by solar PV on our 542 building rooftops (which could ultimately lead to 100 MW in electrical generating capacity from just our own buildings).

But perhaps of greater importance for those outside of Qatar is the role we are playing in operating in a “quadruple helix” model on sustainability and innovation – adding the role of nonprofits and civil society to public, private and academia.

At our Qatar Science and Technology Park on the Education City campus, we host research, development and innovation centers from leading global energy and technology companies – where companies have made breakthroughs in areas ranging from desalination technologies that improve water security, to the development of fuels that will improve air quality over time.

Our campus hosts research institutes in computing and biomedical research such as the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), part of our homegrown Hamad bin Khalifa University. Earlier this year, QEERI has been with global technology leaders to expand our world-class solar research and testing facility. And research by QEERI into the particular requirements for solar PV to work effectively in the desert climate of Qatar was essential to the recently-announced solar power project including Total, Japanese industrial giant Marubeni, and Siraj Energy – a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and Qatar Electricity and Water Company. The 800 MW solar plant will provide 10 percent of Qatar’s peak electricity needs.

Image source: Love Silhouette, via Shutterstock

This year, QEERI also launched a partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to establish a space-based capability to scan Earth’s most arid regions and better understand how climate change is accelerating changes in ice sheets, sea level rise and underground aquifer water sources – to better understand how those three elements interact.

In July, Qatar Foundation’s Qatar National Research Fund awarded a US $5m grant, with another US $1m in private co-funding, to develop technology to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere and channel it to agricultural greenhouses, and also convert it to value-added products. The project brings together a cluster of partners from private, public, academia and nonprofits from Qatar, the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Germany and Canada.

Combatting climate change will require ever-more-sophisticated partnerships between all four sectors, with nonprofits playing a unique role in helping conceptualize project objectives and convene and organize partnerships to deliver them.

Even in the United States, there are exciting signs that a bigger role for nonprofits in bridging that “valley of death” to commercialize clean technologies is becoming more broadly understood. Professor David A. Hart of George Mason University and Jetta Wong, head of the Office of Technology Transitions at the U.S. Department of Energy, earlier this year, published research on how a nonprofit chartered by the U.S. government could be the vital missing piece in accelerating clean technology and energy transition. Professor Hart notes that there are encouraging signs from lawmakers that this may get official support next year.

The role of nonprofits in accelerating the response to COVID-19, including the mRNA vaccines, demonstrates the difference that these organizations can make to tackling some of the world’s most difficult challenges. Out of the tragedy of the global pandemic of 2020, we can dare to hope that 2021 will see that combined effort to combat climate change will be renewed in earnest. And nonprofit organizations will continue to play a vital role in a solution to problems that neither public nor private organizations can solve alone.

Omran Hamad Al-Kuwari is the CEO of Qatar Foundation International, and a Doctoral Researcher in the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London. He has over 15 years’ experience in the energy sector. Follow Omran Hamad Al Kuwari on Twitter through his handle @Ohalkuwari

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