This blog post has been provided by Dr. Raimund Bleischwitz, BHP Bilton Chair in Sustainable Global Resoures at University College London, based on his keynote speech at the inno4sd.net-Future Earth Joint Symposium, held in Cyprus on 17-18 November. This post is also available at the blog of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources.
The outcome of the Marrakech climate change conference can be cheered as a cocktail of mixed ingredients. While some hail a dawn of a new cooperation, others see the whole Paris agreement at risk of being ditched when big polluters such as the US may pull out of commitments.
Better narratives are needed to bolster the drivers of a greener economy that puts people first, and become aligned with powerful coalitions across a variety of goals. Rewiring climate action from the previous top-down approach putting global environmental public goods at centre stage towards transformative action from bottom up is actually taking place, but will benefit from new narratives to help market actors making decisions.
The resource nexus and eco-innovation are two of such new narratives. Both have compelling storylines in itself and are adopted by a variety of actors around the globe. I believe they can well go together and bring along a much needed new and additional dynamic from bottom up.
Without doubt, 2016 has been a year of major changes. Sweeps of aggressive populism and triumphs of a new ethnic nationalism are the other side of a coin in a world where many people feel left behind, and mass migration has become the new normal. Despite such gloomy trends, positive investment trends and political will seem to prevail towards delivering the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change, two of the promising milestones reached in 2015. But the road ahead won’t be easy; in fact, it will be quite bumpy, and some actors might choose exit options.
The water – energy – food nexus addresses the interlinkages across using natural resources. The concept has been formulated as a response to silo-thinking in traditional planning where the provision of these resources had been treated separately. It emphasizes that it is important to look at trade-offs and synergies in a more integrated manner. The nexus can be defined as the set of context-specific critical interlinkages between two or more natural resources used in socio-economic systems. Its novel narrative lies in addressing:
- Human security, a ‘nexus on the ground’, and livelihoods of the one billion+ people living below the poverty line
- Political security, mainly as tool for analysing conflicts related to natural resources within regions or across borders
- The interlinkages across systems of provision.
The nexus involves typically actors from infrastructure planning units for water and energy, development agencies, and international organizations; all quite often operating in crisis regions of the global South.
In comparison, eco-innovation has strong bearings in pioneering manufacturing industries, policy actors across environment and economy, and like-minded research organizations – quite often in mature or emerging regions with import dependencies on commodities. Eco-innovation has been coined as any form of innovation resulting in or aiming at significant and demonstrable progress towards the goal of sustainable development, through reducing impacts on the environment, enhancing resilience to environmental pressures, or achieving a more efficient and responsible use of natural resources. Beyond such small-scale changes, systemic eco-innovation would comprise a series of connected changes improving or creating novel functional systems that reduce use of natural resources and decreases the release of harmful substances across the whole life cycle. This compelling narrative addresses:
- Environmental sustainability towards a low-carbon circular economy
- Innovations from niches towards regime changes, in line with ecological modernization and sustainable consumption and production patterns
- A decoupling of resource use and environmental pressures from GDP growth, (‘environmental Kuznets curve’), along with jobs in cleaner production.
Seen together, those two fascinating concepts are being picked up by actors driven by a variety of motivations, including and beyond climate and environment.
A real-world example are anaerobic digestion reactors applied in rural areas of developing countries and able to produce biogas, i.e. energy, out of waste and waste water while also co-producing fertilizers and cleaning the water.
Together the nexus and eco-innovation offer an opportunity to realize co-benefits and address a number of challenges more synergistically:
- Delivering the SDGs 2 (food), 6 (water), 7 (energy), 9 (infrastructure and industrialization), 12 (sustainable consumption and production) in a more integrated manner
- Develop business niches with local people at the Bottom of the Pyramid towards eco-innovations with a potential to grow and become interconnected
- Enable new alliances for collaborations with international companies seeking for community involvement and eco-innovation across borders with local benefits
- Engage with investors, large companies, and international organizations that are under pressure to serve long-term goals with more short-term returns.
As fascinating as it looks, additional efforts will be required to bring those two strange bedfellows into a real partnership. Mapping and assessing cases will be important towards relevance and the potential to disseminate internationally.
Altogether such patchwork will comprise millions of people dedicated to learn and make progress on the ground; and the analytical tools for assessments and foresight are awaiting to be applied and support strategies.
After all, the Marrakech conference confirms the need for transformative changes in energy and water systems, international food chains, housing, mobility and industrial development – and getting the people involved.