Of the rising planetary challenges before us, climate change in particular demands our attention and action. It is global. It is massive. And it is of a scale that demands enormous effort from all sectors of society. We have arrived at a moment which requires serious financial investment if we are to ensure we reach our goal of a sustainable future. To meet this need, one group of social entrepreneurs has begun a series of conversations working toward solutions with the capacity to drive the massive market transformation necessary for a more sustainable expression of civilization. But, as George Harrison famously said, “It’s gonna take money—a whole lot of spending money.”
This urgent need for unparalleled, multi-disciplinary innovation coupled with funding support was the general focus of the Global Solutions Summit last week in Washington D.C. Held at the Atlantic Council and U.S. Department of State, the gathering brought together clean-technology entrepreneurs, educators, sustainability experts and a broad selection of fund managers, financiers and government facilitators. One sponsoring organization, the P80 Group Foundation, represents sovereign wealth and pension funds totaling more than $40 trillion dollars in assets.
Mark Grobmyer, Managing Director of the P80 Group Foundation and Chairman of the Global Technology Deployment Initiative (GTDI), explained the genesis of the gathering as having been inspired by an initiative of HRH Prince Charles in 2007 to “encourage pension and sovereign wealth funds to finance commercially viable projects and enterprises in emerging markets that would accelerate the deployment of proven technologies.” Sovereign wealth funds are ran by nations, often held by central banks, and are comprised of accumulated assets from a variety of sources including revenues from import/export, foreign-exchange reserves, and banking system management. Commercially-viable, sustainable development projects are uniquely tailored to the long-term purview held by pension and sovereign wealth funds—and because the scale of capital under management is so large—achieving positive outcomes on planetary problems becomes a very real possibility.
In December of 2012, the P80 Group and the Club de Madrid, the world’s largest forum for former Heads of State, met in Little Rock, Arkansas and signed the Little Rock Accord. The goals are lofty: “The successful implementation of the Little Rock Accord has the potential to result in the largest investment commitment ever made to profitably benefit the global environment and sustainable economic development,” said Grobmyer. The Little Rock Accord states its objectives as, “regulatory and structured support to enable pension funds and sovereign wealth funds to significantly and rapidly use their financial muscle to help provide the financing necessary to profitably deploy existing technologies to address climate challenges and resource shortages, including energy, water, food, and clean air.”
Alfred Watkins, Chairman of the Global Solutions Summit, spoke about the continuing mission of the Little Rock Accord. “The whole is greater than the sum and we are seeking to bring disparate solution-sectors together to generate massive surplus value.” Citing daunting challenges and dazzling opportunities, Watkins emphasized global trends showing the incredible transformation of the world’s population toward a majoritarian middle-class as, “an unprecedented eventuality never-seen-before.” This transformation will see billions more people needing such basic necessities as, “electricity, adequate nutrition, clean water, clean air, and essential health care as well as other middle class amenities and life styles.” In only fifteen years, demand for food, water, and energy will grow by up to 50 percent.
These projections and others were in part presented by the Atlantic Council’s Dr. Banning Garrett, a strategic foresight senior fellow for innovation and global trends. Dr. Garrett summarized many of the findings drawn from the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, which, despite dire predictions expressed by some climate change and demographic scientists, largely takes a relatively optimistic tone.
One political game-changer cited by Global Trends 2030 is “individual empowerment” fueled by the wide-spread dissemination of information, education, health-care and huge growth of the global middle class. “The empowerment of individuals and diffusion of power among states and from states to informal networks will have a dramatic impact, largely reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750, restoring Asia’s weight in the global economy, and ushering in a new era of ‘democratization’ at the international and domestic level.”
This positive tenor was only eclipsed by David Roberts of Singularity University laying out the timeline of exponential progress as conceived and measured by the inimitable futurist Ray Kurzweil in his ground breaking 2001 essay, The Law of Accelerating Returns. Kurzweil posits the eventuality of a “technological singularity” which envisions artificially intelligent (AI) machines independently inventing and evolving machines in an accelerated manner untethered from human limitations. Result? AI and the Singularity will fundamentally alter humankind’s existence in the Universe.
Drilling down to some specifics, Roberts explained two tracks fueling paradigm shifts: exponential and disruptive. Price-to-performance growth explains the former, while cars replacing horse and buggies, for example, explains the latter. These trends in innovation and information replication have been accelerating for billions of years having even been tracked in the biological sphere since the advent of RNA and DNA. Roberts and Kurzweil offer an intoxicating narrative which sees a sort of “technological utopia” on the rise that will address many of our current—and seemingly insurmountable—conventional problems.
But the big dirty SUV in middle of the room was always the looming presence of climate change which was described by one panelist as an apocalyptic asteroid on, “slow approach edging over the horizon.” To be sure, reversing global greenhouse gas emissions is a gargantuan undertaking, but what’s at stake is the planet as we know it and the survival of tens of thousands of species with whom we share our proverbial garden. The status quo, if left unchecked, will cause a mass extinction and displace hundreds of millions of people. As recently opined in James Cameron’s new seminal documentary series, Years of Living Dangerously, if climate change is not halted and reversed, Fargo’s yearly average temperature will be like Phoenix’s—and with the world’s agricultural productivity in jeopardy—resource deprivation and lack of food security will threaten global economic collapse causing the very real suffering of billions of people. Yes, billions. Our generation will be judged on how serious we are about cleaning up our act.
To this end, innovators and entrepreneurs are busily crafting the next technologies to save the planet. The summit was in essence a marketplace of ideas—Merryl Burpoe of Aria Strategies shared news of Hittite Solar’s new desalination technology by Turkish inventor Oğuz Çapan—Alex Dehgan of Conservation X Labs showcased several disruptive technologies like DNA bar coding for humans and the WundarBar, “an internet of things starter kit for app developers.” The “internet of things” references the exponential growth of network nodes or online real-time data points with projections in the near future numbering hundreds of trillions of threads monitoring, well, everything. Gail Work shared news of a lower cost battery tech called SeaWave Battery invented by a protégé of Buckminster Fuller and Mark Leslie of Alternative Energy Corporation explained his firm’s new efficient waste water management and emissions reduction techniques currently deployed in several nations in Asia. The clean-tech cavalcade was in fact dizzying with Thomas Campbell of Virginia Tech summarizing very nicely, “policy makers should pay more attention to disruptive technology.”
Bridges are being built between the P80 Group’s financial manager members and the bevy of proven technologies and funding innovations that embody triple-bottom line characteristics. One standout idea was presented by Christian Hauselmann of the Global Cleantech Cluster Association, a “network of 50 ‘cleantech clusters’ around the world comprised of 10,000 companies.” Hauselmann envisions bundling proven cleantech businesses and product lines together, globally, producing investment grade opportunities. Grobmyer also laid out a plan for franchising proven technologies throughout the world as part of the Global Technology Deployment Initiative (GTDI).
Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is one innovative funding mechanism that works hand-in-hand with new energy efficient and renewable energy technologies by enabling property owners to upgrade their properties and pay back via a special tax assessment which has significant advantages over traditional forms of lending. In some cities, like St. Louis, buildings account for an astounding 80% of carbon emissions, and PACE programs like Set the PACE St. Louis allow more of our existing buildings infrastructure to be retrofitted sometimes entertaining 50% energy reduction with improved comfort and performance. A PACE bond for $100M recently sold and received a AA rating which really starts to bridge the risk-gap between finance and innovation. With investment grade metrics, proven technologies and projects can be bundled together to attract the kind of funding to truly make a difference.
Andrew Reynolds, Chairman of the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development and a Senior Advisor for Space and Advanced Technology for the U.S. Department of State, expressed a clear-eyed approach toward carbon reduction as contrasted with growing energy demand. With Germany joining Japan pulling all their nuclear reactors offline in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown, more coal plants have been fired up to make-up the difference spiking carbon emissions. Reynolds believes there is a role for nuclear in our increasingly concentrated urban areas, especially with recent advances in safety. He is very cautious about unbridled expansion of hydraulic natural gas “fracking” because of exceedingly toxic and cancer causing chemicals leaching into ground water sources as a significant percentage of cement casings fail while pumping pressurized chemical compounds, gas, and water up and down the well. Reynolds is a tireless advocate of decentralized technological innovation and chaired a panel covering “new financial architecture” as it applies to municipal improvements and Peri-Urban communities.
As time moves on without engaging a coordinated, global full-court press on these environmental and demographic issues, I get a sense that realists occupying important positions in government are preparing for a role they would rather avoid: managing decline. The Global Solutions Summit brings together the types of people unafraid to grapple with the challenges of the 21st century in a series of very broad conversations calibrated toward one goal—as Dr. Tomicah Tilleman from the State Department eloquently quoted De Tocqueville, “the knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge.” The syncretic brilliance of connecting global finance in new ways to meet our human family’s needs and obligations is the operating ethos of initiatives like the Global Solutions Summit; it was an honor to participate and I predict many positive outcomes will emerge from the continued collaboration.
Partial list of participating organizations
The vision behind the Little Rock Accord and Global Solutions Summit is quite a brainchild that has attracted participation from financial groups such as the World Bank, IFC, Inter-American Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank and European Investment Bank and others. Various impact funds like TriLinc Global and Green Climate Fund were joined by forward-thinking institutions like Singularity University, Heifer International, Winrock, Global Cleantech Cluster Association, National Geographic, Green Science Exchange, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and the Milken Foundation. Governmental and nongovernmental actors have included the Atlantic Council, Global Technology Deployment Initiative, U.S. State Department, USAID, U.S. Department of Commerce and Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Foundation—among many others.