New ideas for a changing world

Zwei Wissenschaftler besprechen Inhalte am Tablet-Computer. © Clayton D/

It can take a long time for sustainable innovations to be put to practical use on a widespread basis. What is needed is international dialogue, networking and cooperation.

What might a world look like in which sustainability has actually been put into practice? This is not just a matter of idle speculation: the international community drew up a vision of the future back in 2015 in the form of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a kind of global master plan. In the world envisioned by the United Nations, hunger and extreme poverty have been overcome, there is a consistent commitment to environmental and climate protection, and priority is attached to promoting education, equal opportunities and good jobs. But the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not just a wish list that sets out targets to be achieved by 2030. Their strength lies in the fact that they also incorporate the factors that pave the way to sustainability, such as innovation, green growth and partnership in achieving the goals.

Unfortunately, there has been a deterioration in terms of overall conditions in recent years. First came the coronavirus pandemic, with economic recovery continuing to be sluggish in many countries. Furthermore, climate change continues to act as a crisis accelerator, while the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine and numerous other international conflicts have caused severe setbacks as well. “As the world faces cascading and interlinked global crises and conflicts, the aspirations set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are in jeopardy,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The most recent progress report of 2022 makes sobering reading: not only has ground been lost again in numerous fields of activity despite some initial success, but existing accomplishments are being called into question, too.

There have been positive developments in some areas, however, and, crucially, it is possible to observe cascading effects here, too. This applies in the area of climate-friendly technologies, for example. Not only have they been competitive for a long time, they are growing so rapidly worldwide that the International Energy Agency (IEA) now forecasts unprecedented momentum here: “The new energy economy is emerging faster than many people think.”

Innovations for climate neutrality

There have been record increases in the global construction of solar plants, in the sale of electric cars and heat pumps, and in investment in clean energy. The US think tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which specialises in the field of sustainable development, talks of “exponential growth” in the field of climate technologies. What seemed impossible for a long time is now within reach: the world can become climate-neutral by 2050.

Zwei Techniker vor Solarpanelen
The international expansion of solar energy is just one example of the increasing importance of sustainable innovations.

The goal of climate neutrality now enjoys a broad consensus in politics and business. “It’s the new paradigm” – this was the assessment recently offered by energy expert Dr Felix Matthes, a member of the German National Hydrogen Council, at an event organised by the German Centre for Research and Innovation (DWIH) in Tokyo. This is a highly significant insight – not least with regard to the importance of hydrogen, for example. If emissions are only to be reduced by 80 percent, hydrogen is not needed. In this case, energy-intensive industries count on being able to lay claim to the remaining 20 percentage points. If the target is 100 percent, however – i.e. zero emissions – green hydrogen is an absolute must. As Matthes says: “This is no longer simply a matter of planning. Billions will need to be invested and realities will have to be changed. We’re now at a turning point.” Increasingly ambitious climate protection targets are driving innovation, as is the boom in clean energy sources.

International energy partnerships

The example of green hydrogen shows how important international dialogue is when it comes to sustainable innovations. After decades of debate about the potential of this energy source, things became more concrete in 2017 when pioneer Japan became the first country in the world to adopt a national hydrogen strategy which made more widespread use of green hydrogen a cornerstone of its climate and energy policy. Other countries followed suit – Germany in 2020, for example, and the European Union as part of its European Green Deal. The development of a hydrogen infrastructure is now underway in numerous industrialised nations, with industrial policy providing key incentives for establishing this energy source. Emerging countries such as Brazil and India are opting for the new technology, too.

Technological and social change

The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) spelled out how the path to sustainability can succeed as long ago as 2011. The report issued by this well-known advisory panel, entitled World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability identifies the most important points: new guiding principles, the establishment of conducive framework conditions, citizen participation – and a “revolution in global cooperation”. This also means cooperation beyond nation states – in research and education, among companies and organisations, among pioneers and forerunners of change, in both the technological and the social domain. Engaging in dialogue and learning from each other drives new ideas and solutions.

New technologies are not the only source of innovation, however. New rules can act as an enabling force, too. The state of New York is looking to pass a Fashion Act that will require fashion brands to do more to protect the environment and climate, for example. It would be the first law of its kind in the US and could trigger change in the entire industry, the trend towards fast fashion having made it a major climate and environmental offender in recent decades. The New York bill echoes developments in the European Union, where a Supply Chain Act is forcing companies to be more sustainable, thereby setting new standards that have the potential to become a driver for innovative developments.

Verena Kern