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Top 5 Takeaways from the 2023 TED Countdown Summit

Shilpa Gadhok, Founder & CEO
TED Countdown Summit. July 11-14, 2023. Detroit, MI. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

On Tuesday, July 11th, over 850 leaders from around the world convened in Detroit Michigan to address the ongoing climate crisis and encourage collaboration between sectors, cities, industries, and global communities to help accelerate progress toward our collective goal of reaching net zero by 2050.  Attendees included Vice President Al Gore, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Christiana Figueres, David Lammy of the UK Parliament, Steve Presley of Nestle North America, singer & songwriter Steve Posner, Jim Snabe of Siemens, and many others.

For SEE GOOD STRATEGY GROUP’s role in helping accelerate the progress of conscious business and brands in the private sector, this gave me the opportunity to learn from innovators, scientists, political leaders, farmers, activists, youth leaders, venture capitalists, artists, and entrepreneurs across all sectors and be inspired by their stories, their successes, their creativity, and their grit.  We addressed the role of narratives and their impact on communities, the need for courageous leadership, and why optimism is the key ingredient to move us forward.

It also brought light to the very real challenges each sector is facing – whether that be with securing funding to scale their innovations and impact models, facing polarization in “ESG” and “DE&I” narratives & vocabulary that are frankly unproductive to the work that needs to get done, jumping through regulatory hurdles because policies haven’t yet been revised to accommodate innovations for climate solutions, or dealing with geopolitical bureaucracy and roadblocks to transfer knowledge and technology between borders. The challenges are numerous, yes, but equally if not more clear was the resounding passion and resilience of the people in the room.

In case this needs to be said again: getting to net zero is going to take all of us. Not one person, not one sector or industry, not one company, not a few companies…not even a few hundred companies….it will take ALL organizations finding the courage to face the unknown, lean into solutions and data that are undoubtedly available, and come together to build stronger, sustainable businesses that protect the future generations of living beings on our home planet.  Healthy humans on a healthy planet equals a healthy economy – surely, as business leaders, we can get behind that. So how do we do this? Here are some key takeaways from the summit to get us started:

  1. Right-size Venture Capital investment toward the sectors contributing the greatest opportunity to curb global emissions, and do this now. Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, spoke about the need to build a portfolio of actions in the right proportions so we are taking advantage of the right resources to target efforts that will move the needle. For example, to date, ~66% of VC funds are being funneled to support electric vehicle/transportation conversion, but the transport industry makes up only ~13% of emissions. Conversely, only ~7% of VC funds are going to support food and agriculture innovation, which encompasses ~20% of the emissions. Correcting the allocation mismatch will be essential to advancing progress quickly and effectively. He also showed compelling evidence that the work we do today in cutting emissions requires time to make an impact on the atmosphere (it’s not all immediate gratification, folks), which is why the results we deliver in this first decade will be mission critical to the success for future years. The first decade will account for 76% of the emissions cuts to reach net zero by 2050. To drive impact, the call to action to the investment community is to right-size investment quickly so that collectively we can tackle solutions at scale. Without funding in the right places at the right time, the solutions innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs are collectively working on will fail to see the light of day (literally and figuratively).
  2. Policy, regulators, and activists must adopt a YES model and allow free markets to work their magic. Rich Powell, CEO of ClearPath and ClearPath Action spoke about how regulations like NEPA and lawsuits have been used to slow and, in many cases, stop hundreds of clean energy projects in the US. In his words, “We have many of the technologies, the engineers, even the policies to drive down global emissions and solve the climate challenge…but red tape combined with NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) opposition [gets] in the way.” Powell noted that our current energy grid using fossil fuels was created over 125 years, and to convert it to clean energy, we have 27 years – which means 10,000 new clean energy projects in the US in this decade alone. The call to action for regulators, policymakers, activists, and governmental agencies collectively is to reform the rules that govern our national environmental laws, to allow for climate projects to take shape under quicker and shorter timelines, while ensuring that responsible disputes and reviews of these projects are also completed on an accelerated timeline – a timeline he notes will shave 5-10 years off of a project. While policies are well-intentioned and exist for a reason, policy for policy sake is detrimental to the health and well-being of everyone. So in Powell’s own words, “Let’s get to building,” and let’s get out of our own way.
  3. Regeneration, Regeneration, Regeneration. This one is near and dear to my heart having spent most of my career in the food CPG industry. Regeneration, in many ways, is a nod to getting back to the basics, getting back to respecting, valuing, and working with nature, instead of against it. Investing in and supporting regenerative practices impacts all aspects of our living world. One specific focus area is the food industry. A legend in this movement, and author of Project Drawdown, Paul Hawken, urged the food industry to understand that at the core “soil health, plant health, human health, and animal health [are] inseparable,” and a heavy re-vamp in supply chains and sourcing ingredients to support regenerative farmers across “big food” needs to occur to make measurable progress. For perspective, the global food system contributes between ~20 – 30% of GHG emissions. Recently, a research study concluded that soil fungi sequester the equivalent of 13.2 billion tons of CO2 annually (36% of total fossil fuel global emissions), and yet our agricultural industry is killing fungi with the use of pesticides, glyphosate, tilling, plowing, etc. This is just one example. But regenerative practices are also important for ecological restoration. Research Scientist, Ludmila Rattis, who studies how climate and deforestation impact natural ecosystems and agricultural production in the Amazon rainforest, led an engaging presentation on the importance of wildlife grazing to fuel the health of soil, reforestation, and restoring natural resiliency. While the transition to organic and regenerative agriculture is not a solution that can be implemented overnight, the food industry must work together to create pathways and solutions so farmers are supported, supply chains are set up, and scalability is possible sooner rather than later.
  4. A green circular battery economy exists! Use it. Emma Nehrenheim, the Chief Environmental Officer at Northvolt in Sweden, focuses on the development of green batteries and a circular battery economy. She noted that moving to a clean energy grid (and keeping battery production the way it is today) would slash the carbon footprint by an estimated 67% by 2030. However, the remaining 33% would need to come from the production process, specifically, reducing how intensive the mineral mining process is in the creation of one battery – a solution her team has developed. What if you could recycle and reuse? As I learned, mining metals is different from mining oil (ahem, combustion engines) because unlike fossil fuels, you can get metals back to their elemental form, and when you do, they will work like new. Her team uses a recycling process taking batteries back from the market, discharging them, stripping the casing, isolating the cells and modules, and via a specified technological and scientific process, her team separates the metals, refines them to a usable form, and sends them off to production – what she terms, a circular battery economy. This process is not only environmentally beneficial but also economically profitable as the material is sustaining its lifetime value. Beyond Emma, I was privileged to meet several persons working in battery recycling and clean energy innovation – the talent and solutions are out there…we just need to implement them.
  5. This is an intergenerational effort – don’t discount the power of our youth. The summit brought together a diverse group of individuals from different sectors but also different life stages. In one hour, I conversed with an experienced scientist in his 70s and a youth activist in his late teens. Both undeniably informative and fulfilling conversations, and clearly, the breadth of talent & passion transcended all groups of attendees. It was refreshing to see a span of generations come together under a common objective. That said, I was particularly impressed with the youth attendees. I was in awe at the ideas brought forth and the initiatives so many of them have pioneered to rally their peers around the world to support responsible business, climate action, and think of innovations to solve socio-economic and environmental challenges in their home countries. I see our responsibility as business leaders to engage our youth, empower them, and listen to their ideas as the inevitable leaders of tomorrow.

While these are just a snippet of the many takeaways from my week at the TED Countdown Summit, my goal in sharing these takeaways is that it helps connect you and members of your organization to ideas you can learn from, actions you can take, and advocacy your organization can support to help advance progress. In many ways, the summit manifested the idea that we have the ability and desire to move past political divides and differences in beliefs to actively collaborate on collective solutions to protect the existence of living species on our planet. Solutions that enable economic profitable growth alongside social and environmental progress. It’s a powerful mission. Join us, won’t you?  

Interested in getting help with reframing your brand strategy through an impact-business model? Get in touch with us!

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