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10 Groundbreaking Solutions for a Sustainable Planet

10 Groundbreaking Solutions for a Sustainable Planet

Today, sustainability think tank Sustainia and partners announced a top-10 of leading sustainability innovations for 2015. The 10 projects and technologies are finalists for international honor, Sustainia Award, which identifies and celebrates groundbreaking sustainability solutions from all over the world.

Sustainia’s Award Committee, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, will now review the finalists, which come from nine different countries and cover everything from new ways of financing climate mitigation projects in cities, leasing models for baby clothes, citizen engagement projects for energy consumption and solar rechargeable hearing aids.

These top 100 sustainability solutions were selected after reviewing more than 1,500 projects and businesses on six continents:

The Sustainia Award Committee counts five jury members: Former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres, Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, Former Chair of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra K. Pachauri and Former EU Commissioner Connie Hedegaard. The public is also part of the celebrations. Starting today, everyone can vote for their favorite innovation among the 10 nominees. The finalist with most public votes will bring home the Sustainia Community Award.

Both winners are announced at the Sustainia Award Ceremony on Dec. 6 in Paris during the COP21. With the newly ratified Sustainable Development Goals and the negotiations for a new binding climate agreement at COP21, it’s enough with the talk and all about action—the readily available solutions. These solutions, the real change makers, are already now working in the market and will be needed in a changing world of climate change—no matter the outcome of COP21. The Award Ceremony gathers innovators and performers from around the world to celebrate solutions for a sustainable tomorrow.

Here are the top 10 leading sustainability innovations for 2015:

Buildings Finalist: Archiblox (Australia), Energy-Positive Prefabricated House

More than 15 percent of the world’s total energy consumption is used in residential homes. Archiblox has created a prefabricated house with minimal energy usage and environmental footprint that is liveable, accessible, and affordable. The prefabricated modular design makes construction more energy efficient. When in place, the home generates more electricity than it uses. The energy efficiency is achieved with the use of double-glazed windows, solar panels and water-efficient fixtures. Sliding flexible garden walls reduce sunlight infiltration in the summer; in winter, the walls are retracted to achieve a tighter thermal envelope. The structure’s small size, 53m 2, also ensures a reduction in electricity consumption, while its open plan maximizes usable area. The prefabricated modules can be flexibly composed, and installation takes just five weeks.

Food Finalist: SunCulture (USA), Solar-Powered Drip Irrigation for Smallholders

More than 80 percent of Kenya experiences low and unpredictable rainfall. Farmers are therefore unable to rely on rain-fed agriculture to meet their subsistence needs. Although diesel and treadle pumps are available in the market, the effectiveness of these technologies is constrained by high fuel costs and labor inefficiencies. Instead, SunCulture’s system relies on a renewable energy source and the solar-powered drip irrigation system delivers water directly to crop roots, resulting in yield gains of up to 300 percent and water savings of up to 80 percent, according to the company. Over 250 systems have been installed in Kenya, with a payback period of one three-month growing season based on fuel, fertilizer and labor savings in addition to increased crop yields. To increase access, SunCulture also offers various payment options, including a financing scheme.

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Fashion Finalist: Vigga (Denmark), Leasing Organic Kids’ Wear

The standard linear model of clothing consumption is characterized by a use and throw-away behaviour pattern. Kids’ wear is no exception, since children outgrow their clothing quickly, thereby forcing parents to take part in highly unsustainable garment consumption. Vigga is a subscription service that enables parents to lease organic children’s wear saving time, money, and resources. The carbon footprint of a fabric’s lifecycle has been estimated to be 12.5 kg of CO2 per kg of fabric. By having a circular business model for leasing out clothes, Vigga reduces the need for new clothes and at the same time offers sustainable kids’ wear at a competitive price. A Danish family can save up to $2,100 the first year of parenting by subscribing to Vigga instead of buying the baby clothes from new.


Transportation Finalist: Corporation of Chennai, Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and Chennai City Connect Foundation (India), Designing Streets for Walking and Biking

With more than 10,000 traffic crashes reported every year, Chennai has one of the highest rates of road deaths in India. In June 2012, the city government launched the Chennai Street Design Project to address this problem. This project aims to reclaim the city’s streets for pedestrians and cyclists by prioritizing modes of transport other than private automobiles. The policy requires at least 60 percent of the city’s transport budget be allocated to constructing and maintaining infrastructure for nonmotorized transit. This includes widening sidewalks, building safe bicycle infrastructure, better managing intersections, and even implementing street furniture. By 2018, the city aims to have built safe and continuous footpaths on at least 80 percent of all streets, increase the share of walking and cycling trips to over 40%, and, most significantly, eliminate pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

IT Finalist: Mapdwell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA), 3D Solar Potential Mapping Tool

Solar power is an abundant clean natural energy resource. Yet, in the U.S., less than 1 percent of electricity production is solar power. Built upon technology developed by Mapdwell, the company creates detailed 3D solar models of entire cities, complete with building geometry and tree foliage. The tool crunches vast datasets and complex 3D data to visualize rooftop solar potential across communities for every hour of every day, based on historical weather data. End users in the mapped cities and communities simply type in their address to access detailed information for their property and the costs and benefits for going solar. They can then custom build a solar system based on how much they want to spend, how much electricity they want to generate, and other priorities. The tool is designed to provide everyone with the facts to support solar adoption, based on a powerful and scalable platform that allows any community to discover their untapped solar resources.

Education Finalist: Seoul Metropolitan Government (South Korea), Citizen Engagement for Voluntary Behavior Change

Seoul’s Eco-Mileage System is a citizen participation project that rewards households and commercial buildings with refunds based on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.With buildings and households accounting for 68.5 percent of Seoul’s greenhouse gas emissions, in 2009 the Seoul Metropolitan Government decided to incentivize voluntary energy conservation measures. Within a few years, this system has been successful in both reducing emissions and engaging citizens. By means of this Eco-Mileage program, households and businesses in Seoul receive financial rewards for reducing their electricity, water, gas, or district heating consumption by at least 10% compared to the previous two years. Participants are able to track their progress via an online platform, which provides energy conservation tips. Energy consultants are also available to provide tailored advice. According to the solution, around 1.46 million tons of CO2 emissions have been avoided since the program was founded.

Energy Finalist: Mobisol (Germany), Micro-Financed Off Grid Solar Power

The electrification rate in rural Africa is around 15 percent to 20 percent. These households thus rely on noxious kerosene for lighting and diesel generators for appliances. Mobisol’s solution provides reliable solar electricity paid for via a mobile payment system enabling users to power devices such as lights, phones, radio, and TV in off-grid areas without environmental damage. The solar home systems are connected to a battery, and the excess electricity produced can be used to run businesses such as mobile phone charging services and barbershops, which generate extra income and benefit the local economy. Mobisol systems come with an extended warranty and a full service package for three years, including free maintenance. Through an integrated GSM modem, technical data are tracked and monitored in a Web-based interface, enabling technicians to identify problems and make repairs within 48 hours.

Health Finalist: Solar Ear (Brazil), Solar-Powered Hearing Aids with Open Source Design

Solar Ear is a social business that manufactures, assembles, and distributes digital hearing aids with solar battery chargers based on a technology that is shared freely. The batteries, costing only $0.50 more than disposable alternatives, last up to three years as opposed to approximately one week. They are also compatible with 95 percent of hearing aids on the market, greatly reducing reliance on expensive and polluting zinc-air batteries. The World Health Organization estimates that 360 million people suffer from hearing loss globally. In developing countries, approximately 32 million hearing aids are needed annually, yet only around 750,000 are provided. Solar Ear’s approach is designed to meet this gap in supply, as it shares its technology, business model, and program protocols for free to like-minded social businesses. It is also developing a smartphone app designed to make screening accessible to millions.

Cities Finalist: City of Johannesburg (South Africa), Green Bonds Finance City Climate Action

The city of Johannesburg has issued green bonds that finance investments for projects mitigating climate change via renewable energy and sustainable urban infrastructure. Johannesburg’s green bonds are worth approximately $143 million, and will help fill gaps in much-needed development finance for climate-friendly city projects. One of the city council’s green programs includes the installation of 43,000 solar water heaters that will collectively save the equivalent of 22.5 gigawatthours of electricity a year. Green bonds have taken off over the past year as a new source of funding, with great potential to drive sustainable developments. According to the World Bank, 2014 was a record year for the green bond market, which more than tripled compared to the year before and reached more than $35 billion in new issuances. The City of Johannesburg experienced great interest from investors as the bond auction in 2014 was 150 percent oversubscribed.

Resources Finalist: Plastic Bank (Canada), Turning Plastic Waste into a Currency

Plastic pollution is a growing problem with as much as 12.7 million tons of plastic washing into the ocean each year and littering beaches across the globe. Rather than viewing it as garbage, Plastic Bank empowers local communities by offering them the chance to collect this waste, bring it to a Plastic Bank facility where it can be recycled and repurposed, and receive necessary goods and tools in exchange. The company also offers collectors access to 3D printers, enabling them to create goods for themselves and their community, and become small-scale entrepreneurs by selling items they’ve created. Plastic Bank also encourages businesses to take part in this initiative by buying Social Plastic—the recycled material from the company’s facilities. In doing so, Plastic Bank not only empowers disadvantaged communities to recycle their local waste and improve their livelihoods, but also encourages corporations to become more conscious of ethical plastic sourcing.


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By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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