Climate gloom and innovation bloom

The latest global report on carbon pollution is yet another source of inspiration for nations eager to build an innovation economy. Climate necessities have become the mother lode of green ideas.

The sun sets near Milan, Italy. A new U.N. report on climate change finds the world has warmed as humans degrade the land.

With many nations trying to create their own innovation economy, one of the more anticipated events almost every year is the latest global report on climate change. Each report from a United Nations panel of scientists brings a warning about specific sources of carbon pollution as well as a wake-up call on how to fix them. The newly identified eco-issues propel a renewed rush toward eco-innovation.

The latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released Thursday, looks at land use. About a quarter of the world’s ice-free land has been damaged by human activity, resulting either in the release of too much carbon or in a reduction in the absorption of carbon by plants. In addition, soil used for farming is eroding 100 times faster than it forms.

Yet for environmental researchers, the report’s recommended solutions may be the most eagerly read. The ideas range from ways to reduce food waste to better breeding of resilient crops in arid lands. Climate necessities have become the mother lode of green innovation.

In fact, after more than two decades of similar U.N. reports, the world may now be in a technological revolution driven by a desire to tackle climate change. The fastest pace of innovation is most noticeably in creating sustainable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels.

“Technological developments in digitalization, big data analytics, advanced computing, smart systems, additive manufacturing and robotics have opened the door to a potential new wave of innovation in the energy economy,” says former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

A recent study of patents worldwide by scholars in Taiwan found the number of climate change technologies has risen sharply in response to higher levels of carbon pollution. “A country’s propensity to innovate and patent a climate change technology is influenced by the levels of carbon dioxide and other [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the study found. And according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, more than $300 billion in investment has flowed into clean energy in each of the past five years.

As governments provide more incentives to solve climate change, “we will be surprised that it wasn’t as hard as we anticipated,” says economist Paul Romer, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He says each country’s success in building an innovation economy depends on how well it relies on the intangible goods in discovering new ideas.

“Every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new ... ideas,” he wrote. “We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered.”

Innovation takes inspiration fueled by possibilities not yet seen.

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