Innovation to protect the environment and achieve the Net Zero target

11/03/2021 | Kaya Axelsson

Did you know that 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere every year? It is not surprising that Bill Gates, a man not given to exaggeration, recently declared that achieving Net Zero globally would be “the most amazing thing mankind has ever achieved”. What if you could be part, through entrepreneurship, of the global challenge of protecting the environment to achieve Net Zero?

The Net Zero target, an inescapable goal

One of the key aspects of the 2015 Paris Agreement related to the Net Zero target is that of climate neutrality, understood as a balance between anthropogenic emissions generated by energy sources and the absorption of such emissions by greenhouse gas sinks.

This means reducing those billions of tonnes of emissions to a level that can be absorbed by the planet; a zero emissions target with a clear deadline: before the second half of this century. 


Innovation for protecting the environment

However, to achieve the Net Zero target, innovation is key. The creativity of governments, businesses, entrepreneurs and citizens must be put at the service of protecting the environment and provide new solutions that contribute, firstly, to reducing pollutant emissions and, secondly, to eliminating and storing greenhouse gases to balance ongoing emissions after the target date.

Like Gates, many are already committing to climate innovation after years of working on other pressing issues. As the threat of increased climate change grows, it has become a priority issue for great minds and big money. 

They are aware that solutions to the climate crisis require, at the very least, that their activities do not harm human well-being or biodiversity and, ideally, contribute to one or more of the other 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations (UN). 

This is the case of Banco Santander, an institution committed to sustainability which, among the many activities it carries out for protecting the environment, has launched the global Santander X Environmental Challenge. This is an initiative developed in collaboration with the Oxentia Foundation with the aim of supporting entrepreneurs with solutions that combat climate change and have a positive impact on the environment. 

Fighting climate change, a global responsibility

You don't have to be a multinational to evolve in the transition to new sustainable models. Innovation based on the principle of efficiency offers numerous and diverse win-win solutions for protecting the environment and moving towards Net Zero at all levels. 

Indeed, as organizations and governments embark on their journeys towards zero emissions, they are acting intelligently by looking for opportunities to reduce emissions and waste without forgoing return on investment. These projects include the replacement of fossil fuel-dependent technologies with green alternatives, more efficient design in the building sector and process improvements to limit emissions and avoid energy wastage. 

Innovation does not have to be complex to be good for the planet. Simple measures such as carrying out an industrial activity in close proximity to renewable energy systems or using conveyor belts instead of trucks to transport materials to nearby sites can go a long way in helping even large greenhouse emitters reduce their ecological footprint.


Towards new solutions with a positive environmental impact

Even so, it is not enough. The most positive scientific forecasts show that even the best energy efficiency measures and the best efforts of all stakeholders to reduce current dependence on fossil fuels are unlikely to achieve Net Zero by mid-century without immediate, drastic and politically unlikely economic change in all business sectors. 

This means that governments, the business community and citizens must make greater efforts to innovate in order to protect the environment and tackle the inescapable global problem of climate change. 

Plants are a widespread and proven solution for the removal and storage of greenhouse gases. They are good for the climate, good for people and good for nature itself, provided they are properly integrated into ecosystems. However, innovation is needed to protect, grow, monitor and reforest these diverse and robust ecosystems, from forests to peatlands to ocean floors. 

Will nature itself guide us along the remaining path to Net Zero? Probably not. Scientific evidence suggests that the planet needs the buffer of nature to avoid the effects of climate change itself. However, estimates of potential long-term CO2 uptake by nature-based climate solutions vary widely, although they are similar in scale to projections of potential CO2 release through Earth system feedbacks

Changing land management and increasing environmental disasters raise questions about the continuation of naturally stored carbon. More ways of removing and storing greenhouse gases are therefore likely to be needed. What else can be done? Capturing carbon and storing it underground? Re-mineralising it? Helping farmers to store it in the soil

Perhaps the most important form of immediate intervention is social innovation that helps us to implement and improve all these solutions and that makes each individual consider how his or her work contributes to “the most amazing thing mankind have ever achieved”. 

This is the challenge posed by Banco Santander with Santander X Environmental Challenge: to find the best innovative ideas to build a more sustainable future that helps to protect the environment.

If you meet these requirements, sign up for one of these two categories according to the nature of your solution: Have you designed an innovative solution to combat climate change and make a positive impact on the planet with measurable indicators? Have you launched a product or service on the market and have a reference turnover between 200,000 and 5,000,000 euros? 

    Be Sustainable: promote green finance and investment. How does your solution attract sustainable investment and financing from people and investors who want to support economic activities with a positive environmental impact? How does your solution help investors or financial institutions to help companies take the lead in the transition to a low-carbon economy?

    Be mindful: raise awareness of the importance of reducing the environmental footprint. How can your solution help individuals and companies, including their supply chain, to measure their environmental footprint? How can you help with solutions that enhance the reinvention of business and industry to reduce their environmental impact and promote biodiversity?

Think about whether you can be part of the Net Zero target: How does your project attract sustainable investment and financing? How does it help investors or financial institutions to support other environmental initiatives? How do you make individuals and companies aware of how to measure their environmental footprint or take actions to reduce their impact on the environment? If you have a solution to support economic activities with a positive environmental impact, join the global Santander X Environmental Challenge. Seize the opportunity!


Kaya Axelssonm, Strategic Engagement Fellow for Oxford Net Zero, an interdisciplinary research programme at the University of Oxford.