From algae to action: collective conversations on climate change

From algae to action: collective conversations on climate change

To round off our year of Collective Conversations, Brink hosted a vibrant sell out conversation about how we address the climate crisis through collective actions that change systems. The passion, engagement and fury ignited in this conversation is testament to the importance and urgency surrounding the theme. In this blogpost we’ll break down the key points made from this group of changemakers.

We were joined by Keith Coleman, co-founder of Brilliant Planet, who successfully lit up routes to climate change through his experience in entrepreneurship and social activism. Joined by Kelley Rowe, Brink's Innovation Lead, the dialogue delved into scalability and sustainability of nature-inspired solutions and technology, the imperative for systemic change, and the importance of empowerment, equity, and collective action.

1. Urgency, scalability & sustainability must all be in the equation if we are to turn the tide of climate change

Whilst conventional agriculture accounts for an estimated 10-12% of global greenhouse gas emissions, through Brilliant Planet, Keith and his team are harnessing the incredible potential of algae, nature's champion of carbon sequesters, by cultivating a novel solution: scaling agricultural carbon capture systems using algae. This is not any type of farming, it is the future of carbon sequestration: “It is unbelievably simple,” explained Keith, recalling a conversation with a brilliant  biochemist. “He told me about this new way of farming algae by basically scaling down the ocean…[imagine] vast ponds where algae can grow exponentially - then we add more seawater, and it grows more.”

The brilliance lies in the algae itself. Algae, being highly efficient carbon sequesters, capture up to 50 times more CO2 than terrestrial plants - a potential game changer in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions.  After cultivation, the algae is buried, permanently removing CO2 from the atmosphere. This low-cost, scalable process beautifully intertwines nature's ingenuity with modern technology, utilising satellite tech, IoT devices, machine learning, and AI.

Kelley - intrigued by the promise of effective solutions like Brilliant Planet with seemingly few downsides - reflected on the long-term sustainability of other technologies more commonly part of the climate crisis conversation. "With recent commitments being made at the Africa Climate Summit (2023), there's a lot of funding coming through for renewable energy technologies. But looking at these massive solar power technologies, we have to ask what's going to happen to all that hard material at the end-of-life. For example, wind turbines. We’re scaling solutions that follow extractive models in terms of materials, for technologies that last for 20 or 30 years, and then what?"

Whilst Kelley applauded the work of Brilliant Planet for its potential for scale and sustainability, Keith encouraged the people on the call - around 30 or so eager participants including climate researchers, funders, and innovators - to consider the potential of nature-based solutions with a healthy dose of reality:

“With a few billion dollars, Brilliant Planet could scale up to probably 200 million tonnes of carbon capture, which is a vast quantity, but it'll take us 50 years to get there. It's not enough, not on its own. Our challenge collectively is that we don't have the time to wait for that. The reality is that we need a lot of scalable solutions that can be put in place really, really fast to be able to hit 1.5 degrees.”
Keith Coleman

2. At the moment, transformative innovation is stifled by long-standing economic models & consumer behaviours

The rest of our Collective Conversation - supported by thoughts from a series of breakout rooms - broadened out from the amazing work of Brilliant Planet to consider the wider picture and the need for systemic change.

According to Keith, transformative innovation is stifled by long-standing economic models, measurements of value, and appetites to risk:“There is sufficient capital in the world to be able to pay for these innovations, but the funds are not flowing. Our funding models are stuck in an old paradigm; we allocate funds where we can make a profit and we scale innovation when it's de-risked. That’s a very old-school model that disempowers large parts of the solution.”

Kelley asserted that more than this, wider economic models and the consumer mindset hinders a systemic shift towards sustainability: “We still consume a lot of stuff, and some of the stuff we need to survive, but lots of it only supports an economic model that’s at odds with sustainability. I've seen some changes - like the circular economy, and a growing interest in reuse, repair, and recycling - but these ideas are finding it difficult to get the funding needed to get policies enabled.”

These two thoughts underline the scale of the challenge - decision makers need to incentivise change, but they can’t do that without a shift in consumer behaviour towards a more sustainable mindset, and vice versa.

“How do we activate citizens to become part of the solution? I think that that's one of the key levers of systems change that we need to start addressing. Right now, the organising forces around carbon reduction, carbon removal, and carbon mitigation efforts are generally governments that are scared to act, or disempowered."
Keith Coleman

3. Systems change needs to harness collective action around a shared vision that involves citizens

The conversation moved on to discuss the need for a clear vision for transformative change that speaks to and includes citizens.

“What we see with increasing evidence is that information and knowledge are important but not enough to mobilise and convince people. It can be much more convincing to create shared experiences and to communicate in an emotional way to people in order to motivate them to take action.”
Attendee Daniel Kehrer from GIZ

Neil Walmsley, Climate-KIC, added to this that if we are to move towards a shared vision, it will take multiple connected activities, rather than an individual project or silver bullet:“There is a great need to move away from a focus on individual projects and activities. There's actually almost no shortage of solutions.  In recent years, in particular, I’ve seen there's been a bit of a change in the types of programmes supported, so for example, rather than focusing on individual projects like new types of smart city management or whatever, there's a recognition that what’s more important is ensuring that there is a system which holds solutions together in concert.”

4. Collective Action needs structured organisation as well as mechanisms to empower people to make progress

On a more promising note, Keith felt that there are examples we can learn from around how to take collective action towards systemic change. He made a parallel between his experience in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the current climate crisis.

“I don't think any major significant system shift has taken place without citizen activity. So let me talk about what I know, which is South Africa. I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement for 15 years. And we changed the system, but it wasn't simply that people were outraged, there was actually a very strong organising system. We had a very clear vision about what we needed to achieve. We were mobilised around a shared document called the Freedom Charter [a vision for a united, non-racial, democratic South Africa]…we had civic organisations, women's organisations, youth organisations, trade unions, churches - we had a multiplicity of organisations that pulled together into a thing called the United Democratic Front. That was an umbrella structure which pulled all of this activity together.”

However at present, the climate justice movement is falling short. There is a lack of collective alignment around the change we want to see, lack of coherent organisation of people and actors and most importantly a lack of inclusivity in the process. We are missing crucial points of view and the ability to encourage mass, collective, equal participation. Abi Freeman, Brink's co-founder added:

“I don't know if any of you have been to COP. It's 50,000 people who are relatively disempowered. There are maybe 100 or 200 people, who are not democrats, but the people with the power and the money and who sit on top of the pile. They have this exclusive internal zone that you need a pass to get into to be even part of that conversation. That's not an inclusive process. The COP method of organising is very structurally unsound.”

Breakout rooms touched on this topic too in discussions about how traditional power structures have often been slow to act, which is what leads to a conclusion that rather than following more formal methods of influencing and decision making, say through democracy, collectives feel that they have to hack the system somewhat and take action themselves.

“How do you enable communities, citizens, and people, to start making their own changes? We concluded that we've been waiting too long for governments, and that's why it is on communities and collectives to act.”
Brink co-founder, Abi Freeman

At its heart, climate change is about aligning behind Humanity’s agenda

In some ways the conversation acted as a microcosm of the bigger problem we were discussing. Through it, frustration about the challenge and the struggle towards progress brought about fatigue and reflection on the emotional toil of this work. 

“We wanted to acknowledge as a group that this work is very, very hard. And particularly when you're fighting against existing systems, or against governments that are not acting when they should be, it can be exhausting. You feel like you need to take 10 steps backwards to take two steps forward sometimes.” Brink co-founder, Abi Freeman

The only way to maintain the resilience is through focusing on the humanity at the heart of this agenda. As Keith concluded, we are working to “protect our settlements, our food systems, our economies, and our jobs, and we have to protect other species and habitats”. This requires us to recognise the utmost importance of supporting and caring for one-another on this journey. 

Beautifully expressed by Olivia Sibony: “We need to acknowledge the scale of change each person can affect, and recognise the importance of collaboration and peer-to-peer support. It’s important to know that you can have your tribe, and feel that there are other people working in this space as well.”

Here are a few other resources shared in this session:

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Thank you to everyone who came along to listen and participate in the conversation. This blog is a microcosm of our conversation, informed by our speakers and by the wisdom of the small but brilliant crowd who came along to listen, discuss, learn and share.

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!