By Marcel Gascón Barberá
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the world’s economy to its knees. Meanwhile, pollution plummeted. The skies in cities and industrial areas cleared. Air quality reached levels many of us had never experienced.
Reduced economic activity might be unsustainable, but the positive environment impact brought more awareness about the need to clean up our atmosphere. That could make a lasting difference, according to Gonzalo Sáenz de Miera, director of Climate Change at Iberdrola, a Spanish electric utility company that leads in renewable energy production.
Gonzalo spoke alongside Ashoka Fellow Uygar Özesmi, founder of Turkey’s Good4Trust, and Fellow Brandon Dennison, who is building a diversified post-coal economy in the US Appalachian region through the initiative Coalfield Development, at an Ashoka Changemaker Summit panel.
This conversation plants the seeds for a vision for a future that’s both economically and environmentally sustainable — and showed how it’s already growing. Here are the highlights.
Green jobs that lift up a community
When it comes to creating long term climate solutions, part of the problem lies in a lack of political will and consistent strategies. But action from both the private sector and civil society can help make up for the apathy of public office holders, Brandon Dennison says. And his own experience proves it.
In 2010 he set up Coalfield Development, an organization that’s created 250 new jobs, trained over 1,200 people and leveraged more than 20 million dollars in new investment in the region. They have revitalized over 200,000 square feet of formerly dilapidated property in West Virginia, a US state whose economy heavily relies on coal mining.
All this happened through Coalfield’s initiatives like the Saw’s Edge Workshop, which recycles wood materials to produce and sell furniture and decoration items. Coalfield Development also renovates former factories and abandoned industrial spaces into hubs for artists, entrepreneurs and artisans — which not only adds economic value, but helps the community preserve the heritage of an era when the region’s coal mines employed most residents and powered America’s growth.
Coalfield Development also works in sustainable agriculture. It manufactures clothing from recycled materials and produces solar energy for the community. “We have former coal miners on our payroll that install solar systems and grow local food and are engaged in our sustainable bio manufacturing,” Brandon says. The new jobs and tangible results, he adds, help bring on board those not necessarily inclined to embrace green policies and projects, broadening the support base.
A rainforest-inspired economic model
How should the new economic model look? Good4Trust’s Uygar Özesmi advocates a hyper diversified circular, waste-free economy. His ideal is “an economy that is like the Amazon forest, that is in harmony with nature.” The network of businesses and social programs developed by Dennison in the Appalachian coalfields might fit this description, but to be a global reality this needs to be replicated at “a macroscale,” Uygar says.
Cross-border collaborations take root
Ashoka aims to grow this forest-inspired economic and social ecosystem in Central and Eastern Europe. Following the panel, several social entrepreneurs presented their ideas and discussed potential collaborations via Zoom, as part of the Community Lab that Ashoka launched in October in partnership with EIT Climate-KIC to connect innovators in region and build towards larger economic and environmental change across countries.
Ioan Sabau and Alexandru Coman are among those looking to grow beyond their borders through new partnerships. These Romanian pioneers obtained a license to plant in their country’s coalfields crops of miscanthus giganteus, known as “elephant grass.” This perennial grass with bamboo-like stems grows in marginal lands and requires minimal water and fertilizers. The crop not only enriches the land by improving soil quality, it absorbs high volumes of carbon emissions and makes an ideal raw material for industrial uses.
Earlier this year, Ashoka with EIT Climate-KIC and partners from CEE selected three regenerative farmers in Romania, Bulgaria and Estonia who agreed to work on new permaculture solutions to bring healthy and affordable food to elder people forced to stay home by the pandemic in Romania and Bulgaria.
Now climate changemakers like Ioan and Alexandru, founders of Alliance for Renewable Energy, are finding potential allies at Community Lab, which includes academics, NGO members and social entrepreneurs from across the region. They come from different backgrounds and share a common commitment to conservation and climate action. Before the end of this year, another collaboration cultivated in the Lab will be supported with a 20,000 euros.
Less than two months after it came to life, Community Lab is already creating a space where social entrepreneurs and innovators in Central and Eastern Europe find support and inspiration to grow a flourishing circular economy.
The Community Lab is an idea rooted in a collaborative work of Ashoka and EIT Climate-KIC in 2019. Based on an ecosystem map of climate changemakers in the region of Central and Eastern Europe, a consortia of CKIC partners is establishing the Community Lab to bring in individuals, start-ups and various organisations from the region in order to introduce changes and build networks for collaboration.
The Ashoka Changemaker Summit (ACMS) is the largest online gathering of system-changing social innovators and changemakers from across the globe. It connects Ashoka’s vast community of world-leading social entrepreneurs and leaders from business and philanthropy.