Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam is Deputy Director of the Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. For more than two decades, he has written and lectured widely on sustainable development, climate and society. Dr. Lerner-Lam has also developed programs to educate the business and finance sector on sustainability management and sustainable investing.
We spoke to Dr. Lerner-Lam as he prepared for Columbia’s first annual CleanTech Innovation Showcase and dove into the role of universities, innovation, and technology in the future of climate. Just weeks earlier, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report detailing the consequences of allowing global warming trends to continue, detailing the “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities” necessary to limit warming and stem the potential for extreme impacts.
Marina Blinova: What role does technology and technological innovation play in addressing some of the challenges mentioned in the IPCC report?
Arthur Lerner-Lam: There’s going to be tremendous emphasis on the technical R & D required to address climate issues, and I see this falling into three main areas. First, we need basic engineering research to develop methods to produce clean power—by which I mean renewables, battery and energy storage systems and even smart networks. Second, we’ve made a mess of the planet, and we’ll need to accelerate technologies to clean microplastic pollution from the oceans, extract excess carbon dioxide from the air and clean polluted waterways. Some of these technologies already exist and there are markets for them, and for others we’ll need to create the markets. Which brings me to the third area, which is finance and investment. We need technical innovation on the investment side as well. There will be real investment opportunities in the clean technologies produced by universities and private sector labs, and we have to train our business students and financial engineers to recognize this. Translating needs into markets, and getting entrepreneurs and innovators involved in a very optimistic way, is going to be central to the R & D investments we need to make. We have to get away from the notion that that fear should drive decision-making in this area.
Blinova: Looking at the trends in sustainable investing, what do you think needs to change?
Lerner-Lam: The subject of ecosystem resources—the idea that nature can do part of the job for us—is missing from conversations about CleanTech investment and the innovation gap. The question we should be asking is whether we can we invest in our ecosystem in ways that make business sense and provide a return on investment. For example, oceans can absorb carbon dioxide, but they turn acidic. Planting more trees may help, but that may impact how much land is available to feed a growing population. If we look at our coastlines and efforts to adapt to rising sea levels, can we think about smart construction as well as resources like sand dunes or mangroves that can absorb storm surge energy? These issues have to be quantitatively addressed, and we need to understand the costs and benefits. The challenge is that investment in ecosystems can take time to develop—it takes a while for trees to grow. The typical cost-benefit analysis is not a calculation that benefits the planet. The risks are here now.
Blinova: Do these new climate reports influence how companies think about investing in CleanTech?
Lerner-Lam: Reports come in two modes, and neither provides the kind of information we really need to make investment decisions. One type of report provokes fear and hypes the potential for climate change to cause damage and suffering. Others basically outline the kinds of technologies that need to be developed. We need to be writing reports about balancing economic development against the need for greater conservation. We need to write about how increases in population and standards of living worldwide might affect the markets needed to solve some of our global problems. When companies think about investing, there’s a line between developing technologies that increase global standards of living versus developing technologies that will both increase living standards and solve planetary problems. Those sorts of tradeoffs—almost on a country by country basis, if not a community by community basis—need to be better understood. We’re not doing enough social science research to get there.
Blinova: What role do universities play in addressing global problems? What kind of partnership between universities and industry do you believe is most conducive to solving these challenges?
Lerner-Lam: Universities are the original global institutions, so in some ways, universities are ideal places for solving the problems we face, which require a global outlook. These solutions are increasingly transdisciplinary, spanning engineering, basic science, social science and of course economics, law, business and political science. I think it’s incredibly important to translate what we know in one discipline into action or research themes in another, and to teach faculty and students to think and act in this interdisciplinary context. This is where universities really contribute— when our students bring that transdisciplinary mode of thought into the world and into practice, whether it’s in engineering or science, finance or banking.
In terms of partnerships—and this is slightly controversial—I think we have to avoid delving too deeply into proprietary relationships, especially early on in the process. I think a good way to proceed is to develop university/industry consortia that encourage the industrial sectors—including the finance sector—to engage more broadly with universities. When that work evolves and produces intellectual property that results in patents and licenses, then you can engage in that conversation. There will always be opportunities for proprietary relationships, but let’s get the basics down first.