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Viable business solutions to climate change: Proposals from McGill students

Have you ever wondered how professors at McGill are addressing the challenges of climate change in their teaching? One example comes from a course in the Desautels Faculty of Management called “Strategies for Sustainability” (MGPO-440). In this course, Professor Dror Etzion challenges students to develop “a viable idea for business that will create some tangible good in the world.” Dror asks students to develop business plans around the specific climate change solutions presented by Project Drawdown. Project Drawdown is an organization that presents “the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming”, based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world. Each solution includes an introduction that outlines the history, science, and most current information available, along with key examples. Solutions address different sectors such as, electricity generation, food, women and girls, buildings and cities, land use, transport and materials. The solutions are ranked in terms of their potential to avoid or reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

On November 26, 2019, I attended students’ class presentations of their business plans. Each group chose a Drawdown solution, surveyed the academic literature, and developed a business plan to address the solution. Below, I describe three examples that show the range of solutions addressed.

Solar Together (Drawdown Solution #8: Solar Farms – Energy)

Capturing and transforming energy from the sun is one of the most common forms of renewable energy. The use of solar energy is growing rapidly as the technology advances and material costs drop significantly.

Students proposed to provide distributed community solar energy supply to homes (as opposed to having solar panels on each home) at a cost lower than energy currently supplied by the grid. The price of this solar energy would be fixed 10% lower than that of existing supplies. If the household consumes more than an agreed-upon level of power, there is a surcharge; if it uses less, there is a credit or it can be stored for later usage. The initial project would target 250 households in Ontario. The students gleaned public data on basic household electricity consumption and costs to come up with their proposal.

Choice not by Chance – Education and Family Planning in South Africa (Drawdown Solutions #6: Educating Girls – Women and Girls and #7: Family Planning – Women and Girls)

In a recent TED talk, Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown explained how empowering women to make choices about their lives through access to education and reproductive health care has not only a significant impact on improving their lives but also on reducing global warming.

Students presented a video, which described the barriers and stigma women face in seeking access to education and contraceptives. The proposed business goals were to “balance the system” by providing affordable education, better access to family planning services, and ultimately, choices for women. The plan would target women aged 8 to 15, be delivered through mobile educational trucks that go out to communities every six months, and provide free contraceptives. The project would be a partnership with three organizations specialized in providing education, medical services, and transportation: University of Witwatersrand, Doctors Without Borders and Soul City Institute.

Who’s the Vegan (Drawdown Solution #4: Plant-Rich Diet – Food)

According to Drawdown, meat-centered diets, popular in western countries, produces one fifth of global green house emissions. Switching from meat diets to plant-based diets can reduce global warming and it is one of the solutions most available to individuals.

“Who’s the vegan” tackles stereotypes about veganism by boosting an existing vegan brand and making veganism more visible and enticing. The proposed business idea is to develop a grocery store/restaurant that promotes appealing and affordable vegan options, and plans social gatherings around these options Famous people would be recruited as ambassadors to boost the veganism image.

Other students’ business plans addressed retrofitting homes, using efficient building materials, improving business models for ownership and operations of airplanes, providing electrical grid flexibility, and managing refrigerants.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to the student presentations. They were creative, credible, and lively. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to talk to students in the class about their experience using Drawdown. They found that it provided a good starting point for generating ideas for their projects; however, students commented that it was hard to stay focused on the requirements of their project because solutions are often interrelated and some solutions require policy changes by government. In reality, implementing solutions would be more complicated and there would be a need to connect multiple solutions. Students also appreciated that the Drawdown solutions come from a wide variety of sectors; therefore, they could see themselves implementing them. In the words of one student, “We can all have a role; it is not only in the hands of the scientists.” It is thus understandable that students also appreciated that the information in Drawdown is presented in clear language, making it easy for non-specialists to grasp.

The significant challenge of the climate crisis that humanity is facing too often makes us feel overwhelmed and leads us to conclude that the problems are too complex and therefore unsolvable. Perhaps one of the main advantages of Project Drawdown is that it offers a blueprint for a more sustainable society, and a sense of hope and possibility. I found this captured in one of the student comments: “It was a mental leap from being depressed about the climate change situation. It helps propel you to a positive outlook.” This sense of possibility in action is beautifully captured in a recent film entitled 2040, which envisions what the world would look like if we were to implement what needs to be done to reach a more sustainable future.

Project Drawdown provides a comprehensive framework for action that can be used by educators who would like to address the challenge of climate change in their teaching. Recognizing the importance of education, Drawdown Learn, a related program, focuses on “helping educators and students of all ages to understand the solutions available to address the climate crisis and create new ways of teaching and learning about Drawdown solutions.” There is a role for all disciplines to address the challenge of climate change.

What do you see as the role of your discipline in addressing the climate crisis? In what ways might Project Drawdown provide a useful framework in your teaching to address the climate crisis?

Read more about Dror’s course.

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