Anyone watching the climate negotiations in Durban would be forgiven for giving in to despair. COP 17, or the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations (UN) Convention on Climate Change, seems headed for a deadlock. Against a backdrop of financial turmoil, negotiators from 194 nations gathered in South Africa are tackling the usual intractable problems: how should the burden of cutting carbon emissions be shared between the developed and the developing world; and who should help poor countries shoulder the cost of climate change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) speaks as Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (C) and German politician Caio Koch-Weser (L) listen during a climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, on Wednesday. Photo: AP

While the international, top-down approach to tackling climate change flounders, there is some reason to hope that a different sort of initiative could make a difference. From Tanzania to India to South Africa, local and national schemes that take an entrepreneurial approach to the challenge of protecting the environment are bearing fruit. A growing number of governments and industries are working together to design policies and market-based approaches that funnel public and private funds into environmentally sustainable investment. “Green growth" initiatives provide a chink of optimistic light in an otherwise bleak landscape.

In India, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission—a part of the government’s National Action Plan on Climate Change—aims to deploy 20,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020. The scheme has already made some progress: solar power has contributed an additional 650MW of capacity. Market forces, in this instance, are playing a positive role. The global cost of solar panels has plunged by 40% this year as manufacturers, particularly in China, increase production. If prices continue to fall in this way, some experts predict that solar power in India could become as cheap as fossil fuel-based energy within the next three-four years. To ensure that the solar sector reaches its full potential, however, public sector support is needed to invest in infrastructure and to lure in private capital.

On a smaller scale, individual entrepreneurs can set an inspiring precedent. Four years ago, Gyanesh Pandey created a green business based on turning discarded rice husk into energy. His company, Husk Power Systems Pvt. Ltd (HPS), has installed 60 mini power plants that run entirely on biomass fuel, powering 25,000 households. As well as cutting green house gas emissions, the company has employed over 300 people in rural India. Its expansion plans are ambitious: by 2014, HPS wants to serve 6,500 villages, save 750,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and create 7,000 local jobs.

Producing clean energy is just one part of the web of interconnected challenges posed by climate change. As temperatures rise and droughts become more frequent, the implications for food production and water resources are profound. In South Africa, where negotiators are struggling to thrash out a global agreement, it is predicted that water supplies could fall short of demand by as much as 17% by 2030. To respond to this situation, the country has recently launched a public-private leadership group called the South Africa Strategic Water Partners Network, to find ways of making agricultural uses of water more efficient and to reduce waste.

On a smaller level, one successful private-public collaboration is the eMalahleni water reclamation plant, situated in the coalfields of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. The plant uses the latest purification technology to desalinate water from collieries, preventing polluted water from getting into the local river system while also providing drinking water and jobs. What’s more, after extensive research, the plant has put its waste product—gypsum—to use in the housing industry, meaning that it is on its way to becoming 100% waste-free.

Across Africa, countries are investing in “climate-smart" agriculture as a way to address the impact of climate change. In Tanzania, the government has launched the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor public-private partnership project with support from the World Economic Forum (WEF). It aims to boost investment in green agribusinesses and support smallholders in an area of the country that is vulnerable to climate change. Among other things, the project promotes agro-forestry, the practice of introducing trees and shrubs to farmland to create a more resilient environment.

All these disparate threads are encouraging, but they need to weave together into something more substantial. In an attempt to boost the scale of green development and to tackle climate change from the bottom up, WEF this week hosted the Durban Growth Series of talks along with the South African government, running parallel to the UN summit. The sessions, attended by South Africa President Jacob Zuma along with 50 leaders from business and the non-governmental organization (NGO) community, sparked calls for closer global coordination on green growth strategies. Given the scale of the challenges, it is important for everyone—governments and businesses, NGOs and individuals—to work together to build solutions from the bottom up, as well as from the top down. Instead of despairing, we need to bring all of man’s ingenuity and enterprise to bear on this vast, man-made problem.

Thomas Kerr is director, climate change initiatives, World Economic Forum.

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