How co-operatives are mitigating the effects of climate change

The Global Innovation Co-op Summit explored the movement’s role in transitioning to the circular economy and meeting the UN SDGs

The Global Innovation Co-op Summit in Paris (25-26 September) suggested various ways in which co-operatives can and are already helping to tackle climate change, as the world struggles towards its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

During a plenary on the first day of the summit, Professor Rafael Ziegler from HEC Montreal business school highlighted the need to move away from a traditional linear economy model.

Rafael Ziegler

Co-ops have an advantage when it comes to adopting circular economy approaches – an alternative to the traditional model, where raw materials are collected and transformed into products that consumers use until discarding them as waste, with no concern for their ecological footprint and consequences. The circular model involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. Ziegler’s recent research on the relationship between economic democracy and the circular economy in Quebec found that co-operatives more likely to employ such approaches because they are people-centred enterprises.

But Ziegler, who grew up in Germany during the start of the renewable energy co-op movement in the 1980s, warned it is still vital for leaders of co-ops to engage with the people who come up with such radical ideas. In the days of early renewable co-ops, they were seen as a niche proposition but have become mainstream. The transition to a circular economy also needs to be driven by human capital not just technological innovations, he added.

The discussion around the renewable energy transition continued during a plenary featuring co-operative leaders and Patrick Klein, head of sector – social economy and social enterprise, for the European Commission.

Patrick Klein joined the conversation virtually

Klein talked about co-op movement’s role in the EU’s Green Deal: co-ops in the producer, consumer, housing, renewable energy and transport co-ops are all worked locally to address the green transition, he said.

“These solutions are the ones that are inclusive and bring people on board,” he added, noting that best practices developed by co-ops could inspire other actors. He invited the sector to work with the Commission towards a greener economy that takes the citizens into account.

Renewable energy co-ops can also be a tool for social transformation. Brazil’s Revolusolar, a non-profit working in Rio’s favelas since 2015, has launched a solar energy co-op that will provide electricity for 35 families in the Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira favelas. The locals received training on how to install solar panels, which were placed on rooftop of the Babilônia and Chapeu Mangueira Residents’ Associations. These are bringing an estimated 30% reduction in their electric bills.

Eduardo Avila, Revolusolar’s executive director, discussed some of the challenges in implementing the project, such as accessing, funding and replicating the model while leaving space for customisation to different community needs.

Eduardo Avila

One way to scale up such projects is by partnering with other actors. “We need big corporations to focus on social innovation and be open to talk to co-ops and learn from their experiences,” said Avila. “These types of partnerships can bring more solutions.” Revolusolar was one of the winners of the ICA Youth Network’s Replication Project, through which it received a grant of €10,000.

Ghislain Gervais, president of the executive committee of Sollio agricultural co-op in Canada, shared his perspective on the challenges faced by the agri-food sector, such as changing consumer habits, global food security, the need to expand capacity and innovate supply chains, and climate change.

He argued that co-ops have the capacity to be resilient, drive collaboration and share experience. In 2019, Sollio aligned itself with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), identifying six of the goals as priority issues in its sector where it has power to take action.

Shaun Tarbuck

Meanwhile in the insurance sector, the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (Icmif) is developing an SDG benchmark for insurers which it hopes will offer a best practice for the while industry. The benchmark can also address greenwashing, said CEO Shaun Tarbuck, adding that public/private partnerships can also help scale solutions for greater impact.

This isn’t about doing business as normal,” he said. “Everyone is very comfortable at the top, we have to break that monopoly and change the ecosystem.”