The key to solving climate change. An interview with Michelle Winthrop

By Lucy Woods.
(This article originally featured in our event magazine the CLP Daily #3. Michelle Winthrop was on the jury for ClimateLaunchpad Global Grand Final, 2 October 2020)

ClimateLaunchpad Daily talks with Michelle Winthrop, Director of Policy at Irish Aid – a part of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

“If you are serious about the relationship between sustainability and poverty,” says Winthrop, “you have to take a grassroots perspective.”

Sustainable, grassroots innovation is the key to solving climate change

This is why Irish Aid is most interested in micro solutions, she says. The best way to create sustainable wealth and development is from the ground up, by “fostering innovation among subject matter experts,” she says.

Irish Aid, alongside Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, is a partner with EIT Climate-KIC on this year’s ClimateLaunchpad. One reason Winthrop wanted Irish Aid to be involved is to increase its network of SMEs in the innovation space – specifically in African agriculture. In terms of expanding Irish Aid’s address book, “job done!” says Winthrop. Irish Aid hopes that by supporting entrepreneurs and SMEs, through its sponsorship of ClimateLaunchpad, it can encourage people “who have a bit of entrepreneurial flair to come forward with good ideas,” says Winthrop. Once people come forward with ideas, Irish Aid hopes to step in an “get the architecture right around them, so they can access finance and create jobs and fix the climate problem at the same time,” she says.

The best way to create sustainable wealth and development is from the ground up

This dual approach of creating jobs and prosperity while also fighting climate change is essential for successful longterm development. “If you spend 100 million euro on an agriculture programme in Africa, and you completely ignore that the climate is changing, you might as well flush that money down the toilet,” explains Winthrop.

Winthrop believes that investment lost as a result of poor planning for climate change should not be tolerated in development programmes, the same way money lost to corruption is not tolerated, “If we were to lose that amount of money from corruption, if that was stolen from an agriculture project in Africa, there would be uproar.”

“Sustainable growth is the only growth that will still be with us in 50 years”

“If you’re not future-proofing your development, you’re not doing a very good job,” continues Winthrop. Money lost to development programmes that don’t take climate change into account “is very real and tangible,” she says. “Sustainable growth is the only growth that will still be with us in 50 years’ time,” she adds.

“Climate transformation is not going to come solely from the public sector”

Irish Aid first funded ClimateLaunchpad in 2019. One reason behind this teaming up is to help leverage private finance towards climate action – as public finance alone is not going to be enough, says Winthrop. “No matter how much you push and pull it, and no matter how much the World Bank innovates, or the Green Climate Fund innovates, or donors commit to countries, the money that we need for climate transformation is not going to come solely from the public sector.”

Another motivation for sponsoring ClimateLaunchpad is to add some positivity and excitement to working on climate change solutions rather than getting lost in doomsday numbers and technical jargon, says Winthrop. Being involved in ClimateLaunchpad makes climate change “less negative and more accessible for our teams and embassies,” she says.

At ClimateLaunchpad 2020, Winthrop is most looking forward to “just hearing the ideas and meeting the other panellists.”

As a judge in the grand final this year, Winthrop would tell contestants that entrepreneurs tend to be more successful when they “let their story come through.”

“You have to bring yourself to it; people want to know your motivation and where you come from,” says Winthrop, adding that contestants should, “relax. Take a deep breath. Be yourself and tell your story.”

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