The following is a speech given to the United Nations by Andy Posner, the world-renowned environmental activist, on January 20th, 2035. The IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change) has just released its eighth climate assessment report, in which it is stated that, thanks to the re-working of the second-phase of the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 2012, worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases have stabilized at 480 PPM C02e, and have indeed begun to fall.
Lessons From the Past: Moving Into the 22nd Century
I can remember a time when dire predictions about global warming–rising sea-levels, drought, storms, spread of infectious disease–were coupled with even more dire inaction on the part of the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. A time when it was thought that the interests of economic growth and political gain were at loggerheads with the goals of environmental sustainability and social justice. A time dominated by short-sighted, first-cost-only, extractive thinking.
I can remember when, barely twenty years ago, the world community finally started coming to grips with the immense perils of climate change, as well as the tremendous opportunity for growth and development it afforded. As public opinion began to sway, thanks to increasing consensus among scientists and movies such as An Inconvenient Truth, companies realized that the cost of inaction would be far greater than the cost of action (see The Stern Review: the Economics of Climate Change, 2006), and the insurance industry, as underwriters of risk, decided to “provide incentives for climate-aware actions” and “launched carbon emissions credit guarantees and other new renewable energy-related insurance products that [sought] to engage more companies in carbon offset projects and carbon emissions trading markets.” (BSR Corporate Climate Strategy, pg. This confluence of swaying opinion, burgeoning opportunities for change and the persistence of relative inaction, led Goldman Sachs to say, in 2005, “we believe that climate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges of the 21st century. . .How governments and societies choose to address climate change will fundamentally affect the way present and future generations live their lives.” (Goldman Sachs, 2005, quoted in the BSR report)
Today we celebrate the IPCC’s tenth climate change report. We are delighted to announce that atmospheric concentration of CO2 has stabilized at 480 PPM CO2e, and the latest trends even indicate that worldwide emissions have begun to decline. To put this great achievement in perspective, we must remember that in February, 2007, the findings of the IPCC’s fourth report on climate change were stark: some effects of climate change were already unavoidable, and continuing down the “business-as-usual” path would lead to extinctions, higher sea-levels, increased incidence of drought and flooding, and so on. While we have already seen some of those predicted effects, thanks to our quick and decisive action in conjunction with intelligent adaptation efforts, we have made great progress in avoiding the worst-case scenarios. We are especially pleased with the aggressive investments that the G8 countries have made in fighting infectious disease in some of our poorer countries; in so doing, we have lowered child mortality rates, increased productivity and helped to lift more people out of poverty than we had expected.
So how did we get to where we are today, and where do we go from here?
As far as I see it, there were two watershed moments. The first was January 20th, 2012, when we signed a newly-improved second-phase of the Kyoto protocol. The new Kyoto, to which we are all currently legally bound, requires that annex 1 countries reduce their emissions by 50% percent by 2050, compared to a baseline of 1990. It also requires that Annex 2 countries cut their emissions by 40% by 2050, compared to a baseline of 2000. We have succeeded in creating a worldwide carbon trading market, with strict protocols for analyzing the environmental benefits of offset projects as well as carbon mitigation regimes. That, together with the fact that many countries have voluntarily chosen to institute a carbon tax in order to help meet their targets, has led to an onslaught of new technologies, markets, industries and jobs. For instance, we have doubled the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and, at the same time, reduced their cost by 40%. Wind power is now the cheapest form of energy in the world, due to the high cost of carbon rich fuels and the intelligent use of subsidies (to give an example, in 2010 the United States began phasing out its subsidies for fossil fuels and applying those subsidies toward renewable energy and research and development of new technology).
The second watershed moment came in 2020, when the companies that originally founded US-CAP (United States Climate Action Partnership) in 2006 to urge the U.S. Congress to enact federal legislation to deal with climate change, began competing with one another to see who could become be the greenest, the most sustainable and the most socially just. They did this both because of immense pressure from consumers as well as a new wave of MBAs who were instructed that what’s good for the bottom line can also be good for society.
Around this time, as the phase-two Kyoto was really taking hold, an amazing change in consciousness took place all around our planet. The increase in connectivity via the internet and Voice Over Internet Protocal (VOIP), which began in the late 90s and continues unabated to this day, enabled more people to share more information, ideas, knowledge and experience than ever before. Thomas Friedman, in his 2006 book “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century” first described this convergence of factors that had just begun to bring the world together. But 2020 was when companies finally leveraged their financial muscle to enable more individuals, communities and cultures than ever to take part in the global economy in a productive, positive and beautiful way. We are seeing innovation and progress on a scale unprecedented in history; indigenous tribes in the Amazon earning more money from their artwork than from illegal logging; Bedouins earning income from eco-tourism and investing part of their profits into protecting the desert; poor and underdeveloped nations by-passing the era of dirty energy and going straight to clean, renewable economies.
In short, what we did not foresee in the early part of this century was how solving global warming would have a whole host of corollary benefits for the prosperity of billions of people around the world. We could have simply switched to low-carbon and zero-carbon sources of energy, but instead a convergence of companies, countries and individuals decided to engage the issue in the broadest terms possible. A key element of this transformation was the adoption of the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) boundary protocol, which facilitated not only accountability for carbon emissions throughout those parts of a supply chain over which an entity has strong control or influence, but also considered how entities should deal with the broader issue of sustainability. What this meant was that entities did not simply look at carbon emissions, rather, they looked at a much broader set of issues that included human rights, justice, the ability to recycle and up-cycle raw materials, where materials are sourced, and how a corporation can be a responsible member of the global society.
Now that we are beginning to overcome the “first-cost-only mentality”, which does not understand life-cycle cost analysis, and seeks to extract as much as possible today without thinking about what will be left for tomorrow,I encourage all of us, as we move into the 22nd century, to ask the question “how do we solve local and global problems in a way that lifts people out of poverty and despair, promotes justice and creativity, and spreads wealth more equitably?” I think we are finding that the answers to this question are not unrealistic or impossible; indeed, the imagination it is taking to answer this, the most important of all questions, is inspiring unprecedented levels of innovation and cooperation.
But we must remember that we are still faced with many global problems: clean water, toxic materials, soil erosion, continued deforestation for agriculture, and overpopulation. Moving forward we must look to our success in dealing with global climate change and apply that to future challenges. We have great reason for hope. Vertical Farms are springing up in cities all over the world; ultra-light hypercars powered by hydrogen and electricity, developed by the Rocky Mountain Institute, are being driven in cities increasingly built around pedestrians and mass-transit; governments now have aggressive building codes with respect to efficiency, insulation, comfort and indoor air-quality, which in many cases exceed the standards set by LEED at the turn of the century. New technologies are finding ways to be more efficient with water, less wasteful with materials, and benign with respect to toxic materials. In much the same way that dealing with greenhouse gas emissions opened the door for innovation and collaboration, confronting the new challenges, while continuing to build on our success with carbon, will provide ample opportunity for finally approaching the vaunted territory of “true sustainability” on planet earth.