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What future do we want?

By Mathis Wackernagel

The radical slowdown of the global economy, due to humanity’s efforts to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, has reduced carbon emissions and resource demand significantly over the last months. This has led to a temporary reduction of human pressure on our planet, although at great human cost.

Already, one thing is for certain: the current reduction of humanity’s Ecological Footprint is nothing to celebrate. The pandemic and the policies designed to address it took us all by surprise. The disruption to business-as-usual was caused by disaster and has led to increased suffering. The shock we are all experiencing cannot be misconstrued as a lasting positive transformation.

This crisis is strangely reminiscent of the story line of some cheap science-fiction novels: unfriendly aliens come to Earth, causing humanity to unite in order to effectively defend ourselves. The “aliens” have arrived in the form of a tiny virus and there has been an outpouring of amazing collaboration and human compassion.

Coronavirus and climate change

Crisis management has been marked by the lack of coordination among allies, as the disjointed responses within the EU, or finger-pointing between world powers such as China and the United States, illustrate. Some of that bickering reminds us of the lack of cooperation in the climate domain. For instance, the United States pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement set a truly destructive example. Furthermore, such lack of cooperation turns out to be particularly destructive for the United States because climate action, like combating the coronavirus, is not only a noble deed which one country performs for humanity’s sake. It is economically necessary to serve the interests of those who act.

American residents, and people around the world, may be dismayed about the U.S. federal government’s picking the path to self-destruction. Yet there is little benefit in wasting time and energy lamenting the administration’s choices or being mad at its stab at global collaboration. Let’s focus instead on building our respective communities’ ability to thrive in a predictably challenging future. The need to focus on our communities is true for the coronavirus, and even more so for climate change.

Let me put climate change into its larger context. After all, the only possible future for humanity is regenerative — where we strictly live off what Earth can renew without liquidating its natural capital. The regenerative economy is humanity’s ultimate destination, whether we get there by design or by disaster. The question facing us is merely how quickly we get there. The longer we delay the necessary transformation, the more our regenerative budget — Earth’s biocapacity — will be compromised, leaving us with fewer options.

No society can shift overnight to a thriving economy in a world characterized by climate change, biological resource constraints, and phased-out fossil fuels. No country, no city, no company can rebuild, retrofit or repurpose its infrastructure instantaneously. Clearly, those who plan ahead and prepare themselves stand a far better chance to thrive than those who keep investing in the obsolete resource-intensive economy.

This is why we, at Global Footprint Network, work with companies such as Schneider Electric that make climate action and resource security core to their business model — improving energy efficiency and accelerating renewables adoption, in the case of Schneider Electric. Business propositions informed by the understanding of what constitutes success in the regenerative future provide a robust competitive advantage.

Heroic pronouncements

Too few businesses recognize this, however. Many still have their CSR departments wave the SDG flags. Or they pronounce heroic commitments echoing international climate negotiations and other heroic pronouncements, which in the end fuel the belief that climate action is an added cost, a benevolent and voluntary gesture to our fellow human beings that is only meaningful insomuch as everyone dutifully joins in the chorus. The damning implication is that we need to wait for global collaboration before anybody can act.

Let’s turn this belief on its head — after all, it hasn’t been yielding great outcomes despite many years of hard work and numerous attempts. Assuming that global collaboration and agreement, be it among governments or within industry sectors, will remain limited can empower us to take action without delay. For one thing, weak or absent cooperation actually enhances climate risks and resource insecurity, making the urgency to take proactive action in one’s own backyard even more acute. In fact, we may find that each player unequivocally preparing for one’s own success in a regenerative economy triggers the collaboration we’ve so desperately been seeking.

In this context, entities that actively refuse to prepare for what’s to come are truly investing in their own demise. That is the tragedy of the U.S. choice to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. Companies that similarly stay stuck in denial are depriving themselves of a chance to be successful in the long term.

Flawed climate thinking

To be fair, foresight is hard to muster in a context of flawed climate thinking. Presented every January in Davos to world leaders in business and politics, the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report is a striking example. It assesses country competitiveness while omitting resource or environmental considerations. Not one of the 103 indicators making up the competitiveness score (long-term ability of countries to generate economic wealth) measures aspects of resources or environment.

This is even more startling considering that the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, based on the opinions of over 1,000 CEOs, conclude that five out of the five most likely global risks are resource-based or environmental.

Because avoiding dangerous climate change implies full decarbonization within a couple of decades, it seems that even a short-term interpretation of competitiveness — an economy’s future ability to produce value-added — would have significant overlap with the concept of sustainability.

The outdated climate narrative isn’t helping. Too few recognize that efforts towards resource security and climate action are not only thoughtful gifts to humanity, but also essential and urgent drivers to build one’s own successful future.

Drawing the lessons

At Global Footprint Network, we have been ceaselessly advocating for humanity to move to one-planet prosperity by design, rather than sliding to one-planet misery by disaster. Given the current coronavirus shock, the most pressing question has become: how do we come out of this crisis and build the future we want to create? When the time comes to get our economies back into gear, we need to implement strategies that ensure one-planet prosperity. Increasing resource security everywhere ranks high on the list of those strategies.

Potent lessons can be drawn from our current collective experience with the novel coronavirus:

  1. When people recognize that their own lives, and that of the people they love, are at stake, and that they can do something about it, political will and collective behavior can powerfully and effectively align. They make the seemingly impossible possible — in the pursuit of a shared goal.
  2. All of us are deeply experiencing now being connected as one biology and our decisions at all levels having consequences for those around us. Your health affects my health, and vice-versa. So it is also with climate change: my ability to thrive in a world of climate change and resource constraints also supports your ability to thrive, and vice-versa.
  3. Perhaps most importantly: We have learned that protecting ourselves is heroic and necessary because it also protects others. As we protect our households and our communities by making them fit for a predictable future shaped by climate change and biological resource constraints, we contribute to safeguarding our planet and all fellow humans. My success depends on increasing my resource security, which also boosts the resource security of everybody else.

 

To prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change, we know that humanity must phase out fossil fuels before 2050. Every community leader, from mayor to president, and every CEO, needs to ask themselves: How much of our infrastructure for 2050 is already built? How much of it is fit for this transformation? How much of our assets will be stranded? What do I need to do to be prepared? Others’ inaction should be no reason to justify one’s own, lest one chooses to join them on the path to self-destruction.

By now, we all know what we are capable of when communities and governments come together to pursue a shared outcome.

An earlier version of this article was published under the title “America chose the path to self-destruction. What about the rest of us?” by GreenBiz.com on Thursday, November 7, 2019 – https://www.greenbiz.com/article/america-chose-path-self-destruction-what-about-rest-us