In my post at The Daily Blog today — Facing the future – no Bridges too far — I take a look at the Royal Society of New Zealand’s latest information paper about the need to move New Zealand to a green economy. There’s a yawning gulf between the rational world view embodied in the RSNZ’s paper and the policy settings adopted by the current government. Which comes as no surprise…
Below the fold I’ve embedded the infographic designed by the RSNZ to accompany its paper. It’s well worth taking a look…
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gave an impressive speech at the Centre for International Forestry Research last week. How his words translate into the political life of his country I don’t know, but it is hard to fault them as an analysis of the world’s current challenges and a pointer to the direction in which we must move. Not many political leaders take the time to stand back and present such a coherent and complete understanding of what is happening to human societies and the natural environment on which they depend. The speech is worth reading in full, but I’ll extract some of the salient points here.
His theme was sustainable growth with equity.
“What are our choices ?
“We can choose to continue to exhaust the present course, the same course that has been in place for decades and centuries. A world where we obsessively chase after economic growth without regard for ethics or the environment. A world of excessive exploitation of resources, and insatiable consumerism. A world driven by “greed” rather than “need”.
“If we go down this path, we will only find more of the same. It will lead us to more environmental degradation. More deforestation. More pollution. More global warming. More endangered species. More conflict between man and nature. And ultimately, more desperation for the human race.”
He notes the increasing prosperity of developing countries and the dangers of the spread of the excessive consumption habit.
“We need a new way of looking at the world, and a new way to work the world.
“Now is the time to promote ‘sustainable growth with equity’. Many refer to sustainable development with equity as ‘development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs’.
“Equity is critical because it is about fairness. It is about justice. Without equity, we end up with restlessness and anxiety. Without equity, we end up with marginalisation. Without equity, we end up with hopelessness and without a sense of shared destiny.”
He embraces the environmental dimension of sustainable growth:
“A key part of sustainable growth with equity is recognising that the serious climate and environmental problems that planet Earth faces are not imagined – it is REAL. Climate change is man-made, and its solutions are also man-made…
“To be sure, we cannot achieve ‘sustainable growth with equity’ without addressing climate change. They are two sides of the same coin. In Indonesia, many of our islands and their inhabitants are already threatened by sea level rise. And rising temperatures and extreme weather patterns have already affected crop yields, a phenomenon that is expected to continue in the years to come. This is, of course, happening throughout the Asia Pacific. “
At this point he introduces the all-important question of sustainable forestry, “critical to our efforts at sustainable development as well as to our climate mitigation efforts”.
“Our forests cover 69 percent of Indonesia’s land area and 31 percent of the global land. They hold a massive number of biodiversity that needs to be sustained. As a mega-diverse country, we have about 12 percent of the world’s mammals, 16 percent of the world’s reptiles and amphibians, 17 percent of the world’s birds, 25 percent of fish species, and over 38,000 of plant species. We consider this God-given rich biodiversity as enormous national treasures.”
He acknowledges that serious deforestation had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s in the interests of development. “It seemed the logical thing to do back then.”
“Today, such a policy is no longer tenable. Losing our tropical rain forests would constitute the ultimate national, global and planetary disaster. That’s why Indonesia has reversed course by committing to sustainable forestry.
“…I am pleased to inform that our deforestation rate has declined from 3.5 million hectares per year to less than half a million hectares per year in a decade period.
“I am also heartened by the progress of the One Billion Indonesia Trees for the World (OBIT) program. I am pleased to inform you that in the past two years we have planted some 3.2 billion trees – not 3.2 million, but 3.2 BILLION trees.”
He speaks of his government’s development strategy as having expanded since the Bali conference in 2007 to be “not just pro-growth, pro-poor and pro-jobs, but also pro-environment. Today, environmental sustainability is at the heart of all long-term development plans, both at the national and local levels”.
Some very interesting remarks follow on the importance of political will.
“In all this, political will was crucial and remains crucial. It was not always easy to environmentally sound policies. But it was necessary, and it was the right thing to do. So we pushed hard at it despite some resistance.
“Why is political will important?
“Because in most cases, the solutions are actually simple, but they are hard to achieve. Reduce emissions. Consume less. Shift to renewables. Conserve forests. Save energy. Share technology. Take global action.
“These prescriptions are all known to us. They are part of the global conscience. They are supported by public opinion. But too often the solutions become stuck in narrow self-interests, short-sighted politics and rigid diplomacy – or a combination of them.”
On the matter of international agreement to reduce emissions he points to the need for developed countries to take the lead, but adds that developing countries should also do more. He refers to Indonesia’s aim to reduce emissions by 26 percent by 2020 and up to 41 percent with international assistance, and expresses his hope for the sustainable development agenda post-Rio + 20.
“Let’s take responsibility for the future of human race and for mother earth. All citizens of the world. Developed and emerging and developing nations. International and regional organizations. Private sectors. Environmentalist. All stake-holders.”
Rhetoric is easier for a political leader than action. But words do matter and seemed to me striking that the leader of a major developing nation should choose to speak in these terms. There’s a directness and lack of prevarication which would come across with some force to the public. It was encouraging to think that the ideas he explores have currency in Asian society. It’s doubtful that they would be expressed by the present New Zealand government leadership. I notice the Prime Minister in a Listener interview this week with Guyon Espiner mentioned Indonesia’s 250 million people as drinking two drops of milk per person per day. “Imagine if they had half a glass. It would be more than all of what Fonterra produces.” Perhaps we could trade some milk for some ideas and a dash of political will.
“Will we look into the eyes of our children and confess that we had the opportunity, but lacked the courage? That we had the technology, but lacked the vision?” These words preface the report Energy [R]evolution 2012: A Sustainable World Energy Outlookpublished this month by Greenpeace, the European Renewable Energy Council and the Global Wind Energy Council. It’sthe fourth edition in a series which began in 2007. The publication is book length and over its pages describes a renewable energy scenario which sees CO2 emissions fall 85% from 1990 levels by 2050. I thought it well worth drawing attention to.
The authors can hardly be accused of utopian dreams. The technology exists to access stores of renewable energy far larger than the world’s energy requirements. The publication describes in careful and comprehensive detail an achievable programme of transition which would leave no need for the world’s fossil fuel resources to be pursued to the point of exhaustion or anywhere near it. Carbon capture and storage is not part of the scenario, for reasons of cost and uncertainty; nor is nuclear energy, which, for reasons of cost, safety and inability to reduce emissions by a large enough amount, is marked for phase-out.
The reduction of demand through energy efficiency, the “sleeping giant” which offers the most cost-effective way to reform the energy sector, is a vital element in the transition. Over and over again surveys and analyses are making this clear, and the report is very much in line with an increasingly common theme in the literature. High levels of projected energy demand diminish dramatically when energy efficiency is given high priority. The document shows the effect of best practice in various sectors of the economy.
The kind of material this and similar publications provide ought to be what government departments concerned with energy and economic development are constantly poring over as they seek sustainable growth. In fact many of them seem more likely to be trapped in the fossil fuel mode, welcoming renewable energy only when it proves economically competitive with that provided by fossil fuels, pursuing efficiency only when the cries of protest are not loud. Sustainable energy remains only a tantalising prospect under such circumstances, no matter how feasible it is. It’s therefore no surprise that the report includes a demand (their word) for policy changes and decisive action from governments to make the energy revolution real and to avoid dangerous climate change. They list eight demands in all:
1. Phase out all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
The report says US$600 billion per annum is spent in subsidies to fossil fuels. Even so, it points out, renewables manage to be directly competitive with such heavily subsidized conventional generation in an increasing number of markets.
2. Internalise the external (social and environmental) costs of energy production through ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading.
Not only withdrawing subsidies but also factoring in the cost of climate change from greenhouse gas pollution would, the report goes so far as to maintain, remove the need for special provisions for renewable energy. In market terms it would level the playing field across the energy sector.
3. Mandate strict efficiency standards for all energy consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles.
4. Establish legally binding targets for renewable energy and combined heat and power generation.
5. Reform the electricity markets by guaranteeing priority access to the grid for renewable power generators.
6. Provide defined and stable returns for investors, for example by feed-in tariff programmes.
7. Implement better labelling and disclosure mechanisms to provide more environmental product information.
8. Increase research and development budgets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
It will no doubt be argued that some of the later demands in this list offer special protection to renewable energy. But if they do it is only because the threat of climate change is so dire as to justify the small interference in market operation that they represent. The push for renewable energy isn’t some kind of market manoeuvre. It’s a necessity for a liveable climate. Nevertheless a remarkable feature of the kind of scenario that the report produces is that its future costs are favourable by comparison with a fossil fuel based economy. The level of government support for renewable energy does not result in much more expensive electricity, for example. Here’s what the report has to say:
Under the Energy [R]evolution scenario the costs of electricity generation increase slightly compared to the Reference scenario (a scenario reflecting a continuation of current trends). This difference will be on average less than 0.6 $cent/kWh up to 2020. However, if fossil fuel prices go any higher than the model assumes, this gap will decrease. Electricity generation costs will become economically favourable under the Energy [R]evolution scenario by 2025 and by 2050, costs will be significantly lower: about 8 $cents/kWh – or 45% below those in the Reference version.
Employment prospects are also much improved by comparison with the Reference scenario.
There are 23.3 million energy sector jobs in the Energy [R]evolution in 2015, and 18.7 million in the Reference scenario. In 2020, there are 22.6 million jobs in the Energy [R]evolution scenario, and 17.8 million in the Reference scenario. In 2030, there are 18.3 million jobs in the Energy [R]evolution scenario and 15.7 million in the Reference scenario.
Even private car transport is treated gently under the Energy [R[evolution scenario:
Significant savings are made from a shift towards smaller cars triggered by economic incentives together with a significant shift in propulsion technology towards electrified power trains – together with reducing vehicle kilometres travelled per year.
The preface to the report speaks of courage and vision. Perhaps that is what the requirements look like to nervous politicians. But good sense would do equally well.
Wellington schoolgirl Brittany Trilford won TckTckTck’s Date with History competition with this powerful message. She has earned a trip to the Rio+20 Conference in a month’s time, and — with luck — will get the chance to express her feelings to the assembled world leaders. Speak truth to power, Brittany. Speak it loudly. Our leaders, such as they are, need all the truth they can get, and urgently.
The Club of Rome has launched a new report, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, written by Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors 40 years ago of their famous publication Limits to Growth. I’ve been listening to Randers speaking at the launch this week at Rotterdam. It’s a striking address, delivered with a charm that softens its grim content. It can be viewed on the first 25 minutes of the YouTube video below. I’ll offer an outline here, along with some loose transcription of parts of the address.
He reflects that he has worked a lifetime pushing sustainability without success.
Will the world overshoot and collapse? This was the warning that my friends and I made in 1972 in Limits to Growth… We are now forty years down the line and it is perfectly obvious that world has already overshot. In 1972 our critics said that the world is not going to be so stupid as to let the world move into non-sustainable territory. Well, we now are in unsustainable territory.
The simplest example is greenhouse gases.
Emissions are twice the amount of what is being absorbed in the world’s oceans and forests. And, as warned in 1972, this is an effect of slow decision-making. Even twenty years after the Rio meeting greenhouse gas emissions are growing faster than they did at the time of the meeting.
The question is whether we can ease back into sustainable conditions with a soft landing, or whether the world will collapse. By collapse he explains he basically means huge migration flows and the destruction of society as we know it.
The purpose of the 2052 book is basically to try to look at the next forty years. What will happen? Not what should happen, what could happen, but what will happen.
The forecast is not good:
The main message of 2052 is that humanity won’t make it and so we are not going to make a soft landing, we will basically run into a collapse type of future.
Some of the detail:
The global population will peak around 8 billion people in 2040. This is much earlier and at a much lower level than most people think. The reason for this is the very rapid decline in fertility both in the poor and the rich world.
The world GDP is going to continue to grow but it will grow much slower than most people think. The reason for this is that first of all a number of the world’s economies are very mature, meaning that most of the activity is in the service and care sector where productivity increase is very difficult. And so the rich countries are not going to grow very fast. And secondly there is the problem that we will not experience economic take-off in most of the poor world. The emerging countries will probably do it but not the others. So there will be GDP growth but not as fast as most people think. And actually the GDP of the world will peak around 2060, 2070. Then it will go down because the population is going down and because productivity is declining.
Interestingly over the next forty years human society is going to face a number of emerging problems: depletion, pollution, biodiversity decline, climate change, rising inequity, distributional issues. And the way society is going to handle those is to throw money at them. So the investment share of the GDP — that fraction of annual production which is not used for consumption but is used to improve the world in the long run — will increase. And that means that the amount of GDP which is available for consumption will not grow as fast in the future as it would have done if we did not have to meet all those challenges. Disposable income will stagnate and in some parts of the world — for instance the rich world — will actually decline over the next forty years…
Energy use will peak in 2040. Emissions will begin to decline in 2030 and by 2050 they will be back down to current levels, a far cry from the current ambition of reducing CO2 emissions by 50 to 80 per cent by 2050, which is what people say we need to do in order to keep temperature rise under 2 degrees centigrade. So this means we are in a situation where we’re going to let CO2 emissions be so high that when we get to 2050 we are quickly moving towards global warming.
He refers to information he has sought from US scientists, that this will mean a 2 degree rise by 2050, increasing to 3 degrees by 2080:
Which is just where you could fear that global self-reinforcing climate change takes hold…So in 2050 the world is on its path towards climate collapse in the second half of the 21st century. It doesn’t happen before 2050 but it happens afterwards. In other words current systems of governance appear incapable of handling the climate challenge.
Why are we letting all this happen?
The root cause is human short-termism. It is the fact that both capitalism and democracies are amazingly short-term in their decision-making. Humans do not want to sacrifice much today in order to get the benefits thirty years down the line, and capitalist systems allocate money based on a discount rate which is so high that anything that happens beyond five years is close to invisible. Since those are the two major systems of governance in place the world will continue to act in a myopic fashion to the challenges.
Can short-termism be handled? Yes, in principle, but in practice it is very difficult because it probably means strong government to basically delegate difficult decision-making to supra-national or centralist bodies like the central banks of the world and the intense dislike of strong government is something which is going to preclude a sensible solution to the problems.
The slow rise in GDP for poor countries means that three billion people are going to remain poor in 2052. It’s a harsh outlook for them. They will not only be poor but also hungry because although there will be enough food for all it will be restricted to those who can pay for it.
The four recommendations of the report are, as he points out, obvious.
First, having fewer children, especially in the rich world.
My daughter has a footprint which is ten times as big as an Indian daughter. She is much more dangerous than an Indian.
Second, reduce our ecological footprint, especially in the rich nations.
And that means basically one thing: stop using fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that.
Third, construct a low-carbon energy system in the poor world, for the poor world, paid for by the rich world.
Fourth, strengthen global governance to overcome short-termism and handle the long-term challenge.
These things are hard to implement and even harder if the distributional issues are allowed to deteriorate even further. We need full employment and we need limited income disparity.
Finally what can the Club of Rome do?
It should continue its traditional asking unpopular questions and promoting unpopular solutions.
It’s a sober picture Randers presents, and one which he says gives him no pleasure. By way of possible mitigation he offers ’hard but worthy causes’. No doubt some of his forecasts will be controversial, but in what he has to say about climate change he is fully in line with scientific thinking. Stop using fossil fuels is the right message.
The book is to be released in mid-June and judging by this talk will earn a wide readership and serious discussion.
Business pages don’t often carry articles about the need to forsake the growth model. I was somewhat startled to come across one prominent in the NZ Herald business supplement last week. Journalist Chris Barton wrote about the ideas of Chandran Nair, author of Consumptionomics and a speaker at this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival There’s a Kindle edition of Consumptionomics so I was able to read it over the next couple of days, which I did with considerable interest.
Nair, a Malaysian of Indian descent, is founder and chief executive of the Asian think tank Global Institute for Tomorrow and writes for Asian audiences. His basic intent in Consumptionomics is to urge Asian countries not to follow the pattern of Western models of economic growth, consumption-driven and built on the exclusion of environmental and social costs. While the West may have got thus far by leaving those costs out of account there is no way in which the much larger populations of Asia can aspire to the same kind of economic development. The economic model only more or less worked when a relatively small proportion of the world’s population was using it, and then only by excluding the long-term damage to the world’s environment which now confronts us. It is folly to think that consumption-driven capitalism can be realised across the vast populations of Asia. Instead he calls for sustainable ways of living which will pass on to future generations an environment with rainforests, with biodiversity, with adequate resources, with fish in the oceans, with cities that are a pleasure to live in and with a climate that is not running out of control.
Nair is not arguing for an end to capitalism, but rather for a strong state involvement and management which will prevent the excesses of consumption on which so many economies now depend. Indeed he sees Asia as well suited to freeing capitalism from its captivity to free market fundamentalists and ideologues. It is clearly impossible for all the inhabitants of Asia to live at affluent Western levels and maintain a liveable environment. As they embark on the task of lifting the standard of living of their citizens and banishing poverty they can take a path which will do this without destroying the natural resources on which human society depends.
Nair proposes three core tenets for Asian countries.
First is the recognition that resources are constrained, no matter how much Western economic models ignore that fact, and the corollary that economic activity must be subservient to maintaining the vitality of resources. Governments, not markets, should set the priorities.
Second, resource use must be equitable for current and future generations; collective welfare takes precedence over individual rights.
Third, resources must be repriced; productivity efforts should be focused on resources, not people. This means costs must be attached to emissions, and resources such as land and water must have prices that compel people to use them in sustainable fashion. Where necessary outright bans must be placed on the use of particular resources such as rainforests or fisheries threatened by depletion.
Nair sees broad-based carbon taxes as the first step. They would strongly encourage companies and individuals to use fewer resources and use them more efficiently. They would impact on transport costs, discouraging the production of goods flown in from around the world and encouraging manufacturing closer to its intended user. He favours at the same time the lowering of taxes on income or other labour charges, with the effect of encouraging the use of labour to enhance value and moving away from the emphasis on labour productivity that has dominated capitalism to date.
Reversing the industrialisation of agriculture figures high on his list of priorities. Taxes on water, chemicals, and emissions on the energy industrial agriculture requires, along with a proper pricing of the impact of run-offs and other pollutants would raise prices but would also encourage a greater use of labour to add value and reduce environmental damage.
On transport Nair writes of the need to provide people with mobility rather than the right to own and use private cars. So long as the external costs of car owning are not factored in, public transport is disadvantaged.
Under the kind of circumstances Nair outlines for Asian countries he envisages companies finding ways of extracting value from longer-lived goods, from services built around the performance of their goods rather than their sale, and from reselling and recycling their materials and components. It’s not an unfamiliar vision for those within Western societies who have challenged the notion of endless consumption-driven growth, but Nair’s sense of its strong relevance to the emerging economies of Asia brings freshness, and perhaps a touch of hope that is difficult to sustain living in the heart of Western economies where even the financial collapse of 2008 appears to have left the growth fetish unaffected.
Nair does not put much hope in global deals in the near future, and encourages Asian countries to act on their own account. He acknowledges the problems of unilateral action, but in the difficult years ahead considers it important for Asian countries that they not wait to put into effect policies that direct them away from the prevailing growth concepts. Nor is he too worried about democratic governance, noting that democracy in a weak state is no great advance if it is unable to provide the state management needed to restrain unfettered markets. Good governance can be delivered by means other than the package of beliefs advocated by Western liberal democracies. What is important in that Asian governments take hold of the task of putting a price on resource use in their own countries and educating their populations about the reasons for doing so. He sees no reason to assume that turning away from unfettered markets will damage economic relations with other countries or mean an end to co-operation with other countries.
Yes, it means an interventionist state, though not nearly as interventionist as the state will be forced to become if the consequences of climate change and resource depletion are felt to their likely extent under the prevailing economic philosophy. Nair is careful to distinguish a strong state from an authoritarian state, and his support for state intervention comes with the stipulation that it is for the public good. He considers Western liberal democracy over-emphasises individual rights to the detriment of collective rights and is particularly critical of the pre-eminence of property rights on which Western capitalism is grounded.
Whether Asian countries will find a development path that eschews the market fundamentalism which holds the West in thrall remains to be seen, but it’s an intriguing prospect that Nair’s book points to, and one which he develops with satisfying complexity as his discussion proceeds. From a climate change perspective we have watched global forums stumble along for two decades making very little progress. Action by states independent enough to go ahead on their own account could open up possibilities which collectively we seem powerless to develop.
It is time for us to start writing it [the future]. We cannot do so if we limit the discussion by imposing the interests of any particular culture or interest or institution. We need to take the discussions that the cleverest of us occasionally manage to have over beer at midnight, and put them front and center, into the public sphere. A cold, hard look at the present and the future can be frightening, but it also can be exhilarating. It is time for us to be willing to say what mustn’t be said, and consider doing what mustn’t be done. This is no time for an excess of propriety. But the time for blame and recriminations is over. We can’t afford them anymore. Let’s move on.
Let’s look reality in the face and decide what needs to be done.
The tag line for Planet 3.0 is Beyond Sustainability. That can be taken two ways: as a statement of the fact that we are living well beyond the planet’s means, eating natural capital; and as a pointer to where we need to go – -beyond traditional ideas of sustainability to design ourselves a system that will enable the survival of our civilisation.
The conversation Tobis wants to spark is vital. Go and have a poke around Planet 3.0, and contribute to the discussion. We’ve only got the one planet to play with. Time to start treating it right. The current paradigm is getting us into trouble. What might a new paradigm for benign development look like?
Hot Topic is very pleased to support Planet 3.0. You can find a full list of the supporting blogs here. It’s an honour to be in such distinguished company. Good luck to all who sail in her…
Environmentalist Lester Brown is a competitive long-distance runner even into his late seventies. There’s something of the dogged persistence of that sport in the way he keeps delivering the message that humanity must change course, and backing up what he has to say with masses of data. The latest email I received a few days ago from his Earth Policy Institute underlined that message yet again, along with stark figures. It’s a short article headed Learning From China. I was taken with its directness and simplicity and thought it worth sharing here. He reflects that for as long as he can remember his own country, the US, with 5 percent of the world’s population has consumed a third or more of the earth’s resources. But today China consumes more basic resources than the US does. China uses a quarter more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is double that of the United States. It uses three times as much coal and four times as much steel.
That’s national consumption. What if per capita consumption in China were to catch up with the US? That will happen by 2035 on the conservative assumption that China’s economy slows from the 11 percent annual growth of recent years to 8 percent.
If the Chinese spend their income more or less as Americans do today, then things get pretty well impossible.
If, for example, each person in China consumes paper at the current American rate, then in 2035 China’s 1.38 billion people will use four fifths as much paper as is produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.
If Chinese grain consumption per person in 2035 were to equal the current U.S. level, China would need 1.5 billion tons of grain, nearly 70 percent of the 2.2 billion tons the world’s farmers now harvest each year.
If we assume that in 2035 there are three cars for every four people in China, as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The entire world currently has just over one billion. To provide the needed roads, highways, and parking lots, China would have to pave an area equivalent to more than two thirds the land it currently has in rice.
By 2035 China would need 85 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 86 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.
It’s hard to gainsay his conclusion:
What China is teaching us is that the western economic model–the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy–will not work for the world. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2035 is projected to have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the ’American dream.’ And in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.
Who in the world of planners, economists and politicians actually stops to think about this? These days there’s a plethora of interviews and discussions and reports by experts on the emergence of China as a new economic force and the extraordinary rapidity with which it is happening. But it is hard to find in the mainstream media any reflection on the factors Brown draws attention to.
He never utters warnings without also pointing to solutions.
The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy–one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress.
And he finishes with that haunting question on which so much depends.
But can we muster the political will to translate this potential into reality?
Note: Two of Brown’s books have been reviewed on Hot Topichere and here.
It’s an arresting title, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. For author Mark Lynas the Holocene, the 10,000 year post-ice age era during which human civilisation evolved and flourished, has given way in industrial times to the Anthropocene, an age in which the human population has undergone extraordinary growth, and become totally dominant on the planet. In the process we have interfered in the planet’s great bio-geochemical processes to the extent that we are threatening to endanger the Earth system itself and our own survival. Things are badly askew and we must help Earth to regain stability. It cannot do so alone. ’Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.’
Not that Lynas proposes to shoulder nature aside. Far from it. It’s a question of restoring nature’s balance and working within its limits. His book is about the planetary boundaries which must be respected if we are to avoid very serious environmental damage. He aims to communicate to a wide audience the findings of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who a couple of years ago identified nine such boundaries and wrote about them in a notable feature in Nature. Along the way he has his own suggestions for tackling the challenges involved and takes issue with other environmentalists over what he considers wrong-headed stances on many issues, including nuclear power and genetic engineering. This aspect of the book is often argumentative, but the central exposition of the planetary boundaries is straight science, set out with the lucidity apparent in his earlier book Six Degrees.
He begins with the biodiversity boundary. We’re well beyond the expert group’s proposed boundary of a maximum of ten species lost to life per million species per year. An estimated 100 to 1000 species per million are currently wiped out annually. The Anthropocene Mass Extinction is well advanced, and the death toll will soon rival that at the end of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs and half of the rest of life on Earth disappeared. It is now understood how important a diversity of species is to the resilience and stability of an ecosystem. This applies to the biosphere as a whole: if the current mass extinction is allowed to continue or, worse, to accelerate, the chance of a global-scale ecosystem collapse can only become more ominous. Lynas sees biodiversity loss as fundamentally an enormous market failure. We need to design systems that value nature in a direct and marketable sense and get hard cash to those in a position to protect ecosystems. ’What is needed is not more moralising, but more money.’
The climate change boundary is next on the list. Where once, along with others, Lynas would have endorsed a maximum 450 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and not more than a 2 degree rise in temperature as a safe boundary to avoid dangerous tipping points, he now regards that as wrong and accepts that a fair reading of the science today points to 350 ppm maximum. It’s a boundary we’ve already transgressed, but one we can pull back to if we start on reductions very soon. We need to be carbon-neutral by mid-century and carbon-negative thereafter. The technologies required are available and can be employed within the prevailing economic system. Notions that we can restrain economic growth won’t work. He is insistent that nuclear power must be a significant part of the solution, considering that there is not time to develop renewable energy to an adequate level. The book provides a spirited defence of nuclear energy as a centralised form of baseload generation, taking both Fukushima and Chernobyl into account. To oppose nuclear is to leave the door open for coal, a far more dangerous source.
The third boundary in which we’re well over the limit is nitrogen. The production of artificial fertiliser, while it has clearly been good for the feeding of the greatly increased human population, is causing serious environmental problems. The expert opinion is that we need to reduce the flow of human-fixed nitrogen to slightly more than a third of its current value. Lynas looks at various ways in which our use of nitrogen can be reduced. Organic farming isn’t one of them since he considers widespread organic farming couldn’t produce enough food for the world’s present population. One possibility he canvasses is genetic engineering to produce a more nitrogen-efficient and higher-yielding crop. Here and elsewhere he refers to Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline, in which Brand advances the causes of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and urbanisation as ways of facing up to the challenge of climate change.
The land use boundary is the next Lynas considers, urging the need for cash to make the protection of forests and other important ecosystems more attractive than their destruction. The movement of populations to cities he sees as overall a positive for sustainability because it leads to a reduction in population growth and concentrates the human impact on the land in a smaller area. As is becoming usual in the book Greens are chided for failing to see the positives in such developments.
Other boundaries discussed are freshwater, toxics, and aerosols before he arrives at ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change. We’re in a danger zone already, with the world’s oceans more acidic than has probably been the case in at least 20 million years. Future predictions are uncertain, but educated guesses provided by models and evidence from the Earth’s deep geological past lead him to the conclusion that ocean acidification is so serious a threat that even if there were no climate change we would still have to urgently reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. The integrity of the marine biosphere is at stake.
The final boundary Lynas tackles, that of the ozone layer, is a success story in that humanity pulled back from a hellish future by reaching international agreement on regulations to cease the production of CFCs. It was not an easy achievement in the face of industry opposition, but politicians stepped up to leadership and private industry delivered alternative products in consequence. The strong political leadership delivered by the US was crucial, in sad contrast to the way it has politically thwarted progress on climate change negotiations.
As adviser to the president of the Maldives, Lynas witnessed at first hand the debacle of Copenhagen, being among the fifty or so present in the room where the final-hours heads of state negotiations were conducted. He tells the disappointing story of that meeting as an example of what failing to meet a planetary boundary looks and feels like. But he doesn’t regard the failure as necessarily terminal, pointing out that China, a real obstruction to progress at Copenhagen, is now leading the world in investment in low-carbon technologies and showing itself deadly serious about dealing with climate change, reaping great economic benefit along the way. The US is being left well behind.
Lynas is often impatient with Greens and environmentalists. But the arguments he engages in have to do with appropriate technological and economic remedies, not with the shared perception that we are exceeding the boundaries of nature and must pull back. On that common ground he interprets and explains the science with admirable clarity. And he remains confident we can solve the problems, given sufficient pragmatism on the means employed.
In 1994 Ray Anderson, a captain of industry, founder and CEO of the large and successful carpet tile company Interface, was indicted as a plunderer of the earth. At least that’s how he describes what happened when he took up Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and read it overnight. It marked a turning-point for his petroleum-intensive company which set out on a journey towards a zero environmental footprint, with 2020 as the deadline. The story to date is told in his new book Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist. I’d seen reference elsewhere to the fresh path the company had taken, and turned to the book with some interest but not expecting the intellectual rigour and full environmental awareness that I encountered, expressed in engaging and energetic prose. It’s a notable book which well deserves wide attention.
The company began with this exacting goal of sustainability which was to inform their journey:
’To operate this petroleum-intensive business in a manner that takes from the earth only that which is naturally and rapidly renewable — not one fresh drop of oil — and to do no harm to the biosphere.’
Taking-making-wasting is the linear process which describes much of our industry and which Interface is set on changing. Anderson uses the metaphor of mountain climbing, up the seven faces of Mount Sustainability. The first face is zero waste. Tracking down and eliminating waste has incidentally proved highly profitable. Anderson describes it as ’the engine that will pull the whole train’. The sentence that stood out for me in this chapter was the addition they made in 1998 to their definition: ’All fossil fuel use will be counted as waste to be eliminated.’ That’s setting the bar high, but it’s an example of the seriousness of the whole project.
The second face is eliminating or rendering benign the emissions from smokestacks and effluent pipes. Greenhouse gases, waste water, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds are among the targets here. The third face is energy efficiency and the introduction of renewable energy, ’plugging into the sun’ as Anderson describes it in his eloquent advocacy of the solar revolution. Embrace the future, he says, or be left behind.
Face four is the fascinating climb to carpet recycling, the story of how the company worked its way through to recycling not only the carpet backing but also, thanks to partnership with Italian technology, the nylon yarn. ’No old carpet need ever again go to a landfill.’ Face five deals with the problem of transportation in all its ramifications, more than would have occurred to me but all carefully explored and much improved as a result. Face six addresses social sustainability, from the human relationships within the company to the company’s wider relationship with its communities.
The final face is nothing less than the redesign of commerce. A rather difficult task in a society which disguises, through its economic distortions, the true costs of its ’producing, delivering and discarding’. Interface’s efforts to replace exploitation of nature with recycling and respect for limits may seem like a drop in the ocean, but their direction is surely the only hopeful one. Natural processes feature frequently throughout the book. An interesting section on bio-mimicry describes how the ‘organised chaos’ of nature has been copied in the design of carpet tiles and in addition to its pleasing aesthetics has brought advantages for laying and repairing. The uncosted exploitation of nature is ultimately disastrous. ’Nature is the infrastructure that undergirds civilisation itself.’
The thoroughness with which the changes needed in the ascent to sustainability are examined within the company is very impressive. There is no skating over the surface of any investigation, no pretending or ignoring. The practices of suppliers as well as of the firm itself are brought into account. The honesty seems impeccable. I found myself admiring not only the care taken but also the willing allocation of the company’s resources that must have been required to draw up such detailed accounts. It’s still a work in progress, and they are by no means sure that they can reach their target, but what they have achieved to date is no mean feat: greenhouse gas emissions cut by 71 percent (partly with verifiable offsets) in spite of a 60 percent rise in sales; renewable energy use up from 0 percent to 28 percent; the energy content of their carpet down by 44 percent; water intake per production unit reduced by 75 percent; landfill scrap reduced by 78 percent; recycled and biobased materials in manufacture worldwide increased from 0.5 percent to 24 percent and increasing rapidly.
Done right, sustainability doesn’t cost. It pays.
Throughout the book Anderson is at pains to point out that Interface has prospered as it has engaged with its ongoing transformation. Based on the experiences of his company since 1994 he offers a promise: ’Done right, sustainability doesn’t cost. It pays.’ When the CEO of a stable industrial company declared that he intended to eliminate his company’s environmental footprint and become sustainable, and then restorative, he raised plenty of questions in business circles. But he insists he remained a capitalist with a sharp eye to the profits of his company, profits which only increased as sustainability improved. I often found myself thinking of the painful contrast with those perverse business lobbies and their compliant politicians who, on cue, immediately trumpet disaster to the economy from any requirements for more sustainable business practice.
Anderson has a high view of business and industry as the only institution ’large enough, wealthy enough, pervasive and powerful enough’ to lead mankind out of the environmental trouble we are in. Government can’t do it. But the essential function for government in the process is setting the goals and writing the rules in such a way as to keep the market honest. That must include accounting for the so-called externalities deceptively omitted from costs. He shows no sympathy for the notion of an unfettered market.
He doesn’t consider that a book on sustainable business can omit special mention of global climate disruption. The chapter he devotes to the subject is a model exposition of the broad outlines of climate change as understood by climate science. He writes of a very real and present crisis. The fatal message of the deniers must be ignored. Challenging nature in her domain, which is what we are doing, puts us in great peril. The necessary call to action has been muffled, but he considers that an awakening is taking place. One can only hope he’s right in discerning this.
I warmed to the obvious social concern shown in the book. Anderson’s vision of a sustainable society includes the imperative to lift the poorest out of poverty, and he welcomes the increased employment opportunities which will accompany a more careful stewardship of the world’s resources. His vision is not just technological, but ethical and humane.
Anderson’s book is the story of his own company. But it’s also a prefiguring of the industry and commerce and social interaction of future society if we can persuade ourselves away from the self-destructive path we are currently on. That’s still a very big ’if’ and for those hypnotised by it Anderson’s story is valuable evidence that the step to sustainability is not only necessary but also eminently possible.
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