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3 Tales of Hope for a Low-Carbon Future

In light of Mother’s Day, it’s a good time to think about the world our progeny will inherit. My travels in the past week have raised my spirits and made me more hopeful—as I witnessed close up how, at three levels—political, analytical, and practical—momentum is building.

Ascent to the Summit – A Turning Political Tide?

I began the week in the United Arab Emirates at the “Abu Dhabi Ascent,” which convened ministers from most countries in the world, together with business and civil society leaders. The goal was to move forward some big initiatives and thereby demonstrate that low carbon, climate-resilient development is not only possible, but also economically and politically attractive. This was all in preparation for the U.N. Climate Change Summit on September 23, where heads of state and leaders from government, business, and civil society will hopefully commit to higher ambition as we head towards an international climate deal in 2015.

Given that this was inherently a political meeting, the atmosphere was remarkably practical, and there were some surprisingly ambitious initiatives moving from the drawing board into action. These included clubs of countries and corporations committed to doubling the share of renewable energy and the pace of energy efficiency gains in line with the goals of the “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative; a growing list of governments committing to restore millions of hectares of degraded land to productive, carbon-sequestering uses; more than half of the world’s palm oil purchasers committing to deforestation-free production, and agreeing how, with new technology such as Global Forest Watch, they will be held accountable; financial institutions committing to double the value of green bonds issued during the current year, and double again in 2015; and more!

I chaired the two sessions on cities, and was impressed by the leadership shown by the three large city networks – C40, ICLEI, and UCLG. Casting differences aside, they made a joint proposal to help their members raise their ambition, and to adopt a common approach to measure and report their emissions. The plan is that by the September Summit, more than 100 cities will be able to announce clear targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, commit to annual reporting on progress towards these targets, and put forward an offer to report targets and achievements to the UNFCCC. In the year leading up to the Paris COP, efforts will be made to get hundreds of additional cities to join the club.

Moving these initiatives forward in time for the September Summit will require discipline and leadership, and not all the initiatives will land as hoped. But the ball is certainly moving down the field.

Top Economists Shed Light on the New Climate Economy

Then it was on to London for a meeting of the technical team preparing the report for the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate that will be launched in September in time for the Head of State Summit. I traveled with President Felipe Calderon, the Chair of the Commission, and joined Jeremy Oppenheim (Program Director) and his team of heavyweight researchers from all around the world. The New Climate Economy report is targeted at Ministers of Finance and heads of major corporations. Its exam question is simple (but difficult): How can we quickly move from today’s high-carbon, inefficient growth path to a low-carbon economy in a manner that will promote more economic progress, more jobs, and more fairness? It hypothesizes that the common perception that strong action against climate change will impose high costs and lower economic growth is false. The Commission comprises not environmentalists, but corporate, financial, and government leaders committed to economic progress.

The team is honing in on some important findings:

  • First, the high carbon intensity of today’s economy is indicative of a great deal of inefficiency in the economic system. The threat of climate change can prompt us to do what we should have done a long time ago, and is clearly in our economic interest.
  • Second, evidence is strong that technology responds much more rapidly to smart environmental policies than we expect. These gains can, in turn, promote the next generation of growth.
  • Third, the current uncertainties about whether carbon will or will not be priced is leading to delayed and distorted investment decision. Governments that create long-term predictability—and switch taxes away from good things (work, profit, etc.) and towards bad things (environmental damage)—will promote more and better investment.

These and other findings are being explored across key areas of the economy – energy, agriculture, supply chains, and cities – and key economies – the United States, China, India, Europe, etc. This work is important because ministries of environment will not be the ones to drive the required change. Powerful economic ministries and leading corporations and cities must be convinced that the low-carbon path is smart economics and politics.

Low Carbon Flat-Packs in Leiden

Finally, I visited IKEA’s global headquarters in the Netherlands. I sit on the company’s Sustainability Advisory board, and for a full day, we met with the top management team discussing where the company will go next in implementing its People and Planet Positive Strategy. As one of the largest purchasers of timber, cotton, leather, and other raw products—and one of the largest transporters and logistics firms in the world—greening the company’s supply chain is obviously a huge lift, requiring commitment from the very top and throughout the organization. Like other corporate leaders on sustainability, IKEA has set ambitious targets, reports on them regularly, and is the first to recognize that the journey is not yet complete. Progress by any standard is impressive, not just in moving rapidly towards sustainable sourcing, but in squeezing out inefficiencies in transportation, reducing waste, and moving towards carbon neutrality. The company is already one of the largest investors in renewable energy, and will supply all of its energy needs from its own renewable sources by 2020.

This is all great stuff. But for me, even more exciting than what’s happening in the supply chain is the goal to influence consumers. Each year, more than 700 million people visit IKEA’s stores each year. So when the management quietly decided to sell only energy-efficient, LED light bulbs by 2015, the impact can be expected to be transformative. So, too, the decision to sell only induction stovetops by 2016 can also be a game changer.

Companies like IKEA, Unilever, and Walmart reach more people personally and have a greater ability to shift consumer perceptions than governments or media outlets. So the fact that leading companies are truly seeing sustainability as not only morally right but also commercially wise, is very good news.

A Common Narrative

My three encounters in three countries last week had a common theme. Our current, high-carbon path is not only bad for our planet. It’s bad economics, too. Smart politicians who gathered last week in Abu Dhabi, the top economists convened in London, and the far-sighted corporate leaders in Leiden are all on the same page.

Surely something to raise your spirits this Mother's Day!

Comments

@Andrew Steer: "Smart politicians[,] economists[, and] [managers] are all on the same page."

Call me a curmudgeon, but I'm hoping that, someday, that page you're on will begin with "Think twice before burning jet fuel to attend meetings on reducing GHG emissions." In a large font. Boldface.

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