Sunday, December 18, 2011

To save the planet, let's find out how much we agree

Cooperation could be the key to long-term sustainability <i>(Image: Finistre Arnaud/ABACA/Press Association Images)</i> 

ALMOST four years ago I joined what must be one of the world's most ambitious projects: a plan to put Earth well on the way to global sustainability by 2050. The Vision 2050: The new agenda for business report produced 70 measures of success and 350 milestones to span the next four decades. The plan was billed as the most comprehensive, detailed description of what we must do to support or save much of civilisation from the ravages of climate change, overpopulation and declining renewable resources.
My role was to produce an accompanying "information mural" - a supersized laminated wall chart. This builds on the many years I have spent translating complex ideas about everything from manufacturing projects to political arguments to scientific and philosophical debates into the visual language of large-scale maps and info-murals. Even in a digital age - or perhaps especially in a digital age - they are far better at making sense of the deluge of data that might otherwise drown us.
Vision 2050's overall conclusion was relatively optimistic - a position we broadly summarised as "9 billion people live well, within the limits of the planet". The optimism may have stemmed from the fact that the project was a brainchild of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), an organisation of CEOs of blue chip companies such as Philips and Boeing, with combined annual revenues of some $7 trillion (for comparison, China's GDP is $5 trillion).
With its origins in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the WBCSD aims to galvanise the global business community to create a sustainable future for business, society and the environment. Its vision is important, if only because these top businesses are already using this view of a sustainable future to change their corporate strategies.
One of the major outcomes of the WBCSD project was a list of 40 "must haves" - projects that must be "on track" to achieve that vision of 2050. For example, the report says that manufacturing needs to increase its reuse of materials by a factor of four to 10, energy efficiency must double, so must agricultural output (using the same amount of land), and forest production should also double. The project's strategists set key milestones using 10 tracks: energy, buildings, mobility, materials, economy, governance, people, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems and biodiversity.
Many of the must haves are as ambitious as going to the moon and back. They require enormous cooperation between governments, NGOs and the private sector. And that would only be possible with an astonishing degree of multi-sector leadership and cooperation.
We have always had great difficulty getting our minds around large, complex issues - so-called "wicked problems". The sustainability of the planet and human civilisation is clearly one such, where a failure to do good long-range thinking has prevented real progress in getting the interested parties to work together. We have also had great difficulty agreeing on fundamental underlying assumptions for dealing with wicked problems, as the history of political disagreement shows. But the development of foresight methodologies such as scenario-building and computer modelling has begun to help outline ways of looking at our long-range difficulties and opportunities.
So how could we build on Vision 2050? First, we must acknowledge its weaknesses. For example, the "people" track fails to deal adequately with poverty, population and basic human rights issues. And, astonishingly given current headlines, the "economy" track fails to touch on any of the problems raised by the financial crises in the US and Europe and the obstinate problem of how to make the transition to a low-growth economy.
As for "governance", this track does not deal with the crucial problem of planning cities, nor with some national, regional governance issues, such as the inability to help a half-dozen or more failed states, and the slowness to address the reduction of risks from weapons of mass destruction. And the "energy" track fails to take fully into account continuing increases in greenhouse gas emissions, increases in efficiency, and doesn't mention smart grids.
Perhaps even more glaring is the absence of whole areas of human and planetary phenomena. The oceans that cover three-quarters of the planet are not mentioned except in the context of the big risk of ocean acidification. Water availability as an issue is spread across tracks and so does not receive the kind of attention it needs. Cities are predicted to contain 2 billion more people by 2050, yet do not feature in a correspondingly significant role. Issues such as adaptation to climate change, disaster relief and displaced people through migration do not feature at all.
This is a comprehensive strategy document that comes out of business assumptions, biases and blind spots. Primary among these assumptions is the incorporation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's limit of 450 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 in setting the estimates for the "energy" tracks. This has been seriously criticised by climate scientist James Hansen and others, who argue that only a more severe limit of 350 parts per million can keep planetary climate within tolerable limits. The organic farming research community has attacked even the assumption in the document that there will be a modest use of advanced genetically modified crops. And whether we can achieve the difficult goals in the "forests" track of doubling timber and fibre output by 2050 also needs closer examination.
Perhaps the biggest assumption was the use of back-casting, which involves defining a desirable future and then asking what milestones need to be in place decade by decade to make it happen. It assumes the political and economic context within which various milestones will (or not) be reached is going to be relatively straightforward. But we know from complex, chaotic systems that discontinuities do occur. So substantially more consideration needs to be given to all of the geopolitical and macroeconomic factors underpinning the Vision 2050's must-have tasks, and the project requires considerable grounding in our constantly evolving reality.
Some of that grounding is probably already lying in position papers and reports of NGOs, United Nations agencies, not-for-profit climate change organisations, policy arms of governments, left-wing think tanks - even in protest camps in London or New York.
How different would a comprehensive vision and pathways model be with their input? A more inclusive, version 2.0 of the report could produce a deeper understanding of what business, government and NGOs can do if they work together with the enthusiasm, clarity and focus that comes from a shared vision. It would provide a context for fruitful discussions at different levels of scale: local, regional, national and global.
So how big will the differences be? At present, media polarisation of world views magnifies disagreements that may be more apparent than substantive: in reality I think they won't be that large. And, most of all, the expanded coverage and updated data will produce a more widely shared common language and a sustainable commitment plan.
But we badly need to know exactly how much agreement the non-business vision has with the business vision because the business sector is certain to be the major implementer of much of that work and, most importantly, the tasks are so gigantic that everyone needs to work together. Comparing info-murals and charts will make those crucial differences and commonalities clear as crystal.

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