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Published: 02.16.2019

Forbes: Business Has Twelve Years to Help Avoid Hothouse Earth: Here’s How


By Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum

2018 is coming in as the fourth hottest year since records began and the second costliest year ever for extreme weather impacts. It wasn’t an outlier. According to NOAA and NASA the twenty warmest years on record have all occurred since 1995; the five hottest have all come in the 2010s. Meantime, our ocean – which absorbs 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – is warming and becoming more acidic faster than any time in the last 300 million years.

We are seeing catastrophic impacts on our coral reefs as the first indicator of this acid bath. The equivalent of one garbage-truck a minute dumping plastic waste in the sea adds to the intolerable stress we are placing on life under water. Meanwhile much of life on land is facing mass extinction – the WWF 2018 Living Planet Report shows, incredibly, that humanity has wiped out vertebrate populations across animals, fish and birds by 60 percent on average between 1970 to 2014.

We cannot ignore these facts. They have enormous implications for our economy, society and politics. Of the nine billion people that will soon inhabit the planet, more than two-thirds will live in cities, often in coastal areas. Many children born today – even those in relatively richer countries – will quite literally not be able to weather the storms, pollution and collapse of nature that lie ahead. “Hothouse Earth” could trigger a hotbed of anger.

You may feel you have heard this all before. Maybe. But perhaps you didn’t hear this bit. Scientists told us two incredible new things in 2018. First, we have just twelve years left to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Second, and as a result, we are getting dangerously close to crashing ourselves out of the Holocene era – the not too hot and not to cold “goldilocks” equilibrium in Earth history we have enjoyed for the last 12,000 years and which has allowed us humans to flourish. Through our own doing, we have been pushing all the boundaries for planetary instability.

The good news is we may not be as dumb as Jane Goodall fears. The hard exit from the Holocene might be avoidable.

This is linked to how our global politics is changing. Driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Globalization 4.0 is forcing our old global conventions to give way to new ones; and for top down governmental ways of doing things to morph into more agile, “multi-actor” arrangements. The push back against rising inequality and job insecurity, driven by the global forces of technology change, is forcing domestic leaders to think again about how international agreements work and who should be involved to make them better. This revolution is sweeping through the global environmental agenda too. The old order, which is proving insufficient to deliver the scale of environmental action we now need is giving way to the new.

What is changing?

Firstly, we have realized that governments and international organizations, while vital for agreeing global targets like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, cannot deliver them all alone. No matter how much money an environment ministry is given, it cannot solve these problems on its own. Instead, we are recognizing it will take an unprecedented level of collaboration and innovation involving many outside the public sector to trigger the big, systemic changes required to achieve these ambitious goals. The good news is that most in the environmental agenda now agree.

Secondly, and as a consequence, we are seeing – after years of unwillingness from international environmental diplomats to throw open their doors – a sea change in public-private and civil society collaborations to help solve our most pressing environmental problems like climate change, ocean health and biodiversity loss. What were once viewed a bit condescendingly as non-state-actor “side events” at big government summits are now seen as the main-stage examples of environmental action.

And thirdly, with the rapid technological advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will also be able to harness new means of monitoring, verifying and reporting the progress (or not) of global, regional and industry actions on climate and the environment– potentially through radical new forms of distributed information transparency and real time disclosures. Such increased transparency will increase awareness and the pressure to act. Ironically, just as the desire for international cooperation starts to fracture, such new technologies are helping to put global environmental action collaboration and pollution disclosure on steroids.

Perhaps also driven by necessity, this opening up of the global environmental agenda for new partnerships to combine with new technologies, is breaking down our old environmental order and shaping a new approach to secure our global environmental commons – a New Deal for Nature is on the rise.

Many of the partnership building blocks already exist: they include international public-private partnerships like the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, RE100, the Energy Transitions Commission, the WRI-C40 Coalition for Urban Transitions, the Food and Land Use Alliance, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, the Friends of Ocean Action, the Global Battery Alliance, Grow Asia, the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders and the new Global Plastics Action Partnership. At our recent Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York, we helped many of these and others to “accelerate” their reach and impact.

Many businesses and governments already understand the benefits of joining collaborations like these. Working together in partnerships allows more to be achieved than if each worked alone. The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition and the 2030 Water Resources Group are good examples of sustainable, national market-building at work through public-private collaborations. More companies, more governments and more young people must join or add to these efforts. The next step will be to encourage new clubs of like-minded governments, sub-national jurisdictions and new platforms for policy and public-private partnership to also emerge, for example in the “hard to abate” industry sectors like cement, steel, chemicals and shipping.

Many younger people concerned about the environment, and at the beginning of their career path, also realize that championing innovations in the sustainability sector can offer them the chance of a lifetime. While their elders may have created or joined campaign groups and NGOs, many younger entrepreneurs are harnessing today’s technologies to create a slew of purpose-based business models, B-corps and other innovation-driven solutions to help solve the climate and environmental crisis. The Forum’s Global Shapers community, active in almost 400 cities in more than 150 countries, for example, contain many of these new tech-savvy environmental champions. Together, they form a new innovation ecosystem for environmental action. They are starting to put it to use.

Taken together, this represents a kind of Schumpeterian disruption for the existing environmental agenda. New collaborations, new innovations and new networks of entrepreneurs are challenging the way that institutions set up 50 years ago or so have traditionally gone about managing our global environmental issues. But for the kind of radical transformation that the science says we need, such positive disruption is surely a good thing: old job boundaries are breaking down, enabling new collaborations across civil society groups, business, investors, city administrations, universities, technology centres and innovation accelerators to take off, each seeking to reshape the economy of environmental protection and reinvent business models to reap sustainable rewards.

Some might feel uncomfortable with this, as change always contains an element of the unknown. Yet as we must increase our sense of urgency and ambition, so must we embrace innovation. If our intent is clear and predicated on the latest scientific guidance, we should not worry. By unleashing these new platforms of multi-actor, public-private collaboration and promoting new waves of policy and technology innovation and a new generation of entrepreneurs, we can save the Earth within the next twelve years. If we can match the increasing desire among many to act on the scientific urgency with an equal desire to collaborate, innovate and positively disrupt our currently under-performing environmental efforts, we can shape the emergence of a “New Deal for Nature.”

Our task is to shake up the system to help make this happen. We start at the Annual Meeting in Davos this week.