Time to lace up

Heliotropy: “We will grow taller, stronger and faster when motivated by things that are light and full of positivity.”

The climate change statistics look grim. Charmian Love and Gillian Benjamin say it’s time to look to the sun.

Wayne Gretzky, known as The Great One in ice hockey, has an important lesson on strategy. When asked, “Wayne, what makes you so great?” he reportedly responded: “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where the puck is”.

There is wisdom in these words that relate far beyond the arena of sports. In today’s world we know where the puck has to be if we want a planet we’re proud to leave to the next generation. The Sustainable Development Goals set out in 2015 at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit have been referred to as “the closest thing the world has to a strategy.” They are the 17 goals that have been globally agreed and we have until 2030 to meet them.

In recent weeks the 2030 timeline has become more profound, catalysed by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report comparing the differential impacts between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming.

“Decarbonisation of this magnitude calls for the full-scale retooling of world economy.”

The report carried a call to arms. We have just 12 years to shift the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions to stand a chance of not exceeding a 1°5 C of warming, otherwise the risk of irreversible changes to the climate system become real (in reality this timeline is probably event shorter given the IPCC’s consensus-based way of working and the scientific conservatism that underpins their work). However, in 2030 Charmian’s children will be 18 and 20.

2050 is also marked in the minds of people working in climate change. It is the time when emissions need to be at net-zero. Not long to completely reshape the global economy and not an easy feat when considering trends like population growth and increased resource consumption.

It will be difficult. But it is possible.

Underlying trends

“The Great Acceleration” is a useful narrative that describes the point in the middle of the twentieth century, at which man’s impact on the planet increased significantly (see figure 1).

Figure 1: exponential growth starts around 1950.

Many of the trends in the Great Acceleration were driven by population growth. When Charmian was born in 1978 the global population was 4.3 billion. Six years later when Gillian was born it had grown to 4.8 billion. Now consider that the world population was a mere 1.6 billion in 1900.

Today the population is 7.6 billion and the UN projects we will hit 9.7 billion in 2050. This is the equivalent of expanding today’s population by an additional third, on a planet already heavily under strain from current consumption demands.

“Some are finding ways to reset the model of business in our world.”

To illustrate: in 2018 the Global Footprint Network reported that were the world’s population to consume resources at the same rate as the average UK citizen, we would need 2.9 earths to meet that demand. Put differently, the UK is consuming resources 2.9 times faster than the world can naturally replenish them. Add to this strain the fact that the size of the global middle class is set to nearly double between 2015-2030 (see figure 2).

Figure 2: By 2030 the global middle class population will have more than tripled since the start of the century.

Against the backdrop of the Great Acceleration we have a roadmap that calls for rapid decarbonisation of the economy, with the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Figure 3 shows how we need to bend the curve of emissions drastically during the next thirty years, with the goal of peaking emissions in 2020.

Figure 3: to achieve a zero net emissions target from a peak around 2025 (red curve), emissions will have to plummet at close to ten times the rate they grew over the preceding 35 years.

Decarbonisation of this magnitude calls for the full-scale retooling of world economy including:
• switching energy supplies away from to fossil fuels towards renewables;
• replacing public and private transport fleets and cars with electric vehicles;
• building energy efficient buildings and retrofitting existing stock;
• increasing the carbon productivity of industry;
• halting deforestation;
• improving farming practices and the carbon sequestration ability of soils; and
• helping individuals make better consumption decisions.

Global carbon dioxide emissions remained flat for three years, but in 2017 energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew by 1.4%, reaching a historic high.

These are serious times – but as the IPCC report points out, there is a window for us to change trajectory dramatically.

Remaining sane

Taking an honest and objective look at the state of the world and the changes we are seeing in the natural systems that have, until now, allowed civilization to thrive, can trigger deep anxiety. In a society unaccustomed to dealing with pain, we flip past the uncomfortable newspaper article or switch the TV channel.

We have taken a different approach. We have allowed the facts to sink in, allowed ourselves feel the fear of our children’s uncertain futures, allowed the inner dread that arises when thinking about possible negative futures to sit in the pits of our stomachs.

“We need to shift the social values by which we live our lives.”

And yet, at the same time, we are inspired by the amazing progress we see around us. People are taking action. From trends in improved health, life expectancy and general standards of living, to the spread of new social norms (think gay marriage or transgender rights) and breakthrough technologies. We like to think of these uplifting trends as a form of heliotropy – which means turning towards the sun – as sunflowers and many other plants do. We as humans may not be that different than our floral cousins. We will grow taller, stronger and faster when motivated by things that are light and full of positivity.

We know that people are not motivated by doom and gloom. To illustrate this point people often point to the fact that Martin Luther King did not begin his famous speech with “I have a nightmare…” We need to place the vision of the world we want at the centre and work towards achieving this, all the while holding close the realities happening each day.

We are not seeing only the positives and ignoring the challenges and headwinds. Nor are we paralysed by the negatives. We live in the ambiguity in between. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the test of intelligence “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

For Gillian, truly confronting the perils of the world triggered a deep survival mechanism that gave her the courage to switch careers and work in the climate space. She takes inspiration from the mess in which we find ourselves, while Charmian is fed more by the incredible progress and sparks of light that emanate from positive trends and people driving projects to shift the status quo. Each of us sits somewhere on the continuum between light and dark, no one ever being solely one or the other.

Moving Forward

So what to do? Some are finding ways to reset the model of business in our world. The global B Corp movement (Charmian is chair of B Lab UK) is a great example of where people are starting businesses, working in businesses and buying from businesses that put profits and purpose on par and equally consider shareholders and wider stakeholders. These businesses are also model examples of places where people love coming to the office because staff know they are working towards a purpose much greater than the firm itself.

We also need to have a conversation about what it means to take an interconnected view of the planet and all who live on it – to be a citizen of the world not just a resident of a country.

Over the years we have taken inspiration of the work of New Citizenship Project (which is also a B Corp). The project highlights the difference in how we perceive ourselves when we are framed as consumers versus citizens, with the intention to lean into the latter.

And as citizens we need to act:
• cut down on meat consumption and switch towards a plant-based diet;
• cut down on work-related travel and flights where possible;
• use public transport, walk or cycle whenever you can;
• if you have to drive make it electric;
• insulate your home;
• switch to renewable energy;
• reduce consumption of material things – buy an experience or a service rather than a physical thing, and buy second hand where you can;
• use your purchasing power to support brands that are responsible corporate citizens;
• think about the professional pursuits to which you channel your energies;
• engage in collective action by joining movements and campaigns; and
• vote – use your power.

We also need to have more open and honest discussions about climate change. If you are one of the people who worries about climate change, when last did you share this anxiety with someone? Speak to your partner, your family, your friends and your colleagues. This gives space for others to open up as well and it breaks the socially constructed silence that surrounds the topic and stops us from thinking that others are as concerned about climate change as we are.

However, we also need to move beyond individual action. In a recent article environmental psychologist and author, Renee Lertzman, said that a mindset of individual solutionism, “…actively works to discourage having other kinds of conversations, and amounts to a kind of disavowal and avoidance of the harder questions.”

Again, here we need to hold ambiguity – this is not to say that individual actions are pointless – but that we must not get lulled into a false sense of security that by recycling and eating less meat we have done our part. This should be a baseline of action, not the end of it.

To shift the situation we need to ensure we stop digging and pumping fossil fuels out of the ground. Roughly 88% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels (the remaining 12% come from deforestation and changes in land use). However, 80% of the global energy mix is made up of fossil fuels, a level that has remained roughly the same in the past three decades, despite a huge rise in renewables (see figure 4). We need, therefore, to put a price on carbon. That requires bold action from governments and for that to happen they need to feel public pressure.

Figure 4: while the rate of growth in global renewable energy use has been significant, it remains a small part of the mix.

Get involved in a way that makes sense to you. If you believe that divestment is a good strategy, join a project in your area. Alternatively if engagement with fossil fuel companies speaks to you, reach out to an organisation like ShareAction to see how to get involved by asking a tough question about company decarbonisation strategy at an annual general meeting.

And, probably the most difficult and intangible, we need to shift the social values by which we live our lives. We need to replace those norms that equate earning power, material possessions and being busy with success.

“Treat others and the planet as you would wish to be treated.”

We need to remember what really makes us happy – close connections to family and friends, doing work in which we find meaning, eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep and getting exercising regularly.

Ultimately, we must bring front of mind a very basic truth. “The Golden Rule, as stated by co-founder of Reboot the Future, Kim Polman, is to “Treat others and the planet as you would wish to be treated.”

Polman explains: “This universal principle dates back to ancient Egypt and is the basis of all religions, though forgotten by many. It is at the root of religions because it is core to being a human being. On top of that, neuroscientists have proven that caring for others releases the right chemicals in our brains that make us happy and peaceful. Why do we want to continue in greedy, selfish, and arrogant ways, when caring for other people and all forms of life is the right thing to do, for ourselves as much as for others.”

The current system is the enemy. We must mobilise an army of students, parents, brothers, sisters, children – and channel our collective energy to create deep and lasting change. This feels like the New Power Jeremy Hiemanns and Henry Timms talk about in their recent book. And we must also mobilise “Old Power” elites – those who hold wealth, resources, influence – alongside Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers – everyone. The IPCC document is the playbook – it shows us the field of battle we must engage on.

If not us, who? If not now, when? If not here, where? We know where the puck needs to be in 2030 – it’s time to lace up our skates and get going.

Charmian Love

Entrepreneur in Residence at Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Said Business School, University of Oxford. Co-Founder and Chair of B Lab UK. Co-Founder of Heliotropy Ltd.

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Gillian Benjamin

Gillian is a climate communicator and entrepreneur. She is currently building an education and engagement company to help people help individuals and businesses hasten their progress towards a post-carbon economy. …

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