I went to the home of Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, last night for dinner. Sachs, a Harvard classmate (one of those people you identified at age 18 as having superior intellect), has taken a leadership role in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a coalition of academics, business and non-governmental organizations. SDSN released a white paper earlier this month called “Pathways to Deep Decarbonization,” a plan to limit the mean temperature increase to less than two degrees Centigrade, which was agreed to by major nations at the 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Sachs noted that earlier in the day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that June 2014 was the hottest June since the start of records in 1880, 1.3 degrees warmer than the average of the 20th century and warmer than the previous record year of June, 2010. He noted that the current global trajectory is toward a four-to-six degree Centigrade increase in temperature by the end of the century; “The world is on a very dangerous path,” Sachs asserted.
Sachs is seeking a step-reduction in CO2 emissions. At present, the U.S. emits around 16 tons of carbon dioxide per person, China around eight tons, while the world average is around five tons per person. “We need to cut tons of carbon emitted per capita by around two-thirds by 2050,” he said. Among his ideas are a move away from carbon heavy fuels such as coal; use of renewable sources of energy with focus on solar and wind; carbon capture and sequestration into geological aquifers; mass electrification of motor vehicles; next generation nuclear facilities (France gets a large percentage of its power from nuclear); gains in energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings; a change in lifestyle patterns; and urban planning and reimagining of industrial processes (think of electric heating of metals instead of old method of smelting).
According to Sachs, the U.S. and China are the decisive votes at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) 21 climate negotiations that will be held in Paris in December, 2015. The EU is strongly on board for a strong agreement. There are important milestones leading up to that event, including the opening of the United Nations General Debate on September 24, 2014.
New research notes that 45 million Americans are alarmed about climate change and another 50 million Americans are concerned. But 40 percent of Americans believe that humans are not changing the climate. There is a significant failure of communications regarding the environment. Meanwhile, the profound decline in air quality in China has caused a significant shift in public opinion, Sachs said.
I made a strong case for private sector involvement in the process. Market-based solutions are the best path forward. Companies such as GE* have specific expertise in new forms of energy transmission and installation of electric charging stations. Pepsico* has 38 million friends of its various brands on social channels such as Facebook. Project Sunlight from Unilever* generated nearly 100 million views of a video on sustainability. I also suggested mobilization of youth groups such as One Young World.
The sad reality is that environment is often a political loser, with short-term pain for long-term gain. Imagine implementing carbon taxes at a time of weak employment in the West or insisting that India not implement new power plants based on low-cost coal. What is required is a vision of what is possible if COP 21 negotiations succeed. That is why an outside-in strategy, of pressuring politicians through mass consumer participation in the issue, plus pressure from business, is an essential approach.
I go along with the comment by Keith Weed, CMO for Unilever. “Some people argue that in the future, everyone will just consume less. I see no evidence for that in consumer behavior… Growth needs to be sustainable economically meaning to grow our business but it must be sustainable environmentally and socially as well…What’s the business case for sustainability? I always answer, ‘I would love to see the business case for the alternative.’”
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.
Image by Alex.