The ‘big push’ transforming the world’s energy systems

As I’m sure you have noticed, renewable energy is taking the world by storm, driven by rapidly falling prices. Ever wonder how that happened?

In 2009, I authored a concept paper for the United Nations Secretariat, for circulation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. COP15 became infamous because it was deemed a spectacular failure. Heads of state were personally negotiating the terms of the weak “Copenhagen Accord” into the wee hours of the night — a sure sign that the diplomatic process had broken down.

Fortunately, that process had nothing to do with my job in Copenhagen, which was to garner support for a bold new initiative — a “Big Push” strategy — to scale up renewable energy in the developing world, and thereby bring the price down to affordable levels globally.

I’ll skip over the technical details of the plan I was proposing, working on behalf of senior officials in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The basic concept was to invest heavily in renewables in poor countries, using a globally coordinated system of price guarantees (aka “feed-in tariffs” — you can read the “Technical Note” here). Pump money for solar panels and wind turbines into those countries, and the resulting scale-up in production would bring global prices for those technologies down, and fast.

Fast was important: Otherwise, developing countries would get locked into cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels, and there would be no chance of meeting global CO2 reduction targets.

The idea for this Big Push had originated with Tariq Banuri, a brilliant policy innovator from Pakistan who was then serving as the U.N.’s director for sustainable development. My job was to develop his idea into a clear proposal, with numbers and an implementation strategy, then recruit wise and respected voices at Copenhagen to support the package.

And we did. The positive response we received to Tariq’s concept of a “Global Green New Deal” for renewable energy was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Copenhagen, even though not much came of it after that.

(The full story of my experiences in Copenhagen is told in the second edition of my 2010 book, “Believing Cassandra.” After COP15, I started building a nonprofit organization to promote the Big Push, but dropped it when many of our ideas were absorbed into then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011.)

But here’s the punchline: In hindsight, pushing this Big Push strategy was probably unnecessary.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme. Much to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the world already has achieved the affordability targets we set, well ahead of the schedule we were envisioning — without any such scheme.

It is important to underscore that those targets, and our proposed schedule — bringing the price of solar and wind energy down to about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, within 10 to 20 years — seemed wildly, even unrealistically ambitious back in 2009. But by 2017, just eight years after Copenhagen, the achievement of those targets is already in the rear-view mirror.

Net power generating capacity added in 2016, globally, by main technology, in gigawatts.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017,” Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF

Take a good look at the pie chart above. The data comes from Bloomberg, published by U.N. Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. Notice that over half of all the new electricity capacity installed globally during 2016 came from solar and wind. For five years running, solar and wind have outpaced coal and gas by a wide margin. While there is a long way to go before the world is driven principally by renewables, the energy transformation is well under way.

The learning curve

A key factor driving this transformation is the price of renewables, which has dropped like a stone. Why? Exactly for the reasons we described in 2009, based on a well-known economics concept called the “learning curve”: The more you make something, the more you learn how to make it cheaply and efficiently.

Economists can predict declines in price by plotting these learning curves on a graph, relating price to the quantity of a thing produced. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to produce the thing; quantity is the key variable. The faster you produce that quantity, the faster you slide down the learning curve towards the associated lower price.

When drafting our Big Push plan in 2009, I was astonished to find that the learning curves for renewable energy being used by most analysts originally had been drawn in 1992. No one had thought to update them. The curves seemed very pessimistic to me, given how fast China (among other actors) was coming online with solar panels and wind turbines. I suggested those curves needed to be redrawn, with new assumptions, based on the rapid developments and faster-than-expected learning we already were seeing in the renewables market.

As it turns out, my optimism was still amazingly pessimistic.

In 2009, even after adjusting the learning curve, we thought it would take about 2,000 gigawatts of installed solar and wind power to bring the price down to our global affordability target of 3 cents per kWh. But that price was reached in a number of countries, including India, Mexico, Chile and Morocco, by 2016. And the total installed global capacity at that time: Just 800 gigawatts — less than half of what we calculated would be necessary.

Bear in mind, 800 gigawatts of solar and wind energy is still a huge number, compared to where things started in 2009. Back then, the world’s wind turbines, if they were spinning at full capacity, could generate just over 150 GW. By 2016, that number had swelled to nearly 500 GW. The growth in solar photovoltaics was even more rocket-like: from 23 gigawatts of capacity in 2009 to more than 300 in 2016.

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Even the world’s top energy experts call this rapid fall in prices astonishing. How did the price fall so much faster than anyone expected?

Simple: Our expectations were plain wrong. You’ve no doubt heard of Moore’s Law, describing how the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months. How about Swanson’s Law? The term was introduced in an Economist article in 2012 to describe a similar pattern for solar panels. Swanson’s Law was basically a revised learning curve, one much closer to the curve we redrew at the U.N. in 2009 (but never published).

There is just one problem with Swanson’s Law: it, too, has proven far too pessimistic. Current prices for solar-electric panels are less than half of what Swanson’s Law would have predicted.

In reviewing these amazing and historic developments, it occurred to me that the world did get a Big Push strategy after all. Renewable energy scaled up rapidly in developing countries, pushing down renewable energy prices globally.

But we didn’t need a massive effort to mobilize international aid, as well as investments from the world’s rich countries, at the trillion-dollar scale we envisioned in 2009. It happened thanks to the target countries, the ones we call “developing,” especially China and India. And it happened faster than predicted, because our predictions were too pessimistic.

It turns out these countries learned faster than any “learning curve” Western experts could draw.

There are several extremely important lessons in all that, but here’s the biggest one: Never doubt that massive, transformative change is possible. It’s happening all around us, all the time — and usually faster than anyone expects.

© 2018 by Alan AtKisson. Originally published on as his “North Star” column, 23 Jan 2018.

How Oslo launched a new design revolution

Once in a while, a conference actually changes the world.

In this case, I refer to a series of conferences in Oslo, sponsored by Norway’s National Center for Design and Architecture (known as DOGA). In 2015, a couple of sustainability visionaries there, Jannicke Hølen and Knut Bang, had the brilliant idea to focus on the “Outdoor” business sector — makers of skis, boots, tents, gear and all the outdoorsy tops, jackets, pants and socks that people tend to wear when they head off to the mountains and fjords. Or the local mall, for that matter.

Then DOGA invited a who’s who of people working in design and sustainability to come talk to the assembled designers, suppliers, marketers and students. People such as Vincent Stanley, Patagonia’s in-house “philosopher,” and Paul Dillinger, head of design at Levi Strauss, helped kick it off. The event took place in a re-purposed church, with great veggie food, edgy multi-media and the ultimate in mood lighting. A surprising number of CEOs turned up — even when they were not invited speakers. Over two years and three annual events, these “Framtanker” (“Forward Thinking”) conferences became a real happening.

Because Framtanker made real things happen.

Jens Petter Ring at Framtanker 2017 (photo courtesy DOGA)

Example: At the first conference, Jens Petter Ring, a young outdoor professional, listened to presentations on global challenges, the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the special responsibility of designers, and realized: “I have to do something.”

So, he decided to start a new company, dedicated to making the most sustainable outdoor clothing possible. And at the third Framtanker conference Nov. 28, he presented the story of “Greater than A,” or just “>A,” created in partnership with Norwegian skiing legend Aksel Svindal and others. Their first products, which push materials choice to new sustainability and performance limits, while aiming for “timeless” fad-resistant design, aren’t even hitting the stores until January, but are already a big hit with the buyers.

That’s just one story. Hundreds of people, companies, even whole design institutions have been affected by the “Framtanker” conferences — not least because of one its major spin-off “products,” the Oslo Manifesto. This design call-to-action, based on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, has attracted several hundred signatories, including architecture and design schools, and spawned a website full of inspirational projects and resources to help designers turn the SDGs into reality.

Alan AtKisson speaking at “Framtanker” in Nov 2017, Oslo, Norway, photo courtesy DOGA/Sverre C. Jarild

Obviously, I’m biased here: I had the privilege of keynoting the first Framtanker conference in 2015, and closing the most recent one. Hølen and Bang, together with a co-conspirator of theirs from the design world named Kjersti Kviseth, have gone from being clients to initiative partners to friends. We cooked up the Oslo Manifesto together (on my side, it’s been a volunteer project) — but the idea emerged from a live panel discussion at the first Framtanker in 2015.

Sitting in the moderator’s chair at the end of the conference, I asked Victor Stanley, Paul Dillinger, Kviseth and other panelists whether the SDGs could be turned into a “design brief.” (See photo, top.)

Screenshot from the website

Absolutely, they said. So, we did that — and we launched the resulting Manifesto and website at the next Framtanker, in 2016. Since then, we’ve presented the Oslo Manifesto to graphic designers, maritime industry representatives, design management executives and many others.

Mingling around at the most recent Framtanker, I chatted with over a dozen professionals and executives who noted, with sincerity, that these conferences in Oslo had been an important source of inspiration and ideas for them, while serving as a serious wake-up call about the scale of the global sustainability challenge — and the essential role that design must play in accelerating solutions. Some people had changed jobs. Others had just pushed harder to make change in their current jobs.

Many repeat attendees were jolted again by this year’s opening speaker, legendary eco-entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who reminded them that “polluting less is still polluting” and that the ultimate goal is not just zero impact, but restorative impact. “I’m going to have a long think about that,” said one outdoor design leader, whose products already are hailed as green. “Gunter made me realize that we still haven’t gone far enough.”

Of course, engaging designers in sustainability is hardly a new idea. Many of sustainability’s early and highly visible pioneers were green designers and architects. Green buildings are the norm now. And yet, the process of engaging the broader mainstream of professionals in areas such as clothing, industrial and product design has been a strangely sluggish process — even in the outdoor sector, which one would expect to be full of super-green nature-lovers.

But having worked with numerous relevant firms, I can report that designers and design departments are often declared off-limits to the sustainability folks. Don’t talk to them, is the message we often hear (sometimes quite directly). Designers shouldn’t be distracted by the troublesome demands of sustainability. They should just focus on what the market wants, and on creating good design.

Fortunately, that’s fast becoming a very old-fashioned approach. Good design is, increasingly, sustainable design. The number of companies embracing Net Positive and FutureFit and other new, highly ambitious, regenerative sustainability frameworks is growing fast. Most of us sustainability nerds have been declaring that “the revolution is here” for over a decade.

And yet, the companies in the spotlight are still, in many ways, the usual suspects representing a very small percentage of world production. Even the circular economy movement often ends up focused more on repurposing waste than on redesigning the products that create waste in the first place.

Which means the sustainable design movement — in which GreenBiz also plays a key role, by the way, with its own conference programs — is nowhere near finished. In fact, it’s still coming out of starting blocks.

Think I’m pessimistic in my assessment? Just walk into any big store, selling any kind of product. Look around. How much of what you see has been designed for true sustainability? The astonishing amounts of just one highly unsustainable material type — plastic — will keep a generation of designers busy redoing their products.

But thanks to efforts such as Framtanker, I’m optimistic. Many of Scandinavia’s outdoor companies are more ambitiously on the move. And the good folks at DOGA are moving on to some new sector.

Their strategy works: Three years of excellent conferences, focused on one sector, helps to get sustainability much more firmly embedded in design thinking, in one concentrated place.

And then the impacts ripple outward.

Originally published on as Alan AtKisson’s “North Star” column, 19 Dec 2017

Crowdfunding 1-week challenge: help sponsor this exhibition!

Dear friends:

We need your help. I’ve never tried crowdfunding before, or asking for donations for a project. But now I am.

exhibition1v3I and my friends in Stockholm are mounting a major and powerful exhibition here, on the problem of plastic garbage in our seas. But we need your help, otherwise it just won’t happen.

As I wrote earlier on FB, we tried hard to find corporate sponsors in Sweden. Shockingly, not a single one said yes. (Yet.) Our friends in government, NGOs, and small sustainability firms are now scraping their budgets, but money is tight. That’s why we are also coming to you.

We need to raise SEK 300 000, which is about $33,000, in a week. Otherwise, the exhibition is off.

Are you willing to help? So that we can give this monumental problem the attention it deserves? Any amount welcome, we are seeking contributors & sponsors from all over the world (including Sweden of course!).

Three ways to do it:

For Global Sponsors, you can make your sponsorship contribution via PayPal, here:

If you are in Sweden, you can SWISH a donation:
123 024 63 06
Please put “OUT TO SEA” in the message line.
Hemsida på svenska:

If you can and want to make a larger contribution, contact me. There are nice benefits for large sponsors. (Corporate sponsors are still welcome, even those who said no before.)

Everyone who contributes will be warmly invited to the opening! And publicly thanked as well (unless you wish to remain anonymous).

Note: If you pay by PayPal, you will be purchasing a “Sponsor packet”. In Sweden, if you want to purchase a sponsorship (instead of just making a contribution) let me know, we can invoice you.

We’re not a charity, so it’s not a tax-deductible donation we are asking for. It’s an investment … in a remarkable public event.

Here’s the link again for info and to make a contribution.

English >>

Svenska >>

And … thank you. If you’ve read this far, at least I know you care! Likes and shares will also help.

In hope, and with gratitude in advance,
Alan AtKisson
For the exhibition team

In Sweden, corporate sponsors did not “show up”

This is the original Facebook post from Jan 9, 2017, that made us realize we should try crowdfunding for our exhibit on ocean plastic waste. UPDATE 25 JAN 2017: WE ARE HALF WAY THERE! THANKS TO SWEDISH, JAPANESE, USA AND OTHER SPONSORS. Can you help? Click here to read more and contribute …

[Translation of original post in Swedish]  Right now, I am feeling very disappointed with Swedish business. Not a single company has agreed to sponsor an exhibit that we are trying to bring here, to Stockholm, about plastic garbage in the oceans. Not a single one! I won’t name any names but we have asked many of the most well known, including those who have profiled themselves on this question.

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThe problem is huge. The opportunity is also huge. Sweden’s government has stepped forward and sponsored the world’s first UN summit meeting on the oceans and SDG 14 [on the sustainability of the oceans and seas], in June 2017 in NY. The exhibit — which is very dramatic and educational — would be timed with World Water Day and would raise the profile of ocean issues in Sweden. Government agencies and others were ready to help with content for seminars etc. But the corporate sponsors we approached said, “We can’t prioritize that right now,” or “We don’t have the resources,” and such.

You know me. I don’t usually complain. I am, at bottom, an optimist. But this is truly a deep disappointment. This wasn’t huge money we were after. I expected more from Sweden’s private sector, as a land of sustainability leadership.

If you know someone with resources (company, foundation, private individual) who could imagine sponsoring a fantastic exhibit on how we can save our seas from the plague of plastic, please get in touch with me. [Time is of the essence, the window is closing.]

Thanks for reading this letter of complaint, Facebook friends!

Finding Purpose in Bangkok

I just had the pleasure and privilege of doing the opening keynote at Sustainable Brands Bangkok 2016. The “Sustainable Brands” concept has truly spread around the world. What’s brilliant about KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz‘s creation is the way it attracts a broad business audience: not just the “true believers” in sustainability and CSR, but also the curious, and the mildly skeptical. It inspires them all to engage — and engagement is step 1.
sustainablebrandsbkk-princessIf my speech was an energizing waker-upper (I had the audience do a couple of short change games with me), the following talk — delivered with compellingly serene sincerity — was a call to reflection and deep thought. A member of Bhutan’s royal family, HRH Princess Kezang Choden Wangchuk (pictured, from my Instagram account), focused on ethics and called on businesses to consider their “ultimate purpose,” in the context of Bhutan’s “national happiness” concept. Whenever I’ve lectured on ethics (and I have), I doubt I have ever received the rapturous attention that this crowd seemed to give Her Royal Highness. Then she floated out of the auditorium, with an entourage of a dozen people, as though she had been urgently recalled to the Himalayas. (Probably she had some Thai royals to visit.)
During the speeches that came after, it finally got through to me what this conference is about. I thought “Activating Purpose” was just the conference’s title. Somehow I’d missed the fact that “Purpose” is the new “CSR,” or “sustainability,” or “corporate citizenship”. It’s not just a word, but a concept — though still a “fragile” one, said Wander Meijer of Globescan. He showed data that confirmed what you might guess about how much the average person in our world (in 25 countries) trusts the average corporation: exactly 0. (Fortunately the number is not negative, which is possible on their scale.) Corporations that are identified with some sense of purpose that is not just making money do better, in pure return-on-investment terms, than those that don’t, just as has been previously proven for sustainability, CSR etc.
But “Purpose” is “the new black” in the sense that everyone can wear it, it looks good on everyone, it’s not hard to explain. In some ways, sustainable development has gotten easier to digest as a company, because you can just download the 17 SDGs. “Use them all, or pick some subset, and make that your purpose. Easy!” said Steve Young, chair of the Caux Round Table. But he also acknowledged that explaining the 17 goals and 169 sub-goals (or “Targets” in UN-speak) is probably more complicated than just saying “Purpose.” Since he also managed to tie the financial advantages and the SDGs to essentially all the great religious and moral traditions of the world — in 15 minutes! — I think could manage to make anything look easy.
As I write this, my moment at Sustainable Brands has actually just begun. I still have a workshop to lead, and there is another day of speeches, and there are books to sign (I was launching Parachuting Cats into Borneo in Asia here). But it’s already introduced me to a whole new strain of the sustainability movement — where I’ve lived for three decades — that I did not really know existed. I guess that’s one reason why I’m here.
Nice to have a sense of Purpose.

Swiss reject pioneering “Green Economy” referendum, but Geneva passes it

greeneconomyvote-switzerlandYesterday, Switzerland held a remarkable vote. The question: whether to legally limit the country to living within its share of the ecological limits of our planet, by 2050. Currently, Switzerland uses three times the sustainable level of resources; so passing this law would have required the whole country, legally, to start a march toward physical sustainability and reduce its use of resources by 2/3, by 2050. (I learned about all this from Swiss-born Mathis Wackernagel, one of the originators of the ecological footprint and head of Global Footprint Network, because it did not even register in the global news.)
A couple of months ago, the “Green Economy” referendum was leading in the polls by 61%. But then came the attacks and scare-mongering, with opponents saying it would lead to “cold showers” and the end of cocoa imports. (Say goodbye to chocolate! In Switzerland!) The Swiss council of ministers advised the public against supporting the proposal. Support fell … but in the end, 36% still voted for it. And in Geneva (where there are many UN and international offices) it actually passed by 51%.
Was this a loss? Mathis, an optimist like me, does not see it that way. This is the first time *ever* that a whole nation has grappled with this fantastically difficult problem. More than a third of them were ready to make that commitment, despite the fear-mongering. And one of the world’s major thought-leading cities, Geneva, voted yes.
There is far, far to go, but just the fact that this issue of reducing our footprint on the Earth is getting serious, national-level attention of this kind in an advanced democracy is cause for at least a little celebration … and to Mathis, whose work no doubt inspired the whole thing: well done!

Wake Up: We Have a Long, Long Way to Go

Greenbiz-article-cover-Feb2016Reprinted from, 16 Feb 2016

People like me — professional optimists in the field of sustainability — are fond of pointing out the positive. And lately there have been many positives to point out, such as the global adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

However, sometimes even optimists need to wake up and smell the coffee. This metaphor is not as positive as it sounds (I love the smell of coffee), because it means that in some important respects, we optimists are sometimes living in a dream world. 

Last week I woke up from a happy dream about global agreements and was reminded of the following stark fact: While there are happy signs of forward motion on sustainability, all around us, we are still, in real physical terms, just getting started on the actual challenge of sustainability transformation. This is especially true in the business sector.

Case in point: A comprehensive new research study in the Journal of Cleaner Production makes it very clear that corporate sustainability programs are still a long, long way from the actual practice of biophysical sustainability. 

You might say, “Yes, well, we knew that already.” So did I. But the numbers were still shocking, even to me (and I’ve been tracking the trends in sustainability for nearly 30 years). 

Researchers in Denmark recently analyzed 40,000 corporate responsibility, sustainability, and CSR reports, dating back to the year 2000. (Just the thought of looking at 40,000 such reports is already shocking.) The authors focused only on companies producing physical products; they excluded services such as finance and retail. And they found that the number of those companies making reference to actual ecological limits — the hard-and-fast physical boundaries that we must live within, here on planet Earth — was exceedingly small: just 5 percent.

What is more worrying: That 5 percent figure had not changed significantly over a 15-year period. Many more companies produce reports, of course; but the portion of them referencing the limits of ecosystems was static. By that measure, corporate sustainability reporting has not improved, on average, in a decade and a half. 

The title of the article by Anders Bjørn et al. is framed as a question: “Is Earth recognized as a finite system in corporate responsibility reporting?” After 40,000 reports, the authors summarize their answer this way: “Not really.”

The story actually gets worse from there, but it’s time to fill in some details. By “ecological limits,” the researchers were referring to things like the agreed 2-degrees-C limit on global temperature rise from greenhouse gas emissions, the limits of forests or fish to regenerate themselves, and other tipping points in ecosystems. They also carefully excluded references to big-picture, long-term-vision terms like “circular economy” or “cradle to cradle,” and focused on concrete references to “quantifiable disturbances in nature.”

We know a great deal about these limits and disturbances nowadays, thanks to concepts like Planetary Boundaries. But that knowledge has not made its way into corporate sustainability reporting. If any ecological limits were mentioned in those reports at all, it was most often 2 degrees: other limits were hardly on the corporate radar screen. 

Mentioning limits in your corporate report is one thing; actually managing your business with limits in mind is another. Can you guess how many companies — out of 40,000 that were analyzed — used ecological limits for real target setting? for management of the business? for adjustments in their product portfolio? Hint: It was much, much less than 5 percent.

Answer: 31 companies.  In percentage terms, that’s 0.3 percent.

From there, the authors go on to analyze just why these numbers are so low, and they do a remarkably thorough job — for example, Bjørn et al. compared their data with the CDP data, and found that 17 companies listed by CDP as “committed to GHG emissions reduction targets that limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius” did not show up in their study’s database, because the 17 companies in question did not actually mention 2 degrees “or any other climate change-related ecological limit” in their published reports.

The authors also looked into three case studies of companies that have made commitments to manage their operations and products with ecological limits in mind (in this case related to climate change). They chose Alstom, Ricoh, and Nissan — two of three are Japanese, because it turns out that Japanese firms are over-represented in the list of companies publicly embracing quantifiable ecological limits. The findings? These best-in-class companies still “did not directly report progress towards planned changes based on ecological limits.” 

This is a ground-breaking, potentially worldview-altering study that deserves deep reflection, by everyone in the sustainability community (I have only summarized its most news-worthy points). Despite many years of successful efforts to get sustainability on the table — the concept is now thoroughly mainstreamed into corporate management, and its adoption continues to spread — this study suggests that the way we practice sustainability, even just from an environmental perspective, is still woefully lacking. 

Until business management starts to pay serious attention to the limits of our planet’s ecological systems, and to manage its operations with these limits in mind, our planet’s ecosystems remain at grave risk. (I wonder what a similar study would find when it comes to the social dimension?)

After also reviewing many of the initiatives that do exist to promote a more serious engagement with limits (such as the setting of “science-based targets” or “One-Planet Thinking”), Bjørn et al. sound yet another note of caution. They remind us that so far, eco-efficiency has not managed to decouple environmental impact from economic growth. So efficiency alone won’t cut it; deeper changes are necessary. For that reason, “we find it problematic” (they conclude with academic understatement) “that none of the recent initiatives appears to ask companies to reflect upon the role of their products in a societal transformation towards sustainability.” 

I still believe we should celebrate sustainability’s recent successes: They are hugely meaningful, and thousands if not millions of people have struggled to get us this far. It’s hard work transforming economic systems, and we need to celebrate every major step towards victory.

But we also need to bear in mind: the world’s sustainability journey is truly just beginning. And the alarm clock is ringing ever louder.

The Economics Nobel: Should there be one?

The so-called “Nobel Prize” in economics (note that it is actually *not* a Nobel in the same way as the science, literature, and peace prizes) has awakened more than the usual amount of criticism this year.

EconomicNobelArticleThis Guardian article captures some of the usual complaints, quite well. The writer suggests a broadening out of the prize, to include all of social science, thus getting away from the prize’s tendency to reward technical/mathematical work that sustains the illusions that economics is a science like physics or chemistry. Ample evidence (which might even be called “scientific” evidence) demonstrates that it is not. Economics is a human construction, filled with human assumptions and values that have little relationship to the laws of nature.

But a leading Swedish social science researcher on the topic of corruption, Bo Rothstein, has taken the arguments against the prize one step further. In an article in the major Stockholm daily DN (Swedish only), Rothstein indicates that he planned to use his position in the Royal Academy of Sciences to initiate a formal inquiry as to whether the prize goes against the intent of Alfred Nobel’s will.

Rothstein’s point: research shows that people trained in what we call “economics” today are more likely to be corrupt, and the research has controlled for other factors: meaning it is the training, not other factors in the person’s background, that causes this significant difference in likelihood to become corrupt.

Rothstein’s conclusion is that an economic prize linked to “Nobel” may be promoting the conditions that create corruption in the world — which is quite against Nobel’s clear intentions, since corruption clearly makes the world a worse place and not a better one.

It will be interesting to see where Rothstein’s initiative, which is a serious thing given his prominence, ultimately leads.

“A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development”

BlogFeaturePicture_Development_v2Note: A different, chattier version of this post was sent to WaveFront newsletter readers. The eight-point summary is the same. To read WaveFront, sign up at

The new issue of the leading journal Development, under the new editorship of Tariq Banuri, is finally out! Much food for thought there. I have an essay in its thematic section on the future of development. The essay is called “A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development” [Citation and link: Development (2013) 56(1), 52–57]

Since the essay is behind a paywall, I provide a bare-bones summary below. If you need a copy of the full essay, and cannot access Development, write to information [[ at ]]

  • Sustainable Development is in the process of being reconsidered and restarted, very slowly, “as though a giant finger was pushing down on a giant global reset button, at a steady but visually glacial pace.” You can see this happening from the global level (e.g. the UN Sustainable Development Goals) all the way down to the local level (e.g. Transition Towns).
  • This is timely. Sustainability became mainstream in recent years by (1) making the risks of non-sustainability clear, and (2) speaking the language of economics and management, and proposing that sustainable development could be achieved through reforms to business as usual, with economic benefits. I promoted this strategy, as did many others, and it has been successful. But this strategy has run its course.
  • The rise of the “Green Economy” and “Green Growth” — one of the manifestations of sustainability’s success in pursuing the above mainstreaming strategy — is a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for achieving true sustainable development. Wellbeing, equity, freedom and opportunity are equally important.
  • Sustainability needs to return to its roots. It is a set of ambitious and idealistic — not “realistic” — goals, that include the eradication of poverty, the transformation of the global energy system, gender equality, peace. These ultimate goals probably cannot be achieved through “business as usual.” Transformation, not mere reform, is needed.
  • Sustainability’s goals may be radical, but they are not marginal. “They are enshrined in numerous global agreement texts, including Rio+20’s The Future We Want” [one of several UN texts agreed to by the all the world’s governments].
  • We need to return to a solid understanding of basic sustainability: system states that can continue. The disappearance of water, species, soil, and other resources is not sustainable. Widening income and poverty gaps and mass youth unemployment are not sustainable either. We must recall the fundamental goal of this work:  the achievement and maintenance of sustainability in every major system on which the health, wellbeing, and stability of our world (human and natural) depends.”
  • I propose the following formulation as a summary of the goal:  “Green Economy + Wellbeing for All = Sustainable World.”
  • A vision for sustainability based in transformation and aiming for ultimate, idealistic goals means that the work is far from over. There is tremendous learning to be done, great adherence to ethics required, lots of hard work to do — but essential, exciting work — in the decades ahead.

An Essential Guide through Unavoidable Techno-Babble (Review)

Book review by Alan AtKisson, republished from CSRNewswire

In a minute, I am going to tell you why Elaine Cohen’s DōShorts Understanding G4: The Concise Guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting is a must-read for anybody working in sustainability. But first I need to give you some background.

I have been a keen observer, and user, of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and its sustainability reporting guidelines since the GRI was first hatched by a couple of Boston-based visionaries, Bob Massie and Allen White, in the late 1990s. As I was one of the founders, back in 1991, of the Sustainable Seattle initiative – the world’s first urban sustainability indicators program, which became (and this was a big surprise to us) a widely recognized and replicated model for sustainability indicator work generally – I took special interest in the spread of the GRI.

While I continued working with many other colleagues on globalizing and standardizing the general practiceCohenII_LR of measuring sustainability (throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s), it was inspiring to watch the GRI’s concept of corporate sustainability indicators get born, clarified, institutionalized … and then sweep the planet. Today, many thousands of companies and organizations use these voluntary guidelines to report on their social, environmental, health and other impacts.

Over the years I have promoted, used, consulted on, and occasionally criticized the GRI guidelines. This long familiarity has probably made me a bit blasé and complacent. And in fact, during the intensive process whereby the GRI upgraded itself from version “G3” to “G4,” I did not pay enough attention to what was actually happening. What attention I did give was focused on joining a chorus of voices, orchestrated by sustainability sharpshooter Mark McElroy, complaining that the GRI’s concept of “sustainability context” – that is, the part of a report that defines what the planet and its people can actually tolerate and how the company relates to those limits – was once again left far too mushy.

A Primer to GRI’s Latest Upgrade

What good is a sustainability report if it doesn’t actually tell you whether a company’s operations are sustainable?

But then, I am a raging idealist on these matters.

Elaine Cohen, who is no doubt idealistic herself (why else does anyone work in sustainability?), is clearly much more practical. That, plus the great wisdom, experience and indeed humor that she brings to the subject of GRI’s latest upgrade, is likely to prove invaluable to readers.

In fact, it is entirely possible that you, like me (prior to reading it), do not yet realize how much you need this book. As Cohen makes clear, G4 is no mere upgrade. It is a paradigm shift. To understand how to make the shift, you are well advised to employ her as a guide. (At a price of £30, her book is a steal because of all the time it will save you.)

Cohen’s no-nonsense writing style is refreshing. But don’t be fooled: she is also a non-ironic, tireless promoter for sustainability reporting and for the new G4 approach in particular, labeling it a “major leap forward” and “the future.” Whether that is true remains to be seen, but G4 is, in any event, the near future for GRI-G4corporate sustainability reporting. And therefore unavoidable for anyone working in the field.

Sustainability Reporting: Why G4 Matters…

For people who know the GRI and its previous G3 guidelines (or the interim upgrade G3.1), the biggest question is, “What’s different?”

Cohen helps you understand the biggest differences quickly, and more importantly, she helps you orient yourself in the new GRI reporting environment. G4 is far more focused on “materiality,” which basically means identifying and prioritizing the issues that are actually relevant to the company. She tells you what to look for in navigating this new environment, but also how to know when you’ve found it:

“If, when you pick up a G4 report, you cannot identify the material issues within five seconds, it’s not G4.”

…Despite its Quirks

G4 aimed to dramatically improve the universe of sustainability reporting, and Cohen marshals both facts and quotes that establish that it very likely succeeded. But G4 has also worsened the English language. Performance indicators are no longer called indicators, for example; they are now referred to, in G4-techno-babble, as “Specific Standard Disclosures.” These indicators-in-disguise have even earned their own acronym: SSD. Cohen rightly calls the increasingly mysterious language of GRI “a bit cult-like” but notes that she, like you, has “little choice but to use this language.”

Then, in one of the many useful things you will find crammed into this DōShort, she provides you with a useful lexicon. I will no doubt be turning to this lexicon often in the coming two years, because I am one of those who find GRI language impossible to remember in any detail.

How do you start with G4? What should you focus on? Why should you care? Cohen tackles all these questions with verve, and builds a sense of trust with her reader by combining irreverence with a deep appreciation and knowledge of her subject.

Cohen’s book could very well become essential pre-reading for anyone starting out on G4 reporting, and I would highly recommend it even for very experienced consultants. There were things I thought I understood about G4 that I clearly did not; but a quick romp through Cohen’s lucid text and concise diagrams helped me (1) figure out where I was lacking in understanding, and then (2) rapidly feel like an expert again.

Kudos to Elaine Cohen and her publisher, Dō Sustainability! With this 115-page book on my computer, I am no longer afraid of the mysterious G4. I might even be able to talk intelligently with my clients again. Well done … and thank you!

About the Author:

Alan AtKisson has worked with sustainability initiatives in over 40 countries. He has held several chief executive roles, in addition to his business role as President and CEO of AtKisson Group, a network of nine private consultancies, three national-level non-profit foundations, three prominent university centers of expertise and about 15 other independent associates, in 18 countries around the world. In 2013, Alan was appointed to the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council by the President of the European Commission and elected into the Sustainability Hall of Fame by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals. Alan has served as a transitional chief executive to lead institutions through major change processes. One of these was the global Earth Charter Initiative in 2006-2007.