Category Archives: Global Warming and Climate Change

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 Greenbiz.com as his “North Star” column, 23 Jan 2018.

Melting Polar Sea Ice: A story we ignore at our peril

I spend a lot of professional time reading about the Arctic (for an upcoming WWF report that my firm is developing). Conclusion: the media is practically ignoring one of the biggest stories on the planet.

arctic-and-antarctic-sea-ice-31dec2016Consider the first graph, and the red line at the bottom, which combines the data for all of 2016 on global sea ice (Arctic + Antarctic). The second graph is the size of the temperature anomaly in the Arctic year on year. This is “graphic” evidence that 2016 was the weirdest of weird years. And yet, as documented by a blogger (!), major English-language newspapers were still publishing articles in 2016 talking about a “hiatus” in global warming. (See links at the end of this post.)

Frankly, it’s far too late to stop the melting of arctic-temperatures-2016the Arctic sea ice, or the northward shift of fish species, or the opening of newly ice-free zones to ship traffic, or the new mining or tourism development. And also, frankly, many people living in the Arctic (e.g. on Greenland) welcome the new opportunities. So the report we are working on will focus on how to steer the inevitable economic development in the Arctic Ocean more sustainably.

But this does not mean we should give up on reducing CO2 emissions: quite the opposite. The melting of the Arctic tells us that truly anything is possible — including, for example, the spreading of deserts northward, the deadly acidifcation of the oceans, the creation of a truly hot world. We have come to grips with this, seeing the Paris Agreement of 2015 not as the last word, but as the first hopeful step in a process of continuous and increasingly ambitious action.

We also need to get serious about removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Greens often don’t like this fact, but when you run the math, there is no way easily around it: we need to do everything we can, from drawing down emissions (Paul Hawken & colleagues have a great book on “Drawdown” coming out in April) to cleaning up our already-tossed-out atmospheric garbage (I support the work of Klaus Lackner & others on this).

For people like me, and those senior to me, who have been working in this field a long time, this moment is looking more and more like the “day of reckoning.” The Arctic is doing just what was predicted decades ago, but it’s doing it faster than even the most dour analysts thought possible.

And hardly anyone seems to be paying attention, because it’s barely getting reported. Where are the big headlines?

Follow the links below to check the data, the sources, and to start building this story for yourself. Especially if you are a journalist, or someone with access to an audience of people who need to know.

Because everyone needs to know.

*

Original data from National Snow and Ice Data Center:
http://nsidc.org/data/nsidc-0051

The website of Wipneus, the researcher who graphed this data:
https://sites.google.com/site/arctischepinguin/home/global-sea-ice

The blogger (Tamino) who documented media mis-reporting that painted a picture of a “hiatus” in global warming in 2016:
https://tamino.wordpress.com/2016/12/28/global-warming-2016-arctic-spin/

New York Times story on spiking temperatures (21 Dec 2016) — covers sea ice, but buried in the article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/science/arctic-global-warming.html?_r=0

New York Times story (30 Dec 2016) on northward moving fish species — focuses on the economic challenge this creates for US fisherman:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/science/fish-climate-change-northeast.html

Paul Hawken’s forthcoming book, Drawdown, is previewed here:
http://www.drawdown.org/

The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, run by Prof Klaus Lackner (who invented the concept 20 years ago):
https://engineering.asu.edu/cnce/

Letter to Santa Claus 2002: The 2016 Update

letter-to-santa-2016In 2002, before the Age of Social Media, I wrote a regular column called “Find/Replace.” The following “Letter to Santa” went sort-of-viral, which means it got copied and sent out on various people’s email lists (including science fiction writer Bruce Sterling’s list, which was an important list at the time).

I thought about that article today when catching up on the latest news from the North Pole, which has been 20 degrees C, or 36 degrees F, warmer than usual. Those temperatures are not a mistake. Read them again. The Washington Post called the numbers “insane“.

Unfortunately, this was exactly the future I asked Santa to help us avoid, when I first wrote to him 14 years ago. But there’s still a grain of hope, because maybe — just maybe — Santa might finally be giving me the present I asked for.

Here is the 2002 original article (which was also published in my essay collection Because We Believe in the Future), followed by a new 2016 “P.S.” that reflects on what we actually got … and what we still need.

Dear Santa, I Hear the North Pole is Melting

© 2002 by Alan AtKisson; new “P.S.” © 2016

Permission granted to turn this into an email virus. [2016 update: share on social media.]

Dear Santa,

This year, unlike certain previous years in my life, I have been a relatively ‘good boy.’ Starting a family will do that to a person. I’m betting that I’ve made your list for a pretty good present.

However, I’m afraid that what I really want for Christmas this year, you can’t give me: a new energy system for planet Earth. A stabilization in our emission of greenhouse gasses. The avoidance of global climate catastrophe.

I’m betting that no amount of patient, no-complaints baby care gets me that big a pile of chips to play in the old Christmas Casino. You can’t cash in your karma on miracles.

But Santa, you know, global warming is a lot more real than you are.

You know as well as I do that Nature does what it does, regardless of whether certain political leaders and automobile advertisers might like to pretend to the contrary.

In fact, you know the immutability of Nature’s laws better than I do, since you’re sitting up there on a melting sheet of ice that’s thinned 40% since the 1970s.

By midcentury, Santa, you’ll need a summer houseboat – for you, the elves, and several thousand homeless polar bears.

And apparently, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Bangladesh that we humans are going to do much about it. Did you see the news from India, Santa, about the latest international climate negotiations conference?

Experts espousing the views of industry were thrilled with the shift in New Delhi,’ said the New York Times on November 3, 2002. The ‘shift’ was this: the world is basically giving up on trying to stop or slow down global warming. ‘Industry’ (not all industry – some industry makes the ‘Nice’ list) was thrilled because they won’t have to invest in innovation, pay carbon taxes, reinvent their products, convert to zero-emissions energy systems.

All the serious talk now, said the Times, is about adapting to the inevitable.

Santa, I know climate change is inevitable, because it is already happening. I try to read the science journals, in between diaper changes: I know that hundreds if not thousands of indicators, from the pole-ward migration of warmer-climate species, to the increase in devastating El Niños, are ‘consistent with the expected effects of an increase in global temperatures.’ Because I’ve been patiently taught, I know – unlike about two-thirds of MIT graduate students tested on this question! – that even if we stopped emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gasses today, global temperatures would continue to rise for years.

It’s called ‘a delay in the system.’ It is going to happen, for the same reason that summer days keep getting hotter even when they’re getting shorter (after June 21, for you and me, who both live in the northern hemisphere).

You know all about delays in the system, Santa. That’s why after you make your lists, you check them twice, in case some naughtiness or niceness got reported late.

But delay or not, I’m not willing to just give up, and watch my favorite Andean glaciers or Swedish ski areas disappear. I don’t like the idea of New Orleans vanishing under 20 feet of water when the next global-warming- enhanced hurricane goes partying on Bourbon Street. (People usually drink ‘Hurricanes’ on Bourbon Street; this Hurricane could drink them.)

Santa, I know it is unseemly for a grown man to come begging and pleading to a fictitious troll in a red polyester suit. But I’m writing to you, rather than to our World Leader types, because the World Leaders have essentially tossed in their monogrammed towels. You – the great dispenser of unexpected gifts for the often barely deserving – seem to be our only hope.

So, Santa, please give us something to replace the burning of fossil fuels.

You’ve got to give it to us quick, and it’s got to be relatively cheap and easy to spread around – because let’s face it, Santa, everybody wants energy. And food (grown with energy). And water (transported with energy). And transport (powered by energy). But we’ve got, well, bad energy right now. Energy is our major need, and our major problem. Major change is in order.

For instance, if we’re really going to do something about global warming, all our cars need different motors. All our coal-fired power plants need to be converted to some space-age hydrogen fuel cell array, or maybe some wacky Tesla coil device, harvesting the warps and woofs of space itself.

I don’t know if you’ve got something like that for us in that slick, reindeer-powered, zero-emissions sled of yours, Santa, but you better have something. We’re about to go to war over this stuff, again – just in time for Christmas.

But I’m not giving up hope. We may be a kooky species who, when it comes to planetary management, is still a little slow on the uptake. But we try to be good. We deserve to be on the ‘Nice’ list, even if some of us are being a little naughty with our corporate accounting practices.

Santa, please, give us a new energy system. Give us climate stability. Give our great-grandchildren the gift of a white, icicle-y, Frosty-the-Snowman Christmas. Or better yet – give us the guts to do it ourselves.

Yours,

Alan

P.S. Santa, I’m re-sending you this letter in December 2016, with an update on my 2002 wish list.

First, thanks for starting to stabilize our CO2 emissions. That’s really nice, and I really love all those new windmills and solar panels. But it was a little late in coming, and maybe I didn’t ask precisely enough. Here’s an updated wish: instead of stopping at stabilization, please give us emissions reduction. Eventually, to net-zero. Otherwise our goose is cooked. Literally.

Second, a big thank you for Al Gore’s 2006 film, all those IPCC reports, and most especially, the Paris Agreement of 2015. Back in 2002, that Agreement seemed absolutely impossible. Now, even India — where that 2002 “world gives up” meeting happened — is on board. Not bad, Santa. But once again, just a little slower than I’d been hoping. (Plus, I’m a little worried about that new guy in the White House. Try to convince him to get onto your ‘Nice’ list too. The world needs it.)

Third, just to be clear: when I wrote in 2002 about New Orleans eventually getting flooded by a hurricane, I was expressing a big worry, not a wish. Not to say I blame you for Hurricane Katrina three years later. I just want to make sure you had not misread my letter. No more killer hurricanes, please!

Fourth, when I wrote about all cars needing new motors, that reference to a “wacky Tesla coil” was just a joke. But I guess you understood that, because you gave us the very un-wacky Tesla electric car instead. Fantastic. Now, could you just speed up that global car-motor conversion process, like, a lot? And throw in lots of fast-charging stations? (I drive a Nissan Leaf now, and it’s really great. But you can give me a Tesla if you want.)

Finally, Santa, let me just go ahead and ask you for a miracle.

We’re not supposed to want miracles. We’re supposed to just work really hard. But you know, we could really use some help here.

Current climate debates seem to be split between the optimistic techno-fix types, and the melancholy preachers of a drastic drawdown in consumer consumption behavior. Frankly, we probably need both, but either of them would probably be a miracle. So I guess I’m asking for two.

Plus, please throw in anything else you’ve got in that magic bag of yours — anything that can result in rapid reductions in emissions and even the removal of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I’m getting the feeling that maybe you don’t think we deserve a bunch of miracles. I understand your skepticism. But we’ll be really good.

I promise.

Post-Election Statement

alan-atkisson-self-portrait-with-usa-theme-10nov2016As a dual citizen of the USA and Sweden, I am determined to keep working for the vision and reality of sustainable development for all, here in my beloved Europe where I live, in my beloved USA where I have both family and business ties, and around the world. That imperative does not change no matter who is sitting in the White House or any seat of government. The science is irrefutable. The values and ethics of human rights, equity, and opportunity for all, powered by empathy, the creative impulse and our innate curiosity, are the best of what make us human. There may be headwinds now for the issues I and so many others care about – addressing climate change, ocean health, peace, justice, gender equity and more – but the arrow of history has only one direction worth working for, in every country. I don’t plan to stop now, or ever.

First published on my Instagram & Facebook accounts. Photo © Alan AtKisson from Instagram.

Postscript: There is a very traditional little Swedish cafe (“konditori”) near my home, where I go to often, to sit and think and write. Oddly, they have decorated the place with Americana. The combination — an understated and very Swedish environment, where local workers go for breakfast, but with reminders of American culture and New York (where I lived for many years) all around — was the perfect place to reflect on a stunning election result in the United States.

The Anthropocene: how “frightened” should we be?

MtRedoubted_Wikimedia
Photo from Wikimedia.org

Be afraid. Be very afraid … of the Anthropocene.

This is the message from Clive Hamilton writing in Nature, the preeminent science journal, in his recent editorial (see sources below). Humans are unequivocably a planetary force for change, and a group of scientists with the authority to decide such things now agrees that this new planetary epoch deserves that special new name. But it should only be framed negatively, insists Hamilton. “The idea of the Anthropocene … should frighten us. And scientists should present it as such.”

That’s wrong: scientists should present theory and evidence. The rest of us then decide what to feel, and do. Leave the incitements to fear to … well, Clive Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the Guardian prevents a more balanced approach, in the person of former UK Royal Astronomer Martin Rees. He doesn’t downplay the enormous risk, the possibility of the “darkest prognosis.” But as he also notes, wryly, “It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict.” And there is also an “optimistic option,” Rees writes. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us.”

Whether it means the end of human civilization, or the beginning of a new era of galactic conquest, scientists still have to decide when, exactly, it started. But the leading candidate for a starting date is around 1950, when nuclear weapons, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and other massive imprints on the planet began leaving their signature for future generations to find.

What do you think? Will being fearful of our new responsibility for managing (some prefer stewarding) the whole planet help make the “optimistic option” more possible? I don’t think so.

Personally, I’m committed to the “bravely-face-problems, navigate-safely-through-danger, achieve-sustainability” option that Martin Rees outlines so eloquently. Even if I also believe we have no idea exactly where we are going.

And if we succeed — that is, after we achieve sustainability, against all the admittedly scary odds — who knows what might happen?

Sources:

Hamilton on fear of the Anthropocene (but he makes good points about how to identify it):
http://www.nature.com/news/define-the-anthropocene-in-terms-of-the-whole-earth-1.20427

Guardian news story on scientists assessing the new epoch:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

Martin Rees on “darkest prognosis” and “optimistic option”:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/the-anthropocene-epoch-could-inaugurate-even-more-marvellous-eras-of-evolution

Also see BBC News on the Anthropocene meeting and the search for a definitive start date:
http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37200489

Democracy + Climate Change Action = True

Revolution, people protest against government, man fighting for rights, silhouettes of hands up in the sky, threat of warAn opinion article in one of the world’s leading science journals, Nature, argues that there is a growing a tendency among some science researchers to question whether democracy is well-suited to achieving sustainable development — and warns that such thinking is very misguided.

Sociologist Nico Stehr, who directs the European Center for Sustainability Research, focuses attention on climate change and the perceived “inconvenience” of having to work through democratically elected politicians to get climate-related policies enacted. “Academics increasingly point to democracy as a reason for failure,” writes Stehr, before offering numerous examples. Often the quotes are from world-famous and highly-placed scientists. He also describes the reasons they give: short-term thinking, presumed scientific illiteracy, and basic human psychology, among others.

He warns that such thinking leads toward fuzzy images of technocratic governance, and that these have already been discredited by history. “Nations that have followed the path of ‘authoritarian modernization’,” notes Stehr, citing examples, “cannot claim to have a record of environmental accomplishments.” The leaning of some towards technocratic governance also reflects an overly optimistic assessment of centralized social and economic planning.

Stehr brings counter-examples to the table in favor of democracy as the only viable system of governance for tackling large, complex, environmental problems — the ozone hole and Montreal Protocol being the most obvious. “Democracies learn from mistakes,” he concludes, while “autocracies lack flexibility.” He concedes that “humanity’s capacity to plan ahead is limited,” but argues that democratic governance processes are better able to cope with the messy and complicated interactions of physical, social, and economic processes.

Stehr rounds off his review with a ringing defense of democratic governance:

“There is but one political system that is able to rationally and legitimately cope with the divergent political interests affected by climate change and that is democracy. Only a democratic system can sensitively attend to the conflicts within and among nations and communities, decide between different policies, and generally advance the aspirations of different segments of the population. The ultimate and urgent challenge is that of enhancing democracy, for example by reducing social inequality.”

To do otherwise, e.g. let authoritarian powers decide, or blindly follow the instructions of scientists, is “dangerous,” says Stehr.

Story of a Song: “Set the World Right Again”

50songs50stories_book_coverSince this week the UNFCCC is featuring “Set the World Right Again” as its “Climate Song of the Week,” here is the story behind the song. This is the second excerpt from my book-in-progress, “50 Songs, 50 Stories.” – Alan

Some songs start as a vague idea, some as a line of specific words. Some songs grow out of an experience you want to capture. And some just emerge out of your guitar. You start fooling around on your instrument, and you discover something you like. One musical phrase suggests another, which leads to something else, and all those “somethings” link up together (with a little work) to become the skeleton of a song. Then the skeleton needs some flesh, in the form of a melody, which usually “sings itself” out of the chords when you start experimenting with a little free humming. Last but not least (in this version of how things can go, the process always varies) comes the text, the script that this new song — with its specific energy and feeling, its special atmosphere and intention — is meant to deliver to listeners, every time they hear it.

That’s how the process went with “Set the World Right Again.” I went through three different sets of lyrics before I finally understood what this song wanted to be about.

The first version was a love song — frankly, a pathetic lyric that did not stand up to the power of the music, so I tore it up and started from scratch. My second attempt was no better, and I began to despair of ever finding the song’s true voice. But I loved the way this music made my body swing, so I kept trying.

Or rather, I stopped trying. I relaxed, and listened.

I asked myself: what do I hear? This song is obviously about urgency. What is most urgent thing in my life? That’s easy: my work. What is my work about? What is sustainable development about?

That year, 2009, was the year of the great climate change summit in Copenhagen, “CoP-15.”  (“CoP” stands for “Conference of the Parties,” and refers to those nations who had signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 1992. It was their 15th meeting.) I would be attending that conference in my role as a consultant to the United Nations, and presenting a paper on an ambitious new plan for scaling up renewable energy, around the world. Climate change, the “fire that you can’t put out,” was very much on my mind — and in my heart.

In professional situations like UN conferences, one does not talk much about emotions. One might express a feeling of “irritation” that negotiations are going so slowly, or even admit that the lack of progress is “disappointing” — but one does not have much room to express depression, grief, or fury at those who are trying to sow confusion and discord (as some try actively to do). There is precious little room for despair at the thought of the bleak future that a failure to reach agreement might seriously entail.

Nor, it turns out, is there much room to express serious hope, either. Expressing one’s longing for success, one’s faith in the future, in deeply emotional terms is almost as taboo as weeping at the prospect that future generations may never see a polar bear, may become refugees when their land is drowned, may struggle to grow enough food in a globally warmed world.

Taboo or not, emotion is always in the room — even a room the size of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, where CoP-15 gathered so many thousands of officials, experts, and activists. Indeed, if one was really paying attention, one could read a certain over-arching emotional tone in that giant conference center, a feeling that seemed to color everything that was said and nearly every interaction, even in such a huge and diverse coming-together of people from so many different countries and cultures. At CoP-15, I would have called that feeling “desperate hope”: choosing optimism, and making great effort, despite seemingly impossible odds.

And that, I finally realized, was what this song is about.

*

Set the World Right Again

Words and Music © 2009 by Alan AtKisson

 

Like a fire that you can’t put out

A bad dream that you can’t stop thinking about

An experiment you shouldn’t have run

This world is a child with a gun

 

You want to put the train on some new track

End the tragedy before they start the last act

Get the help of every woman and man

Stop the madness any way you can

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again

 

Your objective is to turn the tide

In a game of risk and danger – and you have to choose sides

It’s a game you have no choice but to play

And you wonder if there’s any way

            To set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again

           

            There are voices that say that it’s already too late

            There are voices that drown out each other in debate

            There are voices that claim that there’s no place to start

            But the only voice to listen to

            Is the voice in your heart

 

In the end it all comes down to love

What you care enough about to be the champion of

And believe no matter how hard it seems

That it’s possible to live this dream

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again

 

            Set the world right again …

 

You can find “Set the World Right Again” on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and most streaming services.

Why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability

Seven Reasons why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability — Three of Them Unconvincing

by Alan AtKisson

CEO, AtKisson Inc. & Author, The Sustainability Transformation

On Wednesday, 10 February, I made the second keynote presentation (after Ashok Khosla’s opening) to a conference in Moscow called “Innovative Russia: Responding to Global Challenges.” The other participants on the 11-person panel were a small who’s who of combined Russian and Silicon Valley leadership. You can view the program here:  http://gvacapital.com/ir.  Moderator Yermolai Solzhenitsyn’s affiliation is not listed there, but he’s the managing partner for McKinsey in Moscow. The photograph was taken from the stage, with my iPhone, during Ashok Khosla’s speech.

Response to the speech was positive enough that I turned it into an article text, published below, which will also be translated and published by the Russian on-line magazine gazeta.ru. Since my books were recently published in Russian translation, I also managed to slip in — during a final comment, about how venture capitalists could at least try to put some sustainability content into their investment decisions, instead of making money on anything at all and then giving some of their wealth to charity — a note of gratitude to Natalia Tarasova, a professor at Mendeleev University and good friend. She had overseen the translation.

Why “Seven Reasons”? Because Muscovites love the number seven. And why are “Three of them Unconvincing”? Read, and you’ll see …

These are exciting times in sustainability. In practice, sustainability involves reinventing business and governance processes so that they stop destroying key ecosystems, depleting irreplaceable resources, and increasing the gap between rich and poor. “Practice” is exactly what has been missing from sustainability work for most of the concept’s lifetime. But recently, sustainability has moved out of the category “something that academics, bureaucrats, and activists talk about” to the category “something that mainstream business leaders and investors do something about.” This is a monumental shift that has been gestating for some time, if you knew where to look. But it really began showing evidence of its exponential growth rates only in the past three to five years. Now, the evidence is overwhelming:

  • Countries like South Korea and China have embraced the concept of “Green Economy” or “Cyclic Economy” with serious policy initiatives and billions of dollars of investment
  • Global companies like Unilever or Siemens (and dozens of others) have set goals that combine ambitious revenue growth with strong reductions in environmental impact, impressive increases in corporate responsibility practice, and serious commitments to “sustainability innovation”
  • Global consulting and auditing giants such as Ernst & Young have been hiring hundreds of people to support new, growing divisions with titles like “Climate Change and Sustainability Services”
  • Investment in renewable energy grabs headlines every week, such as the recent deal between United Arab Emirates and Spain to invest USD 5 billion in Spanish solar technology
  • Oil and gas economic powerhouses such as Norway are redirecting more and more of their windfall fossil-fuel-generated capital into cleaner and more sustainable solutions (Norway recently pledged to increase its domestic renewable energy use to 67.5% of total by 2020, which translates to an increase of 9% every year in wind, hydro, solar and other sources)

These items are already commercial facts, but more visionary innovations and mega-projects are also taking shape in the world’s think-tanks and testing grounds. From South Korea’s large-scale tidal energy installations, to the bio-mimicry technologies erupting from the minds of biologists working in collaboration with engineers, to the giant-but-increasingly-realistic proposals such as “DESERTEC” (generating solar electricity in the Sahara) or mega-grids (e.g. linking up East Asia with a vast complex of underground, highly efficient mag-lev trains and supercables) … it is no wonder that anyone just waking up to this transformative revolution in humanity’s planetary management strategy might find it all a bit dizzying.

Of course, up to now, humanity had no “planetary management strategy” — and this was precisely the problem. Our activities, super-amplified through the power of cheap energy and technology, had become planetary in scale, but disruptive (and largely destructive) of the planet’s billion-year-old natural processes. And indeed, for decades, it was largely academics and citizen activists (plus a relative handful of visionary leaders in business, the United Nations, local government, and other arenas) who worried the most about what was happening, and tried to do something about it.

That “something” that these early leaders were trying to “do” was to change government policies, business practices, consumer attitudes, educational curricula, and other elements of our increasingly inter-connected global system. The request was actually simple:  Add sustainability to these things. Add systems thinking. Add a longer-term, more holistic perspective to the definition of “success.”

For many years, these efforts to change thinking (and practice, and policy, and investment) did not seem to be working, or at least not working fast enough, and certainly not working at anything like the right scale. But such is the magic of exponential growth:  what appear first as insignificantly small, incremental changes are in fact replication and multiplication processes. They grow by doubling. Things appear to go faster and faster, and at a certain point, things take off. Think cell phones, Internet, Total Quality Management. Few people remember that seeking to perfect quality, as a manufacturing practice, was still a new idea a few decades ago. The idea’s original proponents could barely get noticed by business leaders. But then the Total Quality Management movement started (in Japan), it grew exponentially, it took off … and by one decade ago, “Quality Management” was such a normal, mainstream concept that everyone stopped thinking about it.

That’s what’s happening in sustainability:  take-off. Sure, there are ups and downs even in the midst of take-off, which is exactly what you would expect in a maturing market of any kind. But the overall pattern in unmistakable. Wherever you look on the map of the world, from the renewable energy fields of Brazil, to the environmental accounting practices of shoe-maker Puma, to the spread of clean cooking stove technology to the smoked-out kitchens of the developing world, you can see transformative change accelerating before your very eyes.

But not in Russia.

Why is Russia missing from the emerging map of transformation to a greener and more sustainable economy? With its enormous amounts of money, resources, and brainpower, it could be leading the way, as several other oil and gas-based economies are doing. But analysts far more well-informed than myself — including Russia’s own leadership — have long noted with worry that Russia’s surging economy is almost entirely based on the export of raw resources. The country’s rising prosperity floats on that sea of oil and gas, as a few Google clicks (engineered partly by Sergey Brin’s Russian brainpower) will easily tell you. Easy wealth breeds indifference, and Russian innovators tend to take their inventiveness elsewhere, to places like Silicon Valley, resulting in a drain of capital, both financial and intellectual, from the country.

This situation could easily be reversed. I use the word “easily” in an entirely theoretical sense:  in practice, nothing is easy in Russia, as any Russian is quick to tell you. The entire nation seems to take pride in its enormous capacity for problems and difficulties — and by extension, its capacity for overcoming them. Nonetheless, in theory, Russia could change relatively quickly from being a sustainability laggard to a serious leader, especially in areas related to technology and large-scale industrial implementation.

What follows are seven reasons why Russian leaders in government and business — including that class of wealthy and powerful people known universally as the “Oligarchs,” together with the people who advise them — should take the opportunity for investing in sustainability far more seriously than they currently do. While all seven reasons are convincing to me, I am quite certain that the first three will not be convincing to anyone in a position of power in Russia. For that reason, I have clearly labeled these first three as “Unconvincing Reasons.”

But that leaves four reasons that seem to have the potential for unlocking a torrent of creativity, investment, and change in the way Russia pursues its economic destiny. Because many Russian economic leaders started their professional lives as physicists and scientists, I will use — starting from Reason #4 — the concept of Potential Energy as a metaphor for what I, as an outsider, see as possible in Russia. A small shift in thinking could result in large shifts in the real world, resulting in multiple benefits, not just for Russians, but for the world as a whole.

UNCONVINCING REASON #1:  THREATS TO NATIONAL SECURITY

Many sustainability issues have a national security dimension. If you are sitting on resources that others desperately need but don’t have — like oil, or water — you may find soldiers at your doorstep. UN diplomats quietly pointed to climate change and precipitation declines as underlying causes for the forced migrations and slaughters of Darfur. Australia has concerns about what happens on its Northern shorelines if refugees flee swamped coastlines or other disruptions. The US Department of Defense runs scenario exercises based on climate change, conflicts over resources, and other sustainability worries, and is moving aggressively into biofuels and solar energy to insulate defense operations from the vagaries of a global energy market. One would think that arguments like these would be compelling to anyone in the leadership of a nation with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But Russia is vast. It has resources that it perceives, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually endless. It has an extremely strong defense (which, according to recent news reports, is slated to get even more budget support in coming years). No one in Russia worries seriously about hungry Finns or Latvians storming across the border, or even Chinese troops for that matter. No one worries about where the fuel to run tanks and warships and fighter jets will come from. Despite the echoes of Cold War saber-rattling in recent Russia-NATO exchanges, nobody worries about missiles falling on Moscow anymore. National security is truly not an issue for Russia. Arguing for sustainability “for the sake of national security” would generate nothing more than an ironic chuckle, so let’s cross that off the list.

UNCONVINCING REASON #2:  BREACHING THE PLANETARY BOUNDARIES

In a landmark article published in September 2009 in the journal Nature, an eminent international group of scientists concluded that humanity’s activities had already pushed several global ecosystems (climate, biodiversity, the nutrient cycle) over the limit of what those systems could tolerate. Other systems were heading quickly over the same precipice. The long-term consequences would be “detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” — strong language that reflects the seriousness with which they viewed the available data. They called for concerted action to bring humanities use of resources and emissions of waste back into the “safe zone” of what the planet can sustain. Their arguments were so compelling that political leaders have been sitting up and taking notice, including the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which is chaired by two presidents.

But once again:  Russia is vast.  Even if the worst-case scenarios associated with these trends come to pass, the typical Russian leader is likely to think, “So what?” If water dries up in one place, we’ll shift agriculture to another. Too hot and dry in the south? Too much nitrogen in the water table? Too much climate change? We’ll just grow wheat in balmy Siberia. The rest of the world may have serious troubles, but Russia feels insulated by its size, geographic diversity, and resource wealth. Cross Reason #2 of the list as well.

UNCONVINCING REASON #3:  THE NEED TO “SAVE THE WORLD” FROM CATASTROPHE

A generation of sustainability champions (including myself) were inspired to act by the analyses contained first in a little book called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972 and updated twice, the last time in 2004. The original worries presented in Limits — that the exponential growth of population, resources, and pollution would eventually bump up against the boundaries of the planet (see Reason #2) — have been supplemented in recent years by the notion that there could be “tipping points” in the global system. Resource depletion, ecosystem disturbance, and other activities may seem “sustainable” for a while, but when they can cross an invisible line in the sand, they suddenly collapse like a house of cards, taking innumerable species (and humans) with them. An example might be the Amazon:  at what point does the number of trees lose critical mass and trigger a sudden shift from Rainforest to dry savannah? Unfortunately, such nightmare scenarios are the stuff of current serious scientific analysis.

When people use the phrase “save the world” in the context of sustainability, usually with a kind self-mocking (or just plain mocking) undertone, what they often mean is the effort to stop destructive processes before it is simply too late to prevent some sort of resulting catastrophe. People are emboldened in this work by remembering that, on several occasions, humans actually have saved the world, or at least important parts of it. The most famous example is the threat to the ozone layer caused by the production of CFCs:  production of this insidiously dangerous chemical was dramatically reduced, essentially just in time to prevent the loss of the planet’s one and only atmospheric shield against dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Even the phrase “Save the Whales!” from the 1970s can be celebrated now as a kind of world-saving triumph, at least for several whale species, which have bounced back from the brink of near-certain extinction.

But is “saving the world” a compelling reason for Russia to invest more seriously in the sustainability transformation? Hardly. Russia will be fine. See above: even in a truly worst-case scenario, Russia would adapt and survive, as it always has. (Remember that Russian affinity for surviving serious and complicated problems.) And as for saving the world for its own sake, well … what has the world done for Russia lately? Scratch Reason #3.

If you question my characterizations above, consider the data. While reading through the excellent English-language summaries provided by the organizers of the recent Russia 2012 Forum — an event that happens right after Davos, and manages to entice many of the global Davos stars to stop in Moscow on their way home — I came upon this wonderful tidbit at the end of a slide presentation on Russian attitudes to risk management in the financial markets. As the last item in an otherwise dull review of what Russian investors think about hedge funds, participants were asked, “Do you believe the world will end any time soon?”  “Yes,” said 4.3% of respondents. “No,” said 45.6%. But the majority response, 50.1%, was this:  “I don’t care, I’m hedged.”

Having dispensed with the unconvincing reasons for why Russia should invest in sustainability, let’s turn to the potentially convincing ones, and to that wonderful and relevant concept from basic physics:  Potential Energy.

REASON #4:  CAPTURING AN EXTRAORDINARY ONE-TIME FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITY

According to published analyses, there is a lot of money in Russia currently trapped in its antiquated buildings, equipment, and infrastructure. It is trapped there partly by energy price subsidies, but it is also trapped by a simple lack of attention and focus. There may be more exciting things to do on a Friday night in Moscow than improving the energy efficiency of buildings and machines; however, there are few things that are potentially more profitable in the long term.

The key word here is “potential.” An apple hanging by its stem has what physicists call “potential energy.” Break the stem — or better yet, if the stem is gripped between your two fingers, simply open your hand — and the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. The apple falls.

According to a report by McKinsey & Co. published in 2009 (“Pathways to an energy and carbon efficient Russia”), there are many such apples in the Russian economy. Relatively simple incentives and decisions, the equivalent of simply letting the apples fall, could create a very respectable flow of money, even in a country used to the torrential flows of petro-rubles. Consider the following:

  • An initial investment of €70 billion to upgrade buildings and construction would result in savings of €190 billion over a twenty-year period. This is equivalent to a 120% return on investment.
  • When it comes to producing heat and energy, a €20 billion investment produces €60 billion in savings over the same period, a whopping 200% ROI.

In fact, says McKinsey, “Russia has the largest relative potential among all the BRIC countries to reduce [CO2] emissions through implementing only measures that are economically attractive” [emphasis added]. While the savings in CO2 may not be a compelling motivator for Russia’s economic leadership, the potential for solid returns on investment should be — not to mention the jobs that could be created in order to do the work, and the pleasure of owning shiny new (or renovated) buildings and machines.

The benefits include health and safety: Russia’s own Geographical society reported last year (March 2011) that “we have fundamentally obsolete production facilities and communal infrastructures, which is [a recipe for] a major disaster.” Fully 60-80% of Russia’s energy infrastructure is estimated to be in need of maintenance and repair, and those repairs could be combined with efficiency upgrades. Around 90% of industrial waste is not recycled back into production: waste is going to waste, when it could be generating more economic value. These figures represent a great deal of financial potential energy that could be released by the right combination of incentives, policies, and forward-looking investors.

What is that combination, exactly? These are the kinds of big, complicated problems that Russians ought to love, because solving them could make some people quite wealthy. The potential exists not only in renovating the existing infrastructure, but in the new things that must be built just to meet projected demand. Over 60% of the infrastructure to provide Russia’s expected energy needs in 2030 has yet to be built. What choices will Russia make about how to build it? Wasteful ones? Or long-term profitable and sustainable ones?

In fact, it is entirely possible that the estimates of McKinsey and others may be conservative. For example, the rise of “passive house” technologies in Europe in recent years has produced many examples of extraordinary cost savings (which is another way of saying, extraordinary profit). A typical Soviet-era apartment complex in, say, the Czech Republic can now be rebuilt to save 90% of its previous energy consumption, while creating brighter and more attractive living environments. No one really knows what would happen if innovations such as these were serious deployed throughout the Russian economy, because no one has tried.

The apple is still clenched firmly in the hand.

REASON #5: THE COMPETITION FOR ECONOMIC AND GEO-POLITICAL POSITION

Like it or not, Russia is in competition for power and influence on the world stage. At the moment, the nation’s vast fossil fuel and other resource reserves are the primary platform on which it stands. But this powerful platform will not last forever, and its lifespan may be shorter than many believe.

The global energy market is changing with extreme rapidity. Many countries are embracing new (and environmentally controversial) methods of extracting oil and gas explicitly to reduce their dependence on the global market … and by implication, their dependence on Russia. Other nations, such as China and South Korea, are taking what might be called “hard positions” in sustainability and green economic innovation, partly as a way of increasing their “soft power”:  South Korea has been rewarded for the billions it invests in “Green Growth” with an enhanced profile as a forward-thinking technology leader envied by many. Meanwhile, the financial crisis continues to depress demand, and if high unemployment persists or deepens, the word “depression” may creep back into the global economic lexicon. Experts speculate openly about what will happen if these trends combine to create a “perfect storm” — from the Russian economic perspective — of dramatic drops in the price of oil and gas. The picture they paint is not rosy.

The reality of today’s energy market, as well as the future of how that market will develop, are both devilishly complicated. Some say “peak oil” will drive prices sky-high; others say depressed demand and diversification will send prices plummeting. Predicting the future is impossible. But that simply underscores the very real possibility that Russia may not have more than a decade left to enjoy its extraordinary fossil fuel capital windfall. If the petro-ruble river starts to run dry, what will Russia have to show for all its years of easy money? As more nations “frack” their own gas, install windmills and solar cells, super-insulate their houses, and start driving their cars on electricity generated off their own roof-tops, what will they buy from Russia? What will Russians buy from each other?

Investments in sustainability of the kinds described above — not just in the low-hanging fruit in Reason #4, but also in the more visionary directions described earlier, including the emerging fields of biomimicry, green chemistry, and sustainability-oriented nano-, bio-, and info-technology — would accelerate the kind of economic transition that everyone says Russia needs. Russia has the chance to transform itself from pipeline-and-oil-barrel hulk to a focus of technical and economic admiration, while renewing its economy on back of a much more diverse and robust industrial portfolio. Granted, the world’s hunger for oil and gas is not going to disappear any time soon; but the world’s hunger for sustainability-oriented innovation, and its respect for those who seriously invest in it, is growing exponentially. This has created a serious global race in which Russia is not currently competing.

And you have to be in it, to win it.

REASON #6: IMPROVED QUALITY OF LIFE FOR THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE

In a recent issue of Science journal, an international team of 24 researchers documented the benefits in every country, worldwide, of reducing tropospheric ozone and black soot. In brief, by taking action to improve a menu of 14 wasteful and pollution-generating industrial activities — of which all but one apply strongly to Russia — health will improve, food production will increase, and millions of premature deaths would be avoided (an estimated 40,000 of them in Russia). The cost? Negative. The whole exercise would generate net positive income by reducing healthcare expenditures and increasing agricultural output. The fact that these actions would also help reduce the impact of climate change is just a bonus (“Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” 13 January 2012).

This is just the most recent in a long line of research papers, case studies, and living-proof models showing that “going green” is good for people as well as the planet. In buildings renovated to be sustainable and efficient, fewer people get sick and employee retention rates improve. If you make city streets or even parking lots more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly, people will walk more instead of driving their cars round and round looking for a parking spot that is 50 meters closer to the door.

Sustainability innovations of these kinds do not just save lives, make money, and stimulate economic development: they make people happy. They create optimism. They can help point whole societies squarely toward the future, and generate a feeling of hope.

What Russian leader, in government or in business, would not want this for the Russian people?

Which brings us to the seventh, and most compelling reason for why Russia should invest seriously in sustainability.

REASON #7:  BECAUSE YOU CAN

Russia, compared to most other countries on Earth, is in a privileged starting position when it comes to investing in sustainability. It has ample financial and intellectual capital to invest — much of which is leaving the country, at the moment, but that is a flow that could be reversed. It has surplus resources to such an extent that the word SURPLUS should be written in large letters. It has a relatively unchallenged position of national security, and no need to project power globally (because, among other reasons, it has all the resources it needs). It has a deep heritage of leadership in science and technology on which to draw. And it has plenty of low-hanging, money-making fruits to pick from its economic tree.

More importantly, Russia’s strengths give it the resilience needed to take some risks and absorb some losses — for as any entrepreneur will tell you, one has to be ready to take a loss once in a while, in order to accomplish a big win. Changing national economic habits, technologies, and infrastructures is going to require a lot of focused thought, domestic reform, strong incentives (e.g. to reverse human and financial capital outflows), and occasionally nerves of steel. Russia needs to find its niche on the global sustainability stage and, for its own sake, to do it quickly. As noted earlier, the theory is easy and straightforward. The practice will be challenging.

But Russians are a tough people. They like challenges, and they don’t like to lose. There is a great deal to be won by investing seriously in sustainability and economic transformation. Russia certainly should do this, if only because — in ways that truly are unique to this country — Russia can.

How I Created (Not) a UN Campaign

This article is about how I became obsessed with trying to create, or catalyze into being, an international campaign to dramatically increase renewable energy investment in the developing world — and why I now feel ready to let go of that obsession. The short version is this:  The campaign is happening, and the UN is doing it.

I have a hard time letting go of my ideas for initiatives, once they are hatched. And the UN campaign is not exactly what I imagined for the initiative we were calling “Big Push.” But it’s certainly close enough for me to say, okay, this is one project I can take off my plate. Here’s the link:

http://sustainableenergyforall.org

This campaign is about as high level as such a thing can get. The initiative comes straight from the Secretary-General’s office. The campaign was created by an act of the UN General Assembly, which has declared 2012 “The Year of Sustainable Energy for All.” (See Resolution 65/151)

What did I have to do with all this? Not much. But anyone who has been watching this space will recall the work I did in 2009 for UNDESA’s Division for Sustainable Development. The vision for the Big Push was not mine (it was Tariq Banuri’s, former director of DSD) nor were most of the ideas and analyses that went into it (I was building on the work of many people, inside and outside the UN, and especially the World Economic and Social Survey 2009). My job was to help assemble a coherent strategy document to take to the Copenhagen CoP-15 climate summit, in December 2009. Working with a number of colleagues, we pieced together something that I still think of as being beautiful and elegant in design:  a high-leverage, large-scale program for spreading renewables quickly in the world’s poor countries, with the effect of improving people’s lives, while also accelerating the renewables market in the rich countries and speeding the transition to a renewable energy future.

The “Big Push” strategy paper was well-received:  we quickly won the endorsement of many leading climate/energy researchers, plus WWF International and other NGOs. You can download that strategy document by clicking here.

Copenhagen did not work out as anyone hoped, of course, and the strategy paper just lay there for awhile. But I could not let it go. The vision and ideas may have originated from others (the “Innovators” in this specific case), but in classic “Change Agent” fashion, I had become thoroughly convinced that this was an idea that had to happen, if we were to achieve the transformation to a sustainable world in reasonable time.

So I began to make some noise about creating an independent, international “Big Push Campaign,” outside the UN system. I talked to friends in leadership positions, recruited the excellent help of an astrophysicist-turned-energy-researcher at Harvard (Achim Tappe, thank you!), networked with other experts, and even had the marvelous opportunity to present the Big Push concept as an opening speech to this year’s World Renewable Energy Congress (Anders Wijkman, thank you!). You can access the text of my speech to the Congress by clicking here.

At the heart of the original strategy is the idea of spreading, and globally subsidizing, the pricing mechanism called a “Feed-in Tariff,” or “FiT”. This involves guaranteeing that if you build a renewable energy installation, you can sell the resulting electricity to the grid, at a subsidized price. The mechanism works incredibly well, and has driven the explosion of wind and solar development in Denmark, Germany, Spain and other countries. New countries keep adding it (Japan just did), but others are also drawing in the brakes (as the UK just did), because it works too well (think some people).

There were many other technical, policy, and outreach aspects to this plan, which you can read about in the original paper, and in the more advanced technical ones that followed, such as Deutsche Bank’s studies for the Secretary-General’s advisory group 2010 and 2011, focusing on how to create a global “FiT” mechanism while managing the risks etc. How did all of this, and many other streams of activity, work together to become the new UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative? To be honest, I really have no idea; I moved on to other projects at the UN (like this one), and no longer have a direct window into that process. Did my work in 2009 have any impact in 2010 and 2011? I’d like to think so — I know UNDESA really spread that paper around, both inside the UN system and outside — but I really don’t know, one way or the other. That’s the consulting life:  you engage with a system, you do something, the system changes … and you never really know if those changes happened (even just in part, even just a tiny little bit) because you engaged with the system … or if the system would have changed anyway, with or without you. Understanding this basic truth keeps one feeling very humble about consulting work, even when it feels “important”. Perhaps especially then.

The most important question, however, is certainly not whether my work had any impact. Not even the technical side of renewable energy scale-up is much of a question at this point:  it’s well established now that the technologies work, the policy mechanisms work, the market works. There are exciting breakthroughs on sustainable energy happening, and being reported, nearly every day. (My current favorite is this one:  indoor solar lighting using only a plastic bottle, water, and a piece of tin or aluminum. It’s spreading like wildfire in the Philippines, where it was invented. Check it out on this short BBC video.)

The really big question is, will these strategies actually work? What clearly isn’t working yet is marshaling the political will to actually transform the global energy system, as the UK government’s recent pull-back on their highly successful FiT program illustrates all too dismally. What isn’t working yet is the serious mobilization of capital, at the scale we really need, and in the right direction. What isn’t working yet is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies that push the whole planet in the wrong direction, while helping the world’s richest energy companies get richer. Etc. etc. etc. There is certainly a lot to do … and there are a lot of powerful interests at play.

So at this point, it no longer makes much sense for me to try to recruit others into a new and separate global campaign, as one among a dozen projects on my plate. Instead, I’ve started putting my shoulder to the wheel of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, promoting it through every channel I have access to. It’s not enough, as we all know, even to have a UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Secretary-General pushing an agenda like this.

It’s going to take a Big Push from all of us.

How to Keep Doing Sustainability in an Absurd World

A professional colleague of mine recently resigned from the sustainability movement. Seriously ill from years of overwork, and despairing of the movement’s chances for success, this person had no choice but to quit. Trying to change the world’s destructive energy technologies, protect the rights of future generations to enjoy functioning ecosystems, and/or save the world from the ravages of climate change was just too much for a body – or soul – to bear.

All I could do was empathize. On the one hand, it is easy to find reasons for optimism these days. Daily, my email inbox fills up with notices about new technology breakthroughs, new creative policy initiatives, new corporate sustainability strategies. Over the past two decades, sustainability has multiplied from a lonely cause championed by a handful of idealists into a profession involving hundreds of thousands of people, and to a multi-billion-dollar market in services. Surely that’s an indicator of amazing success!

On the other hand, my inbox also fills with ample reasons to weep. The oceans, leading scientists announced recently, are dying. Famine is once again striking East Africa. The nations around the Arctic are rapidly shifting their militarizing presence to the far north, rattling (nuclear) swords to make sure they will each get a fair share of the oil and gas that can now be extracted from under the melting ice. Every week, the nuclear disaster in Japan is revealed to be “even worse” than the government had most recently admitted. And so it goes.

Summer, especially in Sweden, is a good time to reflect on these seeming paradoxes. The pace of work here slows down to a crawl. The family is together for weeks on end. Few people call, except friends. The world around me is a green-blue wonder of life.

Believe it or not, at such times, it is helpful to me to return to my own writing. Like many people, I write in order to think, and I’ve been down this trail of thought many times before. But I tend to forget what I’ve written, or thought, almost completely – even when it involves an insight that, when I first had it years ago, really helped me to put things in perspective.

Here’s what I found, again, when paging through my book Believing Cassandra, on page 87 of the new edition:

“Based on the evidence at hand … it seemed likely that the disconnection between global imperatives and societal responses was somehow built into the structure of the World, rather than issuing from any lack of data or correctable moral lapse on the part of humanity.

The situation, I realized, was fundamentally absurd.”

Absurdity, I went on to write, was an “enormously liberating idea,” because it released one from earnestness, while retaining the seriousness. Think of the great absurdist plays, like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: they combine deadly seriousness and comedic silliness in a wonderful – and strangely familiar– mix.

Of course the work of sustainability seems terribly important, not silly. It probably is terribly important. But how will we ever know for sure? Certainly not by counting the number of corporate sustainability reports.

“We know something about what has transpired on Planet Earth over the past millennia and we can make some good guesses, with the aid of science and computer models, about what is likely to happen during the next hundred. But we have no idea what it all means. Nor can we ever know. We are stuck in not knowing. Such a situation is the precise definition of absurdity …” (Believing Cassandra, p. 97)

While on vacation I had the chance to talk to an old family friend who, by chance, is also one of the world’s foremost ocean scientists. What did he make of the recent announcement (by the International Program on the State of the Ocean, http://www.stateoftheocean.org) that the oceans were “dying.” He didn’t dispute it. The science around what was driving extinction threats – global warming, acidification, overfishing, etc. – was sound. But his reflections quickly turned to the very long term.

Whenever the planet has gone through one of these big extinction events, he noted, it has been followed by a massive explosion of new life and new diversity. When the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago (the fifth major extinction event – humans are causing the sixth), mammals were tiny things running around on all fours trying to eat dinosaur eggs. That great catastrophe (from a dinosaur’s perspective) created the possibility for mammals to evolve. Now, we stand up, write scientific papers, and have conversations like this one.

In other words, no extinction … no us.

In the long run, it seems, it will all work out fine for planet Earth – no matter how things end up working out for us humans in this century. With a long enough time perspective, even the absurdity of our present situation just fades away.

However, this century is my century on this planet, as well as the century of my children. So I’m going to continue doing what I can to accelerate change for sustainability, and to stop – or at least slow down – the madness I perceive in the way we humans, as a species, use up resources, create waste, and generally tend to forget that we lived on a finite, living planet, where everyone deserves a fair chance at a fulfilling life.

But thanks to these summer reflections – and thanks also to the advice of my overworked colleague (get well!) – I’ll be doing it with a lighter heart.