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The era of planetary accountability

June 11 2020 - JC Seghers Community

JC Seghers is a global changemaker with experience in initiating, scaling up, and delivering on transformational global projects and campaigns unleashing legislation, technology and action to address global warming. He has worked with various multinational companies, industry associations and governments on driving transparent and measurable climate action through scenario analysis, sustainability, data management, and advocacy. He is a realistic optimist and strong believer in the power of humankind. He recently delivered the TEDx Talk ‘I’m Not Telling you Not to Fly’ upon which this article builds.

Opinions are his own.

The era of planetary accountability

Sustainability commitments are no longer sexy. In fact, they feel more and more like New Year’s resolutions – they attract attention, create a short-term buzz and the willingness or ability to stick by them can be ‘patchy’.

The 2010s might have been defined by them and commitments from governments – often state, provincial and regional governments – businesses and civil society created the much needed momentum that lead to the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 – the world’s first ever universal climate change agreement signed by all countries (the effective withdrawal of the United States is not possible before November 4, 2020).

But at the start of the 2020s it’s time to say goodbye to the era of commitments and usher in the era of planetary accountability. Why? Because commitments have now become near obsolete. Because, more than any previous generation, we know there’s only really one single path forward:

We need to zero out global greenhouse gas emissions. Net zero carbon emissions by mid-century (unavoidable emissions in 2050 must be matched by removing emissions from the atmosphere) and phasing out sources of other man-made greenhouse gases, like methane, by 2070.  We need to halt deforestation. We need to preserve and restore natural ecosystems, including our oceans, to grow the world’s carbon sinks.

So now we know exactly where we’re heading, it’s time to rate and reward leaders by their accountability towards that global goal. It’s time to usher in the era of planetary accountability.

Planetary not just climate. We are not just witnessing a climate emergency. We are also witnessing a biodiversity crisis and a resource crisis. They all root in the fact that we have disconnected from nature. We have forgotten that everything we use, eat, play with is only possible because of the wealth of resources our planet provides us. Tackling the biodiversity, climate, and resource crises requires transformational change in every sector, across wide-ranging policies and legislations, and will require buy-in from industry, civil society and indigenous groups. It requires solutions that consider the interconnectivity of these crises that are now spilling over into our economic and social wellbeing.

Accountability because planetaryleaders are no longer defined by their commitments and potential (future) impact. In the era of accountability, leaders are to be defined by their track record, by their pace of transformational change and their ability to walk the talk. Leaders are to be defined by progress. Leaders clean up the mess they have made in the past. Business leaders take account of climate-related financial risk, disclose scenario models up to 2050, re-engineer their products, and offer to take back any products, materials and resources they put on the market. Governmental leaders legislate for a fundamentally different society by mid-century.

And let’s be clear, change is feasible. A lot of the solutions are there, new cleaner and efficient technologies are no longer a futuristic hope, a lot of the policy change has already been suggested. We are seeing momentum shifting, perhaps too slowly, but with more engaged citizens. School children showing they care on the streets and corporate sustainability finally moving from a PR practice into engineering.

Yet, the answers cited to our planetary breakdown are often contradictory, nuanced, complex, and disillusioning, focusing on systemic change beyond the control of the average citizen, business executive or legislator.

So what can we do?

What follows are solutions for a road to recovery that could be adopted by each and one of us. These solutions don’t discriminate between the global north or the global south – they tie in planetary recovery with economic development. Equally important, they apply to individual citizens, legislators and business executives. Finally, they are aimed at addressing the climate, biodiversity and resource crises alike.

1. Cut waste in every shape or form

To change course and tackle our climate, biodiversity and resource emergencies and to reach the pace needed, we have to cut out waste from everything we do, invent and legislate. For far too long, we’ve been led to believe that resource substitution combined with recycling makes it all ok – hardly questioning whether we can avoid something altogether.

Change is possible.

✔ As a citizen, by letting go of anything that will have no real impact on your way of life.

✔ As a business executive, by choosing efficiency and product minimization as a driver of your profitability. 

✔ As a legislator, by incentivizing, financing and subsidizing durability so it becomes equitable for all.

2. Put your money where your mouth is

While the climate risks have been well known for a long time, money has continued to flow into investments that are well known to be at the core of those risks and planetary breakdown. To change course and tackle our climate, biodiversity and resource emergencies, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.

Change is possible.

✔ As a citizen, by greening your spending patterns, consider an environmentally friendly bank and invest any savings – large or small – in those businesses that are making an impact.

✔ As a business executive, by putting an internal tax on carbon counting for the cost of planetary breakdown in any investment decision. By working with service providers that offer your employees environmentally friendly reward packages and pension products.

✔ As a legislator by designing stimulus packages with clear planetary performance metrics. By providing clean tax incentives and considering penalty prices on carbon emissions.

3. Be curious like a kid

Change can only come from informed decisions. When it comes to green credentials, we haven’t probed deep enough. We haven’t fact-checked exaggerated or absurd claims.

Change is possible.

✔ As a citizen, by constantly questioning companies’ green credentials.

✔ As a business executive, by seriously scrutinizing your supply chain – the deeper you get into the supply chain the darker it can get.

✔ As a legislator, by incorporating environmental education into the curriculum at schools.  By demonstrating how looking after nature is a prerequisite for sustained economic development. 

Let’s make full use of the 2020 head start

We’ve known for a while that 2020 was a crucial year. Failing to peak global emissions in 2020 would put limiting the worst effects of global warming out of our reach.

At the start of the year that goal looked uncertain. And then COVID-19 happened. A lot has been written about short and possible longer-term effects of COVID-19 on greenhouse emissions, behaviour change, and the use of single-use plastics. For some, the glass is half full, for some the glass is half empty. Only time will tell.

Emissions in 2020 will drop. And according to the latest estimates quite substantially – possibly by more than 7% globally. Emissions could equally rebound quickly – when economists talk about V or U-shaped recoveries, we could simulate a V or U-shaped rebounding of emissions.

So that leaves us with one certainty – emissions in 2020 will not just peak but fall dramatically. While this drop is for all the wrong reasons, we have been given a head start.

Let’s use it wisely and usher in the era of planetary accountability.

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