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I started my career as a quantitative researcher, so looking at data and human behaviours and thinking about how we can combine them to understand how to fix problems and build better products and services has always been at the heart of what I do. Now having moved into the climate space, I feel strongly that data must underpin our climate action and approach to mitigating the climate crisis. But we won’t achieve this by just collecting terabytes of data, and then locking that data in organisations for decades until it becomes obsolete. Data needs to be made accessible and utilised through effective collaboration. But how do we break out of these silos and into a model where openness is the norm? 

It’s important to remember that the significance of data is what you do with it. Data equips us with the vital insights we need to assess different choices, take evidence-based decisions, and strengthen storytelling. With climate change, each of these elements is critical to accelerate informed action. When we establish policy, data must be front and centre of enacting evidence-based decisions and incentivising progress. However, we are currently facing significant barriers in reaching these goals. 

When it comes to climate action, we now find ourselves with a short and rapidly shrinking window of time to make the significant changes that we need to halt global warming. The only way we can work at the speed required is to move past our ‘silo mentalities’ and aggregate efforts. When we talk about climate change, whilst each country will have its own manifestations of climate crisis, the causes are global, and the actions of those on one side of the planet can have disastrous impacts on those on the other. We need to learn from each other. And not just by sharing climate data, but also through sharing knowledge of technologies, as well as effective policies to support pro-climate innovation and behaviour change. Some of those answers we just can’t get to on our own. Learning from each other, and with each other, needs to become the norm. 

Thinking about climate change as a global problem and how collaboration can help us can mean we address these challenges more effectively. But what does this mean in practice? Let’s say policymakers are looking to define policy that supports sustainable commercial transport. By breaking down our silos, we can piece the puzzle together and build cohesive insights, both within and beyond the climate sphere. Manufacturer and retail locations and logistics data can be overlaid with data on regional consumer behaviour, road networks, electric vehicle (EV)-lorry battery capacity, and infrastructure for electric charging. This then allows us to understand the delta between the goals we want to achieve against what we currency have. And when doing this, it’s not just the analysis itself which is valuable – the act of partnering and collaborating across industries and sectors to jointly solve problem solving with a climate end goal in common is invaluable. It’s not easy to do, but it is invaluable, and having diversity of voices so we can understand how those changes might impact different parts of society is critical to successful adoption of better climate practice. 

From our perspective at Subak, the world’s first accelerator for climate not-for-profits, whilst we’re early in the process, we’re already starting to see some great outcomes. We’re supporting early-stage organisations who can think in these agile ways and work collaboratively to find new and interesting answers.

Take the issue of emissions, for example. One of our members, Ember, focuses on how we can support the shift from coal to clean energy. Their analysis combining key findings of modelling by the Climate Change Committee, Energy Systems Catapault’s (ESC) modelling for Good Energy, and National Grid’s energy scenarios, along with their understanding of green energy technologies, was a key influencer of the government’s ‘UK to zero-carbon power by 2035’ plans, including our world-leading coal and gas phase-out goals.

Another one of our members, Climate Policy Radar, recently launched the alpha of their policy platform at the COP26 UN climate summit. This is aggregating climate policy information from around the world so that policymakers don’t have to go hunting to find out what others are doing and potential best practice in this space.

Taking a data approach in climate action that factors in impact when choosing where to invest can be invaluable as well. When looking at climate finance, for example, we often find that investment is disproportionately put into areas that are the most profitable, rather than those that have the greatest climate impact. By looking at the data we can identify where these gaps are, and open conversations to address that.

This is also one of the reasons that a not-for-profit model is so important, because it inherently removes that profit incentive and forefronts climate impact. At Subak, each not-for-profit organisation that joins as a member signs up to share some of their data publicly through the Subak Data Cooperative. And it’s not just not-for-profits who can get involved. Whilst that is the focus of our accelerator, when we think about the big problems that need solving, we know that some of those solutions will come from for-profit organisations as well. This is why we also support climate positive for-profits who would like to make their data available through our data cooperative. That’s how it should be. This is a global collective problem: we need all hands on deck regardless of business structure. This is a place for all working to climate benefit to come and share, regardless of what type of organisation they have.

We’re trying to crowdsource a global solution to gigantic problems. To do so, we need lots of aggregators who help us to have an idea of what we’re dealing with, so then we can suggest solutions that are applicable in global contexts. 

Ultimately, collaboration and openness is crucial to tackling the climate crisis in all aspects of climate action, including data. We need to urgently accelerate this data sharing, openness and cooperation to inform effective policy making and behaviour change. Truly working together to share tools, data and infrastructure must be inherent to climate action moving forward.

It’s been nearly a century since the first World Animal Day was held in 1925. The goal then was “to raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards around the globe.” Today, the message is the urgent need to re-evaluate our relationship to, and care for, the myriad species with whom we share this planet.

We stand on the precipice of the sixth great mass extinction, with a million species facing the abyss. Habitat destruction and the expansion of human land use for industrial agriculture and urban development has wiped out entire ecosystems. Climate change has bleached our coral reefs. One study estimates there is more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish.

Those of us who have been active in animal welfare and environmental campaigning have seen the ominous warning signs for decades. And yet our leaders are still taking us down the same destructive path. The greed of the multi-national agricultural, food processing and distribution corporations, with their insatiable demand for growth and ever more profit, is poisoning the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Ironically, our way of life is killing us. 

And when it comes right down to it, we are in this predicament precisely because of our mistreatment of animals. 

If we had more respect for animals, we would not destroy their habitat. We would not risk the massive biodiversity loss and damage to ecosystems on which both depend. We would not push billions of sentient creatures into an industrial farming system that not only causes untold misery, but also increases the risk from an ever-expanding list of new and deadly zoonotic diseases – apparently including the current COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world. And we would not take wildlife from their natural habitat, to abuse and misuse, driving entire species to the edge of extinction, purely for our own, mindless amusement.

It’s clear, if we are going to survive, we need to change our ways. 

I was heartened recently by an example of how this change can be brought about. 

In April to June this year, an organisation I have supported for some time, Animals Asia, completed the biggest operation ever undertaken by a bear rescue organisation – transporting 101 endangered Asiatic black bears halfway across China to Animals Asia’s rescue centre in Chengdu. 

The bears had previously been farmed for their bile, which is extracted from their gall bladders using invasive and painful techniques, for the financial benefit of their “owner.” But eight years ago, a new “owner’ took over the farm, and he decided he didn’t want to be part of an industry that caused these beautiful creatures such pain and suffering. 

He reached out to Animals Asia, who have been working to end this abominable practice for many years, and now, eight years on, after many legal and logistical hurdles were overcome, the bears have finally been brought to sanctuary, where they now can feel soft ground and grass beneath their paws, possibly for the first time in their lives.

This monumental event could not have happened unless the new owner hadn’t had a change of heart. It could not have happened without the support of the local community, and the local authorities, who approved and monitored the move. Both of them placed their trust in Animals Asia to safely undertake this operation, and to properly care for these bears for the rest of their lives. And it most assuredly could not have happened without the support of thousands of people, all around the world, who donated to ensure these bears could have a better life. 

It demonstrates that the only way to achieve lasting change is to engage and work together with all stakeholders involved in the practices that affect animal welfare – even with those who may hold wildly differing views to our own. It can be a long hard road. It takes courage, tenacity and respect. But it can be done. It must be done. 

world animal day, animal asia, moon bearsPhoto courtesy of Animal Asia.

Change occurred when this farmer felt kindness and put it into action. He saw these bears for who they really were – individual, sentient creatures, as capable of feeling pain and emotion as we are. Perhaps when we start to see chickens, not as an input for cheap protein production, but as quirky, robust, social individuals, or when we perceive rare and endangered species and the ecosystems that support them, not as impediments to development, but as essential elements of a healthy planet, or when we value a pig, not for the weight of her slaughtered carcass, but for her wonderful intelligence and unique, individual personality, only then will we manage to save ourselves, our earth, and all the species we share it with, from what seems to be becoming an inevitable annihilation.

To begin, we need to set our kindness into action. Compassion is the only cure for what ails us.  

If you love animals, don’t eat them. 

James Cromwell, American activist/actor.

Jonathon Porritt- When it comes to understanding the true nature of Net Zero by 2050, I have one huge request: could everybody please stop flourishing their particular “get out of jail free” cards – whether that’s a nuclear card, or a hydrogen card, or a 100% renewable electricity (100% RE) card. 

There are no get out of jail free cards. We’re trapped in an energy-intensive way of life, driven by frenetic consumerism, causing massive damage to both people and the planet, and putting at risk the very future of humankind. There is no energy-based solution to this meta-impasse; the only way we’ll avoid an accelerating slide into civilisational collapse is by transforming that suicidal way of life. 

Energy is a sub-system of that much bigger economic system – though it is, to be sure, the most important sub-system. And the most important aspect of that sub-system is EFFICIENCY.

Whatever combination of supply-side options we may have settled on by 2050, it’s the efficiency with which we acquire and use every one of those units of energy which matters most – not whether those units are renewable, nuclear or hydrogen. I find it deeply disturbing that almost all supply-side evangelists (whatever their fix may be) fail to mention this. Could that be because it’s so much more difficult to make money out of what Amory Lovins first referred to more than 40 years ago as “Negawatts” (i.e. avoiding energy use altogether through efficiency and demand management) than it is out of generating Megawatts? 

This article focuses on the nuclear get out of jail free card. But before ripping that to shreds, I want to do the same, in passing, for the 100% RE card. 

When it comes to Net Zero strategies, I’m fully on board with the imperative of electrifying everything we possibly can (generation, heat, transport, manufacturing, etc), and then ensuring that as close to 100% of that required supply comes from renewables. However, the environmental footprint associated with such a dramatic transition in our energy systems is enormous – and it concerns me that so many 100% RE evangelists fail to recognise this.

What do solar panels, wind turbines, electric motors, batteries, magnets, heat pumps, LEDs, electrolysers and so on (as well as all the “enabling” technologies on which this hardware depends such as computers, smartphones, smart meters, massive server farms and so on) all have in common? An increasing dependence on digging up the Earth for a variety of still-abundant raw materials (lithium, vanadium, graphite, platinum, etc), for what are called “rare metals” (cobalt, tungsten, tantalum etc), and for an even rarer family of 17 “rare earths” with incredible magnetic, catalytic and optical properties. Without these, there can be no 100% RE revolution. 

When you realise that 95% of those rare earths are mined in China, and that China controls an even greater share of the production of all rare metals- not just in China but around the world- with an already horrendous environmental and social balance sheet, we should be very concerned about the massive projected increase in demand for these raw materials on which a 100% RE scenario depends. 

Consider for a moment the unfolding drama around the death of the Internal Combustion Engine – which everyone now accepts is a question of when, not if. Both governments (including the UK, with its accelerated timetable to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030) and the big car companies (in both the West and in China) are now on that path. The future of ground-based transport is all-electric. 

Let’s celebrate that – not least from the perspective of improved air quality. According to the latest research, tailpipe emissions are a massive contributor to the deaths of more than eight million people every year

But we still have to be realistic about what this entails. An EV in China (where roughly 60% of electricity is still generated in coal-fired power stations) is not as big a decarbonising deal as people imagine, especially when transmission losses are taken into account. Additionally, every new EV still requires a huge amount of raw materials and energy in its manufacture. 

From a Net Zero, thermodynamically-literate point of view, we should already be thinking about setting a date for reducing the number of privately-owned vehicles from today’s 1.1 billion (of which only about 3% are currently EVs) to as low a level as possible. That’s the transition we should really be planning for; instead, we take it for granted that the number of car sales will just tick up every year. 

This is a huge challenge. To make it even remotely acceptable, from a political point of view, all subsidy and public sector investments should be directed into integrated mobility systems, better public transport and improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructures. Just like Negawatts offer an infinitely superior way forward than Megawatts (of any description), so an NV strategy (No Vehicles) is an infinitely superior way forward than an EV strategy. 

All that said, we’re still going to need a huge increase in the amount of electricity required to get to Net Zero, and that’s where nuclear industry leaders play their own get out of jail free card with growing enthusiasm – principally because they continue to assert that it’s simply not possible to get to a Net Zero world by relying on efficiency, renewable electricity, storage and smart grids. That assertion is hotly contested by a growing number of academics and NGOs, whose case gets stronger as both solar and wind get cheaper and more reliable, with improving utilisation rates every year, especially from offshore wind. Even the International Energy Agency now acknowledges the impact of this unfolding revolution, even as it keeps on having to revise its projections for renewable electricity’s share of total global generation – with what has become deeply embarrassing regularity. 

There are few (if any) independent commentators forecasting a similar increase in nuclear-generated electricity. The bottom line here is very simple: large-scale nuclear reactors have essentially been priced out of the market. Very high construction costs are invariably exacerbated by extensive delays, ensuring that private investors will have nothing to do with new nuclear. No reactors are being constructed anywhere in the world without massive government subsidy – the exact opposite of renewables where “subsidy-free” solar and wind are becoming the norm in countries all around the world. 

Faced with that market reality, the nuclear industry continues to argue that subsidies for nuclear power are a necessary use of taxpayers’ money because only nuclear can provide the kind of baseload power on which the stability of electricity grids depends. This was once absolutely correct, but no longer. Back in 2015, the then-Chief Executive of the National Grid, Steve Holliday, spelled out the writing on the wall for those still looking backwards rather than forwards in terms of energy systems: “The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated.” 

Because nuclear power can’t be switched on and off, the National Grid’s historical distribution system is based on an “always on” assumption for nuclear. As more and more variable renewable electricity becomes available, the costs of this highly inflexible baseload become more apparent. In both Germany and the UK, it is commonplace for there to be more electricity available than is needed – meaning that operators of those wind farms and solar installations have to be paid to switch them off. As is persuasively argued by the International Energy Agency, power system flexibility is now an absolute priority if we are to reap the full benefits of more decentralised generation and demand management technologies. And it’s been convincingly demonstrated by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission that large-scale nuclear power plants entrench more costly, inflexible distribution systems. 

I see this as a classic case of incumbent technology standing in the way of more innovative solutions to achieving a Net Zero economy, locking in consumers and businesses to increasingly outmoded ways of providing energy services. 

Large-scale nuclear power has the same sort of 20th century feel to it as the internal combustion engine: no longer necessary and increasingly unaffordable. But the industry is nothing if not adaptable, and has been busy crafting a whole deck of alternative get out of jail free cards: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Advanced Nuclear Reactors, and even a variation on the industry’s favourite card of all: nuclear fusion! Boris Johnson is particularly enamoured of these alternatives, and remains committed to investing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds into these still speculative propositions. 

In a way that has become standard for all “nuclear renaissance” announcements, the level of hype around SMRs keeps on ratcheting up. In the UK, we’re told that a prototype will be ready by 2029, creating 6 000 jobs over the next five years; that this prototype will be delivered at a bargain basement cost of £2.2bn; that it will be the first of a programme of 16 SMRs rolling off a production line at two a year; that this will earn the UK economy more than £50bn, and will in time create a massive export potential of around £250bn, creating 40 000 jobs over 15 years. 

No other industry is allowed to get away with such fantastical moonshine! The reality is that there’s no design available as yet, even though the Government has already invested millions in Rolls-Royce’s outline plans. There are no agreed sites for deployment. There are no customers, and without the Government guaranteeing an order book of up to 16 SMRs, it’s highly unlikely that Rolls-Royce will even complete the design phase, let alone start investing in such an ambitious production line.

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It fascinates me to see the dogged determination (desperation?) with which politicians hang on to these still entirely unproven technologies – all of which have been “in design,” in one way or another, over many decades. What is it (ideologically and psychologically) that allows them to go on preferencing speculative nuclear innovation, with breakthroughs promised at some indeterminate point in the future, over the burgeoning pipeline of market-ready innovation in solar, wind, storage, grids, demand management and so on? 

And what is it that allows them to stay so complacent about the problems of nuclear waste and decommissioning – which I explore in some detail in “Net Zero Without Nuclear”? The fact that the only proposed “solution” for the management of high-level nuclear waste is a Geological Disposal Facility (which will not be fully operational here in the UK until 2075, according to the Government itself), probably explains why the nuclear get out of jail free card includes no icons for nuclear waste, nor any reference to the price-tag of £130bn for decommissioning existing reactors here in the UK over the next 85 years, according to the Government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. 

The vast majority of environmentalists I’ve known and worked with over 45 years are passionate about the concept of justice between generations as well as justice within each generation. However, the simple truth of it is that anyone who continues to support nuclear power has, in effect, set aside that concern about intergenerational justice. It’s young people, as future taxpayers, who will bear the massive costs associated with the processing and storage of nuclear waste, as well as the ongoing liabilities regarding the decommissioning of existing reactors. 

With the best will in the world, that’s how new nuclear looks to me today. No longer necessary. Increasingly unaffordable. Morally indefensible. So let’s tear up that nuclear get out of jail free card.

However, as I’ve already said, we should simultaneously be tearing up the 100% RE card. In terms of delivering a Net Zero economy, 100% RE is undoubtedly the way to go – but not as some heedless technofix that allows politicians to continue to avert their eyes from the much deeper, systemic problems that now confront humankind.

 

I can’t remember a time before I worried about climate change. I ran for office at age 22 – on a platform largely focused on clean energy – because of that Millennial passion and righteous impatience. But after serving one term as the youngest Massachusetts state legislator, I realised we needed bigger thinking. I set out to wrap my mind around the comprehensive picture of solving climate change, answering the question of what could truly add up. How can the US tackle climate change?

I had studied engineering in college, alongside public policy, so I have an odd but useful perspective to analyse what has to happen to tackle climate change and what has a chance of making it happen. This synthesis was published as The 100% Solution in March of 2020, but I’ve continuously tried to figure out how to do impactful outreach to build better understanding and consensus around climate change solutions.

Climate change is often framed as a political problem, the solution to which is simply building the “political will” for bold action. But I realised that perspective ignores several crucial realities: 

First, that climate change impacts will worsen until we solve the problem 100% (in fact until we get into net-negative emissions) so we need to move as fast as possible even if that means not waiting for larger societal change; 

Second, that two-thirds of current emissions come from rapidly-growing middle-income countries (China, India, Indonesia, etc) where no amount of political will can overcome the basic economic fact that their population can’t afford clean infrastructure at today’s prices; 

Third, that more effective messaging is needed to reassure voters in the US that solving climate change does not in fact mean sacrifice.

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Physically, climate change doesn’t come from our lifestyles. Driving, heating our home, etc – these lifestyle activities are powered by equipment. The equipment we use is what determines greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, most of the equipment is based on fossil fuels. We could cut back on driving, heating, etc, and still be adding GHGs to the atmosphere because we rely on systems that use polluting equipment. And adding any net GHGs annually is incompatible with solving climate change, because warming is tied to levels of GHGs in the atmosphere, not one year’s rate of emissions. We won’t see an end to warming until 100% of net emissions are eliminated.

So think instead: we could enjoy these lifestyle activities in the same amounts as today, but switch to non-polluting equipment. Drive EVs instead of fossil fuel cars. Use solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal instead of coal and methane power plants. It’s not a political problem, but an engineering problem. This solves the third issue above, of messaging to the US public – to tackle climate change in the US means replacing polluting infrastructure with clean infrastructure, not changing our lifestyles. If people internalise that it’s not a sacrifice, they’ll be more supportive of climate action.

But you and I can’t individually affect what type of power plant a utility uses. And many of us in the US – not to mention most people in developing countries, where a majority of emissions come from – can’t afford EVs at their current costs.

The answer is collective action. While climate change is an engineering problem, it requires political action to solve.

Instead of feeling personally responsible for our “carbon footprint,” we need to think of our responsibility as doing whatever we personally can to influence governments and large companies to take action at scale.

Scientists say we need to cross into net-negative emissions around 2050. So very quickly, we have to make all the necessary clean equipment cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. From that point on, not only will middle-income developing countries be able to afford clean infrastructure, it will be the cheapest option and so decarbonisation will become inevitable.

The US federal government (and other large government or company entities in industrialised countries) can achieve that through investments that demonstrate the first full-scale units of emerging technologies, and by creating incentives or mandates or using public procurement to drive a fast early scale-up in manufacturing to bring down costs. We require a massive scale and rapid pace of hands-on industrial policy, comparable to the New Deal, the WWII manufacturing boom, and the Apollo Program.

Our responsibility is to impress upon our political and company leaders both the urgency for bold action and the massive economic benefits (not sacrifice!) that bold and immediate action would create. What better way to put people back to work post-pandemic than by investing massively in industries guaranteed to last well into the 21st century? Shifting the narrative is important, and that’s on us as climate activists to get better at. The Sunrise Movement has made a great start, tying climate action to New Deal-style job creation and equity. We need to get more specific, though, and paint a picture for wary voters of how their energy costs will go down in the long run, how their daily activities will be largely unchanged, and how we can use domestic action that lowers clean equipment costs to drive a global solution and export affordable clean energy to the world.

I think climate activists’ allies need to hear more of this messaging as well, because a lot of them are disengaged, feeling that “we’re doomed.” More specific, ambitious, and accurate messaging can give them hope. We’re not doomed, we simply need to focus our sense of responsibility on driving the collective action that can solve the problem 100%.

Solomon Goldstein-Rose, author of The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change, is a former Massachusetts state legislator and lifelong climate activist. See SolomonGR.com.

There is no structure within the whole sphere of human governance that can deliver us the global biophysical integrity which we now require. The new intertwined relationship between humans and the Earth is now a permanent arrangement…so we must protect the Earth now and in the year 2100, 2500 and the year 3000. At present, we have no mechanism to guarantee success in this extraordinary undertaking, so we must create it. 

The governance structures we have built, principally the 195 nation states and a meeting room called the UN, are not fit for purpose for the protection of a biosphere. In order to restore and protect a planet’s natural systems we must have a full time dedicated specialist in charge, laying down universal biophysical boundaries and enforcing them.  Our nation states, being competitive, hegemonic, built to provide safety within their borders and oversee the flow of human goods and services to their peoples, are not the answer. When it comes to protecting a biosphere, they are part time short-term under-funded amateurs. No wonder a terrible result has ensued since the 1972 Stockholm declaration, signed by all countries, that ‘nature’s assets must be safeguarded’.

So we currently have a structural error of governance. In terms of our power, technology and potency of destruction of the environment, we as a race have moved past this particular administrative unit. It is as simple as that. We are too strong a destructive force for a group of disparate, distracted, geographically constrained amateurs, called the nation states, to handle. 

Instead, our global race must now afford our greatest asset, the living planet, a global specialist protectorate. Human governance structures are fluid undertakings, a bit like ants building an ant’s nest. They work for the conditions of their time. They deliver functions of utility of their time and then when they no longer work, they must be left behind and new structures built. Now, because we are so powerful that we must protect a global asset, we must build a global structure that delivers this particular function of utility.

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This new specialist authority must sit above the nation state, where there is currently a complete void. The UN has no executive or regulatory power over the nation state. If you are mentally drawing a diagram in your mind, put the UN to the side of the nations. For all the excellent work the UN does, on a small budget of only $10 billion annually, it is at the end of the day, just a meeting room of  the Westphalian nation state system.

The calls for a new higher level structure are everywhere you look. David Attenborough has said ‘unless humanity comes to a co-ordinated view of its relationship with the planet, it’s going to get worse and worse’. The World Economic Forum and HRH Prince of Wales, in laying down a ten-point plan for the circular bio-economy (October 2020) argued in point 7 that regulation and policy must reach the global level. Numerous academics, including Prof. Klaus Bosselmann of Auckland University, have argued ‘that matters of a planetary issue require a single polity, however inchoate’. In his 2009 speech, famed American ecologist Paul Hawken called for a new operating system within the next few decades. The World Bank too, has stated that feeding 9 billion people and reducing the pressures on the environment will require radical changes in global governance.

But the truth of the matter is that we have no global governance. Global governance must include actual regulatory power over all the human organisations underneath it, including the nation state. 

Entering global governance and putting a specialist authority in charge will gain us an immediate and material betterment of nature and an improvement in the human condition. Additionally, it will also effect a step change in the profile of human-induced existential risks that we face in this pivotal century.  Many commentators (e.g Martin Rees, Head of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and Toby Ord, Fellow of The Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University) argue that from the already high base layer of risk including nuclear war, climate change and environmental degradation, are coming the even greater risks of artificial intelligence, dystopian outcomes and biological warfare. So our step into global governance using our shared commonality of the Earth’s protection is extremely timely, as it will pave the way for further governance evolution capable of further reducing this terrible existential risk profile. 

Let us imagine that we have just created a Global Planet Authority (GPA). What actions would it take to protect the planet?  It would build a global transaction fee-based tax system that taxes the biophysically profligate and places taxes on specific externalities such as carbon and landfill. It would operate a global ozone monitoring system with automatic shutdown capability of any factory in the world producing ozone-depleting gases. 

GPA would place all rainforest under its global protection, so that no rainforest is lost anywhere in the world. The current GDP of the Amazonian-facing nations is $3 trillion. The GPA would be able to pay, for example, $300 billion a year for 10 years to all the people of those nations, so they directly benefit from the executive order that affords the amazon rainforest global protected status. In oceans, all the high seas of the world would fall under the GPA’s protection and 60% would be made no entry. The Arctic and Antarctic would be sovereignty free, that is, no country can claim ownership of the waters of the Arctic or the land and waters of the Antarctic. Mobile marine reserves would track migrating whales and large fish within coastal areas, and deep-sea trawling would be immediately banned worldwide. Our fixed nitrogen and potassium use for fertilisers would be materially reduced whilst overseeing an agroecology program that restores soil and maintains our current caloric output of essential grains. And of course, through a series of low risk actions, the GPA would take us safely to 300 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent units in the troposphere by 2050. In short a GPA would deliver a far superior range of biophysical outcomes, ones highly unlikely under the current system.

With these new boundaries in place, humanity’s response would be exceptional. Capitalism would respond to clear pricing and regulation, GDP would grow but with hugely reduced industrial metabolism and we would all share in our joint achievements of biophysical restoration, benefiting the poor in particular. Our long term potential to flourish as a race would also remain intact. 

So how do we enter global governance? Who do we ask? Is there someone to call? Is there someone to lobby? No, the only way of entering this void is if we, the people of the world, decide to move there and build the structures we want. It is our own permission that we seek, and fortunately we can now undertake the first act of global self determination. Let me explain.

The act of creating a nation state is called an act of national self determination. A large group of people get together and in effect, allocate a small part of their personal sovereignty in such numbers that the new governance structure is created. The people are saying “we choose to create this governance structure and abide by its rules.” The acts of national self determination were so numerous in the first half of the 20th century that the right to self determination was written as a central tenet in the charter of human rights at the founding of the UN. 

Jumping forward to the present, for the first time ever, we can gather as a global race and allocate our personal sovereignty en masse at the global level. This is because 5 billion of us are now online and connected. We really have arrived at an exceptional point in human history. We can enter global governance by our own free will, in the same manner humans have always advanced- as the people.  The power that we yield is that we are the system. For example, we can close down the world economy by not working in order to force the new governance body to come to be. One could argue that COVID-19’s ‘economic shutdown’ could well be a warm up event.

Only 50 million people govern and enforce the primary institutions of all 195 nation states.  This is composed of 25 million people administrating the highest offices of the judicial, operating and executive arms of state and a total of 21 million soldiers. At 5 billion on line and connected, and 50 million representing the ‘opponent’, we are 100 to 1…and this is the median ratio of the most famous acts of national self determination of the last 250 years. And it will be the ratio that sees us enter the global sphere. 

THE ACTION: Because we live in the 21st Century, we will allocate our personal sovereignty by way of a biometrically valid and secure global vote for anyone 13 years and over. It will probably require 2-3 billion votes. Teenagers will be eligible to vote, as they have always been active at revolutionary points of human history, and they have the most to gain. We will write a constitution for a Global Planet Authority, charge it with delivering global biophysical integrity, set up its biophysical board and ensure it has excellent internal governance systems to give it sufficient but limited power..

I believe that it is no coincidence that this capability for a step change in human agency has arrived when we are also running Earth’s systems for the first time. 

It is easy to say, “this is not possible” and cross one’s arms and look stern and huff. But let us remind ourselves that in 1770 there was no USA, in 1850 no Canada, in 1875 no Germany, in 1943 no India and no People’s Republic of China, in 1960 no Singapore. Their leaders, their visionaries, their people, that is, all our forebears, stepped into the governance voids of their time, under what were often very difficult circumstances, to create semi-permanent human governance structures (nation states) they deemed necessary to ensure their progress. 

I am convinced that if the likes of Washington, Pankhurst, Gandhi, Mandela, and Sun Yat-sen were alive today, they would say to us, “GO!”, recognising that we must create a new governance structure designed specifically for the task at hand.  

And we must. We must advance our governance to be fit for this new era: our most valuable global asset must be afforded global protection by a global race.

 

Hong Kong discards between 4-6 million disposable face masks every day. The bulk of these discarded face masks are sent to the landfill along with the general waste. Based on the estimation that each face mask weighs two to three grams, the face masks disposed of at landfills every day would weigh some 10 to 15 tonnes. However, a significant number end up polluting the environment, including drains, streams, and beaches and end up in the sea. According to the Hong Kong Secretary for the Environment, KS Wong, these face masks are not suitable for recycling. She says, “Since disposable face masks, including N95 masks and surgical masks, are made of composite materials of different kinds and metals which are difficult to be separated, they are not suitable for recycling or discarding in recycling bins to avoid contaminating other recyclables.” How can the world achieve a “zero waste” future?

The global figures are approximately 1 000 times more at 15 000 tonnes of masks a day. The bulk of the discarded face masks are either incinerated or sent to the landfill along with municipal solid waste (MSW).

The sustainable management of increasing quantities of wastes such as MSW, Industrial Wastes, Agricultural Wastes, Construction Demolition Waste (CDW) etc, is a global challenge. MSW generation will increase to 3.40 billion metric tonnes by 2050 from around 2.01 billion tonnes currently as per a World Bank report. In 2016, 12% of the world’s MSW was plastic, of which the world produced 242 million tonnes. It is estimated that only 13.5% of today’s waste is recycled and 5.5% is composted. 

Plastic waste is choking our oceans, yet our consumption of plastics is only increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic has added significantly to this crisis due to the sudden increase in the consumption of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). An estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide–equivalent (CO2-equivalent) greenhouse gas emissions were generated from solid waste in 2016, which is about 5% of global emissions. Without improvements, solid waste-related emissions are anticipated to increase to 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2050. 44% of all MSW is food waste (contributing 50% of the GHG emissions from rotting) and 33% of all MSW is disposed of in open dumps and/or burnt. 

The global distribution of population compared to the percentage of waste generation shows China and India to be major contributors (together accounting for 36% of the world’s population and 28% share of MSW generation), followed by the USA (4% world’s population contributing 12% of the waste). Such disparities are likely to be further exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, South Asia is one of the hardest-hit regions by the outbreak, with India recording nearly 9.8 million cases. The pandemic outbreak in the South Asia region is not only harming public health through community transmission but is becoming a huge liability in terms of its environmental impact. The healthcare waste management system of the South Asia region is the least developed among the World Health Organization regions.

Delhi, the capital of India, generated about 371 tons of biomedical waste per day in June 2020. This was an increase of 1 400% from May’s 25 tons per day. Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India, generated about 247 tons of infectious medical waste per day in July 2020, but was able to safely handle less than 10 tons per day of it. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, generated 206 tons of biomedical waste daily in July, a steep increase from 3 tons per day before COVID. Similar trends of infectious medical waste generation due to COVID-19 have been observed in other countries of the South Asia region.

While the prospects of a zero waste future may look utopian in light of the above scenario, it is not as difficult as we are made to believe. Hong Kong has performed abysmally against its own target as per the 2013 Government-issued “Hong Kong Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022,” which  set out a comprehensive strategy to reduce waste and increase recovery and recycling. A recycling fund of HKD$1 billion has not made a significant dent yet and the draft mandatory waste charging scheme proposal that was stuck in the legislative process for almost a decade was recently dumped. However, the experience of neighbouring Taiwan and South Korea is highly encouraging. South Korea adopted a waste charging policy back in 1995 and observed that the overall waste disposal rate dropped by 17% by 2001 and by 40% by the year 2010. The recycling rate increased to 60% in 2010 from about 16% in 1995, and the economic benefits of the recycling industry increased from HK$1.7 billion in 2001 to HK$7 billion in 2009. The “Per Bag Trash Collection Fee” system, adopted from Taipei, has worked well in Seoul, which is now a global model for recycling. This illustrates the fact that modern societies driven by rampant consumerism need to pay for their environmental footprint – be it in the form of a carbon tax or waste charging system. The detrimental effect of our lifestyles driving climate change can only be tamed by such a ‘user pay’ model and implementation of circular economy principles by producers and manufacturers.  

For a ‘zero waste’ future to be realised, the first step has to be for policymakers to change their mindsets. Each component of the municipal solid waste stream is recyclable. Food waste and organic matter can be composted, metal, glass, and paper have well-established re-use. Its the waste plastic that has been a big challenge given its volume due to low density and capacity to pollute the environment. While recycling disposable face masks is not easy (nor is plastic waste), it is not impossible. It has been demonstrated that much of such waste plastics can be converted back to fuel oil through catalytic thermal pyrolysis, used in lightweight plastic aggregates for use in concrete, or melted and reshaped into plastic products like bricks, blocks, and plates. Only with such innovative ideas can the world hope to achieve a ‘zero waste’ future. 

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zero waste future zero waste future

Figure 1.(a) Composition of Municipality Solid Waste and (b) Methods of disposal (Source: Datatopics.worldbank.org).

zero waste future

Figure 2. Share of Global Population against waste generation (Source: recyclinginternational.com).

Between 2011 and 2013, China consumed 6.6 gigatons of concrete – more than what the US used in the entire 20th century. Since the integration of China in the world economy, the consumption of materials in general and construction material in particular, has been driven by the growth of China’s economy. An indicator of this growth is the consumption of cement. Since 2010, China’s consumption has increased from 2.05 billion tons per year to 2.35 billion tons with a high of 2.7 billion tons in 2014. In the same period, the world consumption of cement has increased from 3.64 billion tons to 4.65 billion tons. How can the construction industry green itself?

Interestingly, the global consumption has remained more or less unchanged from around 2014 (including China) with a reduction in China’s consumption being made up by the increase in developing countries. Cement is mainly used in making concrete, which requires about 8-10 times more raw materials in the form of sand and aggregates. Thus, the consumption of 4.65 billion tons of cement implies mining, transportation and use of around 33 billion tons of aggregates per year. This makes concrete by far the most used material at about 35-40% of all material consumption by mankind, second to water. Global consumption of cement is expected to double by 2060 as per a 2018 OECD report, which has significant environmental implications. 

Economic Contraction Due to the Pandemic

Hong Kong just declared its second-quarter figures which show a contraction of the economy of 9.1%, matching that of the first quarter’s contraction year-on-year. Most of the developed countries such as the US, the UK, Japan, Australia and the members of the EU are projected to undergo unprecedented double-digit quarterly contractions in the current calendar year compared to pre-COVID-19 2019. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest projection for the annual growth rate of world GDP is around -4.9%. The projection for 2021 is 5.4% year-on-year which barely makes up for the overall contraction due to the pandemic.

Besides tackling the immediate health sector demands, the first challenge of the pandemic for governments everywhere was to provide support for those who were affected by lockdowns and lost their jobs. The next task was to kickstart economies. Very early on in the pandemic, many people realised that it presented an opportunity to rebuild the world economy to be more resilient and sustainable. 

After every major disaster, we try to rebuild in such a way to make societies less prone to the damages from similar or worse future shocks. In the case of the pandemic, every country should be looking to invest in its public health system to prevent or mitigate the effect of future events. Clear links have been established between the emergence and spread of new pathogens and anthropogenic causes. 

Therefore it makes sense that actions to address risks of future pandemics take into account those needed to address the climate crisis as per recommendations of experts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

GDP is Inadequate

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures the monetary value of all goods and services produced by an economy. It has become the universal measure of the economic prosperity of a country and even the world since after the second world war. 

In a recent article, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz proposed a dashboard of customisable indicators to guide the economic policy of nations based on his work since the great recession of 2009. He quotes American senator Robert Kennedy who once said “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” A poignant illustration of how badly flawed GDP is as an indicator of social well-being is illustrated by the abject failure of the US in managing the pandemic compared to countries such as Vietnam and New Zealand, both with much lower GDP per capitas. The fact that it doesn’t measure sustainability, the value of community-led non-profit initiatives or wealth inequality makes GDP a deeply flawed measure of overall social wellbeing which is far more important than just income and wealth. 

Stiglitz’s dashboard proposes that indicators can be different for different countries by emphasising the issues most important for the people such as health, education, employment, environment and sense of security, similar to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals identified by the UN. While GDP would be one of such a group of indicators, environmental sustainability would have critical importance as this has a much larger impact on what happens on a planetary level.

Risks of Inaction and the Opportunity for Building Back Better

The World Economic Forum in its 15th Global Risks report highlighted two stark facts. One was that for the first time since the survey started being conducted in 2005, climate change-induced extreme weather, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, climate action failures and man-made environmental disasters were the top five global risks in terms of likelihood. In terms of impact, climate action failure, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and water crises were among the top five risks. The only other non-climate risk was weapons of mass destruction. None of these climate-related events featured in the top global risks a mere 10 years ago in the same survey. 

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A figure of a Global Risk Landscape that shows the Impact versus Likelihood of a given risk factor on a scale of 1 to 5. The higher a given risk factor measures on each axis, the worse it is. In the latest survey, Climate Inaction and Extreme Weather events top the charts (Source: Global Risk report by WEF)

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff in November 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession. For some, the pandemic becomes an opportunity to profit while for others it is humanity’s chance to make a strong beginning towards a resilient and sustainable future. EffortsIt will need something akin to the ‘New Deal’ implemented by President Roosevelt after the Great Depression or the ‘Marshall Plan’ implemented to rebuild Europe after World War II will be needed, but with a green agenda that puts sustainability at the heart of all decisions. In the current context, the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ on a global scale will fit that bill.

Green Construction should Lead the Industry

An effective way for economies to create jobs and recover growth is to revive and accelerate the building and construction sector, particularly public-funded large infrastructure projects. This brings us back to the question of the consumption of materials like cement and aggregates and their large carbon footprint and potential damage to the environment. 

The UK has declared a climate emergency and has mandated by law to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, however a Construction News of UK report says that the construction industry is still using conventional ‘dirty’ concrete instead of available low-carbon ‘green’ alternatives. The government must enact regulations and set an example through public infrastructure projects that use these alternatives. 

The existing carbon credit system and a low carbon tax of 16 pounds per ton don’t seem to be incentive enough to get contractors to switch from high carbon ordinary Portland Cement to, for example, blended cement. While a landfill tax and aggregate levy has been beneficial, concrete construction requires the use of low-carbon quotes (estimates used in the tendering process to give bidders who use low-carbon alternatives a chance to compete), Environmental Product Declarations, standard measurements for the carbon in a building, a higher carbon tax, and whole life cycle design for sustainable construction practices to take root. With trillions of dollars being invested in the form of stimulus packages, there couldn’t be a better time to enforce these changes on a global scale that would have profound long-term effects.

Every sector of the world economy holds such opportunities to address the climate crisis.The world is at an important inflection point – a fork in the road. A lot rides on the decisions that are made by policymakers, leaders and the corporate world this year. Building back better led by a more green construction industry and frameworks that measure social welfare and health instead of GDP is the best way not only to get out of the current crisis but create a resilient and sustainable future.

As pushing climate action and creating environmental and social impact becomes mainstream thought, so is the awareness that the future of jobs, as well as skills, is turning a shade of green. The US Department of Labor defines green jobs as those that produce goods and services that benefit our environment and natural resources, and where the employee is involved to make the production and delivery processes more environment friendly, use fewer resources and promote a circular economy. More broadly, a green economy is not just one that replaces extractive activities with regenerative options, but is also one that pushes and sustains economic, gender and racial justice.

A transition to a green economy has the potential to create millions of sustainability jobs. A growing consciousness about sustainability, climate change and carbon footprint as an offshoot of unbridled consumption along with emerging contours of lifestyles in the post-COVID era will push the drive towards green jobs. This growth is likely to more than compensate for the job losses in traditional industries. According to the ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook report, adoption of sustainable practices in energy and energy efficiency could create 24 million new jobs globally by 2030, while cutting 6 million jobs in fossil fuel industries. Degradation of the environment and ecosystem apart, heat stress and rising temperatures will impact our jobs and working hours, especially in the agriculture sector.

But this transition cannot occur smoothly unless our workforce, existing as well as new entrants, acquires the necessary green skills these green jobs would require. The green economy will not be a reality without integrating green skills into countries’ National Determined Contribution (NDC) targets. A 2019 article by ILO’s Senior Specialist Olga Strietska-Ilina highlights this disconnect as two-thirds of the NDC’s recognise the importance of capacity development, but less than 40% include skills training to support their implementation.

In terms of the sectors that would emerge as a hotbed for green jobs, the 2019 State of Jobs in India report by Grameen Foundation India analyses the potential of green jobs across water, housing, farming, clean energy, waste management, mobility, hospitality, health and other sectors. It identifies the potential of over 3 million green jobs to be created in the country by 2021, although this estimation was made before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In terms of the types of enterprises where such opportunities may arise, it may include green-solutions focused companies (say Germany’s Bio-lutions setting up a plant in India to make cutlery from agri-residue), large companies implementing sustainability strategies into their business models (apart from conglomerates like Pepsi or Tatas, even mid-sized companies in India like Arvind Mills are recycling water to reduce freshwater consumption) or companies that provide niche, green support-services. Even traditional artisan segments are addressing the need for sustainability, which unlocks the scope for green jobs. For instance, a block-printing artisan enterprise in Rajasthan using eco-friendly colours enables the unused wastewater from its production process to be utilised for farming.

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The Importance of Green Skills

The green transition will require sector-specific knowledge and technology to support decision-making, implementation and maintenance of the modified production processes, revamping of communication, analytical and management styles, and changes to how we invest. Mapping the occupational needs and then investing in the relevant green skills training are vital. It will also require legal recognition and protection; for instance, the informal sector working in waste picking/recycling are often bereft from identity cards, a basic need for social protection. While skills training programmes are being pushed, there is a need to reorient the investments into skills-training by both the public and private sector to ensure it closes the skills gap for the green economy. There is a need to build marketplaces for sustainable products, like a dedicated market for recycled plastic products or organic foods, which would incentivise the development and job creation in those sectors.

While funding may be a constraint given that many of the green sectors do not yet generate the cash-flow to capture the attention of fund managers, blended finance or outcome-based funding mechanisms may be an opportune way to start.

One must also note that the definition of what comprises a green job and skills is still evolving and not uniform or consistent. Even people working in this space give varying answers to the same question. This implies that the employees must develop a skill-set that is adaptable to different aspects of the field.

With the growing awareness about the environment and social issues amongst the world’s young millennials, interest in green jobs will undoubtedly accelerate as the youth seek to focus their education and careers on areas that they are more passionate about. This will add to the demand pull. At the same time, the supply push to green jobs and skills must be backed by steady regulations, government incentives and the mainstreaming of the green development agenda across employment and skills. It would also require the guidance and forecasting of green skill areas to facilitate relevant vocational and tertiary education programmes.

Ultimately, the potential size of the green economy is enormous, because each sector holds ample scope to become greener. A mind-shift change is visible in many companies and consumers, and this must accelerate. Innovations within existing green sectors are also heartening to see, like floating solar projects that overcome the constraint of onerous land acquisition rules for utility-scale solar projects. But while the sky is the limit, it would be prudent to focus on a few sectors as a low-hanging fruit and ramp up the initiatives towards skills-training for those sectors first. Without the necessary skills, any discourse on green jobs and its realisation in any sector of our economy will remain a pipedream!

Co-written by Prabhat Labh, CEO, Grameen Foundation India and Sourajit Aiyer, Consultant, South Asia Fast Track Sustainability Communications

As the world wrestles with the post-pandemic future, it is clear that the world order cannot follow a business-as-usual approach. As the world’s sixth mass extinction event draws nearer, more economies are beginning to embrace a ‘closed’ or a ‘circular economy’ model: notably, the EU released its Circular Economy Plan that aims to end the ‘throwaway culture’ plaguing society. To make this a reality, the very ideas of growth and consumption need to be challenged. 

The Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously said, “The only corporate social responsibility a company has is to maximise its profits.” When such an approach drives much of the capitalist world’s business, the natural outcome is a greed-driven, consumerist society that is categorised by the depletion of natural resources, pollution and environmental degradation that has led to humanity experiencing climate tipping points that may irreversibly damage the path of civilisation as we know it.

What is a linear economy?

This economic model has been based on the so-called linear economy philosophy of ‘Take, Make, Use, and Dispose’. In such a model, the true cost of goods and services is hidden due to a lack of accounting for the cost of pollution caused to the air, water, land and sea, as well as the remaining value of the product when it is discarded. It is estimated that the cost of such so-called ‘externalities’ is a significant burden even in purely economic terms. None of the world’s leading corporations would be profitable if they were to account for the natural capital that they use.

The idea of a circular economy (CE) dates back to the 1960s when economist Kenneth Boulding discussed the adoption of a closed economy (imagining the earth to be a space ship) as opposed to the open economy we have now (also called a ‘cow-boy economy’). The ‘throwaway’ nature of the closed economy model was replaced by the ‘Make, Use and Reuse’ model, or the ‘circular economy’ model for the first time in a 1976 report by Walter Stahel and Genevieve Reday for the European Commission. 

Circular Economy: Examples

The best way to understand what a circular economy is is to examine a real-life case study. Take lighting. A lightbulb could be designed to last a lifetime but it would be unprofitable for manufacturers to do that, called ‘planned obsolescence’. Appliance company, Philips, has created a new service called “Circular Lighting,” whereby users pay only for the light, not for the equipment. Phillips will pay for the installation, performance and servicing of the lighting. At the end of the service contract, the lighting system can be upgraded and reused, or all materials and parts can be returned for repurposing or recycling, minimising materials and waste and forcing the manufacturer to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of the product. 

Apple is another example of a company embracing circular economy principles. The company announced in 2017 that it would be making new iPhones, iMacs, and other products from 100% recycled materials. The company currently has a scheme where customers can bring in their old products to get a discount on an upgrade- it estimates that up to a third of those coming into an Apple Store to purchase a new phone are trading in an old one. 

Around 44.7 million tons of e-waste was generated globally in 2016, of which 435 000 tons were mobile phones.

The EU is enshrining the principles of a closed economy into its laws; in early March, the EU released its Circular Economy Action Plan which requires manufacturers to make products that last longer and are easier to repair, use and recycle. Taking effect in 2021, the plan is a part of the EU’s targets to become a climate-neutral economy by 2050 as outlined in its New Green Deal. 

Currently, we are dependent on linear industrial processes where we use finite natural resources to create products with a limited service life that end up in landfills or incinerators. A circular economy is inspired by living systems like organisms that process nutrients that can eventually be fed back into the production cycle. Biomimicry, ‘cradle to cradle’ instead of ‘cradle to grave’,  closed-loop, or regenerative are some of the other terms usually associated with it. 

In 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF), World Resources Institute (WRI), Philips, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other partners launched the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) to scale up circular economy innovations. PACE has three focus areas: blended finance (especially for developing countries), policy frameworks, and public-private partnerships. Global corporations like IKEA, Coca-Cola and Alphabet Inc., along with the governments of Denmark, The Netherlands, Finland, Rwanda, UAE, and China, among others, are members of PACE. China’s 11th Five-Year Plan included the promotion of a circular economy as a national policy beginning in 2006. 

The British Standards Institution (BSI) developed and published the first standard for a CE in 2016. A report by McKinsey titled “Towards the Circular Economy: Economic and Business Rationale for an Accelerated Transition” has identified significant benefits of implementing a circular economy model across the EU, including net materials cost savings worth up to US$630 billion annually in the manufacturing sector alone.  

A circular economy can also contribute to meeting the emission reduction goals of the Paris Agreement. An analysis by Ecofys and Circle Economy estimates that circular economy strategies can reduce the gap between current commitments and business as usual by about half. 

The Doughnut Model

While a circular economy model can serve as a great model for a progressive economic and business framework, the world needs a broader approach that integrates complex socio-political ideologies that often drives the preference of economical models. In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that a free market-driven open-ended growth model is unsustainable and is the primary driver of global heating leading to the ecological breakdown and climate crisis. In 2012, Kate Raworth, a senior research associate at Oxford University introduced the idea of a Doughnut Economy that aims to make human welfare the basis of economic policy rather than the all-pervading pursuit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. 

circular economy model
Source: Kate Raworth

Economic welfare was defined as per the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that provide a set of minimum living standards by the UN for every human being. She extended the basic circular flow of money and goods model of economics by adding the nine planetary boundaries (environmental limits imposed by the planet) on the outside and social boundary consisting of SDGs on the inside – forming a doughnut. In this model, economic progress is measured in terms of the balance between human wellbeing and protection of the life support systems provided by the planet, thus mitigating global warming, ecological break-down and climate change. Since its introduction, this post-growth economic thinking has attracted the attention of a range of actors ranging from the UN General Assembly to Occupy the London movement. As many countries start re-examining prevalent strategies and economic policies in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the foundations of the Doughnut Model are being explored for the long-term planning and policy development of cities like Amsterdam

Sharon Ede, co-founder of the Post-Growth Institute, writes, “A truly circular economy would mean that the circular ethos is also reflected in our social systems, including our financial services, our business structures, and the political frameworks and cultural norms that influence human behavior.” Humanity needs to move away from consuming in excess and shift to consuming only that which is necessary to exist.

The locust swarms which continue to plague East Africa show how climate change can aggravate human conflict, which in turn makes formulating a response to natural disasters even harder.  

East Africa continues to face an unparalleled threat to its food and human security from the continued breeding cycles of desert locusts. New swarms will begin to form in June and July, spreading from Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia across the Horn of Africa and over to the Arabian Peninsula, India, Pakistan and Turkey. 

The East Africa Locust Plague

The East African locust swarms expose the interactive relationship between the climate crisis and armed conflicts. The exceptionally large locust numbers are a product of extreme climatic conditions with cyclones on the Arabian Peninsula in 2018 and huge rainfalls in East Africa in 2019 providing the ideal breeding grounds – damp soil and growing vegetation – for desert locusts. One swarm in Kenya covered 2,400km2 – three times the size of New York City – while typical swarms cover around 100km2. These weather events are likely a result of temperature fluctuations in the Indian Ocean. 

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With climate change the primary cause of the locust swarms, human conflict acts as an exacerbating factor. A key method of controlling the growth of locust populations is spraying them with pesticide before they have hatched, a process which was severely hindered by conflict in Yemen and Somalia. The sprays themselves could also be detrimental to local ecosystems. One Kenyan expert suggests that the mass use of pesticides may ‘kill “useful” insects, such as bees and beetles’. 

Yemen is an important area for the desert locust, with breeding grounds near the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2015, Yemen had a well-developed infrastructure for dealing with locusts. But the conflict has severely damaged this infrastructure and made it difficult to administer locust control measures. Key equipment like four-wheel drive vehicles have been destroyed or stolen – making monitoring very difficult – and funding for spraying programmes has been decimated. In addition, large portions of the country are controlled not by the government but by Houthi rebels. This makes a coordinated response to locust breeding zones impossible.

From Yemen, the locusts quickly spread to Somalia. Significant areas for locust breeding in the country are not controlled by the Somali government. The semi-autonomous region of Puntland is administered by Al-Shabaab, an armed group who oppose the Somali government. Aid groups and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation have had to negotiate access to Al-Shabaab controlled areas to conduct locust spraying operations, reducing the speed and effectiveness of these operations. 

Impacts of Locust Swarms

The locust swarms are likely to have a multiplier effect on food insecurity and conflict conditions in East Africa. The region has been severely affected by extreme climatic shifts, of which the locusts are the latest manifestation. Huge floods have already damaged the March to May crop season and the locusts will likely hinder the beginning of harvesting in July and August. In 2019, the food security of over 27 million people in East Africa was considered to be in ‘crisis’. Considering that a small swarm of locusts can eat the equivalent of 35 000 people in one day, the food insecurity situation is likely to deteriorate further. 

The devastation of pasture lands used to grow crops and provide grazing land for animals could spark conflicts between farming and pastoralist groups. Tensions between Pokot, Turkana and Samburu communities over the availability of grazing land in Kenya have escalated into armed conflict in recent years, a trend driven by severe droughts and the subsequent decline in pasture land. Locust swarms will aggravate this scarcity – over 70 000 acres of vegetation have already been demolished by locusts in Samburu East in the Rift Valley, increasing competition for land and heightening the conflict risk. 

The locust plagues highlight how climate change can increase the risk of conflict and how war can destroy the governance mechanisms and societal resilience that enables communities to cope with natural disasters and climate stress.

Featured image by: Jonathan Alpeyrie

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