Six months after the COP21: 4 ways to unleash the power of Sustainable Development

As the Paris Agreement destined to fight global warming has been signed by more than 175 countries, it's urgent that we now make sure it produces the desired results. Indeed, Climate Central, an ONG that utilizes NASA data, has just announced that in the first 3 months of 2016, we were already dangerously close to the 1,5º temperature increase limit fixed by the COP21.

More than twenty years after John Elkington invented the expression "Triple Bottom Line" for the 3 P's (People, Planet, Profit), in 2015 the United Nations introduced an agenda based on 5 Ps: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, Partnership, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) for the period spanning 2015-2030.

How many Ps do we still need to save our civilization from a climate disaster?

In September, British think tank Volans and the UN Global Compact will together launch the Breakthrough Innovation Platform, a showcase for innovations that could feasibly counter-balance the bleakest of prophecies. Champions of sustainable development are multiplying their efforts; nothing is too grandiose to exit the Anthropocene era. But, aren't these initiatives a Sisyphean task? Let's think about it for a moment...

Just because we cannot clearly see progress, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We need to look at the long-term picture. The road we've taken since the 1990s is monumental: a shift in consumer consciousness, technological transformations in favor of the environment, pollution-reducing regulations. If the benefits aren't immediately obvious, it's in part because they are so difficult to measure. Indeed, it's not that there are no advances in sustainable development; rather, they've gotten sucker punched by contrarian currents.

Like, for example, the financial markets' short-termism that is putting a strain on virtuous practices, a phenomenon analyzed in a study by Generation Foundation and 2°i Investing Initiative, The Long-Term Risk Signal Valley of Death. Or the numerous geo-political crisis that are shoving ecology onto the back burner. It would be a big mistake to give into panic which, after all, rhymes with Titanic. Let's keep a cool head, and take a look at four approaches that are capable of yielding profound changes.  

Transparency

If any one country is concerned about pollution, it's China. Since January 1 2014, the government has taken the bull by the horns by forcing the country's 15,000 largest factories to track their emissions on an hourly basis. The information is made public and used by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs for their Blue Sky Map app, which has been downloaded more than 3 million times. Though it may still be too early to fully understand the impact of this program, Chinese citizens nonetheless now have the opportunity to get involved. In the United-States, the White House has just proposed a new rule that would require companies with federal contracts to report on their GHG emissions.

Science-Based Targets

It is also vital to set scientific, fact-backed goals for businesses, much like the Future-Fit Business Benchmark platform does. 155 major brands, including Coca-Cola Enterprises and Pfizer, have already rallied around "science-based" targets. Also, in his book "The Big Pivot", Andrew Winston promotes strategies that are formulated to not only target incremental progress, but to actually help avoid an ecological crash.

One audacious plan would be to adopt the "green rule," like the "golden rule" model that certain nations adopt to balance their budgets. The "green rule," which is part of the platform of a candidate for president of France, aims to balance our ecological deficit. The Earth Overshoot Day, calculated by the American NGO Global Footprint Network, shows that past a certain date every year, humanity must irreversibly dip into its natural reserves. In 2007, September 28 marked the point of "ecological deficit." In 2015, it was August 13. This principle would mandate this date to be set at December 31.

The Power of Supply Chains

The economy is not made up of only the big brands - the visible part of the iceberg. More than anything, it's the supply chains, the millions of suppliers, that are at the origin of our ecological footprint. The global supply networks represent up to four times the direct GHG (Greenhouse Gases) emissions of the multi-national ordering institutions. General Mills has understood the massive lever of progress represented by its value chain and has set itself the goal to reduce, by 2025, GHG emissions across its entire lifecycle by 28%; from farm to fork to landfill.

Crazy Inventions and Biomimicry

Finally, we must urge researchers to invent clean energy. "It's now or never" seemed to be the rallying cry for the participants of the last ARPA-E conference, a showcase for the most promising discoveries. On the front lines of this domain is bio-mimicry, a process for innovation that gets its inspiration from living organisms. One example is the wind tree, the first biomimetic windmill capable of generating power from even a light breeze, an example of which reigned over the entrance to the COP21 last winter.

Old fixes no longer work (Volans website). No offense to Bill Gates, who predicts that scientists will find a revolutionary clean energy in the next 15 years, but quick or easy fixes may not work either. Even if it's normal to dream of a magic bullet that will be the solution to all of our problems, we have no choice but to keep plugging away and applying proven approaches. Nor is it forbidden to count on the imagination of new generations to make the planet viable again, like Boyan Slat, the 21-year-old genius who wants to clean up our oceans. It's time to react. Let's get to work.

Sylvain Guyoton, Vice-President Research, EcoVadis