Change, Transition and Ambition

The closing session of the four day Green Week conference had Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik citing the short-term cycles in finance, business and politics as barriers to resource efficiency and sustainability. Potočnik argued that we need lifecycle standards for products,  and consumers who learn to choose the products with the smallest resource footprints. We need people to use and repair things like they used to. He emphasised the need for firm targets that are robust and defendable, as well as measurable indicators. “The change required is on the scale of a revolution” ended Potočnik, a sentiment that QCEA wholeheartedly agrees with.

Climate Action Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard speaks in the closing session of Green Week 2011. Image cc. Rachel Tansey.

Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, described how people generally assume that in order to end up with the world as we know it, we just need to continue business as usual. People assume that no change = no change. What must be understood is that business as usual will not result in the known world, but a world of huge change, insecurity and great costs. We need to make changes now, so that changes in the future are the right kind of changes, changes that retain the opportunities we have today, and create opportunities for the billions of people in developing countries. Hedegaarde encouraged people to see financial costs today as investments in another kind of future.

Hedegaarde argued that we must change the narrative – this is not just about climate change or resource efficiency, it is about energy security, jobs, growth, innovation. Change should not be feared, it should be welcomed, as an opportunity. And for this, Hedegaarde reiterated, we need ambitious targets, which will drive innovation. Such targets need to be binding, as the poor performance on the non-binding energy savings target shows, compared to the good progress on the binding emissions and renewables targets. The nature of the market is to be short-sighted, which is why targets and politics are needed; the time factor matters.

Bjorn Stigson from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) recognized that to achieve high human development, within the Earth’s limits, developing countries must develop in a different, less resource intensive way, and developed countries must reduce their consumption. The business front runners in corporate-sustainability believe this is possible, but that it will require an enormous amount of innovation and political will, and finding new ways to reflect scarcities and risks in market prices. Yet they recognize that this challenge offers huge business opportunities as well. Like it or not, Stigson told the audience, business has a huge role to play in meeting the sustainability challenge – they own most of the technology, they have the capital, they are the solutions providers. “We must collectively welcome business’ role in the transition” Stigson said.

In response to this call to give big business a big hug, an audience member questioned the role of businesses in frustrating the attempts of governments and policymakers to be ambitious or to exercise the political will for a transition to a sustainable future. Business and industry lobbying are structural inhibitors to this goal, as for example, polluting industries lobby against losing immensely profitable subsidies and tax exemptions.

Stigson countered that the WBCSD, comprised of companies that together represent $7 trillion, is a broad church; there are leaders and laggards, and a large middle ground. The leaders represent quite a big minority, and they are trying to make change happen, yet discussion continues to focus only on changing the laggards. Stigson told his challenger, “you can’t change the laggards, but don’t worry about them – they’re dinosaurs and they’ll die out at some point anyway.” Stigson’s message was that it is time to overlook the laggards and support the leaders and middle section.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple, as what matters is when these dinosaurs become extinct. If the lobbying practices of the laggards influence and weaken environmentally oriented policy development now, it has lasting effects on policy, just as their practices have lasting effects on the climate and resources. We don’t have time to wait for them to fade out, because whilst we wait, irreparable damage continues.

Right to left: Karl Falkenberg Director General, DG Environment, European Commission; Olaf Scholz, Mayor, City of Hamburg (European Green Capital Winner 2011); Janez Potočnik, Commissioner for the Environment. Image cc. Rachel Tansey.

Commissioner Potočnik, well used to the voices of lobbyists, summed up my reaction to Stigson’s argument, pointing out that it is still a question of to whom policy makers are listening – the progressive or the protective part of the business sector. Whose voices are louder?  We need to make the progressive voices louder and clearer. At the same time, Potočnik aptly concluded, politicians need to dare to make changes even in the face of some resistance.

Resistance will always be encountered when the winners are threatened to have the size of their prizes reduced, but there is also a vast amount of support for EU action on the environment. The latest EU Barometer poll showing that 89% of people think that more funding should be allocated to support environmentally friendly activities and developments. This is the kind of encouragement that policymakers should embrace, that should enable them to be bold. To be ambitious.

About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.

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