‘The Paris Agreement is not enough’: 10 lessons from WRI CEO Andrew Steer

Disruptive change is needed from businesses to avoid climate calamity. People, finance and technology are reasons to be optimistic, the head of World Resources Institute said at the Asia Environment Lecture in Singapore.

As president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, Dr Andrew Steer helms the organisation that works in more than 50 countries to address global challenges related to food, forests, water, climate, energy and cities.

Speaking at the 4th Asia Environment Lecture last month in Singapore, Dr Steer delivered a speech titled “Growing, Growing, Gone? How to Prosper while Protecting the Global Commons to a 200-strong audience.

The lecture, supported by City Developments, National Parks Board and National Environment Agency this year was held at the National University of Singapore. Here are 10 highlights.

1. The Paris Agreement is not enough. Dr Steer cautioned that while the Paris Agreement signed last year to tackle climate change was an “incredible achievement”, the progress made is “nowhere near enough”. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, as agreed in Paris, will take an 85 per cent reduction in global emissions. To do this, change cannot come in increments. “We need to see disruptive shifts across all of the major areas of economic life.”

But company bosses are starting to take responsibility, he noted. After Paris, 200 leaders of global firms said they wanted to go further and introduce science-based targets to measure and monitor progress in reducing environmental impact. These are the sort of leaders that need to be championed, Steer said. Science-based targeting, he said, is “a long way of saying instead of doing better, we’re going to do enough. It’s a big transition.”

2. The world must switch to renewables. It’s cheaper to do it right. Is it possible to move from today’s high carbon low efficiency economy to tomorrow’s low carbon high efficiency economy without losing economic growth? Yes, Steer said. But will the transition be too expensive? Even after building the renewable energy infrastructure needed, the amount saved from increased energy efficiency offsets the capital outlay, Steer said. “Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s too expensive, it’s not. It’s cheaper to do it right.” 

He was bullish about a price on carbon. “It’s stupid to tax good things, it’s smart to tax bad things like congestion and pollution,” said Steer, who was also optimisitic about the potential of the green finance market. Investors are starting to get it, he said. “What has happened in the last three years is very exciting. We have discovered that sustainable companies do better.”

“We need to dig deep and we need to remind ourselves that everyone’s in favour of change, but actually they’re not in favour of changing themselves. 

Andrew Steer, CEO, World Resources Institute

3. The economic tsunami. Last century, the global economy grew 20 times over. If the economy continues to grow by four per cent a year every year, it will be 50 times bigger at the end of this century.

“That’s a tsunami that no environmental regulations can protect against,” warned Steer, who noted that there had been a 34-fold increase in construction material used over the last century. “We’ve got to shift from the linear ‘take, make, waste’ to a more circular approach, and we have to shrink our global footprint in a pretty remarkable way if we are to be able to keep on growing,” he said.

4. Smarter cities. The battle against climate change will be won or lost in cities, Steer said. He pointed out that in the next 15 years, there’s going to be more infrastructure built in the world’s cities than exists today, and urban sprawl is already costing a trillion dollars a day, with people “basically sitting in cars, just wasting their time.”

If cities are designed with people in mind rather than cars, three trillion dollars will be saved, he said. Steer made reference to Barcelona, a city with a higher population than Atlanta, but one tenth the carbon emissions per capita. “We know that we want compact, connected, coordinated resilient cities. The question is how we get there.”

5. Feeding the 9.6 billion. The most difficult sustainability issue to address, Steer suggested, is food and agriculture. The world’s population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, requiring a 70 per cent increase in food supply, while carbon emissions from agriculture need to fall by at least 70 per cent.

One solution is to curb food waste, said Steer. Almost one third of all food produced is wasted. “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US,” he said. “It’s equivalent to planting the area of China with agricultural produce, watering it, fertilising it, and letting it rot.” There are big opportunities in tackling food waste, but “we can’t just hope for it, we need to think much more creatively about changing behaviour,” he said. “We need a movement rather than just a few policy tweaks.”

6. Transformative tech. Technology is the first of four “signs of hope” that Steer said point towards “great revolutions that must take place” to produce a low-carbon economy.

WRI has created Global Forest Watch, for example, a widely used system to identify forest fires developed with Google and NASA which helps find companies that are illegally clearing land. “We can now see within half a metre where the fires come from. That’s why Singapore is now using this data to prosecute [deforesting companies], as is Indonesia. You can now see through smoke so no one can hide it anymore.” 

7. The need for speed, getting there together. While sustainable development faces many hurdles, in all cases there is hope, said an optimistic Steer. “We’ve got the tools, we’ve got the knowledge, we’ve got the narrative, but it’s just not going fast enough. We need to start thinking through how to accelerate,” he said.

Quick change needs to be delivered at scale, and that will only come through joint efforts. Lots of small successes are not enough in today’s world, said Steer. “We just don’t have the time. You need to scale it. That’s why you need the big ideas, and the big partnerships.”

8. Bold politics, please. Beijing, one of the world’s most polluted cities, is considering introducing a toll charge to ease traffic in the style of Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing and London’s Congestion Charge. City officials have approached WRI to ask them not about the right technology to use, but how to get citizen buy-in. “It was the one thing that Mayor Bloomberg in New York was not able to deliver,” Steer noted.

More than 600 cities have signed a treaty that recognises carbon emissions as an indicator of economic inefficiency, which Steer hailed as a strong innovation but lacking in broad support. “How do we get a mayor in Jakarta, who is a decisive kind of guy, to learn from what you are doing here [in Singapore] and do it much much more boldly?” he said.

9. How to cross the tipping point. Why, during the presidency of Richard Nixon - who was no environmentalist - did the US pass the Clean Air Act? Why did US president Barack Obama oppose gay marriage when he came into office, but his government and others across the world support it just a few years later?

“If you want to cross a tipping point you need evidence of a problem very well communicated,” said Steer. “And you need to show is that there is a solution that’s good for the bottom line; it’s good for political leaders and good for citizens.”

10. It’s up to you, too. Progress in the past has not usually come from taxing a problem, it’s come from people who feel that it’s the right thing to do, and others have followed, Steer concluded.

“We need to dig deep and we need to remind ourselves that everyone’s in favour of change, but actually they’re not in favour of changing themselves. And if we’re not, then we may as well pack up and go home.”

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