The question isn’t whether we can fix climate change, but whether it can fix us

The climate is changing – both in general (bad) and also in business (good). Linear is becoming circular, waste is a dirty word for companies and the threat of impending doom is driving innovation. And while we may be reaching the limits on our natural resources, Rachel Brown, CEO of the Sustainable Business Network, thinks we're a long way from reaching the limits of human ingenuity – and businesses have a major responsibility to create a better way. 

Climate change is just one of several major global social and environmental challenges humanity is facing. And we need engaged, prosperous societies that restore and protect the world around us. 

A 2013 report by environmental consultancy Trucost on behalf of a UN-sponsored programme suggests the scale of the challenge we face when it comes to climate change. It found that none of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they met the full cost of the environmental damage they do. Our economic system is systematically degrading the Earth's dynamic life support systems.

We urgently need to adopt a systemic shift in the way our economy works. Not just to stop doing damage, but to repair the damage already done.

Thankfully, this is already underway. The Paris Climate Agreement now connects the efforts of 195 countries on this issue. Between 2004 and 2016 US$241.6 billion of new investment flowed into the clean energy sector.23 countries and states have phased out coal, as US$432 billion of capital leaves the industry. Worldwide sales of electric cars reached 750,000 in 2016 and are accelerating rapidly. Every day billions of positive steps are being taken by organisations and individuals all over the world. They are acting and innovating to cut waste and pollution of all kinds.

Perhaps most importantly, new generations of people joining the workforce are educated and immersed in this struggle. The attitudinal shifts they bring with them are rewarding the businesses tackling these issues. And, conversely, they are punishing those who are not.

But pushing the pace of change remains a moral imperative. Science fiction writer William Gibson has said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” For the people dying all over the world in extreme weather events, food shortages and wars being driven by climate change, it’s already too late. Low lying coastal areas are becoming uninhabitable. And if you want to see the majesty of the Great Barrier Reef before it dies you might want to hurry, but please sail there.

It is about nurturing viable alternatives to the dominant ‘take-make-waste’ linear model. Ultimately it is changing the way we see ourselves, from exploiters and extractors to something much more harmonious and interconnected. This is the real power of the regenerative/holistic economic models that are now being developed and trialled.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst case scenario suggests 4°C of warming by 2100 if no significant policy changes are made.A World Bank report says this would mean unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and major floods across many regions. Visualisations from Climate Central suggest large parts of Bangladesh drown at 4°C, displacing millions of people. Central parts of London and New York will need gigantic sea defences, or will cease to exist.

This is not never never land. This is the science about the lives your grandchildren may lead.

But it is not inevitable. The 2°C limit set in Paris reflects the concern that beyond it lies increased risk of ‘tipping point’ processes that could create a very hostile world. But the limit is also based on what is possible.

To meet it we have to make the changes we already know about. We also have to innovate like hell to develop more solutions. It can be done. Because that future is already here too. It is just not evenly distributed. It’s a system shift. Utilising a low carbon circular economy where the lifecycles of materials are maximised, usage optimised and at the end of life all materials are reutilised. It is designing our systems to be restorative. It is power from renewable energy. It is about nurturing viable alternatives to the dominant ‘take-make-waste’ linear model. Ultimately it is changing the way we see ourselves, from exploiters and extractors to something much more harmonious and interconnected. This is the real power of the regenerative/holistic economic models that are now being developed and trialled.

The most obvious examples of how this is being done in our everyday lives are companies like ecotricity, bringing clean energy to the masses. Or car-sharing companies like Mevo cutting transport emissions. But even some of the larger emitters like Air New Zealand and Z energy are pioneering new ways to do what they do with less harm. Entire industries are making changes, from the food we eat to the machines we use.

In every sense, we have no time to waste. The Stern Report from 2006 was very clear: the longer we take to turn the corner, the more waste we generate, the less hospitable our world becomes and the more expensive it is to remedy. Today we shape the future for the next few hundred years – that’s how long it will likely take for this global gas experiment to play out. The decisions and investments we make now will decide what life is like while that happens.

And it could be majestic. Because we are being driven to take the opportunity to be something better. There are breath-taking opportunities to do great things along the way. There are incredible rewards out there for those willing to do the work. Business is the major institution the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2017 suggests is needed to drive us out of this. But it needs to do it by deeply responding to the real needs of the communities in which it operates.

Humanity’s hope is that we may be reaching the limits of our natural resources on this planet, but we have not yet come close to reaching the limits of our ingenuity and our imagination. 

Rachel Brown, ONZM, is CEO of the Sustainable Business Network. 

The 'Can We Fix It?' series, which looks at how we're using innovation and ingenuity to try and solve some of our thorniest problems, is brought to you by Kiwibank. Kiwibank is passionate about the future of New Zealand, and about making Kiwis better off. They’re 100% Kiwi-owned, which means their profits stay right here in New Zealand.

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