Tag Archives: economics

“COP-Out”- The Durban Climate Talks and the Tragedy of the Climate Commons. Will Business Innovation Save the World?

15 Dec

Feeling a bit like the holidays for sure.  And I feel like humanity just got “scrooged”.   A year ago, I wrote about the COP16 U.N. Climate Conference in Mexico City and how governments were playing “kick the can” with climate policy. I noted that there was “some progress on establishing more robust means to appropriate and distribute micro-finance funds to support development of technologies in developing countries that lack the dollars themselves to manage their own greenhouse gas footprints.”  I also noted that many companies, rather than countries were taking unilateral initiatives to reach deep into their supply chain to develop innovative, new products that are less impacting to the environment and that can help developing-nations likely to be hit hard by global warming.

Based on what has (or has not) transpired at the recently wrapped up COP17/CMP5 in Durban the past two weeks, I am left feeling that global consensus on this issue, while not completely out of the question, is getting closer.  But the incremental, baby step pace of progress is (according to most climate scientists) insufficient to avert seemingly unstoppable rise in year over year average global temperatures.  It’s not the science that appears in question, rather it appears that there appears to be ongoing hesitancy to bear accountability and resolute responsibility on the part of those who carry or deny the mantle of developed nation status (hint: United States, China, India).  Despite the last minute efforts of the 194 nations in attendance and working past the official end of the conference, hopes for a meaningful and comprehensive global agreement appeared to be faltering.

As an example, the recent article in the Guardian stated that “The EU has found it hard to push through its “roadmap” that would establish an overarching, legal agreement committing all countries to emission cuts”.    So, the EU got what it wanted.  Also, according to an African delegate, “The US has what it wants. There is no guarantee that the new agreement will legally bind governments to cut emissions.”  The U.S. indeed got what it wanted. China and India continue to maintain they are still too undeveloped on the whole to be accountable in the same manner as western, industrialized nations and also claims they are implementing what they have already pledged to do at prior UN conferences.  Um…show me.

The one big victory I did hear that came out of the past two weeks was on an agreement on establishing a $100 billion/year climate fund to help developing countries address climate change.  But before we celebrate that breakthrough, there’s a small outstanding issue …there is no clear mechanism for how that money will be raised. In the recent words of GOP candidate Gov. Rick Perry… “Oops”.  In addition, rich countries would be allowed to offset their emissions by making payments to poor countries which protected their forests.  Is this a bilateral effort or are poorer counties expected to bear 100% of the burden of making that happen.  What is thought to be enough isn’t.  Tim Gore, policy adviser for Oxfam, stated “Governments must really get to grips with the climate crisis.”  That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.  Gore summed up his take on the winners, losers and likely impact on the poorer nations here.

So, while COP17 by most measures succeeded where prior UN gatherings failed, the agreements on which progress will be measured (using the 2015 and 2020 yardsticks established at Durban) may not be swift enough to stem the slow bleed that climate change is bringing on around the world.

Supply Chain Sector Gets Some Attention

Going into the climate conference, two key supply chain sectors, aviation and shipping, were targeted for discussion. According to the Civil Air Services Navigation Organization, “After a number of days of tough negotiations on aviation, there was still no decision on some of the key aspects of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and how they relate to aviation and shipping, and the ability for countries negotiation under the UNFCCC to tell negotiators at ICAO what to do.

In the final agreed Durban Platform text on aviation, there was a brief placeholder text:  “International aviation and maritime transport Agrees to continue its consideration of issues related to addressing emissions from international aviation and maritime transport;”

Basically, there was no agreement was reached …end of story.  That being said, I have written countless posts on the administrative and technological advances underway by large intermodal shippers and transporters and the aviation industry to quell fuel use and has been exploring how to develop sustainable aviation biofuels, including in developing countries to meet the Climate Fund goals established in Durban.  Aviation and transportation stakeholders have concluded that “agreement amongst nearly all countries [is] that [International Civil Aviation Organization] ICAO is the most appropriate place to deal with aviation emissions. The industry will continue to engage with ICAO to ensure that an ambitious work program can deliver an outcome on aviation emissions by the next ICAO Assembly in 2013”.

Moving past Durban

The Huffington Post summarized the main outcome of COP17, the so-called “Durban Platform”, including the “establishment and empowerment of an “Ad Hoc Working Group” to develop a new protocol and to “complete its work … no later than 2015 in order … [for the new protocol] … to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.” The new protocol is to be a “legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” with this critical stipulation: “applicable to all Parties.” Nowhere in this agreement do the words “common but differentiated appear.” (Full details in this draft document: “Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.”)”

Writer and author Marc Gunther summed up the positive and negative spins on the Durban conference, and suggested that perhaps the evolution of climate negotiations will transcend universal treaties, relying more on regional, collaborative agreements and technological advances as the primary means of progress.  Gunther nails the takeaways by suggesting that “First, those companies that worry about climate change need to bring their voices more forcefully to the policy arena; they can’t assume that governments are on the right track. Second, companies ought to prepare for climate change–when they site new facilities, for example–because it’s unavoidable.”

The Durban Platforms emphasis on more dialogue, more planning and lack of clear immediate is tragic.  Not for the planet.  No sane person can look me in the eye and say with a straight face that seven billion people, with all their wants and needs, have not affected the global ecosystem.  But despite all the perversities and ravages that we’ve inflicted on Earth, the planet will survive.  But for us, the larger mass of humanity, we hold our own fate in our hands …and we are blowing it.  Why?  Because there are nations (the EU, United States, China and India among them) that cannot…or will not…move past their “self interest”.  They are just kicking the can down the road.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Harding published “The Tragedy of the Commons in the journal Science. I was introduced to Hardin’s theory many times during my undergraduate and graduate environmental law studies. His highly controversial and criticized theory presented a hypothetical situation involving herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. Hardin theorized that it was in each herder’s “self interest” to put more cows onto the land, even if the quality of the common is damaged for all (through overgrazing). The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. Further if all herders make the same choice, the common will be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.  Systems ecologists called this an exceedance of “carrying capacity” resulting in other tragedies likie overfishing, depletion of forest resources, water supplies and arable land.   And while the acts of an individual or one corporation may singularly have little impact, the cumulative effect can be overwhelming and often leave irreversible impacts.

Hardin’s theories have been widely criticized from an economic point of view.  Political scientist Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics (2009), showed that the “Tragedy of the Commons” (its overuse and destruction) doesn’t happen, at least when all the people who share the commons can get together and talk about it.   Ostrom found that, when there are no internal or external forces preventing the “commoners” from a free, open and robust discussion of how they should agree to govern and limit their use of it so it doesn’t get overgrazed and thus ruined for all, then the commons goes on thriving.

And that, dear friends and readers is the tragedy of the Climate Conference in Durban…the political process and governmental self interest appeared once again come up short, co-opting the outcomes “to the detriment of all”. As noted in a National Public Radio broadcast in 2009, “Every nation wants to act in its own interest but that may not be the same as the global interest.”

Innovation, Technology and a Collective Conscience

I believe now, as I believed and wrote about during COP16 in Mexico City and after COP15 in “Nope”nhagen that governments were putting off today what we can technologically achieve now. What happened?  Has humanity lost its mojo…or is something else going on?

In a fascinating article by venture capitalist Roland Van Der Meer, Holding Off the Tragedy of the Commons, he describes some of the underlying factors that he believes have contributed to the global decline in natural resources, and lack of environmental stewardship…and it comes down to innovation.

Both governments and corporations are institutions that exist for the reason of self promulgation, actualization, and advancement (to further itself, to continue to exist, to not change). The methodologies that they deploy and back is their best practice, it is what they believe, what they will hold on to and how they will exist and thrive. And this is the failure point. It is not meant to change. Its very survival depends upon the lack of change.

What is missing is a catalyst for change. Why change? Because what worked best 100, 50,  20 or even 10 years ago is no longer the best methodology or practice.

The institution is good at doing what it was designed to do and it stubbornly holds on to that design at the expense of its own destruction or the method it protects. Change is needed.

The incumbent companies and regulations are stuck in a process and framework which prevents and disincentivizes change. They even go further to lock out or block change because it would lead to their own destruction…. it is our collective resources that are at stake. We need to be open and create the new enterprises that will create, invent and adapt in the basic resources areas.

I believe, as do organizations like the Responding to Climate Change (RTCC) that the private sector can “pick up the slack” in tackling climate change where government agreements have (up to this point) failed.   However, to effectively incentivize innovative technologies, the private sector must continue to be a part of the larger policy debate.  There is a way out of the mess we have made and one of my personal life influencers, Amory Lovins, has a plan.  In his new book, Reinventing Fire- Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era offers “actionable solutions for four energy-intensive sectors of the economy: transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity”. The Rocky Mountain Institutes Lovins states “business can become more competitive, profitable, and resilient by leading the transformation from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. This transition will build a stronger economy, a more secure nation, and a healthier environment.” Imagine if this approach can be applied at a global level, with a combination of government/business and monitored, measurable multi-national collaboration and a collective common conscience. What have we got to lose?

When it comes to real action on climate change, the upside of heretical innovation is huge…and the downside unthinkable.

Advertisements

What’s Consumer and Business Responsibility Got to Do with Economic Prosperity & Sustainability?

7 Jun

The past few weeks I have been wrapped up in some circle of life issues involving my aunt and mother, so writing has taken a back seat.  During this time,  I have been observing the dissolution and redistribution of my 91-year-old aunts’ household and supported the challenge of deciding which belongings should go temporarily with my 86-year-old mother to assisted living.   My current role as a duly appointed member of the ”sandwich generation” is fulfilled too when my teenage daughter asks to go on yet another trip to the mall to view the latest fashions.  All these events have brought to mind the material possessions that we accumulate over the course of our lives, the ingrained value we place on “things” and how they somehow give us more pleasure or worth.

Ironically, last week I also had the chance to participate in a number of one on one and group discussions revolving around the role(s) that we as consumers have in managing resources, waste generation and sustainable development.  I weighed in on the responsibility that consumers have in the 21st century supply chain (related to conflict minerals), just as I had mentioned in a keynote speech to the European Petrochemical Association this March.  Other participants reflected on how individuals bear a high degree of responsibility for the explosive growth in electronic and other consumer product waste.

What is abundantly clear is that we (as consumers) are all accountable for our own individuals actions in deciding what we buy, how much, how long we keep and maintain what we do have, and what we replace it with.  From cell phones, to cars, to clothes and home products, Western society has lost the passion for “thrift”.  I believe, like my parents generation did, that thrift is one of the key principles that built this great nation, but it has seemed to have gotten shoved aside in the name of consumerism and  growth,  which by the way is different than prosperity.  Of course Keynesian economists will take me to the woodshed about the meaning of  thrift in growing an economy. According to an article by the CATO Institute, ” The paradox of thrift refers to how–in the Keynesian model of the economy–an increase in saving reduces production and employment. This supposedly occurs because a decrease in spending leads to a decrease in employment, which leads to a further decrease in spending, which leads to a further decrease in employment, which leads to a yet further decrease in spending, and so on. Thus, if people try to increase their saving, there will supposedly be a decrease in spending, and a fall in employment and production.”

Prosperity versus Growth?

“Economic growth is supposed to deliver prosperity. Higher incomes should mean better choices, richer lives, an improved quality of life for us all. That at least is the conventional wisdom. But things haven’t always turned out that way.” 

So states Professor Tim Jackson (Director of the Research group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE) at the University of Surrey) in a very important and compelling work, Prosperity without Growth.  The research was commissioned in 2009 by the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission and puts in focus the rather serious nature of what “progress” really is in society and the norms on which its measured.

Courtesy Christian Science Monitor

The economic slump of the last three years has also sharpened this debate over whether more is better, whether growth in consumer goods and spending really supports a sustainable economy and whether the environment and human rights are placed in harm’s way in the name of economic growth.  As Jackson notes, “The profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services. This process of ‘creative destruction’, according to the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is what drives economic growth forwards.”   The past several years have prompted a series of key questions that I’ll throw out here for thought:

  1. Has quantity in life trumped quality in life?
  2. Does producing more and having more truly lead to a prosperous economy and long-term sustainability?
  3. Does producing more and having more truly lead to a prosperous economy and long-term sustainability? Can we still flourish?
  4.  Does having more truly make us happier, lead more productive lives and allows us as a society to be the better social animals that we are wired to be?

All tough questions, and way more to ponder in the limits of this one post for sure.  But Professor Jackson’s commission report and follow-up book on the subject mirrored what was reflected the conversations that participated in last week.   Jackson himself admits that “Prosperity has undeniable material dimensions.  It’s perverse to talk about things going well where there is inadequate food and shelter (as is the case for billions in the developing world). But it is also plain to see that the simple equation of quantity with quality, of more with better, is false in general.”

I’ve no doubt that economic growth is vital for stimulating an economy that appears to be headed toward a dreaded “double dip” recession.  However, what is critical for policy makers, economists, the financial community and electorate to grapple with is what types of investments are best to lead us out of this morass and into a future that is stable and prosperous.  Jackson, among others has argued that “targeting that investment carefully towards energy security, low-carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits [in other words a more sustainable, green economy]. These benefits include:

• freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs

• reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply

• providing a much-needed boost to employment in the expanding ‘environmental industries’ sector

• making progress towards demanding global carbon reduction targets

• protecting valuable ecological assets and improving the quality of our living environment for generations to come.”

Producers vs. Consumers- Who Holds the Key?

So am I arguing in favor of a reaching a “steady state economy” with no growth?  To be honest, I’m not sure at this point.  There have been debates over this concept for generations, and I am no economist.  Jackson himself admits that no clear model exists for achieving economic stability without at least some measure of consumptive growth.  While goods producers have control over what they make, where they source their goods to make the things we buy, the “making” side of the economy is but one side of the debate that is in play here.  There is also the “using” side of the debate that drives deep in the social fabric and psyche of the consuming public. We as consumers can shape the debate around and effects that can have on the products that are made, mass-produced, sold and consumed.   This is perhaps the toughest nut to crack, because it’s the consumer that drives the demand that in turn drives production, which then drives consumption of resources, which of course determines the stresses on the environment.  You see, we hold the key…as the old Pogo cartoon says, “We have met the enemy and it’s us”.

In a recent article in the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, Tim Jackson again weighs in on the strong psychological attachment that humans by nature have to material things and their feelings about the environment.  “People do indeed hold deeply felt motivations to protect the environment. Occasionally they can even save money by doing so. But powerful psychological forces still hold them in thrall. The creeping evolution of social norms and the sheer force of habit conspire to lock us into expanding material aspirations.”

You see, letting go of things that make us feel good is hard.  But the instant gratification that comes with these choices has undoubtedly led us all down a slippery slope, which only we can muster the power to crawl back up.  But only if we make sound, greener choices that recognize a balance between consumption, thrift and ecological limits.

These questions and issues, among others will be reflected upon to some degree this week at Sustainable Brands ’11 in Monterey CA.  I’ll be there also with over 750 other sustainability, corporate social responsibility, consumer marketing/ branding and industry professionals to learn, communicate and exchange ideas.  Look for my occasional tweets (@DRMeyer1) and observations as the event rolls along.

What Really Matters in Business Happens at the Edges- Take the Lean and Green Challenge!

28 Mar

Is the economic downtown turning a corner? Well, yes it is…just which corner it’s turning no one really knows…yet. In the meantime, most companies are sitting tight, private capital is hanging on the sidelines, and the “green” natives are getting restless. So it was with great interest that this week an article was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review which echoed the sentiment that I have carried forward with my clients for years. Recalling Michael Douglas’ “Wall Street” character’s statement that “Greed is Good”, MIT Sloan’s basic message is… “Green is Good.

MIT presents two ways of thinking:

Old Thinking: Companies have long mistakenly thought that adopting environmentally friendly processes adds costs.

New Thinking: Green practices like recycling, reusing and reducing waste can cut costs because they make a company more efficient.

Using an example set by Subaru of Indiana, there are many proofs to the axiom that prevention of pollution and continually improving efficiencies …one idea that focuses on environmental improvement, and the other on business economics, works even in lean times. Subaru found that:

1.Profits come by increasing efficiency and reducing waste—but they don’t always come immediately.

2.Management’s leadership is vital in setting goals and getting departments to cooperate.

3.The front line workers have to be engaged to spot opportunities to reduce, reuse, recycle, and find other ways to create efficiencies.

4.Sustainability initiatives achieve maximum benefit from involvement of their supply chain.

5.All waste by-products are potentially new products

6.Green initiatives foster creativity and can enhance competitive advantage.

Let’s all be honest…that last point…competitive advantage is what really motivates business. So company sustainability initiatives cannot and should not be viewed through strictly an environmental lens, but through the balanced “sweet” spot of the Triple Bottom Line.

To paraphrase Guy Kawasaki in his book, Rules for Revolutionaries, what really matters happens at the edges. The action is not in the centers or areas of sameness. Organizations must challenge conventions and change the way products and processes are thought of and delivered.

So take the Lean and Green challenge…do what Subaru has done and get to work innovating and creating.