Fresh air for the environment
Has progress towards a better environment ground to a halt? If so, what and who can trigger the changes needed? Is a ‘New Environmentalism’ likely to win the middle ground between the sceptical and the converted, and inspire the public's imagination? Green Week 2014 opened with a summit that brought together leaders from the arts, business, policy, academia and campaigners to debate how to make environment policies and actions more effective.
"For all the investment in cutting-edge clean technologies, the popular support of vast swathes of society, and the political rhetoric committing to urgent action, greener economic models are not cutting through into the mainstream at the pace that is required," said James Murray, Editor of BusinessGreen, who introduced the summit.
"There is a kind of paradox in that we know we have the potential for a sustainable economy but can't seem to get on track," said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute, explaining this seeming paradox by the momentum and inertia of the global economy. "The challenge of our generation … is how to live together in a crowded world – bursting at the seams in both human and ecological resource terms."
Different actors and actions have to be aligned to win the fight for sustainable development, he said, finishing on an optimistic note: "We have the know-how, the technology and the need. Let's do it!"
Poetry as well as prose
Film-maker Yann Arthus-Bertrand said: "To be an environmentalist is to love life and others." Looking back over his books, films and projects, he called for a transformation that was spiritual, and not just technological and economic: "We have talked too much about guilt and not enough about personal responsibility," he said.
Environmentalists need to leave their comfort zone, to get to "where the magic happens", according to Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF. To convert awareness into action, environmentalists need to talk to wider circles of interest and connect with people. "By mobilising billions of people … we will trigger change," he said.
"We need to win the huge middle ground between the sceptical and the converted," he added, stressing the importance of empowering local people in their local battles.
Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author of Living Downstream, a documentary about the relationship between environmental factors and cancer, began with a warning: "We are 65% water by weight and we breathe a pint of air with each breath."
Due to our reliance on fossil fuels, she said, we are facing two crises – climate change and chemical pollution – and the science says we must leave 80% of remaining carbon in the ground. For this reason, "fracking is a bridge to nowhere", she said.
Fracking has environmental consequences, and expanding it holds back the circular economy, she argued, calling for a comprehensive health-impact assessment.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, agreed that fracking contributes to the illusion of "buying time", but he also gave a more positive message: "We are privileged; we have never had so much information or so much attention."
Even if the graphs are all pointing in the wrong direction, he argued, environmentalists are "on the right side of history": 12% of land area is already under some kind of protection, it has only been 25 years since the first high-level scientific discussions on climate change, and yet we are now transforming our economy. Last year, he noted by way of illustration, more was invested in renewable energy infrastructure than in oil, gas and coal combined.
Although we have allowed the economic paradigm to define prices for environmental resources, he said, we have seen new concepts emerge: gross national happiness, green economy, resource efficiency and, from China, the ʻecological civilisationʼ.
He concluded that the New Environmentalism will need to be economically literate, to address finance and to articulate opportunities and solutions – not just problems.
According to Mitch Hedlund, Founder and Executive Director of the NGO 'Recycle Across America', US recycling has plateaued at 34%. But if it increased to 75%, it would create 1.5 million new jobs. Noting that global waste is projected to double by 2025, she spoke about the problem of poor labelling on bins: public recycling bins are confusing, leading to scepticism and mistakes.
Her organisation provides a standardised recycling label system. The campaign uses media and big brand collaboration, which can lead to 50-100% improvement in recycling rates. Their target is to distribute 1 million standardised labels by the end of 2014, and they have already donated 250 000 to schools. "Make it easier and people will do the right thing," she concluded.
For Jacques Perrin, film-maker and actor, life is about connection: "No living being in the world is truly alone."
Stressing the need to explore new concepts, he said that the future of Europe lies in diversity, both cultural and natural. We need "solidarité écologique" and a "Declaration of Interdependence"!
Circular path forwards
European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik started by quoting the Polar explorer Robert Swan: "The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."
"The vast majority of individuals and businesses make choices based on what seems to be best for them," said the Commissioner. So we need national and international policies and agreements which restrict individuals' and companies' behaviour. Without them, the environment will suffer.
But the paths to economic well-being and environmental sustainability are the same: "Today we need a new revolution".
"I believe that in the face of resource scarcities and rising prices we will be able to perform miracles in raising resource productivity," he said. "To get there we will not only need technological development and innovation; we will also need new business models that decrease impact across the whole life cycle of products."
For Potočnik, Old and New Environmentalism need to go hand in hand in the same way that the economy and the environment do. "Together we need to make our governments – and yes, the EU also – realise that it's not just the economy, stupid," he said.
Summing up, Murray concluded that protecting the planet is linked to protecting the quality of life: clean technology is better, renewables have lower operating costs, green businesses are safer, low-carbon investment delivers jobs – but perhaps most of all, "this stuff is cool!"