A broad political consensus is needed to achieve a sustainable future

A recent debate article about the lack of political leadership in terms of climate change in one of Sweden’s leading websites and newspapers resonates in the global context. 
WeDontHaveTime CEO Ingmar Rentzhog and Anders Wijkman, co-president of the Club of Rome are two of the authors. It’s a must read.

The host of the 2018 ‘WeDontHaveTime Climate Conference’ Martin Hedberg (left) and Julia Messelt. Martin points at the ‘BAU” (Business As Usual) dot, saying it is not an option anymore. Photography: David Hjortsberg.

This article was originally published as a debate article in Sweden’s leading newspaper Dagens Nyheter (September 2nd 2018 in Swedish) and was translated to English by FinnishNews that wrote:

The writers of the article are a group of well-known Swedish thinkers, business leaders and academics who are concerned that the next Swedish government should take the global lead on Climate Change. — FinnishNews

Man’s negative impact on the planet becomes all too clear. In several areas, we have probably already passed a number of tipping points that cause non-reversible changes in our living conditions.

One example is a changing climate resulting from man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The last three years are the warmest ever measured: 1.1 °C above pre-industrial values. The C02 content in the atmosphere is now increasing ten times as fast as in earlier periods in the planet’s history when the C02 content in the atmosphere was at the same level as today’s.

A new report by leading climate scientists in PNAS of August 6, warns that already a 2 ° degree warming may cause the planet to “tip over” and that accelerating warming becomes impossible to stop.

We already see the consequences of this development. Extreme weather events in the form of hurricanes, clouds, heat waves (such as those who swept over the earth during the summer), drought, floods and even extreme cold have increased in scale and strength. Already in a few decades, this development could give rise to hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Most refugees are believed to come from regions that have not themselves contributed to global warming.

The development in the cryosphere is extra worrying. Glaciers and sea ice are melting faster and involve changes that can be irreversible. As a result, sea levels are rising faster. The reduction of the white surfaces of the planet allows more solar heat to be absorbed and the warming is enhanced.

In all this, C02 emissions continue to increase. The world has far from abandoned its fossil dependence: fossil fuel consumption increased 2017 twice as much as the use of renewable energy. So far, man has released about 2100 Gt of C02 into the atmosphere that might tolerate 2900 Gt, if we should have a reasonable chance of meeting the climate targets in the Paris Agreement. With current emission rates, the remaining emission space will be consumed before 2040. Then we are in uncharted waters.

Other, partly connected, critical areas where natural systems are overused or abused are the depletion of freshwater supplies, the rapid onset of soil erosion, the rapidly expanding global use of plastics, the over-fishing of the oceans and the far-reaching loss of species that not only threaten biodiversity but can lead to a sixth global wave of mass extinction.

Four decades of international environmental and climate negotiations have so far yielded results that are not even close to what is required. The consensus is strong in the research community that a major change in course is necessary in our society’s way of working, primarily in the economic system, to restore the planetary balance.

As far as climate policy is concerned, the risk is that people in general — most decision-makers included — have been lulled into the perception that the only thing necessary is to continue to reduce emissions by one or a few percent annually, as has happened during the last decades. But for emissions to come down to almost zero — which is the target under the Swedish climate law — “incrementalism” is not enough. What is needed is a major transformation in all important sectors.

The necessary conversion needs to be initiated quickly. Greenhouse gas emissions must immediately begin to decrease by at least 7% annually, both globally and in Sweden.

What is needed is a reorganization of the resource-intensive consumption and production patterns established during the post-war era. This not only entails a transformation of the energy system — the only sector where policy has so far had some effect — but also of material use, infrastructure and agriculture. Steel, cement, aluminum and plastics today account for nearly 20% of global C02 emissions. Add textiles and the share is over 25%. Large-scale forest plantations must compensate for deforestation that is still ongoing and agriculture must go from being a source of carbon — every time a plow is put into the soil, carbon is released — into a carbon sink.

There is nothing to indicate that the necessary change of course can be achieved through international agreements alone. The top-down strategy has failed. The Paris Agreement and the pledges made by governments in this context are insufficient. In order to have a chance of success, the work of saving the planet must start have a bottom-up approach. Individual countries, companies and other actors must go ahead and, through good examples, show the way forward. It is about interaction between a lot of actors. Although much of the change that is required is both possible and profitable, vigorous political campaigns are required to adjust prices, taxes and regulations so that the transition to a sustainable society becomes attractive, profitable and fast. The focus within large parts of the financial sector must be shifted from asset speculation and the pursuit of short-term earnings to supporting long-term sustainable investments.

We who signed this paper suggest that Sweden can and should go ahead and show leadership in this transformation. If not us then who should do it?

The necessary proactive policies must be based on a broad social mobilization. Something reminiscent of what takes place in communities threatened by war. The situation is similar now: we have an acute crisis that requires large-scale, robust and immediate action. It also requires a purposeful interaction with different social actors, including cultural and religious communities, to highlight these critical existential issues.

Voters expect the Energy Partnership of 2016 — backed by five parties — and the world’s most ambitious Climate Law — backed by seven parties -to be fully implemented. The implementation will, according to our views, require a wide political consensus, either in the form of a cross-party government or through a broad agreement among a wide alliance of parties on a roadmap for transformation, i e a successive removal of fossil fuels. Such an alliance among the parties , that could put the party-political games aside and give priority to human long-term survival would awaken respect in Sweden and beyond. The transition to a socially and ecologically sustainable economy could also help to rejuvenate a partypolitical system stiffened by old patterns of thinking.

The major challenges we face now do not fit into the established left-right partypolitical scale, which is increasingly paralyzing democracy. The challenge for our political system is to provide credible solutions to how the transition to an ecologically and socially sustainable society can be shaped.

Many questions require broad collaboration, such as how we can make the necessary transformation to be fair, not least to support regions and citizens who are obviously not going to be the winners. How can the transformation be achieved while maintaining competitiveness and at the same time help Swedish companies to take on leading roles in the transformation that is needed internationally. There is no doubt that the technology and systems development that the transformation entails can be a powerful investment in competitiveness and welfare.

The measures that need to be taken are well-known, although largely absent from the electoral debate. The next government’s primary task is to create a momentum for the necessary transformation. The signatories stand ready to assist in the process, in support of transforming our society and the world into a low-carbon economy.

Mats Andersson, Vice Chairman of the Global Challenges Foundation
Erik Brandsma, CEO of Jämtkraft
Malena Ernman, Opera Singer
Antje Jackelén, Archbishop
Staffan Laestadius, Professor Emeritus KTH
Kristina Persson, former Minister of the Future
Ingmar Rentzhog, Chairman of the Global Development Challenge
Johan Rockström, Professor of Environmental Sciences SU
Daniel Sachs, CEO of Proventus
Anders Wijkman, Chairman of the Club of Rome


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