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.

This article was originally published as a debate article in Sweden’s leading newspaper Dagens Nyheter (2 September 2018, in Swedish) and was translated into English by FinnishNews, with the note:

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 is becoming all too clear. In several areas, we have probably already passed a number of tipping points that have caused non-reversible changes in our living conditions.

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

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

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

We are already seeing the consequences of this development. Extreme weather events in the form of hurricanes, clouds, heat waves (such as those that affected the planet during the summer of 2018), drought, floods and even extreme cold have increased in scale and strength. In just a few decades, this development could give rise to hundreds of millions of climate refugees. And it is believed that most refugees come from regions which have not themselves contributed to global warming.

The development in the cryosphere is particularly 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 in the white surfaces of the planet also allows more solar heat to be absorbed and warming is enhanced.

In all this, C02 emissions continue to increase. The world has far from abandoned its fossil dependence: in 2017, fossil fuel consumption increased twice as much as the use of renewable energy. So far, man has released about 2100 Gt of C02 into the atmosphere, which might tolerate 2900 Gt if we are to 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, rapid onset of soil erosion, rapidly expanding global use of plastics, over-fishing of oceans and far-reaching loss of species that not only threaten biodiversity but may 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. In the research community, there is a strong consensus that a major change of course is required in how our society works, primarily in the economic system, to restore the planetary balance.

As far as climate policy is concerned, the risk is that people in general — including most decision-makers — have been lulled into the perception that we need only continue reducing emissions by one or a few percent annually, as has happened during recent decades. But for emissions to come down to almost zero — which is the target under Swedish climate law — such “incrementalism” is not enough. A major transformation is needed in every important sector.

And 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 required is a reorganisation of the resource-intensive consumption and production patterns established during the post-war era. This will entail not only 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, aluminium and plastics today account for nearly 20% of global C02 emissions. Add textiles and the share is more than 25%. Large-scale forestry plantations must compensate for the deforestation that is still ongoing, and agriculture must go from being a source of carbon — every time a plough is put into the soil, carbon is released — into a carbon sink.

Of course, there is nothing to indicate that the necessary change 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 with a bottom-up approach. Individual countries, companies and other actors must move ahead and, through good examples, show the way forward. This will involve interaction between large numbers of actors. Although much of the change required is both possible and profitable, vigorous political campaigns are essential 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.

Those of us who signed this paper suggest that Sweden can and should go ahead and show leadership in this transformation. If not us, then who?

The necessary proactive policies must be based on broad social mobilisation; 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 purposeful interaction between 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 Act — backed by seven parties — to be fully implemented. We feel that such an implementation will require a wide political consensus, either in the form of a cross-party government or through broad agreement among a wide alliance of parties on a roadmap for transformation, ie a successive removal of fossil fuels. Such an alliance among the parties, which could set aside party political games and give priority to long-term human survival, would awaken respect in Sweden and beyond. The transition to a socially and ecologically sustainable economy could also help to rejuvenate a party political system made rigid by old patterns of thinking.

The major challenges we face now do not fit into the established left-right party political scale, which is increasingly paralysing democracy. The challenge for our political system is to provide credible solutions for 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 fair, not least in supporting regions and citizens who are clearly not going to be winners. How can the transformation be achieved while maintaining competitiveness and simultaneously helping Swedish companies to adopt leading roles in the transformation required internationally? There is no doubt that the technology and systems development entailed by such a transformation 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 the momentum for the necessary transformation. The signatories stand ready to assist in the process, in support of transforming our society and the wider 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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We Don't Have Time

We Don't Have Time's goal is to create a social media platform for the future, focused on the biggest challenge of our times - the climate. Through our platform, millions of members will unite to put pressure on leaders , politicians and corporations to act for the climate.

We Don’t Have Time

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We Don’t Have Time is a social network for climate action. Together we are the solution to the climate crisis.

We Don't Have Time

We Don't Have Time's goal is to create a social media platform for the future, focused on the biggest challenge of our times - the climate. Through our platform, millions of members will unite to put pressure on leaders , politicians and corporations to act for the climate.