Without US, progress still possible (Article in China Daily)


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The retreat by the White House from the international sustainability debate could free rest of the world to find solution to daunting environmental challenges

There was an unprecedented outcry from many leading sustainability experts - especially in the United States - when Donald J. Trump was elected as president. Several challenges exist, but his lack of understanding when it comes to climate science and other environmental challenges, as demonstrated during the campaign process, is deeply troubling.

There are many other difficult challenges, but from a global perspective there could also be a number of interesting opportunities. If the next US government continues with the campaign's disrespect for science, lack of interest in climate change, reluctance to engage in global challenges, etc., the US will find itself isolated.

Such a situation presents an opportunity - one could argue a responsibility - for countries like China to take on a much more active role in global sustainability.

Before we consider the opportunities, let's remember that while the US is still a very important country, it is still only one among many on the planet. US influence is also dwindling as a new generation of countries are emerging (and re-emerging) on the global scene.

So, in some ways Trump's lack of interest in global sustainability issues could provide a situation similar to the one we would be likely to face anyway in a few years, where global leadership will come from outside the US.

It is easy to forget that more than 7 billion people, 94 percent, of the global population, are living outside the US. Even from an economic perspective, 75 (nominal) or 87 (PPP) percent of the global economy is found outside the US.

Given the current situation, the world is likely to be presented with an opportunity for significant improvements on a global level in three areas.

First is the role of science in society. There is a significant opportunity for the rest of the world to strengthen the status and role of science. There is now room for a global science initiative with a huge budget and a mandate to begin the work to create new institutions. Such an initiative could be launched by the G20 and include all interested countries. This initiative could explore how we can increase collaboration around key future issues, from space exploration to the next generation of particle accelerators.

Equally important is to strengthen the level of general education in society. Here, the media, both old and new, have a significant role to play. For the first time in human history, we could see a global science initiative by all major news organizations around the world.

To ensure engagement from the younger generation, stakeholders like the Kahn Academy and leading science communicators, such as Derek Muller of Veritasium and video journalist Brady Haran, could help develop new ways of communicating science and support global scientific education.

Not only is scientific knowledge important for many future jobs, it is increasingly important to understand the world as a citizen. Without an understanding of science, the assumptions, methodologies, probability estimations, uncertainty, global challenges like climate change and pandemics are difficult to understand.

Second is global governance. With the withdrawal of the United States, the rest of the world could potentially see the first attempt at real global governance. This might be the most significant opportunity from a long-term perspective. We need to move from an international to a global perspective; we need to move from a reactive to a proactive agenda; we need to move from global competition to global collaboration. Perhaps most important, we need to move beyond an international perspective to a global perspective because members of the next generation see themselves as global citizens to a much larger degree than today.

The urgent need to work together as a global community to solve global sustainability challenges has never been greater. There are at least 12 global risks that threaten human civilization, and it is only a matter of time before the old structures need to be replaced or fundamentally reformed if we are to avoid a global catastrophe. When structures fundamentally change, old stakeholders tend to cling on to what they have. With the US potentially becoming uninterested in proactive global governance, the probability for a smooth transition might now be higher than it ever will be.

Third is city collaboration. For many issues we need concrete action all around the world. Climate change, for example, requires that emissions all around the world must be reduced, and that must start now.

Slow progress in international multilateral negotiations so far will only be slower with a reluctant US. However, much of the actual implementation falls on local governments, mainly cities. New tools for city collaboration should be a global priority, as this could accelerate the uptake of sustainable solutions as well as strengthen global collaboration.

In all three areas above, China has a leading role to play. China is one of the most, if not the most, science-driven society on the planet. Few governments have the scientific skill set or culture that China has. Its society is also supported by media, including initiatives like ScienceNet. It's a population that has significant understanding and respect for science.

China, together with other emerging countries, has also made significant progress when it comes to new international financial institutions. The G20 presidency demonstrated China's capacity and interest in long-term global policy-making.

In China, there are also several leading cities, such as Baoding, Hebei province, that are already leading providers of sustainable solutions. The country's network of low-carbon cities could become a core part of a global network of zero-carbon cities with global exports.

In conclusion, we are likely to see some significant challenges and frictions over the coming years, but we should not ignore the unique opportunities for historic changes that lie before us.

The author is the founder of 21st Century Frontiers in Sweden. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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Zero-Carbon Transition Index (ZTI) 2016

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As the world moves into implementation of the Paris agreement, an agreement that is notoriously vague even by international environmental agreements standards, it is important to understand the broader context for a transition to a zero-carbon society. One of the most important factors that will decide the outcome of the Paris agreement is the kind of stakeholder that will influence the international agenda.

There are many ways that different stakeholders can influence the international agenda in many different ways, but based on historic experience international media, leading policy makers, key academic institutions, international organizations, etc. will act very much in line with the companies that are the most powerful and the agenda they promote.1 These companies does not only have significant investments in R&D and enormous PR /lobby budgets, they are also overrepresented in key fora, including industry groups and agenda-setting processes such as OECD, B20, and WEF.

Currently, and perhaps surprisingly, the domination by pro-fossil companies among the world’s top-50 companies is record high. The situation today is even worse than back in 1996, when the Kyoto protocol was negotiated. In other words, 20 years of negotiations, discussions and actions to reduce global carbon emissions have failed to deliver a new generation of proactive zero-carbon companies on the same scale as the old fossil companies. What we have today is a situation when the top-50 companies on the planet are dominated by fossil friendly companies on an unprecedented scale.

The zero-carbon transition index (ZTI) is a tool to enhance transparency regarding how biggest companies on the planet are likely to use their influence. The ZTI uses the revenue data from Fortune Global 500 to select the top-50 companies in the world as measured by revenue.2 These companies are then divided into five categories depending on how they invest, communicate and lobby with regards to the greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

The five categories are “very obstructive”, “obstructive”, “neutral”, “supportive”, and “very supportive”. The companies in the category very obstructive are given the value -100, the obstructive -50, the neutral 0, the supportive +50, and the very supportive +100. The values are added together and then divided by the total number of companies to get the ZTI.

The ZTI for 1996 was -38, for 2008 -27 and now for 2015 it is -39.

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Beijing’s plan shows path to the future (article China Daily)

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Unhampered by old vested interests, the 13th Five-Year Plan is a good guide for how the world can support global sustainability

Different parts of China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) have been discussed intensively in recent months. Now, after the National People's Congress has approved the plan, it is time to put the full final document in a global context.

This five-year plan is probably one of the most important documents on the planet when it comes to long-term global security and sustainability. There are many aspects that deserve further elaboration, but three parts are of particular importance for governments, companies and NGOs around the world that want to support global sustainability.

Before discussing the three key sustainability areas of the plan, a historic perspective is needed to fully understand its importance.

From a Chinese perspective, this might be the most important five-year plan ever. For all previous plans, China could draw on inspiration from other countries. Now, China is moving so fast into uncharted territories that it is hard to use any country as inspiration to any significant degree. The transition from an old industrial economy to a new and sustainable service economy also requires the kind of systemic overview that the plan provides.

From a global perspective, this is also a unique five-year plan. If implemented successfully, the 13th Five-Year Plan would position China as the global leader when it comes to the next economic revolution. On the research side, it is now on the same level as the European Union, Japan and the United States. But when it comes to actually ensuring implementation for the transition, the five-year plan is ahead and is a global reference document.

This leadership when it comes to strategies for implementation is not because China has better experts, but rather because its planning processes are not held back by old vested interests in the same way as in Western countries. The result is a strategy in which, instead of setting the old economy against the new, China focuses on how the old industries can help and be helped in the transition to the connected and sustainable service economy.

From a global perspective, three areas are especially important to support and ensure positive development in China that will be crucial for global sustainability.

First, promote new business models that support sustainability. These new models will be based on concepts such as connectivity, sharing, circular economy, networked solutions, transformative transparency, and global sustainability. For new business models to be sustainable they must deliver solutions that are so resource efficient that 10 billion people or more can use the service without destroying the planet.

Such solutions tend to require new clusters of companies, and these need support. Among the actions needed in China and abroad are a review of current incentive structures, new guidance for public procurement, smarter taxation, and a review of old laws that today support old unsustainable companies while holding back new sustainable clusters of companies. New business models often are much more resource efficient, using information and communication technology together with new materials and robotic solutions, so it is important that the benefits are shared within society. If sharing is not ensured, inequity on the national and international levels is likely to explode, given already unsustainable levels today.

Second, open international innovation platforms for global public goods should be established. Support for the establishment of a permanent international coordinating body for global public goods is one important aspect. It could also include strategic support for smart city development in China that supports an accelerated uptake of a new generation of sustainable solutions around the world.

Third, it is time to ensure that we can turn global catastrophic risks into drivers for innovation. There are already a number of challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and nuclear weapons where better collaboration is needed. But there are also emerging challenges in areas such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. All these areas have many things in common and a coordinated approach is needed. The sooner it can begin the better.

As acknowledged in the five-year plan, the transition from an old industrial economy based on traditional drivers to a new service economy based on new drivers will be difficult and sometimes painful. However, there is no realistic alternative. The old economy is destroying the planet and is not resource efficient enough to allow the approximately 10 billion people that will live on the planet by 2100 to live a good life.

Action in the three areas above will not cost very much, but will be crucial to secure a strategic transition to a sustainable economic system globally and establish a new generation of international collaboration. The international support for global sustainability that the 13th Five-Year Plan can deliver must begin now.

The author is an entrepreneur and founder of 21st Century Frontiers in Sweden. He works with companies, governments and NGOs as a strategic economic, technology and innovation adviser. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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