Editor's note: Lessons of giants will bring us to a greener future

Let’s counteract the forces delaying our arrival by choosing a brighter tomorrow

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu died in December. Photo by Niklas Maupoix/Flickr

In the last week of 2021, we lost three giants of humankind.

The great pioneers of biodiversity, Thomas Lovejoy and E.O. “Antman” Wilson, and the heroic healer Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose devotion to universal dignity and sheer willpower helped steer South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement to democracy, died in late December.

Despite living with their eyes (or eye in the case of Wilson, who partly lost his vision in a fishing accident) wide open for a combined 262 years in the belly of racial and rainforest carnage, these three wise men never lost hope in our ability to choose a brighter tomorrow.

Thankfully, for the first time in my life, the world’s most powerful business and political leaders are now all on record vowing to work toward a brighter tomorrow for the planet.

Financial firms have pledged that more than US$130 trillion of assets will be net-zero by 2050. And 130 countries have also promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, including all the G7 countries and South Africa. Brazil, Russia and China have pledged to be net-zero by 2060, and India, which is at an earlier stage of industrial development, by 2070.

These pledges should not be underestimated. Nobody wants their word to mean nothing, least of all heads of state and CEOs.

Nevertheless it happens quite often: what Swedish activist Greta Thunberg calls “blah, blah, blah.”

There are still many powerful defenders of the status quo who will work hard to delay governments from following through
on their pledges.

We get beyond “blah, blah, blah” when we consider what’s happened in the last century and ask one simple question: are we going in the right direction fast enough to get to where we want to be in the future? If the answer is no, we need to make it yes everywhere we have influence.

For businesses, that includes our direct operations, and it also includes Scope 3 emissions (indirect emissions that result from a company’s supply chains and use of its products), which are an order of magnitude larger. And most critically, it includes what the non-profit Influence Map has termed Scope 4 emissions, the greenhouse gas implications of a corporation’s government lobbying.

There are still many powerful defenders of the status quo who will work hard to delay governments from following through on their pledges. It serves nothing, least of all the planet, to demonize these forces; instead we must counteract and co-opt them. The forces of economic gravity have flipped demonstrably in favour of clean solutions (as borne out by the widening financial outperformance of the Global 100 Index against its blue-chip benchmark).

It is heartening to see most corporate net-zero pledges clearly stating they don’t want to be left hanging, with words to the effect of “My organization makes this commitment with the expectation that governments will follow through on their own net-zero commitments to ensure that the goals of the Paris Agreement are met.”

What is the right speed? Johan Rockström, who leads the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has proposed a solution for the global economy to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, a “carbon law” that would cut emissions in half every decade (and would apply to cities, nations and industrial sectors). Rockström and his colleagues believe this could catalyze disruptive innovation in a similar way to what Moore’s law has done for the computer industry.

The pandemic has also illustrated the awesome power we have as a modern society to innovate and deploy solutions when we fear for our lives. We should hang on to that ambition for climate action and push for it with all our might, as the great Tutu did in the face of what seemed like insurmountable challenges in his lifetime. After all, as the late archbishop once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

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