Leading Lights

Week in Review / by Maywa Montenegro /

Aligning economic value with currently unpriced things—in nature and society—could be the ticket to global sustainability.

The week started off on a dark note. From São Paulo to Seoul, Moscow to Delhi, Toronto to Beijing, a record 4,000 cities, towns, and municipalities dimmed their lights for Earth Hour 2010—a project kicked off three years ago by drought-addled Australians in an effort to draw attention to the effects of global climate change.

This year, by the time lights had twinkled off first in Sydney and then in Samoa 26 hours later (due to a kink in the International Date Line), the World Wildlife Fund estimated that approximately 1 billion people in 125 countries participated. And as is fast becoming de rigeur for all such grassroots events, those people were blogging, webcasting, and tweeting in force, explaining what a dark Eiffel tower looks like and how a Sphinx in the shadows appears.

Even the city that never sleeps got in on the action, with a darkened Empire State Building and Times Square. Not quite as impressive, perhaps, as Toronto’s city-wide eclipse, but it was enough to at least answer the challenge of Dr. Johan Rockström, who a few days earlier had told an audience of New Yorkers, “I know Stockholm will participate; I don’t know about New York.” Rockström, the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, was in town for the State of the Planet 2010 summit, hosted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

The event, at which yours truly was also in attendance, was billed as an attempt to bring leading thinkers from academia, business, and international governance to address four pressing challenges: climate change, poverty, economic recovery, and ineffective international systems. Events of this ilk have the tendency to go either of two ways: One is the epic gloom-and-doom archetype, where attendees are assailed with terrifying statistics on dark topics like extinction, malaria, and sea-level rise, and where afterwards, one feels compelled to curl up in a fetal position, or perhaps to crawl into the cold, unlit apartment of No Impact Man. The other is a techno-optimistic archetype—where speakers assail you with “Buy our green gadgets, our biofuels, our PHEVs, and the world will become a happier place.” This conference, marbling anti-poverty gurus like Jeffrey Sachs with the CEO of PepsiCo India, managed to eschew those stereotypes, making for a more nuanced discussion of economic development in the age of the Anthropocene

“All the science shows that technology is not a silver bullet. We’ll have to see lifestyle changes as well,” said Rockström, in the day’s first panel on global warming. Yet speakers also emphasized the potential of technology to realize dramatic changes, particularly in the developing world. In Africa, Professor of Professional Practice Glenn Denning told the audience, when agriculture expands, people start saving. And the first they do is buy mobile phones. Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg spoke of great opportunities to link cell-phone usage to delivery of healthcare and education in poor areas. “We’ve seen that health workers can register information with mobile. We’ve seen rising school attendance. They do things with mobile phones that we in the West could never imagine.”

Accountability, or rather lack thereof, permeated the day’s talks, from progress on climate change commitments to meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—the set of targets to curb poverty, hunger, and disease by 2015. The global community, speakers seemed to concur, has done a fantastic job of setting goals and targets, but has not done so well on the follow-through. Last year, for example, President Obama and other world leaders committed some $20 billion to rebooting global agricultural at the G8 summit in L’Aquila. Many people, including Denning himself (and President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa Namanga Ngongi, who wrote about it for us here) took this as a sign of a sea change. Some nine months later, Denning noted sourly, we’ve only seen about 10 percent of that money put on the table. “We need to go beyond making promises. We hear a lot about accountability on the part of developing nations, but we also need to look at donors and analyze if they are delivering.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon picked up this thread in his keynote address later in the day: “In the case of the MDGs, we do not need more promises,” he said. “We simply need to deliver on those we have already made.”

Next to the more that $3 trillion mobilized for stimulus in response to the financial crisis, the Secretary General pointed out, the amounts needed for the MDGs are incredibly modest—amounting to about $350 billion a year. The difference between current Official Development Assistance (ODA) levels and what world leaders committed to at Gleneagles, he said, roughly amounts to a year’s worth of Wall Street bonuses.

Indeed, return on investment seems a concept that’s exceedingly difficult for us humans to grasp. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, became clearly incensed when describing the long and frustrating efforts that presaged a recent “breakthrough” in getting anti-malaria bed nets distributed across Africa. “Ten years ago, no child was covered with a net. Even after the net was approved, few had them. They cost 50 cents per child per year and we still couldn’t get it done.” Weighing in via teleconference from Nairobi, Achim Steiner, director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said re-calibrating our current economic norms will be critical, not just in fighting poverty, but in overall progress towards global sustainability. “How to bring economies of ecosystem services and biodiversity into visibility?” That’s a key focus in 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, he said, “lifting this myth of the 20th century that the services nature provides are invisible to the economy.”

It’s a myth that’s still pervasive, apparently, within the boardrooms of JP Morgan Chase. As Andy Kroll reported this week, the company “backstops one of the most destructive mining practices in the world: mountaintop removal coal mining.” The ecological devastation that comes with cleaving into a mountainside is well documented, and environmental groups have been campaigning against the practice for decades. But coal is a lucrative business, and over the past 17 years, writes Kroll, JP Morgan has helped to underwrite bond and loan deals worth a combined $8.5 trillion for some of the biggest players in MTR. The twisted thing, he also points out, is that their economics might be stilted: “A 2009 report by West Virginia University found that while the coal industry generates $8 billion for the state and other Appalachian areas, the estimated costs of excess deaths attributable to MTR mining is $42 billion a year—more than five times the economic benefit.”

Steiner’s UNEP is behind a groundswell of recent work to end these gross accounting errors. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project is doing a massive global evaluation of biodiversity loss and ecosystem decline, and by comparing those losses with the costs of effective interventions, is showing why, as Steiner put it, “a tree standing is worth more than a tree cut down.” TEEB, and a similar Europe-centric network called BIOECON, are also pushing for more-holistic markers of progress than GDP, indices that take into account things like environmental stewardship, inequality and health, and access to higher education.

Whether these efforts will propel us beyond the era of paper-pushing and target-setting remains to be seen. Yet with a stage populated by leading lights in sustainability, and with a giant LCD Earth spinning mesmerizingly in the background, it was hard not to get at least get a bit swept up by utopian visions. So I was annoyed when a tap-tap-tapping noise suddenly interrupted my reverie and the closing comments by Dr. Sachs and Matthew Bishop, New York Bureau Chief for the Economist. “Do you mind?” I leaned over to the student madly typing away next to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I have to get this fellowship proposal finished. The deadline is today.” The grad student was attempting to join the ranks of some of the experts we’d heard that day, earning a degree in environmental governance and the economics of poverty alleviation. And here he was, nearly going broke in the process. The cost of higher education wasn’t a big focus of State of the Planet, but in a day chock-full of aligning economics with sustainable development, and of myopic return-on-investment strategies, here was yet another compelling case.

Which is why Obama’s move on Tuesday to revamp the student loan system is warmly welcomed.  Overshadowed by the mammoth healthcare bill to which it was attached, the reform ends the old practice in which the federal government subsidized private bank loans to high-credit-risk students, with interest accruing to the banks. Now Uncle Sam will disburse the funds directly. And though little will change for student borrowers, the interest they pay will no longer go to private lenders. Instead, the federal government plans to funnel at least some of that cash to community colleges and towards Pell grants for low-income students.

Many people criticize events like Earth Hour for being little more than publicity stunts. But for the time, energy, and money that it takes—essentially nil—on the front end, there is really very little to lose in a final calculus. If even a tenth of a percent of the billion people that snapped off their lights on Saturday night were motivated towards greater eco-efforts, then something was accomplished. For such things, hard evidence of cost versus benefit is eternally elusive. But for others it’s quite tangible: Fifty cents for a bed net, or $20 billion to reboot global agriculture, or $100,000 to educate a mind that will get to the root cause of these challenges. Though I’m no economist, it seems like a reasonable outlay.

Originally published April 2, 2010

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