The Case For Planetary Stewardship

By Georg Kell, Chairman of Arabesque and founding Executive Director of the UN Global Compact


As emissions that cause global warming continue to rise, politics is turning inward and nationalistic. This is a troubling development. Climate change is a truly global challenge and requires cooperation across countries and regions. Scientists are increasingly able to predict the impact, costs and damages of a hotter globe, yet international cooperation to reduce emissions and to accelerate the diffusion of clean technologies is giving way to a new era of populism, nationalism and protectionism, ignoring the basic truth that we are in this together.

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 was a high point of international cooperation. It was backed by the world’s leading powers who realized that cooperation is the only way to go. Developing countries joined, as well, not least because of the promise of Climate Finance and technology transfers that would enable development and green growth. Today, the Paris Agreement appears to be a distant memory from another time. Cooperation has been replaced by strategic rivalry, zero-sum thinking and ethnic chauvinism. Climate Finance, as promised in Paris, has hardly materialized.We know with scientific certainty that the impact of climate change will soon force governments to take bolder steps, both in terms of reducing emissions and in terms of adapting to changing conditions.

The key question is how we will react once the impact of climate change forces governments to take bold actions. Will our responses divide the world further, leading to carbon dictatorships and the building of more walls, or will a new political thinking emerge that is based on the simple truth that the planetary boundaries faced by humanity call for international cooperation? The idea that a new era of planetary stewardship might replace the ancient thinking of philosophers such as Thucydides, Hobbes and Locke, whose ideas seem to inform many of those who are in power today, may sound idealistic. But the notion of a common enemy has the potential to trump the old dogmas of territoriality and spheres of influence.

Consider the episode that took place at the 1985 Geneva Summit, at the peak of the Cold War. During a private conversation overheard only by their interpreters, President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev agreed without hesitation that their countries would cooperate if the world was invaded by aliens. Later, President Reagan gave a speech based on his private discussion with General Secretary Gorbachev in which he stressed the common bonds of humanity. Could climate change become the common enemy that threatens all of humanity, and would governments direct their spheres of influence to cooperate in a joint effort of defeat this common enemy? Or will Climate Security just become another tool of old dogmas and narrowly defined self interests where everybody scrambles for their own survival while the foundation of humanity is breaking apart?

The first building blocks for a new era of planetary stewardship are already in the making. First, in some small markets, notably Costa Rica and Sweden, carbon neutrality has become a national policy priority with new technologies and de-carbonization now driving growth and prosperity. This will hopefully inspire others to follow suit. Second, carbon pricing and related fiscal policy changes are gaining momentum in many regions of the world, often at sub-national and city level and social norms are changing in favor of low-carbon lifestyles.

Third, a growing number of corporations are aiming at carbon-neutrality as a long-term goal and are embracing disclosure as advocated by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and Science Based Targets. And new smart data-driven tools, such as the Arabesque S-Ray, are enabling investors to better integrate environmental, social and governance factors into decision making. There are also promising efforts related to one of the most critical aspects of climate change – the transformation of the energy sector, which underpins all economic activities. Generating electricity with renewable energy sources and its wider application across industry sectors (power generation, transportation, industry and housing) is arguably the most promising way forward. The Global Energy Interconnection (GEI), as advanced by China, has the potential to become a major building block for planetary stewardship. There is already ample evidence that a new era of electricity enabled by technological advances and declining costs for renewables can power human progress. What it takes is political will and the right investments in the infrastructure that connects renewable energy production, transportation through high voltage AC/DC transmission and smart distribution and application.

These developments will hopefully inspire politicians everywhere to realize that there is a premium on making climate change a top policy item while investing in international cooperation. In an era where humanity has become a geophysical force, the case for multilateralism has to be made anew. Climate change knows no national or ethnic boundaries. It is our common enemy and the enemy is us.

The original version of this article appeared in Forbes in April 2019