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How sustainable economics can save the planet

Philipp Zinniker

A leading research think tank, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, says environmental concerns have begun to drive the global economy.

This content was published on January 10, 2008 - 00:01

The Worldwatch president, Christopher Flavin, tells swissinfo why the authors of the institute's 2008 State of the World report are optimistic that the challenges of climate change can be overcome.

The 253-page report claims that businesses, government and non-governmental organisations "are inventing the Earth's first sustainable economy". Some Swiss communities are showing the way forward and Swiss companies are jumping on the bandwagon.

The findings of the Worldwatch Institute are in stark contrast to the gloom and doom that the public has come to expect from policy papers on the environment, led by forecasts of the United Nations top climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

swissinfo: The report says many multinational companies are moving away from pure market capitalism and embracing a "new bottom line", which includes many sustainable development objectives. So, can we avoid economic and environmental collapse?

Christopher Flavin: It's not inconceivable that in terms of climate change we may have already crossed some critical threshold. I think we have to make the assumption that we have not but that it's very close at hand so the urgency is very real to shift the economy in some new directions.

swissinfo: The report praises common management of resources, referring to cooperative cattle grazing in the Swiss Alps as one example. How does this type of resource management promote sustainability?

C.F.: Of course, our most important environmental resources are the ocean and the atmosphere and to some extent the world's tropical forests which are not contained within a single national border let alone the confines of an individual corporation.

Figuring out ways to effectively and efficiently manage things that are not owned by any single entity is really one of the keys to solving our problems and I think on a very small scale what's been accomplished in Switzerland and in other areas now needs to be extended to the global commons.

swissinfo: State of the World 2008 presents nuclear energy as an option for replacing carbon-emitting power generation. This is a controversial issue in Switzerland and elsewhere. Is nuclear power gaining acceptance among environmentalists?

C.F.: I don't think so. We're not supporting nuclear power and we have called attention to the many obstacles that stand in the way of nuclear power. I personally think it is at best going to be a very small part of the solution to the climate problem.

I think the prospect of building enough nuclear power plants to really make a significant difference going forward is quite remote. Our conclusion is that the most robust and largest scale replacements for fossil fuels are going to be energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. I think wind power alone has much more potential to be more important than nuclear power.

swissinfo: In the report's preface, you say that the interaction of technology, private investment and policy reform may have put the world on the verge of a major transformation of energy markets. Is it enough?

C.F.: We are both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I do think we are on the verge of an energy revolution. I do think energy markets in five or ten years from now could be very different from what they are today with some of these new technologies really dominating the marketplace. But we have so much to do to replace an overwhelmingly fossil fuel dominating energy system that no matter how fast we do it there's the risk that it may not be fast enough.

swissinfo: If it is too late, the emphasis should be on adaptation instead of mitigation, don't you think?

C.F.: What is being said by IPCC scientists and most governments is that we should be putting some effort into adaptation and not leave it out entirely which has been the case up until now.

The challenge with adaptation is that there is so much to do and the uncertainties are so huge. I think it's actually going to be quite difficult to build political momentum. It may be too late to avoid certain kinds of catastrophic events but it can only grow worse if we let it go much further.

swissinfo: Swiss pharma group Novartis is held up as an example of how industry can act sustainably. It identified the "basic needs basket" of its 93,000 staff worldwide and pays them accordingly. Is this part of what you would call the new bottom line?

C.F.: Sustainability is primarily an environmental concept. But many companies are embracing a broader approach to sustainability, which includes their so-called social responsibility programmes. They are looking to meet people's needs, whether they be employees or customers or the society at large. That is a very important part of the new approach that many companies are taking.

swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organisation. It says its mission is to work for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society... focusing on the underlying causes of and practical solutions to the world's problems.
The Swiss consultancy, Ecos, is one of many institutions and foundations credited with supporting the think tank.
The 2008 report also cites the work of Switzerland's Walter Stahel on extending the life of products. It calls him "a founder of the new sustainability movement" in the 1990s.

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State of the World 2008

The Worldwatch Institute says businesses, governments and non-governmental organisations are responding to climate, other environmental challenges and social problems with an array of innovations and large investments.

Corporate research and development spending on clean energy technologies reached $9.1 billion (SFr10.1 billion) in 2006 – ten times the 2001 level.

Environmental and energy hedge funds are now the world's third largest venture investment category, trailing only the internet and biotechnology.

Chemical giant DuPont cut its greenhouse gas emissions 72% below 1991 levels by 2007, saving $3 billion.

"Commons management" (i.e. Bali rice farmers, cooperative cattle grazing in Swiss Alps) ideas are finding new applications.

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