Taking the long perspective

We’re all familiar with the “fight or flight” response that we humans exhibit when faced with a threat. It’s been key to the survival of our species but could arguably be getting in the way of making effective decisions about the long term future of our planet. Our ability to face immediate problems isn’t the same when facing delayed or longer term issues, such as climate change, since it’s not such an obvious threat as encountering a predator in the wild.

As a result, climate change doesn’t capture the headlines or our attention in the way that more conventional and immediate news stories do. Its long term nature provides fuel for discussion and scepticism despite a large body of scientific evidence reporting alarming trends. That’s not to say that extreme events associated with climate change aren’t reported, such as the on-going drought in California or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, just that the links to climate change aren’t always emphasised.

President Obama identified that we need to switch our focus from the short term to the long term in his speech at the opening of the conference earlier this week. He said:

For I believe, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that there is such a thing as being too late.  And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us.  But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our own short-term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe, and the food that they will eat, and the water that they will drink, and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives, then we won’t be too late for them.

In many countries, including the UK, the cycle of party politics and elections mean that decision making beyond the five years of a specific government is often less important than immediate action to preserve approval ratings and opinion polls. Perhaps this means that it’s up to other organisations and businesses to buck the trend and seek sustainable long term solutions over short term profit. One tree-planting charity in Scotland is thinking over a 250 year horizon – a challenge to all of us to change our paradigm and move away from the short-termism that blights our organisational structures.

The longer term economic benefits associated with improved environmental performance are increasingly recognised by business, and it’s likely that private investment will take on a greater role in the progression of climate solutions. However the argument is not completely won, and short term “wins” and adaptations to existing processes such as carbon offsetting, or the replacement of harmful pollutants and pesticides with slightly less harmful ones are still the norm.

It’s time for a radical shift to new techniques and processes rather than endlessly patching up old ones – but the question is whether international decision makers are brave enough to rise above party politics, approval ratings and media demands and make binding long term commitments to ensure a more sustainable future for us all.

What are your radical ideas to bring about long term change? Let us know in the comments below!

Authored by Luke Strickland and Martin Broderick

Challenging wasteful thinking?

How do we feed the world’s growing population, and how do we do this whilst minimising environmental impacts such as deforestation? Today’s main topics at COP 21 are Forestry and Agriculture and delegates will no doubt be trying to find the right answer to both questions above, along with a myriad of other related issues.

Ecosystems and food production – a web of interconnections

Recognising and valuing our ecosystems, such as the forests around the globe and the ecosystems surrounding global food production, is of critical importance in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 2 in particular aspires to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.

As ever, the answer isn’t a simple solution of just increasing food production, but instead a nuanced web of interconnections and grey areas. A technique Ramboll is adept at applying for our clients in the agricultural sector is ecosystem services – applying a scientific approach in a holistic way to enable appropriate and sustainable decision making to this critical sector.

SDG 12 seeks to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, which is accompanied by the target to “by 2030 halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”.

If food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest CO2 emitter

If food waste was a country, then it would apparently be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world, which is a sobering thought. And as the planet’s population continues to increase, this places more pressures on global food supply. Reducing food waste is one element, along with traditional solutions for utilising it as a resource in itself – for instance in anaerobic digesters. Add to this the issue of sustainable pesticide use and the picture becomes even more complex.

The ultimate aim has to be to help supply chains become more circular and less linear and cut out the wasteful areas in the first place.The majority of food waste in terms of quantity is at the agricultural production stage, whereas the carbon footprint impact is largest at the consumption stage. Clearly we need to promote behavioural changes from both consumer and producer in order to meet the SDGs mentioned above.

The importance of urban trees

Valuing our ecosystems includes recognising the benefit that urban trees provide. Many of our cities in the UK are enhanced by the presence of Plane trees, planted by Victorian town planners in graceful avenues. It’s well known that trees in urban environments are beneficial in terms of urban cooling, let alone pollution, rainfall interception and habitat. With urban areas already hosting a significant majority of the world’s population, urban trees are an important element of meeting SDG 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

COP 21 is a huge opportunity for firm international decision making and commitment to a more sustainable future. Let’s hope today’s talks aren’t wasted.

Where would you start in terms of meeting the SDGs?
We’d love to hear your ideas and solutions in the comments section below.

Authored by Luke Strickland and Emma Green.

COP 21: Stand By For Action

The world’s media is focused on Paris for the next two weeks as representatives from over 190 countries gather to agree a new international deal to tackle climate change. Whether you are optimistic that the acrimony of the COP15 talks in Copenhagen can be avoided, or cynical about the ability of the world’s leaders to agree meaningful and accountable targets, there’s no doubt that change is needed in our approach to our environment if we are to mitigate the significant effects of climate change.

When major events like this are happening, it’s easy to think that climate change is someone else’s problem – something for our leaders to solve on our behalf. And whilst it’s true that national and international frameworks are necessary vehicles to drive changes in behaviour and lower emissions, we cannot sit back and wait for the UN or our Governments to reach agreement.

In our work across the globe we seek climate solutions for our clients in legislative environments that vary dramatically. But whether we’re working with apex national decision makers, or at the grass-roots scale with householder development, we’ve found that many of our clients are embracing the need to account for a changing climate in their projects – whether required to or not. Taking action is everyone’s responsibility.

The truth is that as much as international agreements are important, meaningful and lasting changes in behaviour, building or infrastructure design and project financing are needed at all scales – cascading from both top down strategy and bottom up solutions.

We’re optimistic that governments are taking the changing climate seriously, and we have a proven track record in helping some of the largest cities in the world become more sustainable and climate-adapted. To us, it is important that the States at COP21 commit themselves to clear targets, clear actions and that the commitment is long lasting.

Whatever the international framework looks like after these COP21 talks, there are already numerous vehicles and frameworks at regional, local and individual levels which are successfully delivering sustainable solutions. Cities in particular play an integral role in tackling these global challenges, especially when it is expected that 60 per cent of the world’s population are expected to live in urban areas by 2030.

At Ramboll we’re passionate about creating sustainable, liveable cities which achieve prosperity alongside climate resilience. Achieving this needs “on the ground” solutions which connect infrastructure to amenity, but it also needs social and cultural elements along with good governance. We need frameworks within frameworks, fractals that apply at all scales, to transform innovate strategy into pragmatic, implementable solutions.

So while the world holds its breath and waits for the outcome of these important talks, we must continue to take action in the arenas in which we have influence.

COP21 is important, there’s no doubt about that, but we don’t need to wait to make a change in the projects and decisions we are involved in.