Earth Day Retrospective: Shape of the Planet

At the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it seems appropriate to inquire about the shape of the planetary ship we call home. In celebrations around the world on April 22, 2010, the earth’s nearly seven billion inhabitants were asked to ponder our individual and communal conduct. Is humanity’s current course sustainable? Will it result in progress and prosperity or unprecedented peril? 

Every two years Columbia University’s Earth Institute gathers an array of experts to assess the State of the Planet. This biennial event garners global authorities from industry, science, academia and government to discuss sustainable solutions to our planet’s common problems. 

Assessing the state of the planet is an audacious undertaking. The topic is enormous, but the cooperation between the Earth Institute, telecommunications giant Ericsson and The Economist made the task look easy.  

The March 25, 2010, program was a technological masterpiece connecting participants in New York, Beijing, Nairobi, New Delhi, London, Monaco and Mexico City via HD webcast in a real-time conference. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute; Hans Vestberg, President and CEO of Ericsson; and Matthew Bishop, New York Bureau Chief for The Economist collaborated to create a worldwide classroom conducive to sharing knowledge about the shared concerns facing the international community. 

Master of Ceremonies, Riz Khan of Al Jazeera English coordinated the global conversation, which centered on four main concerns: 

  • Climate Change—What would it take to complete the climate deal?
  • Poverty—How do we achieve the millennium development goals?
  • Economic Recovery—What does a green recovery look like?
  • International Systems—How can an international system be built to deal with transnational issues? 

Among the experts asked to address the challenges of the global community was Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. His first-hand experience dealing with the dilemmas and disasters of diverse nations prepared him to bring a uniquely informed perspective to the discussion.   

One of the features of my job as Secretary-General is that it gives you a view of the big picture,” he explained. “Of all the things I have seen, two are crystal clear: we live in a rapidly changing world . . . and we live in an ever more interconnected world. The multiple crises of the last two years made this apparent to all. The response by world leaders to the financial crisis showed a growing awareness that in today’s world we sink or swim together. I saw the same awareness among leaders in their response to my call for engagement and commitment on climate change. The gathering of heads of state and government in Copenhagen was unprecedented.” 

The Secretary-General acknowledged that the December 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen received mixed reviews. Several conference participants agreed and expressed frustration that the Copenhagen Accord was a hasty, nonbinding agreement far removed from the comprehensive and legally binding climate treaty anticipated. 

Nitin Desai, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, speaking from New Delhi, emphasized the need to be realistic about expectations for international cooperation. He suggested that in the absence of a comprehensive, binding international agreement individual countries should work toward national mandates and plans of action for progress on combating climate change. 

The next opportunity for the international community to seek progress on a legally binding climate change treaty will be in Cancun, Mexico, in November, 2010, where Mexican President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa will host the next round of negotiations. Speaking from Mexico City on March 25, he declared that the way forward will involve “how to link fighting poverty, which is a major concern of developing countries, with fighting climate change.” President Calderon described his country’s ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions, replant forests and generate 25 percent of its electricity from renewable resources over the next decade. 

Throughout the day there were repeated calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing investment in carbon capture technology. The overwhelming consensus is that low carbon technologies will fuel the green industries of the future. 

Clearly, the 20th-century model for a developing nation, which assumed an inexhaustible and inexpensive supply of energy, is outdated. New ideas are now needed to redefine growth models for the 21st-century. Bob McCooey, Senior Vice President of NASDAQ’s New Listings and Capital Markets, expressed confidence that the necessary great ideas will find their way to the marketplace. Sanjeev Chadha, Chairman and CEO of Pepisco India, suggested that not all the best ideas will come via the sophistication of science. He quipped “if necessity is the mother of invention, then surely scarcity is the grandmother. It is amazing what some people are doing with very little in developing countries.” 

Panelists in Nairobi addressed the need for change in Africa. The continent’s population is expected to reach two billion by 2030. Some sources estimate that Africa has lost between 30 and 50 percent of its biodiversity in flora and fauna as a result of unrestricted exploitation over the last 10 years. Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program, lamented that the rich countries have historically treated the continent of Africa as a mine. These trends and practices are unsustainable. 

Although technological innovation has and will play a major role in developing the future, it would be a mistake to view technology as a “silver bullet” that can solve all problems. Johan Rockstrom, Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre, warns that lifestyle changes are also needed. “This is the most decisive decade, when we have to start bending the curve on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. What if we push this too far?” 

Environmental experts seem to agree that the challenges facing the planet are far beyond the ability of any one nation to adequately address. The issues are international, intertwined and interrelated as are their solutions. Integrated solutions will require rarely seen levels of international trust and collaboration.  

Obstacles to international cooperation include skepticism of global warming science, lack of confidence in the United Nations, differing expectations of developed and developing countries, and the tension between international responsibilities and national sovereignty. 

In a UN summit in September, 2010, Ban Ki-moon recognized the need to reinvigorate global commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). “The MDGs have sparked a remarkable, global mobilization. Rarely have so many organizations—from the global to the grass roots—agreed on a common agenda for change. Rarely have so many individuals—citizens and CEOs, philanthropists and political leaders—found such common ground in a common cause. Let us realize the great potential of this global coalition . . . this great global movement.” 

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, believes the world has the know-how and the resources to solve humanity’s most urgent problems. He holds out what he calls a science-based hope. 

If Professor Sachs is right and we have the science and the resources to remedy the situation, then the only missing ingredient is a willingness to act.  

Can we coalesce into a community of international cooperation and muster the “moral solidarity” necessary to implement sustainable solutions? Will “we sink, or swim together”? The Secretary-General warned, “If we fall short, all the dangers of our world will grow.”  

The state of the planet is dangerously unstable when its inhabitants lack perspective. Perhaps the 40th anniversary of Earth Day will provide a much needed time to reflect—and regain—a view of the big picture.