The Long View: where do we go from here?

This Town Hall session looks ahead to the next 25 years. What will successful businesses and organizations look like when environmental performance becomes even more important to the bottom line? What will be the challenges, the opportunities and the change agents?

Mike Harcourt set the scene by defining mankind of the 21st Century as ‘homo urbanus’ – the vast majority of us live in cities. In thirty years, the equivalent of two China’s [population] will be added to the world’s cities. $350 trillion will need to be invested in cities if we want to maintain quality of life, half from private sector and half from P3s and public infrastructure. This could be the economic megaproject to “rescue the dying GDP growth-based economy that the [developed] world has relied on for the past fifty or sixty years.”

Harcourt also pointed to the $9 trillion the Chinese government is investing to undo urban model mistakes. He cited Detroit as another bad example; and Paris, which has recently started limiting residents to driving every other day. He suggested Montreal and Toronto should be declared national catastrophes, with a $50 billion backlog of transit and infrastructure improvements impacting the basic safety of those cities. Harcourt says that “Cities are about choices, we’d better get them right.” Doing so represents a huge economic opportunity.

According to Mike Brown, we are not going to take adequate action on the environment unless we accept that air pollution is going to reach 600ppm in the next century. To put that figure in context, in March 2014, Paris opted for alternate driving days when air pollution there hit peaks of 180 micrograms of particulate per cubic metre of air, a measure well past the maximum alert level of 80 micrograms.

Brown says if we don’t deal with air pollution, we’re not going to be able to deal with the carbon problem, or keep the cost of energy low [or] maintain a standard of living. “Unless we solve all three problems at once, we’re not going to solve any of them.” Where will the solutions come from? Brown suggests from advances in technology that are completely unanticipated today, and that cycles of innovation and massive amounts of ‘patient money’ will be required to achieve those advances that can take a long time to come to fruition.

Mary Polak put forward the view that her generation is one of the first who cannot tell their children what the world is going to be like for them when they reach their parents’ age. Policy makers will have to find new ways to reach out to the next generation of thinkers, because the younger generation accesses information so differently than their parents. It can’t be business as usual. We will need new ways to respond to a world whose needs we cannot predict.

Marc Gunther looked at industry’s relationship to sustainability in three phases: Phase 1 was a form of regulatory compliance. Phase 2 occurred next, about 10 – 15 years ago. It was the efficiency-driven phase, when companies formed alliances with sustainability groups and made modest gains. Neither phase has gotten us where we need to go. The scale of the problem has outpaced our ability to deal with it, particularly around climate change. Phase 3 will be a more transformative phase where business, government, NGOs and consumers come together to transform the economy, to a form that has been called a circular economy, one that vastly reduces waste, and is powered by low carbon or no carbon fuels. The real focus will be decoupling economic growth from environmental impact.

On the question of ‘how do we get there’, three opportunities were identified, with the caveat that ‘scaling up’ is required to achieve the goal:

  1. Better carbon policy is needed, and we need to put a price on carbon. Without that, we won’t have the economics to drive the needed technological improvements.
  2. A more cross-industry, pre-competitive approach is needed. Companies that normally compete will need to work together to solve the issue of environmental impacts so they can compete on other issues.
  3. Industry has to ‘awaken the green consumer’. Today’s North American consumer is a drag on business doing what it already knows needs to be done. One example offered was McDonald’s Fair Trade coffee policy. McDonald’s is broadly pursuing fair trade practices in Europe, but not in the US, except on espresso products, a small market for them. The understanding in the quick-service industry is that companies will not be rewarded by the North American consumer for being a good corporate citizen because those consumers don’t have the same high expectations as European consumers.

Bruce Anderson spoke to how public opinions can drive change. Young people are having impact on their parents and on consumer choices, to a vastly different degree than was happening 25 years ago. Anderson sees a widespread sense of moral obligation to do more of the right things and less of the wrong things. Whether that becomes a political imperative remains to be seen. And how do developed countries help developing countries when there’s an economic interest at stake, in terms of ceding market share? Coming generations will no doubt sort that out. Younger people who have turned away from politics will come back to the political process when they start to see constructive change. The speed of change, the type of change, the amount of change happening is extraordinary, compared to the pace of change occurring in the recent past.

Moderator; Chris Henderson, President, Lumos Energy & Founder, Delphi Group / Panel: Bruce Anderson, Chair, Abacus Data / Michael Brown, Co-Founder, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital / Marc Gunther, Editor at large, Guardian Sustainable Business / Mike Harcourt, Chair, Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow / Hon. Mary Polak, Minister of Environment, Government of British Columbia

HH Angus Publications on Globe 2014