Extraordinary collaboration is succeeding where national and international government action alone has so far failed
For years, big environmental problems were for governments and international organisations to solve. But despite all their efforts the state of the global environmental commons has worsened.
Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, scientists’ extreme weather predictions are apparently realised, city air is becoming dangerous, groundwater is getting scarce, fish stocks are declining, forests and natural habitats are being destroyed, plastic pollution is out of control, and researchers warn that an “annihilation” of wildlife has started a human-driven sixth mass extinction.
Since the first global conference on the human environment in Stockholm in 1972 economic acceleration has almost always outpaced the ability of environment ministers to protect the planet. Perhaps understandably, the economy versus the environment was viewed as a zero-sum game: we could not both grow and protect. Nature could bounce back, it was thought: once society got richer, it could clean things up.
But understanding about the fragility and interconnectedness of earth systems has increased exponentially in the last few years.
New scientific and technological breakthroughs have shown that our actions could trigger a hard exit from the Holocene – the epoch that over the last 12,000 years or so has provided the “goldilocks” environmental conditions that enabled civilisation to flourish. Even worse, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that unless we change course by 2030 we will be locked onto this path, with no way “back to normal”.
This changes the game. The security of the global environmental system – our climate, our ocean, and our biosphere – has become an existential issue. Its collapse destroys prospects of continual social and economic progress. No wonder school children are protesting.
The good news is that a revolution has quietly taken shape – slowly at first, like any good human insurrection, then spreading into an unprecedented, collaborative movement which now appears unstoppable.
A new drive for cooperation is propelling civil society, labour leaders, company CEOs and some governments to join together to bind business, communities and policy makers into new forms of common environmental action.
This public-private repositioning is helping ministers to marry targets for protecting the Earth with ones for boosting economies – and helping companies turn the risks of environmental failure into new opportunities for smart, clean industrial production.
It is rapidly mainstreaming once-niche environmental, social and governance issues into a core determinant of success for firms and investors
What has made this possible? First, we have realised that governments and international organizations, while vital for agreeing global targets, cannot be expected to deliver them alone. It is now clear to everyone in the field – including those in governments and international organisations – that it takes unprecedented levels of collaboration and innovation, involving many other players, to trigger the big, systemic change required.
Secondly – after years of unwillingness by international environmental diplomats to throw open their doors to outsiders – we are seeing innovation from beyond governments.
What were once side events – put on by NGOs, industries and other non-state actors – at big government summits have become main-stage. New coalitions, networks and partnerships are proliferating, bringing together civil society groups, companies and financiers into initiatives that harness the latest in technology and collaboration.
Thirdly, a sudden rise in technological and scientific capability – what the World Economic Forum terms the Fourth Industrial Revolution – is driving down the cost of such collaboration and creating an explosive potential for transparency and access to information.
Earth scientists can measure and model more, and environmental campaigners, companies, investors – and the public – can better track environmental deterioration or improvement.
Lastly, the young, the voters and consumers of tomorrow, are making themselves felt. Told that we have a decade or so to fix this problem – but with 40 or 50 years to live after that – they increasingly make different demands on politics and economics.
This combination of awakenings is triggering widespread change in environmental action across traditionally siloed “expert” areas like forestry, ocean, water, biodiversity and food systems.
It is mobilising – and joining together – states, cities, provinces, civil society groups, businesses, investors, innovators and technologists. And it is happening across global supply chains as companies learn to work with each other to drive long-term environmental improvements.
New collaborations arrive every day. Many are growing fast. Good examples include the Tropical Forest Alliance, RE100, the WRI-C40 Coalition for Urban Transitions, the Food and Land Use Alliance, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, the Friends of Ocean Action, the Global Battery Alliance, Grow Asia, the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders and the new Global Plastics Action Partnership. All tap into the resources, innovation and expertise of their networks to help slow down or reverse environmental destruction.
Projects learn from each other, and often join forces. Many are now forming highly influential global platforms for action where projects coalesce into wider movements for change. Many are sprints towards clearly timed goals. Each is delivering real results for people and industry, including in key economies like the US and China, and other major G20 countries.
Engaging in such collaborations makes core business sense for companies. Working with NGOs, scientists and governments – and other companies – across crucial supply chains can help shape them to benefit those delivering sustainable solutions, while crowding out those seeking to profit from bad environmental practice. The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition and the 2030 Water Resources Group are good examples of how sustainable, national markets can be built. Working together enables everyone to achieve more – more quickly and at greater scale – than if each worked alone.
It is an exciting time. Old job boundaries are breaking down, new collaborations are taking off, and new skills are being formed. But there is still a long way to go: as Winston Churchill put it, we are perhaps just at the end of the beginning. Important global collaborations are needed to shape and accelerate change in mindsets and action. The World Economic Forum is proud to work with the Global Environment Facility, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Resources Institute and many others on one such collaboration, the Global Commons Alliance.
It is a time of creative destruction and high innovation. By working with far-sighted governments to help unleash, expand and replicate these new forms of public-private collaboration and innovation – intent on delivering global targets and unlocking new, sustainable forms of economic value – we can secure our life on planet Earth by 2030.
This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.