The Great Transition

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The 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting follows an extraordinary year with the first-ever truly global response to some of the most challenging problems in our relationship with the planet.

The “Anthropocene” made headlines earlier this month, as scientists presented further evidence that we have entered a new era in Earth’s history – one in which humans rather than natural forces are the primary drivers of planetary change.

At the same time, WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab refers to a Fourth Industrial Revolution – a period of global change, again driven by humans, brought about by the convergence of the physical and digital worlds that will fundamentally alter the way we produce, consume and relate to one another.

But for me there is another key dimension to realize. After we successfully boosted food security by domesticating animals and plants, and intensifying agriculture we also ingeniously found a way to unlock the energy trapped in our planet’s large fossil fuel reserves. More recently, unprecedented technological and infrastructure development has accelerated the global mobility of people and goods.

These achievements were not without consequences. It has taken a long time, but today the undeniable evidence of the impact of our activities and the risk of a global ecosystem collapse is vividly clear, as are the catastrophic consequences for our own well-being. This now brings us to a crossroads – an opportunity to redefine our relationship with the planet and its natural systems.

Suddenly the protection of our natural environment, our climate and biodiversity has entered mainstream thinking on economic development. So now, like never before, conserving forests, the ocean and wildlife is becoming everyone’s concern for social, economic and environmental reasons, to ensure sustainability and our own prosperity.

Great Barrier Reef © Troy MayneGreat Barrier Reef © Troy Mayne

Since the 1950s, we have seen a “Great Acceleration” in the use of natural resources and corresponding growth of humanity’s ecological footprint. But we are now discovering the unsustainability of this model and the need to transition to an approach that decouples human and economic development from environmental degradation. I believe we are entering a “Great Transition” phase, which will perhaps be characterized by the deepest cultural and behavioural shifts ever experienced by any civilization.

These changes are indeed upon us, and I am awed by the scale of the opportunities this generation is facing to build a future that is not in conflict with the planet.

On my way to Davos, Switzerland, I have in my mind an image of global business leaders as the new industrial revolutionaries and key agents of the “Great Transition”. Our host, Klaus Schwab, has incited us to become just that. He has set the tone for Davos by pointing to our shared opportunities and responsibilities in determining how the future will look.

The concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution leaves no doubt that the changes at hand can and should result in a more just and sustainable society. During the past year, we have made great progress in creating a blueprint to do just that. The world has come together around a set of sustainable development goals that aim to eliminate poverty and keep national economic engines humming while looking after the environment as the necessary foundation for all the above. We also have a new climate agreement that, if fully and urgently implemented, will help humanity avoid catastrophic climate change. We simply need to follow science and pull together!

Asia's largest solar power station, the Gujarat Solar Park, in Gujarat, India © Global Warming Images/WWF-CanonAsia’s largest solar power station, the Gujarat Solar Park, in Gujarat, India © Global Warming Images/WWF

Despite high profile cases of bad corporate behaviour continuing to affect the public image of business, the reality is that many responsible businesses have embraced new ways to produce and invest. Companies have the ability to work together with governments and communities the world over to take action at scale to ensure their future prosperity, foster human well-being and look after the health of ecosystems. In fact, companies have the potential to make perhaps the greatest contribution to the transition toward ecological sustainability. The days when environmental destruction was an acceptable cost of progress are over.

Can Davos build on the formidable momentum generated in New York and Paris last year and unite the business sector to embrace and accelerate the much needed transition to an ecologically sustainable development model? That remains to be seen. But it is very much an opportunity for businesses and partners to come together, look beyond their individual corporate agendas, share insight on common global challenges and work on the solutions that will ensure sustainability. If after four days, we are closer to a business mindset that values the environment and treats it as an appreciating asset for the benefit of people and nature, then this will be a step closer to Schwab’s Fourth Industrial Revolution and the “Great Transition” we urgently need.

Marco Lambertini is Director General of WWF International. 


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