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The environmental agenda for leaders.

The Environmental Agenda for Leaders

I am convinced, after 20 years of working on environmental issues, that the approaches we have been using will not get the job done. They won't succeed because they do not focus enough on underlying problems at the root of our environmental troubles. The approaches of the 1970s have bought us time, but not much more. The challenges of the 1990s will require new approaches, or we will lose the battle for the planet.

Why are new approaches so urgent? Consider our century's exponential growth trends. Since 1950, world population has doubled to over five billion. The output of the world economy has quadrupled. There is four times as much economic activity on the planet today as there was when I was a boy of 10. It took all of human history to build a world economy that produced about $600,000 billion in output in 1990. Today, the world economy grows by this amount every two years.

For over a billion of us, principally those of us in the rich countries, this growth has brought material wealth unimaginable by earlier generations. But it has also brought pollution, waste, and consumption of the planet's resources on an unprecedented scale.

The buildup in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use and other gases now threatens far-reaching climate change. Seven of the 10 hottest years on record have been in the last decade. Other gases - principally the chlorofluorocarbons - are depleting the Earth's ozone layer, which shields us from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. And over large areas of the globe, air pollutants are escaping urban-industrial areas and invading the countryside, seriously damaging aquatic life, forests, and crops.

Meanwhile, in the poorer countries, the legions of the poor and resource-dependent have swollen dramatically. A billion people in the developing world live in hunger and poverty, often destroying the fragile base of soils, water, forests, and fisheries on which their future depends because no alternative is open to them. The world's deserts are advancing, while its forests, with their immense wealth of life forms, are in retreat. On average, an acre and a half of tropical forests disappears every second; four species are committed to extinction every hour.

For the first time, human numbers and impacts have grown so large that they are eroding the natural systems that support life. Moreover, these challenges promise to multiply in the future. World population is projected to double in the lifetimes of today's children. World economic activity is projected to be five times what it is today in 60 years.

Imagine, just as a simple thought experiment, what would happen if climate-altering gases, industrial waste, and other pollutants increased proportionately with the fivefold expansion in world economic activity projected for the middle of the next century. That would indeed happen if this growth merely replicates over and over today's prevailing technologies, products, and lifestyles.

More of the same will, thus, not work. It will merely make difficult problems into impossible ones. Fundamental changes are thus in order.

At the World Resources Institute we have thought hard about what changes are needed and how we can bring them about - and we came up with a set of essential transitions. These large-scale transitions - or transformations - are essential if human society is to approach sustainability.

The transitions I will mention briefly seek to deal with the root causes of environmental problems. They recognize that the solutions to underlying causes lie mostly outside of the established "environmental sector." And I doubt that any of these transitions can succeed without the business community's active support and leadership.

1. Demographic Transition The first transition will not surprise you. It is the need for a demographic transition to population stability before the world population doubles again.

Population pressures already exacerbate virtually every environmental challenge we face. It is hard enough to imagine a workable world with 10 billion people, mostly living in the already stressed developing world, much less a world of 14 billion.

Cutting birth rates requires making many changes that will alleviate poverty, raise the status of women, make family planning service universally available, improve health care, and provide old-age support. Developing countries that set out on such a course should be able to count on help from nations and businesses that have the resources to help.

2. Technology Transition The second transition is a transition in technology to a new generation of environmentally benign technologies - technologies that are increasingly closed to natural systems - that utilize nature's income without consuming nature's capital.

We need a worldwide environmental revolution in technology. The prescription is straightforward but immensely challenging: The only way to reduce pollution while achieving expected economic growth is to bring about a wholesale transformation in the technologies that dominate manufacturing, energy, transportation, and agriculture. We must rapidly abandon the 20th Century technologies that have contributed so abundantly to today's problems and replace them with 21st Century technologies designed with environmental sustainability in mind.

Today, everyone speaks positively of "environmentally sustainable development." What this means in the context of pollution is technology transformation. It is a transformation that must be made in decades immediately ahead, and must begin today. And, for it to succeed, it must have business community leadership. In several ways, the greening of technology is a corporate leader's job.

Here are some of the things that are possible now, or soon should be: * Manufacturing processes and motors that cut energy needs in half. * Gas turbines that co-generate electricity and heat 50% more efficiently than today's power plants. * Solar thermal and wind systems that are producing electricity today at prices competitive with nuclear power, and photovoltaic power that promises to be competitive within a decade. * Manufacturing processes that make detoxification possible and waste elimination profitable. * New microbial and other bioengineered products that can substitute for chemical pesticides and fertilizers, help treat effluents and other waste, promote vegetation growth on impoverished soils, and increase the potential of biological sources of energy. * Miniaturization, microprocessors, and computer-aided design and management that greatly improve efficient use of raw materials and reduce both waste and environmental pressures. * Other computer and telecommunications applications that can strengthen satellite remote sensing, monitoring instrumentation, and environmental management through artificial intelligence. Most important, perhaps, is producing and marketing the "green automobile." There is probably no product that causes so much environmental damage as the automobile. From an environmental point of view, we will need cars that are super-efficient users of fuel, and the day is approaching, perhaps faster than we know, when we will have to move beyond vehicles that operate on fossil fuels. Both hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles are possible, and both hydrogen and electricity can be made from renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic cells and wind power.

3. Economic Transition The third needed transition is an economic transition to a world in which prices reflect the full environmental costs. Doing the right thing environmentally should be cheaper, not more expensive - as it so often is today.

Most of us live in market economies. The corrective most needed now is environmentally honest prices. It has been said that the planned economies failed because prices did not reflect economic realities. It might also be said that the market economies will fail unless prices reflect ecological realities.

Getting the prices right would require, for starters, that we get rid of subsidies. Today, many countries subsidize the consumption of forest resources, automotive transport, energy, and water, to mention a few.

Beyond subsidy elimination, we should impose environmental user fees, levying taxes on pollution and the use of virgin materials. Doing so would also raise government revenues, so pricing reform can go hand in hand with tax reform that shifts some of the tax burden away from "good" things, such as earning income and investing, and on to such "bad" things as pollution and waste.

4. Transition in Social Equity The fourth transition is a transition in social equity to a fair sharing of economic and environmental benefits both within and among countries. Over much of the world, the greatest destroyer of the environment is poverty - because the poor have no alternative. If we want to do something about the environment, then we must do something about poverty.

The developing world desperately needs both cutting-edge technology and major new financial resources dedicated to sustainable development. The business community is essential to both.

5. Transition to New Institutional Arrangements

None of these transitions is possible without a fifth - an institutional transition to new arrangements among governments, businesses, and peoples. The

U.N. system must be strengthened. The United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Development Programme must be strengthened. But new institutional arrangements are also urgently needed to enlist the tremendous potential of the private sector in what must be an unprecedented cooperative effort to bring about this environmental revolution in technology.

One exciting thing, to me, is that these transitions give businessmen and environmentalists a common agenda: * An agenda that sees technology as part of the solution and not just part of the problem. * An agenda that recognizes the need to replace old stocks in the economy with new, ecologically modern capital equipment and consumer durables. * An agenda that stresses market-based approaches and economic incentives. * An agenda that requires that environmental and business leaders move away from adversary approaches and forge new modes of cooperation that work upstream to design a sustainable future.

The first Earth Summit is scheduled for less than a year from now. It waits for us - as a challenge and an opportunity. Let me summarize by stating what I would urge the business community to do to prepare for the 1992 Earth Summit:

Make the environment your issue, not someone else's.

Move beyond compliance to leadership:

- Leadership in going beyond standards; and

- Leadership in developing the products of the future.

Call for government action. Don't wait for it. Develop your own proposals for government. Governments need your leadership to:

- Eliminate subsidies;

- Make prices reflect environmental costs; and

- Support R&D for a green future.

Recognize and address the great environmental challenges of the day. Today, the two biggest challenges are:

- The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shifting to sustainable energy strategies, particularly in industrial countries; and

- The need to reverse the deterioration of the natural resource base, particularly in developing countries.

Commit to accountability:

- Bring outside environmental experts and leaders onto your corporate boards and committees; and

- Make complete environmental disclosures and have your environmental accounts independently audited.

If we pursue these approaches, the 1990s can be an exciting period in which new approaches are launched, new partnerships are created, and the full power of modern technology is applied to achieving sustainable development. If that happens, we can leave a legacy of hope - our most important gift to the new century.

Environmental Progress Since Earth Day 1970

Half of the world's population depends on biomass energy - primarily from firewood - to

heat their homes and cook their food. But an estimated 60% of these people are

cutting down the forests faster than they are being replaced.

80% of the 1,300 pounds of solid waste generated each year by each American ends up

in landfills. 10% is incinerated and another 10% is recycled.

Emissions of carbon monoxide from today's cars are 96% less than those of 1965 cars,

and nitrogen oxides are 76% lower. Cars built since 1983 generate, on average,

13 times less emissions than pre-1983 cars.

Scientists estimate that 90% of the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the future

will come from Third World countries.

California, Texas, and Louisiana head the list of states releasing toxic chemicals into air,

water, and ground. Michigan leads the list of states transferring toxic wastes to off-site


Americans are world leaders in trashing products. Each year, Americans discard 246.9

million tires, 2 billion razor blades and, 1.6 billion pens. Over 63,000 fully loaded garbage

trucks, forming a line 373 miles long, are needed to dump America's daily garbage.

Americans also throw away a large portion of themselves. The American Society of Plastic

Surgeons estimates that its members liposuction and discard 27 million cubic centimeters of fat each year.

Anxieties about water quality have helped triple the sales of bottled water in the U.S. over

the past decade. Source: The Conference Board

James Gustave Speth is President of the World Resources Institute. Based in Washington, D.C., the World Resources Institute is a center for policy research and technical assistance on resource and environmental issues of international importance. Mr. Speth was a co-founder of the Institute in 1982. He has served in a number of environmental positions in the private and public sectors, including, for two years, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Chairman's Agenda: Managing Environmental Responsibility
Author:Speth, James Gustave
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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