Habitat and species loss, renewed coal mining and climate change denier elected president. 2016 has been a tough year. But not all is lost.
Here are nine positive thoughts to help you escape the Sturm und Drang of 2016, the hottest year on record.
1 Rowing in reverse. Donald Trump started rowing back the day after his unexpected win. After hating every aspect of Obamacare while on the campaign trail, he then said he would retain certain elements. And he wouldn’t lock up Hillary because he had more important things to do. By the time you read this, there will be more examples of furious back-rowing as Trump faces the practical difficulties of meeting his many rash promises.
2 Denial is not the new black. It’s difficult to make things happen, especially in a complex political world. Will Trump succeed in “cancelling” the Paris Agreement? Maybe the US will withdraw from the process, but that will only allow China to hold the high moral ground. This would not do for the competitive Trump who claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax. The UN process continues, with or without the US. And most US firms have made commitments to a low-carbon future, as have some US states. Denial is not (yet) the new black.
3 Friendly tech is on the march. There’s real momentum behind technology, especially in artificial intelligence and data analysis. This is good news for habitats and biodiversity and bad news for poverty. The benefits can already be seen in satellite monitoring of forest loss in real time, which enables officials to take quick action to prevent illegal logging, forest burning and land conversion. Furthermore, data analysis can identify quickly where and when to provide short- and long-term aid that can buoy communities and prevent mass migration.
Growing investment in cocoa farming will empower women (credit: PixieMe)
4 Coal rehabilitation could bring unexpected benefits. Renewed mining for coal in the US (promoted by Trump) would be bad news for the Appalachian mountains (because of mountain top removal) but it could be good news for air quality in poor countries. Ridiculous? Consider this. Coal was becoming a fuel mainly used in developing parts of the world, like China and India. That’s where the air quality is bad, and the poor, who need the electricity, suffer the most from pollution. Could the rehabilitation of coal advance clean-burn technology, making clean coal a reality rather than pure PR spin? And while the techies are perfecting the clean coal, could they solve some of the cost hurdles of carbon capture? Now there’s a geeky but positive thought.
5 Collaborating with civil society. To solve their own problems, big companies are starting to think creatively about how they collaborate better with that strange beast called civil society. Consider this, the chocolate industry is under enormous pressure from rocketing demand for its product and diminishing supply of high-quality cocoa beans, its main ingredient. Given that most cocoa is grown by poor smallholders in a narrow tropical belt, it’s impossible to simply crank up supply. A combination of better plants, agricultural practices and the modernisation of the social order is needed to boost production. One of the prime winners will be women who have been condemned to a life not much better than family slaves. Their enterprise is needed to boost production. That’s why the industry is collaborating with social NGOs who are working to empower women (and persuade the men that it’s in their best interest to let the women prosper).
6 Smart green tech. Digital technology has done nothing to promote sustainability ¬- yet. But the potential is there to bring about collaborative working and the dematerialisation of our everyday lives. We just need to replace old policies with those better tuned to exploit the potential benefits of the new technologies. Time to get political.
There is some progress on protecting elephants (credit: Volodymyr Burdiak)
7 Back-against-the-wall ingenuity. There is nothing more positive than caring people caught in a tight squeeze. Those who have made it their life’s work to protect animals, especially big romantic ones such as elephants and rhinos, have had an especially disappointing 2016. And it is indeed very difficult to imagine a better 2017 for these majestic beasts and their protectors. But influential figures, such as the UK royal family, are getting involved while the commoners demonstrate their ingenuity. For example, rhino horns are being replaced with prosthetics to make the animals unattractive to poachers. And bees, which terrify elephants, are being used in Africa to keep plundering beasts away from small holders’ fields, reducing the conflict between man and animal. But what’s really needed is a cut in demand for animal products and we can take hope from the shifting world order – read on.
8 New world order. As the US retreats behind its walls, fences and non-trade deals, China is emerging as a world leader. It has already called on the US to maintain its commitment to the Paris Agreement and – here’s a thought – could easily cut the demand for ivory and other animal products if it thought this would boost its global reputation. Such a move would end the stupid, destructive trade in ivory and rhino horn. Let’s pray.
9 Millennials getting mad and getting off the couch. Probably the most exciting consequence of Brexit and Trump is the politicisation of the formerly apathetic social media generation. On discovering that their futures were effectively stolen by the wily, voting oldies, millennials are now getting involved in the democratic process. Millennials are as mad as hell and look set to start swiping left and right in the ballot box.
Naïve? Perhaps. But it’s always better to live in hope. Smiley face!
Peter Knight is chairman of The Context Group. www.contextsustainability.com