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How to transform systems: Q&A with WRI’s Andrew Steer

  • Between the pandemic, rising food insecurity and poverty, and catastrophic disasters like wildfires, storms and droughts, 2020 was a year of challenges that prompted widespread calls for systemic change in how we interact with one another, with other species, and with the environment. Bringing about such changes will require transforming how we produce food and energy, how we move from one place to another, and how we define economic growth.
  • But it’s a lot easier to talk about transforming systems than to actually do it. Because real change is hard, we’re more likely to slip back into old habits and return to business as usual than embrace paradigm shifts.
  • Recognizing this limitation, World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that operates in 60 countries, works across sectors by creating tools that increase transparency, create a common understanding, and provide data and analysis that enable action.
  • WRI’s development of these platforms and tools has grown by leaps and bounds since the early 2010s when Andrew Steer joined the organization as president and CEO from the World Bank. Steer spoke with Mongabay during a December 2020 interview.

Between the pandemic, rising food insecurity and poverty, and catastrophic disasters like wildfires, storms and droughts, 2020 was a year of challenges that prompted widespread calls for systemic change in how we interact with one another, with other species, and with the environment. Bringing about such changes will require transforming how we produce food and energy, how we move from one place to another, and how we define economic growth. But it’s a lot easier to talk about transforming systems than to actually do it. Because real change is hard, we’re more likely to slip back into old habits and return to business as usual than embrace paradigm shifts.

Civil society exists to take on the world’s greatest challenges, working to drive meaningful impact at all scales on nearly every imaginable issue. That is, of course, an impossible mandate. No single sector, let alone one that’s dependent on donations and grants, can drive the kind of change necessary to actually transform systems on the time frame and scale necessary to head off a challenge as daunting as climate change or the extinction crisis.

Recognizing this limitation, World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that operates in 60 countries, works across sectors by creating tools that increase transparency, create a common understanding, and provide data and analysis that enable action. WRI focuses specifically on issues at the intersection of environment and development, applying a three-step approach that the group characterizes as “Count it, Change it, Scale it.” In practice, this has produced platforms like Global Forest Watch, Resources Watch, Climate Watch, LandMark, and Water, Peace & Security, all of which are collaborative efforts with a wide range of stakeholders who provide access to critical data, analysis, and decision-support tools.

WRI’s development of these platforms and tools has grown by leaps and bounds since the early 2010s when Andrew Steer joined the organization as president and CEO from the World Bank. Steer, who spent the early part of his career working as an economist in Indonesia, has presided over WRI during a period of rapid expansion, from its global footprint to its technological offerings to its budget and impact. WRI recently landed a $100 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund to support the development of a satellite-based monitoring system of land use change and a school bus electrification initiative in the U.S.

Having worked for a big development institution, the World Bank, and the overseas development agency for a world power, the U.K. government’s DFID, and now an NGO with an annual operating budget exceeding $100 million, Steer understands what it takes to create conditions to enable large-scale change.

“We start everything with data and analysis,” he explained during a December 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. “It’s nice to do that research and have that data, but nobody gets a prize for that. You get a prize for when that data, that analysis, those recommendations actually hit the ground in the form of better decisions.

“We are not scalers. We can help the scaling. We can convene the leaders. We can empower them with the right data. We can demonstrate proof of concept through our ‘changing,’ but the scaling comes from coalitions of change. And so we spend a lot of time thinking about what creates a tipping point: when a movement becomes unstoppable.”

Deforestation for palm oil production in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Steer cited Global Forest Watch (GFW) as an example of an innovation that can enable transformative change. He noted that GFW can now “see” trees as they fall on roughly a weekly basis. With data layers showing the location of oil palm plantations, protected areas, peatlands, and primary forests, it’s now possible to know where forests are being converted for plantations on a time frame that’s relevant for action. In other words, ignorance is no longer an excuse for companies or governments.

But, he notes, there’s a lot more than just seeing forests fall on a map to transforming the system that drives deforestation for palm oil production. That data has to get in the hands of the right people, from palm oil traders to consumer product companies like Unilever and Nestlé that buy palm oil.

“You’ve got to get it into the boardrooms of the companies that actually want to do the right thing. You’ve got to then think about the smallholder’s association, because it’s only when smallholder yields in Indonesia improve that you can take the pressure off the surrounding forest. You then need agricultural research, because there are tens of millions of hectares of degraded land in Southeast Asia where you establish new oil palm plantations without deforestation.”

Global Forest Watch map showing tree cover loss in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Steer also referenced the energy revolution that’s currently underway and said that private sector actors are emerging as a key part of the solution by driving demand for renewable energy, which in turn pushes them to lobby governments for supportive policies.

“Some large companies, like Facebook and Google, are investing billions of dollars in server farms,” he said. “[They are saying] ‘If you want us to invest in your state, we actually need green electrons — real green electrons, not just offsets.’ And of course, these states want the investment, so we’re now seeing an ambition loop.

“The companies will actually get together with their colleagues and instead of having the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here opposing all kinds of environmental legislation, you have them saying, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got commitments to deliver. We need government help to create a level playing field, so we want you to put the right policies in place.'”

Steer said the COVID-19 pandemic will help accelerate transformation by demonstrating both the need for change and what is possible.

“We’ve learned that we’re much more vulnerable than we thought,” he said. “We’ve also learned that we can change much quicker than we thought.”

Water, Peace and Security map showing the conflict forecast for SEPTEMBER 2020 – AUGUST 2021.

“It’s really quite encouraging to see how corporations, which five years ago would have said, ‘Our only obligation is to our shareholders,’ — they’re now saying, ‘Actually our obligation is to our consumers, to our workers and to the world as whole, and to nature.’ So, yes, I think there is a real possibility, but we may totally blow it.”

“So far $12 trillion have been allocated … Are those $12 trillion being invested in tomorrow’s economy, which is more resilient, low carbon, and more fair, or yesterday’s economy: the gray, the polluting, the unequal? The vast majority has gone into the latter,” he continued. “The evidence is overwhelming that if you want to reboot your economy, you want to create jobs, you want to spend the money quickly, and you want to spend it in a sustainable and fair way so that the poor benefit the most, then investing in tomorrow’s economy is approach to take.”

“Even if you don’t care about the environment, the smart thing is to invest in tomorrow’s economy.”

Note: This text of the interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Next Wednesday, Andrew Steer will share his insights on the big moments, themes and trends on the environment, climate, human development and economics for the year ahead. Sign up here

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW STEER

Mongabay: What originally prompted your interest in sustainable development?

Andrew Steer: I started life as an economist. I was teaching at a university back in England at Cambridge and realized I wanted to do something much more practical. I was living in Indonesia and discovered that if you looked at how Indonesian economy was growing, it turned out that half of that growth was because they were consuming their natural resources. It’s not difficult to look good from a GDP standpoint if you chop down your forest. The problem is that five years from now, you won’t have anything that is a real source of growth. So, I started to spend a lot of time looking at the role of natural resources and environmental degradation in economic and social development.

Andrew Steer speaking on stage. Photo credit: WRI

I joined the World Bank and I led some research there on this issue. In those days, the World Bank was a development institution, which in their view was quite different from an environmental institution, which of course it isn’t. You can’t be a development institution unless you’re also an environmental institution. I was part of a process to bring the subject of resources and environment into the very heart of the way they thought. I asked to be the director of the environment and social department there, to try to turn around that big tanker, which was the World Bank.

Since then, it’s become more and more clear to me. What was true then is, if anything, even more true today. Look at the loss of biodiversity. This is not only a moral tragedy. It doesn’t only have intrinsic value. It is devastating to the future of humanity, and it’s devastating, especially to the poor. You cannot claim you care about poverty, equity, social justice, unless you take the environment seriously.

Mongabay: Did your background as an economist and working for these big institutions help when you transitioned into WRI? And did it influence WRI’s current approach, which it describes as ‘count it, change it, scale it,’ putting big data and data visualization at the heart of its work?

Andrew Steer: Yes, definitely. From my position in the World, I went on to run some programs in East Asia and then in the World Bank headquarters, but then I joined the British government. I was director general of DFID, which is the British overseas development agency. That period really just made it more and more clear to me.

So, when I then joined WRI seven or eight years ago, yes, this was a really important issue. And WRI itself, we might enter the issue through the environmental lens, but actually we are a social and economic development organization. These are the same thing, the way we think about it. So, we follow a ‘people first environmentalism.’

Mongabay: In that period of time of the last seven to eight years you’ve been at WRI, there’s been quite a lot of progress or technological advances, everything from remote sensing capabilities to AI. WRI is using a lot of this in their platform. It would be great to hear a little bit about how WRI’s work has evolved in this capacity during your tenure at the organization.

Andrew Steer: We call it, ‘count it, change it, scale it.’ We start everything with data and analysis. The ‘count it,’ is both collecting billions of data points every day from satellites or drones, but it’s also doing very detailed household surveys. It’s doing detailed analysis of rivers and water and so on. But then it’s doing the analysis and it’s designing policies. That’s all part of the ‘count it,’ if you like.

Is nice to do that research and have that data, but nobody gets a prize for that. You get a prize for when that data, that analysis, those recommendations actually hit the ground in the form of better decisions. Those could be better decisions by communities, by local governments, by cities, by nations, by corporations, et cetera. That’s the ‘change it,’ but in today’s world, changing is nice, but we don’t have any time any longer for sort of pilot successes.

So, every program that we begin, we ask those that are proposing it to come up with a scaling strategy as well. And that’s why we very much sort of take our own flag down, totally. We are not scalers. We can help the scaling. We can convene the leaders. We can empower them with the right data. We can demonstrate proof of concept through our “changing”, but the scaling comes from coalitions of change. And so we spend a lot of time thinking about what creates a tipping point: when a movement that becomes unstoppable. That’s what we want to be part of. We see a whole range of revolutions that need to take place, in energy, in the way we grow our cities, in the food systems and rural development, in manufacturing and consumption. These are all big revolutions. And within each of those, there are several smaller revolutions.

Resource Watch map showing Food Price Spikes for Cereals and Tubers from September 15, 2020 – December 15, 2020.

So, in the revolution in transportation, you’ve got to get rid of the internal combustion engine. That’s a big revolution. You’ve got to figure out a way that airlines can fly without using fossil fuels, that’s a big revolution, et cetera. And so, the way we look at it is this whole series of transitions or revolutions that have to take place, and they have to take place this decade. And an important part of that as you suggest, is modern technology. So, the WRI, for example, runs something called Global Forest Watch. We’ve worked with Mongabay on that, and really enjoyed that relationship very much, indeed.

Global Forest Watch can see trees falling everywhere in the world down to one tenth of a hectare, every week. But now we’re about to embark upon something that’s going to be much better because the technology keeps changing. So, we’re just launching a program now, what we call Land and Carbon Watch, which the Bezos Earth Fund is supporting us on. And this is not just us that do it. We run the program, but quite frankly, it’s everyone from NASA to Google to the European Space Agency to Esri. A whole bunch of world-class universities, research centers and so on.

What this will do is enable us three years from today, not only to see forests as they fall, but also see regrowth. We’ll see what we call landscape restoration. So, you’ll be able to see bushes and trees, and you’ll even be able to see crops changing, and above and beyond that you’ll be able to see how much carbon is embedded in that down to every single hectare on Earth. You will be able to see what we call the carbon flux. Some areas will be emitting a lot of carbon, other areas will be absorbing carbon. So certainly, five years from now, you’ll be able to, for any region, for any local authority, for any country, you’ll be able to figure out how much carbon is being emitted from nature. This doesn’t look at energy or that kind of thing, but it looks at natural processes and land use change.

Now, how is that possible? Well, it’s possible only because of artificial intelligence and drone technology. You can’t put drones over the whole world, obviously. But what you can do is map the whole world every day using satellites, then you have to continually improve the algorithm. And so that’s where you’ll deploy technology. And even on-the-ground research where you actually estimate how much carbon there is in different plant types. You then learn how to get the different signals from satellites that enable you to assess the different types of vegetation. And you’re able then to see how much is growing, how much is falling and how much carbon is in it.

Satellite data show huge areas of tree cover loss in Pantanal Matogrossense National Park following the latest spate of wide-ranging, out-of-control wildfires. Data via Global Forest Watch

Five years ago, that would have been totally impossible. But because of artificial intelligence, which is really all about continual learning and recalibrating the algorithms, all the time improving it. So, every year you get more and more accurate. So, it’s a very, very exciting time and digitalization has enabled or is enabling us to enter a whole new period of environmentalism.

Mongabay: That’s incredibly ambitious.

Andrew Steer: Well, we’re not doing this on our own, by the way. I’m not saying, “We have mastered this.” No, no, no. This is the world of science and we are one modest player. We’re privileged to have wonderful staff. We have 1,200 staff in 12 international offices around the world, but we are a small player compared to the magnitude of the task and the magnitude of the opportunities.

Mongabay: So, with this system we’re no longer going to have the excuse of ignorance as a reason that we’re not taking action, so that part of the problem will be solved ideally. But you’ve also mentioned tipping points, and I wanted to get a little bit into that. Obviously the scale and complexity of the challenges that we’re facing are very daunting. What do you see as the key lever for driving the systematic change that’s needed to shift economies and society as a whole towards true sustainability. We have this data component now, but obviously we need to take it to the next level.

Andrew Steer: Well, you’re absolutely right, Rhett, when you say we have no excuse now and it’s a big mistake to assume that just because we have the facts, that people then change their behavior. We used to think if only we could show how much deforestation is taking place, everybody would surely stop the deforesting. Well, no, they don’t. So, you’ve got to be much smarter than that. So, when we design and implement a program like Global Forest Watch or Land and Carbon Watch, we invest heavily in the user interface and then the coalitions that need to be built in order to change.

So, for example, on Global Forest Watch, we discovered that actually one of the most effective ways was to collaborate. That might mean providing grants to journalists or community groups, or working with corporations and local governments. But there again, you’ve got to keep investing and figure out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that need to be put together. Some people like to think that there must be a silver bullet. Well, there isn’t.

Interior of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Let’s look at palm oil in Southeast Asia, for example. Palm oil is responsible for two-thirds to 70% of all of the deforestation in Southeast Asia. So, you might think, “Okay, what’s the silver bullet?” The silver bullet is the government passes a law that says you mustn’t cut down primary forest. Well, good luck. That’s not going to work. It’s only when you actually think about all the players, each individual one is part of the jigsaw, that it works. So, starting with Walmart and Unilever, but then thinking about Chinese buyers, thinking about the traders in Singapore, thinking about the local governments. But where do you get your data? That’s where we would come in.

Our part of the jigsaw puzzle is everybody should know that, from now on, we are able to know where trees fall in every single hectare throughout Southeast Asia. We also map the thousand or so palm oil mills in Southeast Asia. including their catchment area. That provides a picture of what mills are potentially sourcing from newly deforested areas and may provide insight on where laws are being broken.

That is still not enough. You’ve got to get that data to the traders. You’ve got to get it into the boardrooms of the companies that actually want to do the right thing. You’ve got to then think about the smallholder’s association, because it’s only when smallholder yields in Indonesia improve that you can take the pressure off the surrounding forest. You then need agricultural research, because there are tens of millions of hectares of degraded land in Southeast Asia where you establish new oil palm plantations without deforestation. So, it’s hard work, but the problem is if you are missing a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, such as the monitoring, the whole thing falls apart and it doesn’t work.

Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Indonesia’s Papua Province in 2019. Photo credit: Microsoft Zoom.Earth

So that’s how we think about all of the issues, whether it is transitioning away from the internal combustion engine, whether it is halving food loss and waste by 2030–which is a Sustainable Development Goal 12.3–or whether it’s restoring 100 million hectares in Africa, which we’re working on with the African Union, the IUCN, and others. Whatever revolution we’re working on, one has to have a fairly sophisticated analysis of the players and who must do what and, more important, what would get them to behave differently. And almost always that requires a coalition of like-minded players from the private sector, the public sector, NGOs, scientists, and journalists that will then gradually turn the great ship around.

Mongabay: On that last point, which is getting different actors to behave differently: we have this constantly improving data pipeline coming in and better analysis, but one of the gaps is getting companies to actually adopt these into their business practices. I believe WRI is one of the key partners on the Science-Based targets network. What is WRI’s involvement with this initiative?

Andrew Steer: Yes, the Science Based Targets initiative is an initiative where we request companies, usually fairly large companies, commit to decarbonize throughout their supply chain. First, they have to make commitments on their scope one emissions, which are your carbon emissions within your own factories. Scope two, is the energy you use. Scope three, your entire supply chain. That third one is the hardest as you can imagine, but they sign up to do this over the next three to four decades. And we started it together with the World Wildlife Fund, together with CDP and the U.N. Global Compact. We started it just before the Paris summit, so it’s already five years old.

We’ve been surprised in a good way that over 1,100 companies have now signed up. And of those, about half now have had their targets approved by us. So, you apply to join, which is pretty tough because you’ve got to have these 10-year trajectories towards net zero and they have to be totally transparent. So, this is a very good example of what WRI is trying to do.

Ngerukewid in Palau. Photo credit: Microsoft Zoom.Earth

The corporate sector has been a major part of the problem, but it can also start being part of the solution.

What’s happening, which was the design, is that these companies want to do the right thing, but then once they’ve made the commitment, they actually realize that it’s harder than they think. Because, for example, how do you get renewable energy, which is your scope two. And so, the really exciting thing is, if you go to a place like South Carolina, which is not exactly the world’s leader on awareness about climate change, you’ll find actually very enlightened policies on renewable energy.

One of the main reasons is that some large companies, like Facebook and Google, are investing billions of dollars in server farms. They’re now saying “We have scope two obligations under our science-based targets. So if you want us to invest in your state, we actually need green electrons–real green electrons, not just offsets.” And of course, these states want the investment, so we’re now seeing an ambition loop, which is companies that have a requirement are saying “I can’t do it unless I get someone else to do something else.” And sometimes that someone else is the government.

So, what you’re starting to see is companies are now finally moving. The United States has been very much behind the curve on this compared to Europe. The companies will actually get together with their colleagues and instead of having the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here opposing all kinds of environmental legislation, you have them saying, “Hey guys, we’ve got commitments to deliver. We need government help to create a level playing field, so we want you to put the right policies in place.”

If you go to the Netherlands, for example, they have something called the Sustainable Growth Coalition, which has the eight largest corporations in the country: Unilever, DSM, Heineken, and so on. And then you have an organization where every year they do a major report on say the circular economy or something like that. Then they’ll sit down with the cabinet members of the government and say, “Look, we need this from you.”

That’s what we call an ambition loop, and that’s how you start moving from what is a downward spiral, which has traditionally happened here. I mean, look, the Trade Associations here in the United States have been massively destructive in many areas, like climate change, because they have opposed any kind of legislation. You’re now starting to see that changing even in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example. Little by little, it’s changing. So that’s our goal, and that’s getting back to the idea of what causes a tipping point, a positive one.

Mongabay: Earlier you mentioned that facts don’t always move people to action. Parallel to that issue, and also related to what you just said about how businesses are now pushing for greener mandates because it’s in their interest. So, on that front, historically, some environmental issues have unified people, but it seems in today’s political climate that a lot of environmental issues are politically divisive. So, what do you see as the opportunities to build a stronger constituency around the environment? That means building a strong coalition of support where the sector is more inclusive, not just inclusive across different ethnic backgrounds and beliefs, but also across the political spectrum?

Andrew Steer: Well, that is the difficult question certainly here in the United States, isn’t it? I mean, the good news is that luckily this is less so in most other countries. The environment has traditionally not been a left-of-center issue at all. I mean, there have been surveys of the top environmental president in U.S. history and it’s a mix of Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon and Democrats like Barrack Obama and Clinton. Thomas Jefferson was a Democratic Republican.

So, in other words, there’s nothing ideological on the face of it about the environment. Look at the United Kingdom. Who was it that said, “We need to go to the original Rio Summit and sign up to a climate change convention because it’s a very, very serious issue,” it was Margaret Thatcher, the most right-wing prime minister in the century, and the best friend of Ronald Reagan.

And look today in the United Kingdom, with its conservative government, last week they announced a 68% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and total phasing out of internal combustion engines by 2030. I mean, 10 years from today in the United Kingdom, you will not be able to buy a new gasoline or diesel fueled automobile or light truck.

That is a revolution. I mean, that is going to be a disruptive change, and it’s from a conservative government. Why? Because it has nothing to do with big government, it has nothing to do with any of the traditional conservative or liberal politics. So, the question here in the United States is if it is possible to restore that kind of Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism? It’s quite encouraging that as we and many organizations are looking at what a Biden administration can accomplish even with a Republican Senate.

California redwood trees. Historically there has been a strong bi-partisan consensus around public lands use in the United States. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

It turns out there are quite a few things, for example, HFCs, you’ll probably get agreement on that. Investment in research in a number in hydrogen, direct air capture of carbon, and in smart grids, for example. Especially in the rural agenda, there’s quite a strong Republican strain to support nature. Now having said that, there are a lot of companies that are given permission to drill for oil where they shouldn’t and cut down forest where they shouldn’t. So, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Yes.

Mongabay: You’ve mentioned the incoming Biden administration, what would you like to see them prioritize? I know you just published a commentary on this, but great to hear directly on that.

Andrew Steer: It’s very good news when one looks at the appointments that the Biden administration is making. The really good news is that it’s not just sort of the traditional environmental portfolio, it’s the secretary of the treasury, it’s the secretary of interior, it’s the secretary of state, it’s the national security advisor. These are all people that take these issues very seriously. So, what we’d like to see them prioritize is leadership in the world, but that needs to be earned. It will be earned as the United States demonstrates that it is able to deliver its own promise, so to speak. So, a big challenge of course, will be to come up with the so-called NDC for the United States.

President-elect Biden has said he wants to go to net zero carbon emissions. Now we need an NDC up to 2030, which would be the path to get there the first decade. We’ve done analysis that suggests that an offer of a 45% to 50% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030, over 2005 levels, would be quite doable and good for the economy, good for citizens, and good for equity as well. One of the really encouraging things is that the administration that is incoming will clearly make the issue of social justice and environmental justice central, because the environmental movement has not been as good as it needs to be on those issues. It’s really encouraging, I think, that these issues are high on the list.

Climate is just one thing. There are many issues in the United States, that president Biden will invest in, whether it’s in the ocean, whether it’s land-use, and so on, but on the international side, there is going to be a warm welcome for the United States if it takes a leadership role.

And I think there are deals to be done with some very, very important countries. I mean, how cool it would be if the United States and India, were to do a deal that includes technology, development, and so on. I mean, India has made some big commitments, but it needs to raise its game too.

Indonesia is doing some terrific things, but there, again, it’s not being very ambitious yet on its own NDC. So, you could do very exciting things there. Obviously, the U.S.-China play is unbelievably important. It was transformative before Paris. I’m sure John Kerry and President Biden will make that a big priority. You could envisage a sort of a G3 emerging with Europe, China, and the U.S. Europe is obviously the leader, and it has soldiered on through the four lean years of the Trump administration, and has developed relationships with China, which are also very deep and very helpful. I mean, it was fantastic that president Xi Jinping made the announcement in September to go to net zero carbon emissions by 2060. Now they also now need to come up with an ambitious NDC themselves.

So, there’s a lot to play for, but it is important to make the point that everyone will welcome U.S. leadership, but the U.S. needs to demonstrate that we have something to offer. This includes money as well. For example, the Obama administration offered $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund. One billion was dispersed, but then Mr. Trump killed the rest. And what’s going to happen in terms of USAID and Overseas Development Aid.

Satellite image of a portion of Everglades National Park in Florida. Courtesy of Zoom.Earth

There is a slight feeling, maybe more than slight at the moment, in the developing world that there’s been a betrayal, not particularly with regard to the United States, but with regard to developed rich countries in general.

On climate change, there’s a sort of a feeling at times: “Well, you rich countries always said you didn’t have the money, but then when the coronavirus came, suddenly you suddenly find $12 trillion. Well, where did that come from? I mean, clearly you did have the money all the time, or you can borrow for it. Why didn’t you borrow it earlier for climate change — you kept saying it wasn’t there? Now, yes, that’s great that you’re doing the $12 billion, but it seems like 90% you’re spending on yourself.”

“At a time when we need you more than ever, we’re suffering recessions that are just as bad as yours. We don’t have the luxury of borrowing. We don’t have access to the same international market. And what are you doing Instead? Well, you’re doing a little bit more on some climate finance, but some of you are cutting back your aid and you’re saying, ‘Can’t afford aid anymore because we’re spending so much money on ourselves.'”

So, there’s a piece of work to be done here within the United States, as the richest country in the world, of course. There’s something to be done here to being a leader. It is that president-elect Biden has said that he will host a meeting of world leaders on climate change in the first 100 days. Well, this issue of the obligation of rich countries to poor countries needs to be one element of that.

Mongabay: You mentioned the pandemic. Do you think the pandemic has been a catalyst for rethinking businesses-as-usual practices and whether that can have benefits in terms of long-term sustainability?

Andrew Steer: Yes, I do. If we use it well. Yes, I think it’s been a terrible, terrible tragedy, and it’s reminded us of how vulnerable we are. We honestly believed that we in our wisdom had put in place institutions called governments that would protect us. This year we’ve discovered actually, quite frankly, they don’t protect us. I mean, it would have been unthinkable a year ago if someone had said, “You’re going to be staying in your home because it’s too dangerous to be outside for a whole year.” I mean, we would’ve said, “This is ridiculous.” So, we’ve learned that we’re much more vulnerable than we thought. We’ve also learned that we can change much quicker than we thought.

I do really believe that there is the possibility of once in a generation, a once in a century sort of shift in the social contract between citizens and government and corporations. And just as we had – after World War II, until about 1970, we sort of had an era of Keynesian Economics, with a strong role of government. We then had the era of the market with Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, and Maggie Thatcher from 1980 to 2010. Now we may well be going into something rather different. I don’t know what it will be, the era of the community, the era of the family, who knows? The era of moving from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder economics.

It’s really quite encouraging to see how corporations, which five years ago would have said, “Our only obligation is to our shareholders.” They’re now saying, “Actually our obligation is to our consumers, to our workers and to the world as whole, and to nature.” So, yes, I think there is a real possibility, but we may totally blow it. I mean, so far $12 trillion have been allocated, have been reserved, but haven’t all been spent.

Are those $12 trillion being invested in tomorrow’s economy, which is more resilient, low carbon, more and fair or yesterday’s economy: the gray, the polluting, the unequal. The vast majority has gone into the latter.

The Biden administration has said it is going to make a very significant part of any stimulus packet “green”. Kristalina Georgieva, the head of the IMF is saying, “We’ve got to invest in tomorrow’s economy.”

Blackwater oxbow lake, rainforest, and a whitewater river in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

So people are saying the right thing. We’re doing great analysis. Our organization is analyzing all the countries. What are you spending your money on and so on? So far, it is not great, but the evidence is overwhelming that if you want to reboot your economy, you want to create jobs, you want to spend the money quickly, and you want to spend it in a sustainable and fair way so that the poor benefit the most then investing tomorrow’s economy is approach to take. That means investing in energy efficiency, in retrofitting buildings, in renewable energy, in nature-based solutions, in green spaces mangrove planting, and in a whole range of green public transport rather than ring roads around the cities. Laying cement doesn’t get you many jobs. Building pipelines, using coal, doesn’t get many jobs.

So even if you don’t care about the environment, the smart thing is to invest in tomorrow’s economy. And we just haven’t yet been effective enough at communicating that, but it is encouraging that little by little it’s happening.

We run something called the New Climate Economy Commission under the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. We had a meeting this morning of corporations and ministers and so on. This has shown that smart climate action will lead to more efficiency, drive new technology, lower risks, and be effective.

Just yesterday, I had a meeting with the Confederation of Indian Industry, and it was amazing. Some of the Indian industrialists really get this stuff. And they were saying, “Look, the reason that we want to move forward with an ambitious climate thing, is not only because we want to solve climate, it is because we see that as the future. We see it as a path to competitiveness and jobs and so on.” And so little by little, a battle is being won, but we don’t have very much time.

 

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