The recent election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has a number of implications for the US and for the global community, particularly in the area of sustainability and climate change. During his controversial campaign Trump called climate change a hoax and threatened to dismantle the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), eliminate the recently adopted Clean Power Plan (an initiative to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source in the US, while maintaining energy reliability and affordability) and to lower restrictions on drilling and mining on federal lands. These actions will push the US sustainability agenda backward. But what does this have to do with the quality of life of people outside of the US? A lot. Mainly because climate change is a global phenomenon. If we increase carbon dioxide emissions in the US or China we will increase global warming impacts not only for the American and Chinese people but for everyone, even those of us in Switzerland.
What can we do then? We need to act now and anticipate the unsustainable Trump effect.
Switzerland is already facing climate change challenges. The Federal Government has alerted that:
“In Switzerland, rising temperatures and changing precipitation are affecting surface water, terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity: the glaciers are melting, steep mountain slopes in the Alpine valleys are becoming unstable, dry periods in summer are becoming more frequent and longer, foreign animal and plant species from the south are spreading throughout Switzerland and displacing native species. The habitat of Switzerland is changing, and with it, our livelihoods.”
As a response to this challenge the Swiss Government has developed and adopted sustainability plans, programs and actions providing incentives to producers and consumers to diminish their contribution to the growth of CO2 emissions and global warming. But given the urgency of the challenge, this is not enough. As we saw in the case of US leadership “even the best sustainable policies are not always sustainable”. With a change of leadership at the top going in the wrong direction, any recent gains can evaporate overnight. So what to do now? One of our best hopes was recently on display in Morocco.
The Marrakech Climate Change Conference took place from 7-18 November 2016, and was comprised of two very important events: the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the first session of the Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement was a turning point for global action to limit climate change. Signing the agreement commits each government to take definite and ambitious actions to save the environment. Four important conclusions came from the Marrakesh gatherings: 1) Our climate is warming at an alarming and unprecedented rate, 2) We have an urgent duty to respond, 3) Sustainable development, climate and humanitarian needs are interconnected and are urgent priorities for our world and 4) These challenges cannot be solved in isolation.
The International Atomic Agency has stated that 2015 was the first year when economic growth was decoupled from the growth of CO2. More progress will be achieved by developing efficient regulations – and by the committed participation of all members of society: from world leaders and chief executives, to educators, activists and citizens.
We will also need to have a proactive and urgent business response. Every business has the responsibility and the potential to improve our world by supporting sustainability innovation and developing new business models for sustainability.
Contrary to the opinion expressed by some, suggesting that we should wait and see what the upcoming Trump administration might do on climate change, the world community needs to act now and pre-empt a sustainability regression. If the US withdraws from the Paris Agreement we might see a “domino effect” where China, India and other big polluter nations will feel authorized to relinquish their commitments. For this reason we need to step up our commitment and undeniable responsibility to combat climate change more than ever. Switzerland, Swiss companies and the Swiss people can lead the way by example.
The Swiss Government has to become more agile in providing the right policies and instruments to achieve the Paris Agreement climate change objectives, focusing on creating a carbon neutral economy and working towards the enhancement of climate resilience and adaptation capacities.
The Swiss financial sector can further contribute to addressing climate change by including climate criteria in their investment decisions and by supporting sustainability innovation to promote a carbon neutral economy. Swiss global companies such as ABB, Holcim, Nestle, Nespresso, Novartis, Syngenta, Roche, Credit Suisse and Glencore International – just to mention a few – have to step up their ongoing efforts to show the world how a committed private sector can reduce its CO2 emissions and transit to a renewable energy based economy while remaining profitable.
And Swiss people, who enjoy a quality of life that many in the world would envy, can show sustainable leadership by adjusting their consumption habits as well as by increasing their solidarity with poorer countries, and in particular climate change refugees.
Thinking about Switzerland – my second home – and climate change I would like to emphasize what the famous American anthropologist Margaret Meade once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”.
Francisco Szekely is Adjunct Professor of Leadership and Sustainability at IMD.