Posted in: thought leadership

24th September 2015

Johan Rockstrom: Entire Nations Can Go Fossil Fuel Free

Last week, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven made a remarkable announcement: Sweden, he said, could become one of the first fossil-fuel free countries in the world. In fact, with a concerted push, Sweden could potentially achieve this feat by 2030. And Sweden is not alone. Denmark, Finland and Norway are all well-placed to end their reliance of fossil-fuels within a couple of decades. Copenhagen, in fact, plans to eliminate fossil fuels from its economy by 2025. And even the giants of Europe—France and Germany—are not far behind.

It is abundantly clear that the world has crossed a tipping point and is now entering the age of sustainable development. This week at a United Nations summit in New York, world leaders are meeting to agree on 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from eliminating poverty and hunger to protecting Earth’s climate and ecosystems. The target date to complete the goals, which apply to all nations, is 2030.

A new era

The global goals represent a growing realization that humans have pushed Earth beyond natural boundaries. We are now in the Anthropocene era, in which human actions are determining the fate of the Earth’s critical systems, and ultimately the stability of the planet.

The Anthropocene is, in effect, a large, uncontrolled experiment on Earth. Because of it, we can no longer take for granted, in geological terms, the extraordinarily stable biosphere that our species has enjoyed for 12,000 years and which has allowed civilization to develop.

This warm and stable state is a resilient equilibrium, which we call the Holocene. I call it our Eden. It is the only state of the planet we know that can support our modern world. Luckily for us, the Anthropocene is not yet a new planetary equilibrium. Thus far, it only denotes that we have entered an era where human—rather than natural—forces are determining the Earth’s fate.

The trouble is, we humans are pushing hard against the Holocene equilibrium. We are losing biodiversity at mass extinction rates. Our children may never enjoy coral reefs and our rainforests are under threat. Gradual changes in the behavior of ice sheets, oceans and forests may increasingly give way to unexpected and large abrupt changes. We are beginning to see signs of large-scale change, particularly in the polar regions.

Boundaries and goals

Recently, my colleagues and I analyzed the parameters that are keeping the Earth from slipping out of the Edenic Holocene state and into a new Anthropocene state. We identified nine planetary boundaries, ranging from the ozone layer and freshwater usage to the pH of the world’s oceans and chemical pollution, that are key to maintaining this equilibrium.

According to our research, the Earth has already transgressed four of these boundaries, relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation and fertilizer use. In other words, we are entering a danger zone, in which we may trigger irreversible changes.The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide the framework we need if we hope to back away from the danger zone. They describe a safe and just operating space for humanity within planetary boundaries. Based on the largest consultation in UN history, they provide a roadmap to end poverty, fight inequality, improve health and wellbeing and deliver energy for all.

And, far from being some utopian ideal, the goals are attainable. A report released this month showed that some countries, notably the Nordics, are well on their way to achieving these goals. Their efforts demonstrate that it is possible to enjoy high standards of health, greater equality and a strong economy while taking care of the environment.

Collective action

It is not be enough for nations alone to commit to UN's Sustainable Development Goals: to enact real change, it will be necessary to have unprecedented global collective action across all segments of society—especially business. In this regard, the efforts of The B Team are particularly promising: a group of leading CEOs who genuinely understand the scale of this new responsibility, the team is committed to changing their business models.

But, as impressive as The B Team's efforts are, their perspective needs to become more widespread—all businesses need to adopt the global goals as the new common business standard. With this enabling environment in place, businesses will most likely adapt rapidly to the new playing field. In many cases the technology already exists, or is just around the corner, but needs the correct incentives—like an end to subsidies on fossil fuels—to scale up.

The electric car is a perfect example. Critics argued that the investment in a global infrastructure to charge cars would be prohibitively expensive—at least until it became clear that, in a world of electric cars, every house and office becomes a filling station. The infrastructure already exists; in fact, it penetrates deeper than existing fossil fuel infrastructure.As this has become clearer, electric cars have become more common. The Los Angeles Police Department recently took delivery of its first all-electric Tesla. And this is just the start: the city wants electric vehicles to constitute 80% of its fleet purchases by 2025.

The UN's global goals are a remarkable achievement that challenges nations to achieve their full potential in terms of sustainability and poverty reduction. Put another way, with them as a compass, sustainability just became everyone’s business.

Johan Rockström is the Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and a Professor in Environmental Science with emphasis on water resources and global sustainability at Stockholm University.

The video presentation of Johan Rockstrom posted above was part of a an event hosted by The B Team and the Ford Foundation to explore the role of business in helping to meet the Global Goals.