Paul Gilding on why COP27 provides an opportunity to pair economic and environmental recovery

EXCLUSIVE: Former Greenpeace chief Paul Gilding has called for nations to approach climate mitigation and adaptation as a “war mobilization” and to avoid looking for short-term solutions to the current financial crisis that will, ultimately, make nature and the economy less resilient.

Paul Gilding on why COP27 provides an opportunity to pair economic and environmental recovery

Gilding led Greenpeace Australia and Greenpeace International in the 1990s

Back in 2011, Gilding published a book that would become his most popular piece of work – ‘The Great Disruption’. In it, he argued that the fact that planetary limits were being reached was a key contributor to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and that further financial crises were inevitable so long as humanity continued to pursue infinite financial growth in a manner tied to the use of raw materials and natural resources.

Fast-forward to today. More than 100 billion tonnes of raw natural materials are extracted each year, with less than 9% re-entering the circular economy. The world is still on track to breach the Paris Agreement.

And many parts of the world are hurtling towards a recession. Lockdown restrictions imposed nationally during Covid-19 have contributed to the economic downturn, as have the rising energy and commodity costs, with the increase made all the steeper by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

For Gilding, who headed up Greenpeace international between 1992 and 1994, the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn was made all the more likely because current economic, social and resource-use systems are not sustainable.

He tells edie: “I think most of the things we’re seeing in the world today – be it pandemics, climate impacts, extremism in politics or rising inequality – you see some connection back to the fundamental problem. Which is not just neoliberalism, it is the idea of infinite economic growth based on materials.

“My argument has always been that while you can’t predict technology, politics or social response, you can pretty reliably predict physics, chemistry and biology. Therefore, when you have a system which depends on infinite growth of a physical nature, without infinite resources, you know the system has to stop at some point… you can’t argue exactly when or how it will manifest.”

When asked what has changed since the 2007-8 economic crash and the subsequent publication of ‘The Great Disruption’, Gilding, calling from his home in Tasmania, says: “Nothing’s changed in the sense of the system problems. What’s changed is that we have some live, real-world examples of the solutions actually happening.”

Gilding tells of how, ten to 15 years ago, he would spend much of his time interacting with businesses convincing executives that climate change and nature degradation were real issues that would impact their value chains and the wider economy – and not just in the long-term.

“Now, there’s no response like that,” he explains. “People do ask how bad it will be – there’s certainly an argument about timelines and how serious it is – but there’s no argument about the issues. That’s a dramatic change in a relatively short time, and I think post-Covid that’s even more so.

“It’s a big tick that corporate sustainability has arrived in the economy. The trouble is that the impacts have accelerated faster than that. The size of the challenge and the speed at which we must respond is much greater.”

Mindset shift

February and April saw the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishing two major reports that reached this conclusion. Unfortunately, they did not receive as much public attention as the Panel’s previous report from August 2021.

The February report stated that more than three billion people are “highly vulnerable” to near and mid-term climate impacts and that warming beyond 2C would result in an “unlivable” future for the most-impacted communities across the world.

The April report reiterated the need for a 48% reduction in global annual emissions between 2019 and 2030. It stated that this decrease would not be achieved without a significant scaling up of the circular economy and a major scaling back of planned and existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

Gilding believes that, in this situation, there needs to be a joined-up, ‘war-mobilisation’ style approach. He explains: “You have to emphasise that the only way we will change rapidly enough now is if we believe there is an existential crisis that will impact society as a whole, and smash the economy.”

It is, of course, crucial not to frame the mobilization against climate as one that will cause scarcity and negatively impact livelihoods. The public have seen that emissions dropped sharply during lockdowns and may conclude that a similar, disorderly shutdown of the economy is needed to deliver the deep emissions cuts needed to meet the Paris Agreement.

Gilding tells edit that nations and other actors have to convey the message that “while Covid-19 was about shutting down, this is about opening up”. By “opening up”, he points to opportunities for the creation of new, skilled, more local jobs in fields such as nature restoration, low-carbon energy, energy efficiency and zero-emission transportation.

Gilding does not deny that, in the short-term, there is likely to be some disruption – mainly because the window to ‘keep 1.5C alive’ is rapidly closing and action has historically been insufficient. But he believes this will be worth it to build an economy which is “inherently more resilient, cleaner, more equal and more stable” – and that governments and the private and public sectors have a responsibility to support the public through the transition.

Time will tell whether this is properly recognized at COP26. Here in the UK, where edie is based, the new Government is receiving constant criticism for framing an upwards transfer of wealth and deregulation (including relaxing environmental rules) as necessary to solving the short-term economic crisis. The UK still officially holds the COP presidency until the first day of COP27 in Egypt next month, with the risk being that other nations will follow our lead.

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