Zero-waste world needs global unity

HIGH TECH Swiss fu­tur­ist Gerd Leon­hard says po­lit­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion es­sen­tial to slow cli­mate change

The Georgia Straight - - Hightech - By Kate Wil­son Photo by Stu Thomas

It hasn’t been a good month for hu­man­ity. Four weeks ago, the UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) re­leased a widely pub­li­cized re­port de­tail­ing how the planet is on course to reach the cru­cial thresh­old of 1.5°C of warm­ing as early as 2030—or, in other words, 12 years’ time. If we don’t trans­form our be­hav­iour, ex­treme droughts, wild­fires, floods, and food short­ages—not t o men­tion enor­mous dis­place­ment of pop­u­la­tions—will be­come the norm in our life­time.

That fu­ture, how­ever, is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Dif­fer­ent strate­gies are be­ing ex­plored by cities across the world, with green cen­tres like Copen­hagen, Am­s­ter­dam, and Reyk­javík each run­ning pi­lot projects to dis­cover the best meth­ods to re­duce their eco­log­i­cal im­pact. One of the sim­plest and most cost-ef­fec­tive of these is the ze­rowaste ini­tia­tive, and im­ple­ment­ing what is known as a cir­cu­lar econ­omy.

The lan­guage around the con­cept turns many peo­ple off, but the cir­cu­lar econ­omy is an easy-to-un­der­stand idea, and one that ex­perts sug­gest is fast be­com­ing an eth­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal ne­ces­sity. The sys­tem at­tempts to keep re­sources in ser­vice for as long as pos­si­ble by de­sign­ing prod­ucts with ma­te­ri­als that can be reused—a method at odds with our cur­rent process, where things are made, used, and dis­posed of. In or­der to build these cre­ations and to power our day-to-day lives, the en­ergy must come from re­new­able sources.

For Gerd Leon­hard, a pro­fes­sional speaker who fore­casts how tech­nol­ogy will im­pact hu­man­ity, im­ple­ment­ing a cir­cu­lar econ­omy shouldn’t be some­thing that lim­its con­sump­tion but, rather, of­fers ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­no­va­tion. The Zurich-based thinker, who will be pro­vid­ing a key­note speech this week at the Metro Van­cou­ver–run Zero Waste Con­fer­ence—a gov­ern­ment-sup­ported an­nual event that boosts the city’s im­age as one of the world’s green­est hubs— sees the de­vel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies as an im­por­tant step to­ward en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity.

“We have a vast po­ten­tial to solve many of the cur­rent is­sues,” he tells the Ge­or­gia Straight on the line from his home in Switzer­land. “In the next 15 to 20 years, we could cover 100 per­cent of our en­ergy needs through so­lar and wind, be­cause the science is there. We can reach a point where de­sali­na­tion of water be­comes cheaper than us­ing water that we have now. That’s also in the cards, and ev­ery week there’s news on that.…the same thing with food, where we can use ver­ti­cal farm­ing: farm­ing in a high­rise. Right now it’s too ex­pen­sive and takes too much en­ergy, but you can see that a high-rise of 30 floors, fully au­to­mated, could feed a whole town of 100,000 peo­ple. And with ar­ti­fi­cial meat. Richard Bran­son in­vested in that, in a com­pany called Mem­phis Meat.…then, in 10 years, we’re go­ing to be able to make mo­bile phones and com­put­ers with­out us­ing the min­er­als from mines like cobalt, be­cause we’ll have nan­otech­nol­ogy. We’ll be able to sub­sti­tute for those ma­te­ri­als.”

Even five years ago, the im­por­tance of switch­ing to a greener sys­tem was out­weighed by the ex­pense of the tech­nol­ogy. Plas­tics, for in­stance— one of the most abun­dant ma­te­ri­als in man­u­fac­tur­ing—have pre­vi­ously been cheap to cre­ate. Made us­ing de­riv­a­tives of fos­sil fu­els (pri­mar­ily crude oil and nat­u­ral gas), plas­tics are a com­po­nent in ev­ery­thing from bas­ket­balls to fab­rics, with few items be­ing fully re­cy­clable. In the near fu­ture, Leon­hard says, in­no­va­tions in ma­te­rial de­sign com­bined with thein­creas­ing dif­fi­culty of ob­tain­ing oil will fi­nally make it cheaper to cre­ate cleaner prod­ucts.

“Pre­vi­ously, one of the key prob­lems with all of this is that we were say­ing ‘We should be do­ing this be­cause it’s bet­ter; it’s eth­i­cal,’” he says. “But now we have a busi­ness case. Stud­ies say that there’s go­ing to be $72 tril­lion of dam­age from cli­mate change in the next 30 years or so. Soon it will be cheaper to de­velop and buy the tech, so it makes sense. It makes money. It will also take money, but it’s much more sen­si­ble than 20 years ago, when we were talk­ing about the end of oil as a philo­soph­i­cal de­bate. Now all the oil com­pa­nies are get­ting out, be­cause it’s the end of oil in terms of prof­itabil­ity.”

There are, how­ever, some caveats to Leon­hard’s op­ti­mism. In or­der to im­ple­ment a true cir­cu­lar econ­omy and close the loop on ex­ter­nal­i­ties—the green­house gases and toxic chem­i­cals re­leased by cre­at­ing un­sus­tain­able prod­ucts—as well as of­fer so­lu­tions to the pop­u­la­tions most af­fected by cli­mate change, the world must un­dergo some cul­tural shifts. In his view, it’s im­pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile the West’s cur­rent philoso­phies with the ac­tions nec­es­sary to clean up the planet and keep vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple alive.

Although new tech­nolo­gies might be prof­itable, he says, “What they will do is mean the end of the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. You can­not in­vest in a tech­nol­ogy for de­sali­na­tion and not make it pub­licly avail­able. We’re talk­ing about a hu­man as­set here. If we sell these things like we sell Net­flix, there will be a huge dis­par­ity in the de­vel­op­ing coun­tries—more than we have now, even. The so­lu­tion can’t just be an open mar­ket and say­ing that things will be­come cheaper be­cause peo­ple are buy­ing it. There’s not enough time for that. This will be like the pharma com­pa­nies. Their med­i­ca­tion has a seven-year time frame be­fore it can be copied for cheap. That’s what I call post­cap­i­tal­ism. It’s the re­al­iza­tion that if we don’t switch to a ‘peo­ple, planet, pros­per­ity’ par­a­digm, we will im­plode.”

Mak­ing the tran­si­tion to a ze­rowaste fu­ture, it will take global po­lit­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion, Leon­hard be­lieves. While dis­cussing the im­por­tance of busi­nesses adopt­ing a triple bot­tom line—mea­sur­ing their suc­cess by so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal gains as well as fi­nan­cial profit— and gov­ern­ments sup­port­ing trade and stock mar­kets that use these prin­ci­ples, he sug­gests that a lack of po­lit­i­cal will is the pri­mary rea­son that cli­mate change con­tin­ues at an alarm­ing rate.

“Ev­ery sin­gle politi­cian needs to take a po­si­tion on these two is­sues— dig­i­tal ethics [cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy for good rather than profit] and the cir­cu­lar econ­omy,” he says. “If they don’t, then no­body should even con­sider them. I call this a driver’s li­cence for the fu­ture.”

In his Van­cou­ver speech, Leon­hard will sug­gest to the au­di­ence that a cir­cu­lar econ­omy doesn’t just stop at reusing ma­te­ri­als and switch­ing to clean en­ergy. Rather, it’s part of a larger con­ver­sa­tion about au­to­ma­tion, wealth dis­tri­bu­tion, and so­cial equal­ity.

“Hu­man na­ture is that we only re­spond to some­thing once we have cre­ated a big prob­lem,” he con­tin­ues. “We re­sponded to nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties af­ter we dropped two atomic bombs. Now we’re re­spond­ing be­cause there have been some very hot sum­mers. We need to learn out of small prob­lems, not big ones. We need to learn that we have to make ev­ery­thing sus­tain­able.”


Fe­bru­ary 18- March 20

It’s been a long time in the works; now it is fi­nally here. Jupiter in Sagit­tar­ius sig­nals the launch of a new re­al­ity. Per­sonal or pro­fes­sional, even a small step un­der­taken can pro­duce big re­sults. Over this next year, Jupiter favours new en­ter­prises and ini­tia­tives, es­pe­cially those that call to heart, to soul, to free­dom.

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