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Creative Sustainability :: Place, People, Product, Potential, Partnership + Pollinating

REPORT: Pathways to a sustainable economy conference

by Linda Carroli
[first published on Linkedin]

Last week I presented a paper at the conference, Pathways to a sustainable economy: bridging the gap between Paris Agreement commitments and 2030 targets, at Griffith University in Brisbane (28-29 November). In the shadow of the Paris Agreement and the COP22 meeting in Marrakech, the conference focused on identifying solutions to the challenges facing governments, businesses and civil society from countries in the Asia-Pacific region in meeting mitigation targets. In the opening speeches, climate change was described as a ‘superwicked problem’ due to its magnitude and complexity. This was accompanied with a warning about the slow pace of action that can result in a command and control response rather than dialogue and deliberative problem solving.

My presentation was one of many concurrent sessions presented by mostly PhD researchers, many of whom are doing important work addressing the impacts of climate change in communities in developing countries. The relationship between equity, democracy and climate change was a strong theme throughout the concurrent sessions. My presentation was titled ‘Mobility in the South East Queensland Regional Plan: A sustainable transitions analysis of policy storylines’, drew from my PhD research examining the relationship between regional planning and policy and sustainable transitions addressing infrastructure systems. In my presentation, I introduced my research methodology and early findings from my research. I have not completed my policy analysis as yet, but the findings are showing the role regional planning has played in sustainable transition over time to reveal that a transition storyline is emerging in policy even if the plans have not yet fully resolved how to address those transitions as complex socio-technical processes. My paper was only one small contribution to a diverse and engaging, although male dominated, program of speakers and panels.

Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, presented the keynote and described the challenges of climate change, which the people of Kiribati are living with – from the incidence of equatorial cyclones to the challenges of sea level rise. Having previously supported a migration with dignity approach, Pacific Island nations have banded together for the Pacific Rising, a climate change ‘Marshall Plan’ to protect the islands through adaptation, enterprise, technology and preservation. Notably, Tong mentioned ‘raising’ the island and building walls. If we are to seriously address the impacts of climate change, then the most vulnerable nations and people need to be at the forefront of our planning.

The papers and discussions were wide reaching with an emphasis on international agreements and commitments and the challenge of meeting targets and limiting temperature rise, acknowledging the need for deep decarbonisation as well as reconciling the gap between pledges and commitments to reduce emissions. One of the key takeaways came from repeated references to the need to aim for zero emissions, not net zero emissions, by 2050. The speakers also affirmed that the carbon budget provides an important tool for recognising the need to address carbon reduction within limited timeframes.

The slow pace of change has meant that Australia, as many other nations, has lost 30 years of opportunities to develop relevant policies, new technologies and otherwise steer a sustainable transition as a societal level over the long term. The green growth paradigm, for example, offers a false sense of security which offers, at best, an incomplete pathway for change. As former Liberal Party leader and businessperson, John Hewson explained, nations and individuals are exposed to unacceptable risks such as climate-induced financial crisis as a result of the failure to address structural issues including the political and policy system itself. In the stream of discussion about investment and business,

The Climate Council‘s Greg Bourne observed that policy lacks ambition and that the targets are too low. He stressed that the states need to set a path and acknowledge the importance of local and regional politics. It cannot be assumed that Federal Government will provide leadership. However, some state economies, including Queensland, are coal dependent and structural reform and coordinated exit has been slow in a state that already faces employment challenges.

In the session on leadership and change, Professor Christopher Wright and Professor Jem Bendell both addressed aspects of fantasy in the political and economic scenarios currently shaping the response to climate change. Critical of corporate and government responses to climate change, Professor Wright proposes that they are locked into ‘magical thinking’ and cognitive dissonance about the relationship between growth and climate change. Yet, as other speakers had noted, the corporate sector has approached the Federal Government for greater policy direction because it is not acting. In the public imaginary held captive by neoliberalism, there is a proliferation of fantasies, like green growth and corporate environmentalism, which also had a strong sense of ruse or trickery, perhaps even self-delusion (a bit like giving up smoking but continuing to do so only when you drink alcohol but then create opportunities to drink alcohol so you can smoke). Such imaginaries have failed to acknowledge the real relationship between resources, production and consumption – the resources of the planet are finite. Professor Wright pointed to other narratives and alternative climate futures, perhaps more aspirational than the previous day’s discussions about business, investment, financial markets, profitability, policy and the like. Such alternatives involve acknowledging that humans are not separate from natural systems and supporting the emergence of a new carbon democracy.

Professor Bendell also took aim at social constructs which have fantastical qualities. In particular, he spoke of how our ideas of ‘leaders’ can be romantic and disempowering. The leader as a kind of heroic figure is a myth and Professor Bendell’s work focuses on how to support and develop ‘leaderful groups’ that connect to communities. In keeping with his almost literary approach to analysing characters and tropes in the spaces of climate change response, he spoke of climate change as a tragedy rather than a crisis. As a tragedy, the paths of faltering and downfall can be easily traced, and much of that is attributable to the actions and failures of leadership and the strategic denial of urgency. The construction of leadership as a more flexible and shared trait leads to his call for distributed acts to help people and communities cope with the disturbances to their lives that are resulting from climate change. In that helping, we are able to repurpose our skills and networks and engage in deep adaptation. For Professor Bendell, this involves engaging in political work. As both Professor Wright and Professor Bendell stressed, there is a need to look beyond individual acts and choices to act in systemic and political ways to influence change at scale.

In addressing considerations of net zero emissions and zero emissions, issues such as a land carbon and carbon sequestration were addressed. Not surprisingly, this is more complex than often presented. For example, land carbon plays a different role in the climate system and the carbon from land is different to carbon produced by fossil fuels. Professor Brendan Mackey explained that it is not appropriate to continue to treat carbon sinks as a ‘get out of jail free card’. He stressed that land carbon needed to be accounted for separately from other carbon emissions.

In the final sessions of the conference, the messages were overwhelmingly that the world is not on track to meet its targets and remains enmired in and beholden to path dependence, lock-in and sunk investments. Yet, many examples of innovation are emerging from industry, local government and community, and involve significant social learning for adaptation. The regulatory response is not always the best first response provided regulation does not inhibit much needed change. Examples included Byron Bay Shire Council’s Zero Emissions Byron collaboration with Beyond Zero Emissions, the growth of 1 Million Women to engage women in climate adaptation and discussion, the development of a community-owned energy retailer in Byron Bay, Enova Energy and the development of the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star Rating Tools. There is clearly no single pathway to a sustainable economy – decarbonising the economy is not the whole picture of climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainability or sustainable development, and this cannot be forgotten.

As many speakers suggested, hard decisions still need to be made to achieve international commitments. One word I didn’t hear much in the course of the conference discussions was ‘governance’ and that was surprising given the references to boards, shareholders, deliberation, policy and the like. However, the spectre of Trump’s presidency (and all that signifies) seemed to pull towards a volatile political future. In much the same way that speakers signaled a need for deep adaptation and deep decarbonisation, perhaps deep governance is also possible. Governance is a crucial part of this picture and requires much more attention and reflexivity if those hard questions and decisions are to rise from meaningful deliberation and dialogue.

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