Sustainable Development

We can save the Earth. Here's how

The shadow of a hand is seen on the cracked ground of Jaguary dam during a long drought period that hit the state of Sao Paulo in Braganca Paulista, 100 km from Sao Paulo January 31, 2014. This has been the hottest January on record in parts of Brazil, and the heat plus a severe drought has fanned fears of water shortages, crop damage, and higher electricity bills that could drag down the economy during an election year for President Dilma Rousseff. REUTERS/Nacho Doce (BRAZIL - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY POLITICS) - GM1EA21078A01

Are we swapping the benevolent Holocene period for the unpredictable future of hothouse Earth? Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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Sustainable Development

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

We hear a lot about how terrible the world is today.

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, scientists’ extreme weather predictions appear to be coming true, the air in our cities is becoming dangerous, groundwater is getting scarce, ocean health and fish stocks are declining, forests and natural habitats are being destroyed, plastic in our ocean is out of control and researchers warn that a “biological annihilation” of wildlife means a human-driven sixth mass extinction event is underway.

Worse still, earth systems scientists warn that, because of our impact on the planet, we are in real – existential – danger. We risk flipping ourselves out of the goldilocks “Holocene” period of predictable warm weather (which has allowed humans to flourish during the last 12,000 years) and into a highly risky “hothouse earth” scenario, with uncontrolled feedback driving faster warming and more droughts and storms.

These environmental challenges have enormous implications for our economy, society and politics.

This doesn’t make an easy bedtime story for those who have their whole lives still ahead of them. And it sets us up for an even more unfair world than we have today as we get close to nine billion people on the planet, more than two-thirds of whom will rub shoulders with each other in cities and towns all around the world.

Children born into poverty today – even those in relatively richer countries – will most likely not have the wealth or protection to weather the storms ahead. “Hothouse Earth” could trigger a hotbed of anger.

These really are the biggest, most underpinning risks of our time.

This challenge is arriving on our watch, so what are we doing about it?

For years, big environmental problems were for governments and international organizations to solve and we deferred to their leadership for action and delivery. But despite all the efforts, protocols and funds, the overall state of our global environmental commons has worsened.

Since the first global conference on the human environment in Stockholm back in 1972, economic acceleration has run faster than the ability of environment ministers to protect the planet. Perhaps rightly so, economic development trumped environmental protection for the baby boomers and Generation X.

But no longer: in the last few years, a revolution in the environmental agenda has quietly taken shape, slowly at first, like any good insurrection, then spreading into a movement, which now appears unstoppable.

This is a revolution in collaboration for action – a new drive for environmental cooperation that is helping NGO and CEO leaders to bind business, communities and civil society organizations together to a common purpose; a public-private repositioning that is helping environment ministers to marry “earth” targets with “economic” targets; and a realignment that helps companies turn the risks inherent in environmental failure into new business model opportunities and partnerships for smart, clean industrial production.

What has changed?

Firstly, we have realised that governments and international organizations, while vital for agreeing on global targets (the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the SDGs are great examples), cannot be expected to deliver them alone. Environmental goals cannot be met just by environment ministries, no matter how much money they are given. It is now clear to all in the environment agenda – including those working on environment in governments and international organizations – that it takes unprecedented levels of collaboration and innovation involving many outside of the public sector to trigger the big, systemic changes required to achieve these ambitious goals (like keeping warming to less than 2℃).

Secondly, we are now seeing – after years of unwillingness from international environmental diplomats to throw open their doors – a sea change in non-state innovation to help explore and solve our most pressing environmental problems. What were once non-state-actor side events at big government summits are now seen as main-stage examples of environmental action. Smart coalitions, nimble networks and new partnerships are rising from all sides. They bring together civil society groups, companies and financiers into innovative “systems-based” action initiatives that harness the latest in technology and cross-sector collaboration to meet the challenge, get the environmental job done and satisfy the targets set.

And thirdly, the sudden rise in our technological and scientific capability – what the World Economic Forum terms the Fourth Industrial Revolution – is driving down the transaction costs for multi-actor collaboration and creating explosive potential for transparency and information access across the environmental community. The Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth is putting environmental action collaboration on steroids.

Have you read?

This awakening is happening across forestry, ocean, water, cities and food systems. It involves the mobilization of states, cities, provinces, civil society groups, business and investors, and innovators and technologists. It is also happening across global supply chains, such as agricultural commodities, plastics and electronics, as companies learn to work with each other, forging new collaborative systems to drive long-term environmental improvements.

New collaborations are arriving every day and many are growing fast. There is a strong multistakeholder, action-orientated “start-up” culture emerging across the environmental community, unlike anything we have seen before, as the recognition of urgency perhaps drives the need for innovation. The Tropical Forest Alliance, RE100, the WRI-C40 Coalition for Urban Transitions, the Food and Land Use Alliance, the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, the Friends of Ocean Action, the Global Battery Alliance, Grow Asia, the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders and the new Global Plastics Action Partnership are all good examples of global, multistakeholder efforts that seek to tap into the resources, innovation and expertise of their collective networks to collectively shape agendas and help slow down or reverse some of our most pressing environmental issues.

Projects learn from each other and often join forces. Many are now forming into highly influential global platforms – large-scale partnership aggregators and project accelerators that can help shape the action agenda. Many of these efforts set themselves up in sprints with clear “time-to-goal targets” and each is delivering real results, including for people and industry in key economies like the US and China, and across the other major G20 countries. The Global Climate Action Summit hosted by the Governor of California and Mayor Bloomberg is a recent example of this new energy coming together.

For companies, engaging in such innovative action collaborations makes core business sense. Engaging with NGOs, scientists and governments – as well as with other companies – on environmental issues in particular locations or across crucial supply chains can help shape them to the advantage of those whose business models deliver sustainable solutions while crowding out those who seek to profit from bad environmental practice. The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition and the 2030 Water Resources Group are good examples of such sustainable, national market-building at work through public-private collaborations. Working together in partnerships like these allows more to be achieved – and more quickly – by everyone than if each worked alone.

At the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York, 100 such coalitions involving more than 700 champions and experts from across all sectors and walks of life will come together in what may be the world’s biggest sustainable development innovation accelerator event.

The Sustainable Development Impact Summit offers a platform to help support and grow this emerging action revolution. By hosting such a diversity of effort, connections can be made and synergies can be struck, and the most impactful initiatives will prevail, as clear results drive their growth and success. Yet, in line with the objectives of the international community, such diversity of effort gathered at the Impact Summit also serves to strengthen cooperation and delivery on global environmental goals within and across the international system itself.

You can see how each of the collaborations at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit fit together to help drive wider, systemic delivery on the global goals through a unique Impact Transformation Map. This approach – entrepreneurialism in the global public interest – lies at the heart of the World Economic Forum.


It is an exciting time to enter the environmental space. Old job boundaries are breaking down and new collaborations across civil society groups, business, investors, city administrations, universities, technology centres and innovation accelerators are taking off, each seeking to reshape the economy of environmental protection and reinvent business models to reap sustainable rewards. It is a time of Schumpeterian destruction and high creativity in and across the environmental agenda. The action revolution is beginning, but we still have a long way to go. However, by unleashing these new forms of innovation, which are intent on delivering the global targets and unlocking new, sustainable forms of economic value on the way, we can save the Earth by 2030.

To this end, as the international organization for public-private cooperation, the World Economic Forum is proud to offer its platform of the Sustainable Development Impact Summit to help play a role in this transformation.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentNature and BiodiversityFourth Industrial Revolution
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