Stories from the Anthropocene - lecture by UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at the Tongji University in Shanghai Fri, Feb 26, 2016

Achim Steiner is an Honorary Professor of Tongji University

I would like to thank Professors Yang Xianjin, Pei Gang, Wu Jiang and Li Fengting for their kind invitation to speak here today and I would like to thank all of you for coming along - because I need your help.

Human activity now has such impact on the atmosphere, geology and ecosystems of the planet, that an international team of scientists, including Professor An Zhisheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has confirmed that we are living in the age of the Anthropocene. In other words, assuming there are actually still people around in a couple of million years, they will see very clear traces of our existence in the rocks and ice.

There is still debate about whether the age of the Anthropocene started with the spread of agriculture, the industrial revolution or the 'Great Acceleration' of population, consumption and waste. But there is no debate that this is an age when our actions are indelibly inked on the very fabric of the planet as it warms and it loses biodiversity at over a thousand times the historical rate.

However, this is also your age. The era in which you will decide whether to maintain 'business as normal' for the plastic planet or to shape your chosen career in a way that improves the lives of people in both developed and developing world struggling with issues like energy and poverty; of 800 million people going hungry while a third of all food is wasted and quarter of the earth's surface is degraded; and the lives of 60 million people fleeing conflict and disaster as part of the biggest human migration of any age.

As James Martin said in The Wired Society: "To heal, we have to move to new technologies, new social patterns, new types of consumer products, new ways of generating and spending wealth."

That 'new way' is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which nearly 200 nations committed to last September in New York. It provides ambitious, but essential, foundations on which to build a healthy planet with healthy people - where nobody is left behind. And that Agenda will benefit considerably from the so called 'new normal' that China is building, by putting the quality of socio-economic development at the center of the 13th Five Year Plan. The last two plans already showed a determined move away from energy intensive growth, in line with emissions targets set for 2030.

However, the new plan goes even further towards rebalancing economic growth with a thriving ecological civilization by focusing on services, innovation, reduced inequality and environmental sustainability.

In other words, just as you enter the formative years of your careers, the 2030 Agenda and the 13th Five Year Plan converge in an unprecedented opportunity to rethink living in the age of the Anthropocene. To a large degree, the success or failure of each endeavor rests on the ability of the public and private sectors to adopt the kind of multidisciplinary approach reflected in the audience here today. But it will also be determined by the ability of individual citizens and companies to bring those policies to life with meaningful action on the ground.

Let me give you an example. When I was a student and most of you had yet to be born, the seemingly impossible task on the table was reversing damage to the ozone layer. Most people had never even heard of the ozone layer and you can't exactly show them an invisible hole to explain the problem.

So tackling this required an extraordinary international alignment of science, policy and action. At one end of the scale this gave birth to the Vienna Convention and its Montreal Protocol, which became the first environmental treaties with universal membership - though hopefully not the last. At the other end, getting the message out included things like setting a craze for T-shirts with messages on them.

That might seem a bit old school now, but in the days before social media and the internet every little helped. From the original target of halving five CFCs in 12 years, 15 were eliminated in just 10 years and the ozone will be restored to pre-1980 levels by the middle of this century, sparing millions a diagnosis of skin cancer or cataracts and proving that massive globally orchestrated change is possible.

The stakes are just as high for the 2030 Agenda and the 13th Five Year Plan, but the good news is that this time we are not starting from scratch.

I am in Shanghai at the invitation of the G20 Finance Ministers and Governors. We will be discussing the need to invest $90 trillion in green sectors over the next 15 years and why most of it will have to come from the private sector. For example, the People's Bank of China and the Development Research Centre of the State Council estimate that while China will need up to $400 billion a year in green investments, at least 85 per cent will have to come from the private sector.

The interaction between environmental, social and financial performance is extremely complex. That's why UNEP has spent 20 years working with hundreds of global financial institutions to better understand the issues and opportunities and to help individual states maximize the return on public and private investment. For example, we helped the People's Bank of China to support a task force of more than 100 members. It's working on 14 ambitious proposals to green the financial system, including bonds, tax reforms and emissions trading.

The good news is that private sector players are increasingly aware that a healthy planet and healthy people can also mean a healthy return for shareholders. Look at the renewable energy sector. Figures from the International Energy Agency show that wider adoption of more economically viable energy efficiency investments could boost cumulative economic output by $18 trillion in the next 20 years. That's more than the combined economic output of the US, Canada and Mexico. It explains why, today, clean energy production is running at more than triple the original targets; why investment in renewables increased by 17 per cent globally in 2014 and by double that in developing countries; and why the number of jobs has doubled to almost eight million in just the last five years.

With many of you thinking about future careers, it's worth noting that as the world's biggest generator of hydro, wind and solar capacity, China accounts for a third of that investment and nearly three and a half million of those jobs.

That approach provides a good start to decarbonizing the economy during the next 60 years and is the kind of effort that will help deliver the Paris Climate Change Agreement. But the big challenge will be to scale it up enough quickly enough to shift the predicted global warming trajectory down to the 1.5 per cent that the science now tells us is necessary - before the damage is irreversible.

Google is famous for its culture of '10-X' moonshots - in other words aiming not for an improvement that is 10 per cent better, but for an improvement that is 10 times better. That's what we need to the world to do - we need to out-Google Google - in every sector, in every branch of research, in every walk of life.

The good news is that it's already happening. Actions at the frontier of innovation are translating policy into benefits for real people and spearheading an inclusive, green economy.

Back in Kenya, where UNEP is headquartered, M-KOPA offers "pay-as-you-go" off-grid solar energy. Over 200,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are already connected and 500 more added each day. It's an example of the dynamic new business models emerging in the transition to a green economy.

Of course, clean affordable electricity brings other benefits. Health and education are the obvious ones, but what about transport?

The use of heavily polluting two-stroke motorbikes is growing fast in Africa. Yet in China, over 150 million of them have been replaced with financially and technically viable alternatives. So, the growing access to clean energy could also open the doors to a clean tech-leapfrog for Africa and a green export industry for China.

That kind of green technology leapfrog is coming in other areas too. Think about additive layer manufacturing - or 3D printing to its friends. Combined with the power of big data and innovative new arrivals like graphene and nanotechnology, it could hold the key to the fourth industrial revolution. It's already transforming a range of substances from single use disposable plastic and other waste into anything from car parts and medical supplies to weather stations and solar panel bases.

For transport, particularly areas like aviation, 3D printing will create lighter parts that cut emissions and noise, but will also drastically cut the waste levels associated with traditional metal part drilling from 90 per cent to around 5 per cent. Small parts are already standard manufacturing practice, but when combined with engineering specialties like biomimicry the benefits are enormous.

The potential will be similar for the building sector, where construction, operation and demolition are responsible for over a third of all CO2 emissions, waste products and energy and material resources. Again, it's early days, but with a 3D bridge to be printed over a canal in Amsterdam and the first steps into 3D house building in China, architects and urban planners are about to enter a new world of environmental benefits.

Being able to manufacture such products quickly, cheaply and locally not only cuts costs and transport emissions, but it opens up endless possibilities for prototyping that will in turn accelerate the arrival of a whole new wave of technology.

Today, more than half of the world's seven billion population lives in cities, compared to just a third in 1950 when the population was just 2.5 billion. By 2050, when there will be around nine billion people, that figure will be closer to three quarters of the population living in urban areas accounting for three quarters of global GDP, consuming three quarters of global energy and natural resources and generating three quarters of global CO2 emissions and waste.

The population may be increasing rapidly, but the planet has finite and increasingly fragile resources to sustain it.

As one of the world's ten largest cities, Shanghai is already quick to adopt technological solutions that can help tackle challenges on that scale - like super capacitor and hydrogen fuel cell buses, and energy and water efficient facilities like the Tongji Campus. But with the number of mega-cities forecast to grow, we will need to see more knowledge sharing and a more integrated public-private approach to delivering sustainable urbanization, while protecting the ecosystems so vital to sustaining life.

And this has to be on a global scale. That means completely rethinking the way we do things from the very beginning.

I'm sure that many of you are already familiar with the concept of lifecycle evaluation, where you take account of the environmental footprint from the design of a new product through operation to final dismantling and recycling - hopefully some of you have even used the Design for Sustainability Guidelines that UNEP's International Resource Panel developed with Delft University. But it's becoming clear that we need to take this idea further - right back into the education of the people who will design the products and the research into the materials and techniques that will be available to them.

This would make it easier to automatically take a full lifecycle approach, instead of having to identify, track and resolve problems after the fact. Green chemists John Warner and Paul Anastas make a good case for this front loaded approach. They advocate a fundamental rethink of teaching methods for the chemists and designers of the future to include a better understanding of issues like toxicity and environmental mechanisms - thereby enabling a new generation of sustainable green chemistry to emerge and to support a whole range of cross-industry improvements. Given that Paul Anastas worked for 23 years to get a single dioxin banned he knows what he's talking about.

Now, think back to the incredible success story, where the elimination of CFCs and other ozone depleting substances reversed the decline of the Ozone layer. Many of those substances were replaced with HFCs, which at the time were not thought to directly harm the ozone. But over time scientists discovered that HFCs could accelerate global warming. Now, some estimates put the global warming impact of some HFCs at up to 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide and research is emerging to suggest that when you put this much infrared radiation-absorbing material in the stratosphere, it doesn't destroy ozone in the same way, but it does make a difference. So, we find ourselves in need of another substitute.

If you extrapolate that thinking - how many of the architects, engineers, industrial designers, investors and policy makers being educated around the world will understand the massive implication of chemical choices? Or vice versa? There are students here today from several different universities - but outside of formal events, how often do you routinely seek opportunities to collaborate?

Apple might be a leading tech brand, but Steve Jobs said repeatedly that a big part of their initial success was the decision to incorporate font options - a decision that resulted from him casually dropping into a calligraphy class.

That's the kind of result that shows why it makes sense to replace the cycle of trial and error, with a more strategic shift in the way we address research, education and cross-fertilisation of ideas up front. It's also why UNEP remains so committed to working with Tongji University on the Institute of Environment for Sustainable Development (IESD), the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES), which now has about 800 members around the world, and the Student Conference on Environment Sustainability, which is going from strength to strength.

Having used his own money from the sale of PayPal to found Tesla electric cars, Solar City and SpaceX, Elon Musk knows a thing or two about collaborating and about rethinking the established order of things. In his words it's about: "Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself."

Around the world young people are doing just that. Take last year's finalists from the Eye on Earth Data Innovation Showcase. 'Airscapes Singapore' uses crowd-sourced air quality data to create personalized pollution metrics, which help people adapt their behavior. 'Logging Roads' maps over 10,000 logging roads in the Congo Basin to identify violations, degradation and highlight potential land right conflicts. And 'Hack The Rainforest' uses digital maps and drones to combat environment threats in the Amazon by empowering frontline communities.

But this is where I need that help I mentioned at the beginning. With elephant poaching at the heart of the United Nations' World Wildlife Day next week, it has to be possible to apply some of that innovative thinking to issues like the illegal ivory trade.

President Xi Jinping's commitment to ban the trade and campaigning by dedicated organizations and individuals UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Li Bingbing has already helped drastically cut the value of ivory. But there is still a long way to go in raising awareness on these issues and in staying ahead of the poachers. Technology has a key role to play and many of you know how to turn that idea into something tangible. There is a special website up for people to share their stories about actions being taken for World Wildlife Day. I hope that when I look next week, that some of you will have risen to the challenge!

Ladies and gentlemen, ultimately the stories from the Anthropocene will be written over thousands of years. Whether they have a happy ending for the elephants or any other living thing will depend on whether or not we can replace 'business as normal' with a 'new normal.'

The stories of my generation will be written in the success or failure of the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and the steps beyond. Now you must write your own stories. You can choose to fiddle in the corner and trust your fate to others. Or you can decide to be among the architects, lawyers, engineers, politicians, scientists, business leaders and investors that will pool their efforts to tackle the great civilizational challenges faced by China and the rest of the world. These are stories that only you can write, but I for one look forward to discovering them.

Thank you.

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