Reimagining the future of the planet

What is the biggest challenge facing the world today? Our changing climate and the opportunity to reimagine the future of our planet. We were fortunate to spend  a few days listening and debating this with an exceptional group of academics from Oxford University’s Martin School and our guests on a recent Virgin Unite Leadership Gathering on Necker. 

Climate science, spanning some 150 years, has shown how our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet. Professor Tim Palmer took us through the very compelling and well understood data on the subject.

There is really no room for doubt about our impact on the Earth’s climate. In fact, climate change has been predicted to become the main threat to biodiversity as the earth’s temperatures rise by 4-6 degrees over the next 100 years.

A useful analogy demonstrated the state our beautiful planet is in. If you think of the Earth as our body, a two degree rise in temperature would make us feel pretty ill.  A rise in temperature more than this quickly becomes life-threatening, and at five degrees we may even end up in a coma, or worse. We don’t just stand by and watch this – we react – we treat the symptoms in order to stabilise the patient, while simultaneously addressing the cause.

What is happening to our planet is no different and while much of the debate currently focuses on whether we should address the symptoms or the causes, the fact is we need to look at both, and we need to do it now. I was very excited to learn about the opportunities that are being pursued to remove, or at least reduce, this ‘fever’ the earth is facing.

A big part of the challenge is protecting rainforests around the world.  The link between biodiversity and CO2 impacts can be seen most vividly in our amazing tropical rainforests, as the lovely Dr Nathalie Seddon, who directs the Oxford Martin Biodiversity Institute, explained. 

Covering just 2% of the earth’s land surface, these forests not only harbour 50% of the earth’s biodiversity, but also absorb a large proportion of annual CO2 emissions. The problem is that around five million hectares of tropical rainforest are destroyed annually, mainly due to industrial agriculture. This deforestation contributes a staggering 12% of our annual global CO2 emissions. It is clear that the protection of forest, in particular virgin tropical forest, is essential if we are to secure the health, wealth and well-being of humanity for the long-term.

However, this is just one pill to swallow to treat the patient, and we looked into many other opportunities. We are all much better off collaborating than competing with each other. A new growth model is required in which markets put prices on our scarce natural capital, and where incentives are put in place for entrepreneurs to solve environmental challenges and to make money at the same time. This requires exactly the sort of creative coalition that we are supporting at Virgin Unite, with the Carbon War Room and the B Team

With the most rapid economic growth the world has ever seen and revolutionary technological changes, we have every asset within our reach to tackle the opportunities presented by our changing climate. I walked away from this gathering with a great sense of hope and optimism. Ian Goldin, the Martin School’s Director, put it best when he said that we need to create a world of ‘individual freedom, collective responsibility’ and each do what we can to collaborate and act.

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