Category Archives: I. Getting Ready

Up to the conference

Prepping for Planet Under Pressure

by Nisha Pillai

Three days to go before the start of Planet Under Pressure 2012 and I feel like a school kid swotting for exams. It is such a big conference in every sense of the world –  with a huge number of attendees,  two thousand seven hundred at the last count, a vast intellectual reach, and seriously impressive speakers including a number of government ministers. My usual conference prepping is a walk in the park compared with the sheer range of articles I’ll be desperately trying to digest over the next few days. So imagine my relief when I discovered that the Planet Under Pressure organisers have prepared a series of policy briefings for last-minute merchants like myself – . Nine briefings in all on a range of topics from Biodiversity to Transforming governance and institutions – at no more than eight pages, they’re short, snappily written and a godsend.

So on the one hand I’m feeling like an under-prepared student, on the other like a groupie at a rock concert: over two and a half thousand people gathered together at London’s Excel centre and who knows how many thousands joining us round the world via live web-streaming. That’s jaw-dropping.  How to make the event truly interactive when the audience will be so massive and far-flung? My role as conference moderator is to help audience members, wherever they may be, to question, perhaps even grill, our eminent panelists. Technology we hope will ride to the rescue by way of social media and a much battered iPad. The idea is that I’ll be gathering questions on the iPad via Twitter, sms/text messages and webstreaming,  instead of running around the auditorium with a mic in my hand to elicit audience participation. Will the technology work? Will the audience take up the challenge and tweet/text/webstream their questions? I must admit to feeling a few butterflies. Let’s hope Steve Jobs, the godfather of the iPad is looking down on us all next week with a benign smile.

reprinted with permission from Nisha Pillai’s Blog: March 23, 2012

Nisha Pillai is a motivational speaker, conference host, and a public speaking coach.  With over twenty years experience as a BBC presenter and journalist, Nisha has anchored rolling news for BBC World News, and conducted award-winning investigations for Panorama and the Money Programme.


Don’t forget the air we breathe


by Dr. Megan L. Melamed, International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC) Project

The world continues to urbanize rapidly. As outlined in a recent report, for the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. Urban areas, especially megacities (cities with population greater than 10 million), are not only the center of growing economies, but according to an article published in the journal Science, urban areas are also large sources of air pollutants. Air pollutants have demonstrable and significant impacts on human health, food and water security, ecosystems, and climate.  For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), outdoor air pollutants cause over 1 million premature deaths per a year.

And the outlook for the future looks even worse when it comes to outdoor air pollution.  A new report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says outdoor air pollution is projected to be the world’s top environmental cause of mortality worldwide, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation, by 2050.   Exposure to particulate matter and ground-level ozone will cause over 4 million premature deaths per a year by 2050.  Areas of the world that are rapidly developing and urbanizing, such as China and India, will experience the most premature deaths due to air pollution.

Yet the future biggest environmental issue is not being incorporated into sustainable development or climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.  For example, the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development zero order draft of The Future We Want fails to incorporate air quality as a key sustainable development goal.  A recent article in Atmospheric Environment points out that adaptation to climate change is primarily thought of as a water, weather, and infrastructure issue despite the fact that air quality and climate change are heavily intertwined. Why is it that the air we breathe is not considered an important component of sustainable development and climate change adaptation and mitigation?

We live in a changing world.  Urbanization, economic development, energy choices, and policy decisions are changing the amount and composition of air pollutants that are emitted into the atmosphere.  There is an incredible opportunity to reduce the number of premature deaths due to air pollution by making air quality an integral component of sustainable development goals and climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.  It’s time to act.  Let’s not let the air we breathe become the number one environmental cause of mortality worldwide.

There will be two sessions on air pollution at Planet Under Pressure 2012.  The Atmospheric Composition in a Changing World: Scientific Knowledge and Uncertainty session focuses on scientific research underpinning our understanding of the Earth System response to changing emissions and atmospheric composition.  The Tackling the Air Pollution and Climate Change Challenge: A Science-Policy Dialogue session will provide a forum for a science-policy dialogue on creating an integrated approach to simultaneously mitigating air pollution and climate change.  A, IGBP/IGSC statement entitled Time to Act: The Opportunity to Simultaneously Mitigate Air Pollution and Climate Change, highlighting key air pollution and climate linkages and calling for an integrated approach to mitigating air pollution and climate change, will be released as part of the session.

Dr. Megan L. Melamed is the Executive Officer of the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry  (IGAC) Project, which operates under the umbrella of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and is jointly sponsored by the international Commission on Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Pollution (iCACGP).  IGAC coordinates and fosters atmospheric research towards a sustainable world.

Green Economy: Roadmaps, Routes and Destinations

By guest blogger Adrian Ely, Head of Impact and Engagement, ESRC STEPS Centre

We need green economy roadmaps with “concrete goals and benchmarks of progress” and we need them fast, according to the zero draft of the outcome document from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.  Between now and 2015 this ambitious plan aims to establish indicators to evaluate implementation, mechanisms for technology transfer, sharing of know-how and capacity building.

Technology and innovation can doubtless help shift the direction of development so that it contributes to sustainable development goals, or keeps the global system within the ‘safe operating space’ suggested by records from the pre-anthropocene.  In this sense, the overall direction of travel is clear.  However, the routes available are wide open, and the end destination will be determined not by any blueprint for what a green economy will look like, but by our endless creativity and collective values.

The metaphor of the roadmap can be seen as marking out routes for innovation that see input-output measures of current technologies (such as energy/carbon or resource intensity, pollution reduction or the creation of high quality employment) increasingly improving in their contribution to sustainable development.

But the roads ahead are determined by our current location.  Whilst roadmaps drawn up by industrial sectors might act as 20-lane highways down which firms race in competition for market share and technological dominance, there are many other stakeholders and communities who start from very different locations in their search for sustainability.

The STEPS Centre argues that equal attention must be paid to the multitude of bicycle lanes, bush-paths and mountain trails that draw on the knowledge and creativity held within these groups to collectively carry them in the direction of a more environmentally-sustainable, just and prosperous future.

How can we ensure due attention is paid to these groups and their pathways to sustainability?  The first step is to recognise that the direction of change – not the kinds of technologies we currently favour – should provide the basis for setting goals.  At the international level, therefore, rather than aiming for a specific number of people to be connected to a national electricity grid, or a specific number of square meters of thin film solar PV to be installed, by 2030, we should focus on the provision of energy services, without specifying what technologies are most appropriate in given contexts.  Different technological options can be explored through inclusive political processes and market mechanisms or other policy instruments can thereafter be formulated in a way that stimulates continuous innovation and enables human ingenuity to explore new pathways to sustainability.

The STEPS Centre’s session on Day 2 of Planet Under Pressure ‘Pathways to sustainability: opening up technological futures in the green economy’ will explore novel ways of contributing to this governance challenge – through technology assessment, participatory technology development, market mechanisms and social inclusion.

At the same time, there is also a need to recognise the intrinsic ability of some technologies (or socio-technical systems) to work to close down future possible pathways – through economic, political or ecological impacts.  Another session – ‘Governance of Emerging Technologies in the context of sustainable development’ – aims to explore how innovations can be fully and fairly assessed for their safety, ethics, societal or environmental impacts.  Emerging technological ‘superhighways’ have the potential to ‘steer’ our collective future pathways and deserve more co-ordinated attention from the international community.

Through highlighting directions of travel rather than routes or destinations, roadmaps can serve as useful guides to sustainable development.  The Planet Under Pressure conference offers a unique opportunity for the international community to explore diverse pathways towards a greener, fairer economy.

Adrian Ely works as head of impact and engagement for the STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability).  As part of these efforts, Adrian convened the project ‘Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto’, which recommended new ways of linking science and innovation for a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future.  Adrian is co-convening a session entitled ‘Pathways to sustainability: opening up technological futures in the green economy’ on Day 2 of the ‘Planet Under Pressure’ Conference – 27th March at 10.30am in Room 1 –

Living in an Anthropocene world

By guest blogger James P M Syvitski, Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

One example of our planetary impact is the extensive modification of deltas. Pictured here is the Yellow River Delta, with oil rigs laid out on a grid pattern. The thick Gudong Seawall projects the oil fields from innundation.

It seems that hardly a day passes without new research or a new media story demonstrating the human impact on the Earth system. It’s easy to think that we know a lot about our planetary footprint. And we do indeed. But there is much that we know little about. For example, what are the thresholds we need to worry about and how likely is it for one or more of the so-called tipping points to be crossed? What can we do to prevent this from happening? We need to have a cold hard look at the available evidence and continue to collect missing information.

As this is an unfolding story of a change in our Earth system, we must continue to deploy and maintain appropriate observing systems. But we need to do better than repeat the business-as-usual approach that favours observations of the more easily sensed atmosphere and surface oceans. Monitoring the complexities of the terrestrial environment more effectively is just as important.

If addiction is a recurring compulsion to engage in some specific activity despite the knowledge of its harmful consequences, humans are certainly afflicted by one. We continue to extract and consume resources at rates that are clearly unsustainable. Following up on a question raised by a companion blog, can we change our behaviour and embrace a more sustainable way of living, and if so, how? Unfortunately this is proving to be a far tougher question to answer, for the constraints are not merely poor information or less sophisticated models. What if the answer entails a transformation of our societies, political systems, economies and even international power relations?

Clearly, answering the big questions pertaining to sustainability requires diverse expertise and a solutions-based approach. Existing global-change research programmes like IGBP have contributed immensely to our understanding of the Earth system and of its modification by humans. It is now time to build on this foundation and harness this knowledge to explore creative solutions to the planet’s problems. The current research on global change needs to be supplemented by that on societies, policy and economics. Inputs from industry will need to be solicited, for it will need to be part of any solution.

The structures that do this aren’t in place yet, but the planned Future Earth initiative is a step in the right direction. Contours of the initiative are being worked out at the moment by a team reporting to an alliance that includes the International Council of Science, the International Social Science Council, big funders of global-change research and some UN agencies. The Planet Under Pressure conference in London this year might be a good place to find out how an integrated approach to solutions might look like (

We have entered the Anthropocene, without question.  Some of the changes, for example those brought about by large reservoirs and megacities, are here to stay for hundreds if not thousands or even millions of years. We will simply have to get used to and find a way of living with such changes. But there are things we can and should change to keep improving human wellbeing and to avoid crossing potentially dangerous thresholds. Our strength as humans is the capacity to recognise problems, to understand them and to develop solutions. The final chapter of the Anthropocene story is yet to be written: the narrative will depend on our collective self-awareness and the capacity to correct our course, for the relentless pressure on our planet portends unprecedented destabilisation.

James P M Syvitski, the Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, is the Executive Director of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, University of Colorado-Boulder, USA. He is Fellow and Former Director of INSTAAR.

This “guest” blog post is an excerpt from the article “Anthropocene: An epoch of our making”, published in the March 2012 issue of International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme’s Global Change magazine. You can read the online version of the article here.

The Science of Business

By Dirk Olin, Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Responsibility Magazine

Benjamin Franklin

Few business leaders know science. Some have fragmentary knowledge, of course. I’ve discussed the biology of taste with General Mills CEO Ken Powell. And Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, today a leader in venture capital formation for clean technology firms, can wax academic on the chemical physics behind a photovoltaic cell’s conversion of solar radiation. But most captains of industry possess the scientific acumen of the average high school student—at best.

It’s quite understandable. We live in an age (or is it the norm from now on?) of extreme specialization. We do not live in Benjamin Franklin’s world—where a word class generalist could make a profound impact by dabbling across a variety of disciplines—science, publishing, diplomacy, commerce, social entrepreneurship.

Today, science is largely both produced and consumed by scientists. You wouldn’t expect a resident of the c-suite to be able to unpack Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, any more than you would assume that a biophysicist could conduct due diligence on the choice between an asset sale and an entity sale. But this gap has consequences: Business has a huge impact on the environment, a huge potential to help address climate change, and a yawning lack of systemic expertise in the scientific method—which is precisely the discipline that could offer approaches to environmental damage mitigation within and across industrial sectors. What’s more, after Kyoto and Durban, no one is holding their breath in anticipation of inter-governmental protocols to confront problems of such magnitude.

Keep reading to hear about one possible solution.

Of course, it’s true that business can point to a raft of rigorously data-driven reforms. In Atlanta, Stephen Leffin of UPS will tell you that many of the company’s drivers no longer make left turns—not because of the fuel and dollar savings (which are considerable), but because statistical analysis revealed that the lion’s share of company (and pedestrian) fatalities happened during left turns. In Minneapolis, General Mills’ Powell will proudly cite the mill manager who revealed the latent BTU value in recycling the oat hulls lying on the floor of their cereal operation. Or search for Dell’s director of packaging, Oliver Campbell, whose accounts of sourcing bamboo are highly calibrated adventures in sustainability.

But however inspired, an adhocracy will not get the job done. So, after years of frustration with governmental inaction, the organizers of Planet Under Pressure have approached our partners at the Corporate Responsibility Officer Association (CROA) with an intriguing proposal. I’ll return to that in due course, with a specific exhortation for you to become part of the initiative under discussion.

First, some background. The international Planet Under Pressure conference will be the largest gathering of global change and sustainability scientists prior to the Rio+20 Earth Summit next June in Rio de Janeiro. The 2,500 global experts expected at the London conference will provide a “State of the Planet” assessment, discuss concepts for planetary stewardship and societal and economic transformation, and prescribe a recommended route to global sustainability. The conference is being organized by a consortium of the four leading global-change research programmes — co-sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) — and their Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP)  .

Okay, back to that intriguing proposal. The idea: to assemble a delegation of business leaders to go to London at the end of March to challenge the scientific assemblage to develop scientifically-backed approaches that companies and organizations can take to address pressing environmental challenges. This working group will foster a unique multi-sector dialogue leading to Rio+20.

I’ll be part of the first round, which will take place at a World Café  session entitled “How Science & Business Can Create a More Sustainable World Together,” Tuesday  March 27 at 2pm. The scientific community will in turn send a delegation to the COMMIT!Forum October 2-3 in New York to share ways that they can help. Colin Drummond, chief executive of Viridor and chairman of the Living With Environmental Change business advisory board, is on the Board of Patrons of the event and will be joining this conversation. We need you to do the same. Not because you should do, but because you need to.

Contact to request more information on taking part in the delegation or click here to learn more about Planet Under Pressure 2012. And, for further thoughts on the subject from CROA Executive Director Richard Crespin, click here to read his blog post on Forbes’ web site.

Ben Franklin was a beacon in the Age of Enlightenment. As a leader in the corporate responsibility movement, you can now become a beacon in the Age of Self-Interested Enlightenment.

Dirk Olin is the Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Responsibility Magazine and an executive board member of the CROA.