• Sebastian Neumann

The window is still open, but barely. How can we “celebrate change” for sustainability?

Under the title "Celebrate Change" the Green Leaders Conference kicked off in Berlin. It was initiated by Nico Rosberg, a former Formula One World Champion, amongst others as a platform to learn and discuss ground breaking, green technologies and new initiatives – innovative solutions to preserve our planet. At the conference were leaders from startups and corporations, environmental activist and politicians, researchers and CEOs and even a crown prince.

I had the chance to listen and discuss initiatives with some of them, here is insight from the conference and into the discussion about the climate crisis and what is possible.


The window is closing

"If you say no to sustainability, you say no to humanity." Prof. Dr. Johan Rockström's

The statement at the Green Leaders Conference from Prof. Dr. Johan Rockström was "What we do in the next 50 years will determine the next 10,000 years" which illustrates particularly well, what responsibility we have, and he knows what he's talking about. Johan is an internationally recognized scientist on global sustainability issues and the Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, as well as Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam.

The good news from him was that “the window is still open, but barely“. Even in the case of global warming within Paris ranging below two degrees, we would already reach various tipping points, for example the coral reefs and the Greenland Ice Sheet would be at risk. Thus, the Paris agreement is not enough to avoid the effects of global warming. Even the Guardian changed its language to show its sense of urgency for action; instead of "climate change", they use the terms "climate emergency”, “climate crisis” or “climate breakdown".

The countries are not acting enough

Moreover, Johan Rockström warned that the countries don't take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) seriously enough which is echoes Antonio Guterres', Secretary-General of the United Nations, statement earlier this year: "The world is not moving fast enough to translate the promise of the Global Goals into reality. At present trends, we will only get half the job done". According to a Bertelsmann study no country is on track towards achieving all SDGs by 2030.

Johann Rockström indicated that the countries just picking their favourite SDGs. For example, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are on top of the 2018 SDG Index of the Bertelsmann Foundation, but they need to significantly accelerate progress towards achieving some of the goals, including Goal 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production and Goal 13: Climate Action. Both goals are crucial to meet the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions. Moreover, the SDGs are interconnected, thus, we must equally pursue them for climate action.

We need negative emissions

Finally, it should be noted that in the end nature will beat us if we do not reconnect to the planet. We have a decarbonisation challenge and we need to eliminate carbon emissions. If we take Germany as an example, the current political path indicates an approximately 61 percent reduction, which is by far not enough. In a developed country like Germany it is technically feasible and macro-economically viable to achieve a reduction of 80 percent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared to 1990. For this scenario, no new technologies would be needed, even the dependency on other countries would decrease by 70% by using solar power etc. and it would be economically beneficial for the country as a whole. Thus, there is no excuse for not following the 80% path. In Germany we need negative emissions, which will be hard to achieve, but which is not impossible.


Technological disruptions to celebrate change

I believe in new technologies which on the one hand might capture and store carbon, and on the other hand reduce our emissions to zero. Electrification is certainly one of the buzzwords for that. A good example is the Norwegian government and company initiative to support electric cars, introduced by Anita Krohn Traaseth, the former CEO of Innovation Norway. The results are amazing: 58% of all cars sold in Norway in March 2019 were electric. By comparison, in Germany, 1.9% electric cars were sold. I find this route, particularly impressive, and Norway has become a pioneer in electromobility despite its oil reserves.

At the conference they also presented the Volocopter and announced that they will start their first test flights in Singapore this year, as well as planning to start domestic flights in Norway. Additionally, at Lilium, another all-electrical vertical take-off and landing vehicle, wants to revolutionary on-demand air taxi services.

Dr. Tassilo Wanner, Vice President Global Public & Regulatory Affairs, Lilium, claimed that their service will be cheaper than a taxi and more sustainable. I'm not convinced yet, but technically both vehicles are very impressive and one has to consider that there will be much less infrastructure necessary – we won't need streets anymore.


Business Model Innovation to celebrate change

There were many impressive examples of technologies, but as Anita Krohn Traaseth put it, it is not just about technologies. The driver for innovation is also new sustainable business models and concepts like the Circle Economy, for example where you rent instead of buy products. One great example is the startup RE-NTs which has built AI-powered software and hardware solutions in order to offer fashion brand circular solutions as a business model.

We need change makers like them because the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters of the world, and the business model must also address sustainable consumption and production. In this context, Anita Krohn Traaset explained using a Norwegian saying: "Everything which is made of oil can be made of wood." In other words, companies should change the way they make things to protect our planet. They need to understand what problems they are causing currently through production of their products and services, and they should proactively act to solve these problems.


In conclusion, we need a better social acceptance, and a carbon law which includes a CO2 tax as promoted by the UN and the IMF, as they believe charging for the carbon content of fossil fuels and their emissions - is the single most effective mitigation instrument. On the other hand, new technologies and business models are only a path to achieve the Global Goals, both the governments and the private sector need to support the achievement of the SDGs.

I believe large corporations can move faster than government, and therefore, organizations need to drive innovation for sustainability. It can also be financially beneficial, giving them a chance to achieve long-term sustainable advantage, as well as attracting the talents of the future. However, as Dr. Richard Lutz, CEO of Deutsche Bahn, puts it - even large companies need to build an innovation ecosystem with other firms and startups with an open innovation approach to address the sustainability challenges.