A Sustainable Future Requires a Holistic Approach to Action and a Willingness to Question our Existing Models

“We’re in a moment where there is a lot of focus on energy transition…That transition…has to be about more than fuel switching. It has to be about switching models, how you use resources, who gets access to energy that you’re creating…how profits are distributed…We risk having the same model that’s driven profit over people, continuing to be perpetuated in the energy transition.” – Chelsea Hodgkins, Policy Advisor Climate – Energy and Gender Justice of Oxfam Americas (COP27: We Mean Business Coalition Pavilion)

On my first day of COP27, I heard Chelsea, a representative from Oxfam Americas (a global nonprofit, fighting to end poverty and injustice), speak on a panel (how companies can step up their ambition to contribute to an inclusive just transition) alongside representatives from Petronas (a petroleum company in Malaysia), Orsted (a renewable energy company), Council for Inclusive Capitalism (a global leadership coalition), International Council for Metals & Mining (ICMM – pretty obvious what they do). During the panel, Chelsea encouraged the audience and panelists to question narratives of progress and ask questions like – are there some unintended consequences or known risks we have not addressed? are there other options to adapt and mitigate climate change than the options in front of us? is our approach holistic and inclusive of multi-stakeholder perspectives? – and help each other explore those questions so that we can do better. She encouraged her fellow panelists participating in the burgeoning renewable energy industry, to take steps to consider how the transition to renewable energy provides an opportunity to rethink our model of acquiring and using energy so that it is more socially and environmentally responsible and positive than our current fossil fuel-based model. She suggested they expand their investment in acquiring more minerals from the natural environment to also invest in the recovery and recycling of these minerals, limiting our continued degradation of the natural environment through mining. She also emphasized the importance of acknowledging the mining industry’s association with human right violations and suggested ways companies can move from passively creating policies that condemn these violations to a more active approach that involves consulting and collaborating with local communities to reduce the risk of violating human rights and find solutions to mitigate and combat it.

I heard echoes of Chelsea’s call to action for a more holistic approach to responding to climate change during other sessions at COP27:

Josefina Brana Varela of WWF spoke in the Climate Justice Pavilion on designing climate interventions within communities, emphasizing that the process of creating climate interventions is an “iterative process” from the initial design concept through the end implementation. She encouraged keeping this mindset following implementation through continuous monitoring of projects, which could identify not only areas of improvement, but willingness to stop a project and rethink it entirely.

Pierre Candelon of the UNDP gave opening remarks to a panel, Integrating Across Sectors: Business Leaders in Energy, Buildings & Circular Economy, “COP needs to move beyond engagement…COPs are not useful if we keep on in this way.” He emphasized the need to find ways to financially support vulnerable countries, so they do not have to “come knocking at the door again, desperate for support.” (His sentiments are shared by many who have advocated for decades, for increased financial support for vulnerable nations and resulted in the achievement at this COP, the creation of a Loss & Damage fund.)

In a panel on transitioning away from coal to clean energy, Joana Freitas of EDP talked about the importance of the renewable energy industry taking responsibility for their impact on communities transitioning from an economy based on fossil fuel energy production to green energy production. She shared an example of how to do this through her work at EDP. When EDP recently took over a coal plant, they consulted with a local university to understand the local job needs where the plant was located. EDP holistically thought about their impact on the community, not just the opportunity to retrain former coal employees to renewable energy production roles, but to ensure the community where the plant was located would thrive. They recognized not all former coal employees would want to be retrained to work within a green hydrogen plant, so they offered retirement plans to some and even supported some employees to incubate new small businesses within the community.  

Rapid climate change necessitates that we act quickly to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but it also requires us to take advantage of this opportunity to think holistically and question our existing models. We cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes again; we do not have enough time nor the resources to do so. The emphasis I heard at COP27 on taking a more inclusive, just, and collaborative action, gives me hope that we are starting to take those necessary steps to rethink our economic and societal models and create a truly more sustainable planet for future generations to thrive.

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