Like most fathers of teenage children, I am often accused of being out of touch. While my work takes me to many places, geographic and esoteric, my children do have a point: it is fair to say that much of the world of popular culture passes me by.
However, I do have a favorite author—Robert MacFarlane. His latest book, Landmarks, is more than just a beautiful book; it is a manifesto that urges us to re-engage with the language of the natural world.
Macfarlane argues that we have lost touch with Earth itself. Our languages, and our dictionaries, are apparently losing many of the words that help us describe, and relate to, the natural world. In their place, we find countless new words for our online interactions. In four simple words, he makes his point: “For blackberry, read Blackberry.”
It’s a line of thinking I can relate to. My own journey embodies these tensions between our natural world and a technological world.
For more than 20 years, I worked in the private sector searching for solutions to our energy and climate challenges. For many in the world of corporate behemoths and entrepreneurial start-ups, the solutions to our climate and environmental challenges are technological.
But the urgency of our changing climate and degrading environment means we don’t have the luxury of simply relying on technology cost-curves coming down, or on sustainability being fully embraced by investors and shareholders in their market valuations. This transformation is still decades away.
A hundred-million-year-old solution
During my last few years working on low-carbon innovation in the energy sector, I was struck by the time, effort and many millions of dollars the industry was investing to explore how to engineer a way to capture and store CO2 deep below the earth’s surface.
Meanwhile, as with many things, nature figured out a scalable, cost-effective solution hundreds of millions of years ago. And it’s a solution that cannot only help solve climate change but also help transform our global growth story.
Carbon is half of all living mass. How we manage our biological systems either releases or stores it. In fact, poor land use is responsible for at least 23 percent of global carbon emissions. But nature is already counter-balancing, absorbing 26 percent of emissions in our lands, predominantly in forests.
Of course, this isn’t news. For decades, the world has focused on important efforts to halt or slow deforestation, in part to reduce carbon pollution. But, progress hasn’t happened fast enough, and too often we’ve pitted environmental benefit at the expense of economic development.
On the contrary, I see development and climate solutions occurring at the same place Macfarlane would argue our language should live—at the intersection of economic, technological and environmental forces. I have also seen development occur in a way that can be replicated at the global scale required to make truly sustainable, climate-friendly growth a reality.
Much of this “green growth” story to date has focused on new energy technology, and the renewables sector has made great strides. But for many emerging economies, agriculture, forestry and extractive industries remain the major drivers of economic progress, environmental degradation and carbon emissions.
A diversified green growth portfolio
One example is the Brazilian state of Pará, which is on the frontline of deforestation in the Amazon. Here the demand for yet more cattle ranching serves as a microcosm of the pressures we see all over the world—to feed an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population. The deforestation in Pará accounts for a third of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.