As all readers of this blog know, we are officially in the Decade of Action – racing toward the 2030 due date for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in conjunction with a longer path toward successfully feeding the global population and ensuring a habitable planet by 2050.

The pandemic has unfortunately eliminated our ability to physically gather in several conference forums over the past 15 months to discuss critical food system and climate issues.  On the plus side, however, it has given many of us the ability to attend many more sessions than we otherwise would through the convenience of virtual connections.

And after attending numerous highly impactful sessions over the past 15 months, I want to address a potentially controversial theme – which I’ll refer to as misplaced optimism.

A natural, and very frequent, question for speakers in webinars and conference venues over the past year concerns their level of optimism regarding whether we can achieve the needed transformational changes to create a regenerative and resilient food system, rein in climate change, and generally achieve a majority of the critical targets embedded in the SDGs.

Often this question follows a presentation of extensive, concerning content about the scope and scale of the challenges remaining, the slow pace of change, the depth of entrenched barriers, and the regression in some key metrics (such as the level of acute hunger) as a result of Covid-19. 

In general, I’ve been struck by the level of optimism I hear in the responses.  On the surface, I get it, no one likes being pessimistic, there’s not much fun in that.  But I wonder if there’s a fear factor involved, too.

I sense that there is a reluctance to express pessimism about the world’s ability to substantially achieve the Goals – in particular those related to the food system, biodiversity loss, and emissions – because the implications of such failure are too frightening to consider.

It’s easier, and far more comforting, to stay on the positive side, providing a hopeful, optimistic view.

But given the scope of needed change, and the urgency level, I wonder if this optimism is misplaced, and indeed counterproductive, further lulling us into a state of inaction at a time when we desperately need to find the collaborative will to advance global transformational change efforts.

Would a less optimistic, radical candor-like view help to elevate the urgency level?  Would such a framing be more responsible, and indeed, more motivational, thus accelerating action?  Would it be, frankly, more realistic?

Because above all, we need to be real about our progress and the need to go beyond just verbal commitments to implementing tangible, effective action.

Time is short, and the challenges related to achieving the Goals are great.  As we noted following an inspiring session by the Future Food Institute in November, we have only 9 growing seasons left to create a regenerative, inclusive food system that can meet myriad SDG needs – including providing adequate nutrition for the global population while reducing food waste, land use, water use, deforestation, biodiversity loss, emissions, and more.  Fixing the food system is especially critical from an emissions standpoint, as a new report from Nature estimates that the food system accounts for 34% of total GHG emissions. 

To be sure, there are many positives occurring.  In the food space, awareness of the need for systemic change has never been higher, particularly regarding the need to shift diets and reduce losses and waste in order to ensure adequate nutrition.  We have a concerted effort to push food sector organizations to commit to cutting food waste in half by 2030, which many are adopting.  We have new research that provides more granularity on the distinction between food loss and waste (thus guiding appropriate interventions), and we have growing acceptance of the importance of measurement and transparent reporting.  We’re seeing a surge in innovation at multiple levels in the food space, coupled with financing.  Further, numerous high-level reports and conferences (including the World Food Summit, the UN Food Systems Summit, and COP26) continue to elevate the conversation on the imperative of food system change and make the clear connection to climate.

Similarly, and thankfully, the global conversation on climate continues to accelerate, aided strongly by the business sector as organizations increasingly understand the business risk inherent in climate change as well as the need to meet consumer and investor expectations of responsible business operations.  In his January letter to CEO’s, BlackRock’s Larry Fink noted that the pandemic has presented an “existential crisis” that forces us to “confront the threat of climate change more forcefully.”  He reiterated that climate risk is investment risk, adding that the necessary climate transition presents a “historic investment opportunity.” 

BlackRock has asked all companies to report in alignment with recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), and has also asked companies to publish a plan indicating how their business models will align with a net zero economy by 2050.  These are excellent steps, and they are fueling momentum for net zero commitments across industries, including the critical financial sector, where all six major U.S. banks have now made net zero commitments. 

Still, the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that while global commitments and action are on the rise, they are still far short of what is needed to achieve the critical pathway to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.  

Signals for Urgent Change

I teach about signals for food system and climate change – and the need for all individuals to not only recognize them, but to embrace them deeply, reflecting on the causes, the impact, and how they can lead positive change as consumers and influencers rather than simply ignoring them.  Let’s explore a few such critical signals.

First, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has of course provided a critical signal of the fragility and unsustainable nature of our global food system and the great social and environmental burdens that it creates.  Significantly, despite the fact that global food losses and waste range from 30-50% of annual production and hunger affects hundreds of millions of global citizens, the pandemic led to increases in food loss and waste across food supply chains and has significantly raised the level of acute food insecurity in the world.  Global hunger is on the rise, and the world is not on track to achieve the zero hunger goal (SDG 2) by 2030. 

Further, as noted above, the emissions impact of the global food system is extensive.  As has been stated many times, food waste alone, if ranked as a country, would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind the U.S. and China.  Beyond hunger and climate, the food system is critically linked to multiple other sustainability challenges, including water, soils, deforestation, biodiversity loss, plastics, and oceans, so fixing food – through the creation of a more circular, regenerative, and equitable food system – isn’t an option, its an urgent imperative.

Second, consider current emissions data.  In January, reported that global CO2 emissions declined by 6.4% in 2020 due to the reduction of economic activity brought on by Covid-19.  That figure provides a unique point of perspective, as UNEP’s 2019 Emissions Gap report estimates that the world must cut emissions by 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030 to meet the desired 1.5°C limit set forth in the Paris Agreement

While in ultra-narrow terms the 2020 decline is good, the underlying drivers are anything but good.  Obviously, no one wants to rely on pandemic-related contraction of economic activity to drive emissions reduction, we instead want to create regenerative, circular systems that expand economic growth while reducing emissions and environmental externalities.  That’s clearly the key change effort that is needed.

Yet we are already seeing a sharp rebound in emissions as many countries strive to emerge from the worst of the pandemic.   In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently stated that emissions in December of 2020 exceeded December 2019 by two percent, and that the rebound in global emissions in the latter part of 2020 indicates a return to “carbon-intensive business-as usual.” 

And we simply can’t afford business as usual. 

Third, the UN recently noted that “climate change has not stopped for Covid-19” and that efforts to address climate change are not on track.  Some recent, notable findings include:

  • Atmospheric CO2 concentrations showed no signs of peaking and have continued to increase to new records
  • Global fossil CO2 emissions rose 62% between 1990 and 2019 – and transformational action can no longer be postponed if we are to meet the Paris Agreement targets

Further, 2019 was the second hottest year on record, 2015-2019 comprised the five warmest years on record, and on the current trajectory, global temperature is expected to increase by 3-5°C, far beyond the 1.5°C target, by the end of the century.

Last, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently released its State of the Global Climate 2020 report, indicating that there is roughly a 40% chance that the annual average global temperature will temporarily reach the 1.5°C target at some point in the next five years.

So while to some individuals 2050, and even 2030, may seem far off, WMO’s finding essentially confirms the “here and now nature” of climate change – it substantially “ups” the urgency factor. 

Words Matter, and Guide Action

UN Secretary-General Guterres called the WMO’s release a “frightening” report, noting that the effects of anthropogenic climate change are disastrous, we are getting dangerously close to the 1.5°C target, and that we are “on the verge of the abyss.” 

Citing numerous tangible impacts of climate change (including record temperatures, record atmospheric CO2 level, increased frequency of tropical storms and cyclones, droughts and fires, melting ice and rising sea level), Guterres noted that we now must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 (from 2010 levels) and reach net zero emissions by 2050. 

And most importantly, he noted that we are currently “way off track” on meeting climate goals, and that 2021 must be the “make it or break it” year.

Guterres’ tone is spot on – appropriately, there’s no misplaced optimism here.  He’s more than realistic, he is in fact issuing an urgent warning – and we all need that perspective to shake us up and spur collaborative global action.

Guterres went on to cite a number of advances to be made prior to November’s COP26 session, including the establishment of a global coalition committed to net zero emissions (covering all countries, cities, regions, businesses and financial institutions) along with truly making the next ten years a decade of transformation (with more ambitious nationally determined contributions and climate plans under the Paris Agreement). 

Most importantly – and I couldn’t agree more – Guterres specified that these commitments must be backed by concrete, immediate action.  He called for a shift of subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy, with developed countries leading the phase out of coal.  Further, he emphasized a key collaborative element – noting that developed countries must “deliver on climate finance for the developing world.”

He concluded by reiterating that 2021 is truly the pivotal year for humanity’s future, and that we have no time to waste.  He urged everyone to take the message of the report to heart and “commit to act to stabilize our climate” and “end our war on Nature.”

Coming Full Circle

I find Guterres’ words to be strong and wholly appropriate given the urgency involved.   

And as I reflect on the many highly optimistic responses to the food and climate challenges that I have heard over the past year, I am beginning to think that in such positivity we may be doing a disservice – creating a false sense of security and causing further delays to the urgent change that is needed – delays that the world cannot afford.

Consider Secretary General Guterres’ comments of “frightening” and “on the verge of the abyss.”  Or consider those of Jim Skea, co-chair of one of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming working groups, who noted that “limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”  Or consider the “on the brink” phrasing that accompanies the supporting video to the 2019 Emissions Gap report.

In any case, I’m thinking we need a healthy dose of skepticism – call it responsible pessimism, or perhaps better, motivational pessimism – to spark the broad, deep, collaborative change efforts that are needed to redesign our food system, creating the transformative change that can reduce inequity, reduce environmental externalities, and rein in emissions to address climate change.  Or perhaps simply call it radical candor.

We are seeing some positive signs in the food and energy sectors, but we need much more action, fast.  And that action needs to be transformative, not incremental. 

The fact that the WMO informs us that there is a 40% chance that the annual average global temperature will reach the critical 1.5°C target at some point in the next five years is yet another in a long line of signals highlighting the need for urgent action.

Blind optimism based on hope does no good.  Nor does inaction due to discomfort.

So as we consider the appropriate action steps to fix the food system and rein in climate change, let’s embrace the discomfort to help us embrace the opportunity.

Let’s be realistically skeptical, motivated, change-driven realists. 

And let’s use the appropriate words and framing to ensure that we maximize our chances of success in accelerating the needed transformative action.