A Sustainable Future Discussed at Columbia University

Last night I attended a lecture and panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), an Overbrook grantee and part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The talk centered around Navarre, a region of Spain that has been particularly successful converting to a renewable energy economy. Although covering a small area and serving a population just over 600,000, Navarre has emerged as a global front-runner and example of success in merging sustainable energy with a sustainable economy.

Shahid Naeem, Director of Science at CERC, acted as moderator. Naeem began the evening by referring to the term "sustainable development" as "slippery," qualifying the night's discussion as a look at leadership in relation to sustainability, and how collaboration behind a strong vision worked in Navarre. Through projected graphs, Naeem showed how the use of the term "sustainability" spiked after its introduction in 1987, and yet with increasing use and discussion of the term, carbon emissions globally went up, and wealth and biodiversity decreased. Naeem suggested this juxtaposition could have been a result of poor leadership as opposed to a lack of understanding or ambition.

Miguel Sanz Sesma, President of Navarre in Spain, spoke first, stressing that sustainable development includes social responsibility, and vice versa. One cannot be achieved without the other. Sesma attributed the success in his region to a collaboration between private, public and government sectors. Achieving sustainable development in Navarre involved businesses, universities, politicians, and technical centers including both skilled and unskilled workers. Today, Navarre has one half the unemployment rate compared with the rest of Spain, a milestone Sesma connects directly to the government's involvement with renewables.

Esteban Morras Andres, former director of ACCIONA Energia spoke next. Andres sees our current energy, economic and climate crises as opportunities to overcome imbalances in the wealth and dependence of countries all over the world. Only some countries have oil or coal resources, Adres said, but all have equal access to renewables -- sun, wind, water or biofuel.

George Kell, executive director of the UN Global Compact, talked about the business community's lukewarm reaction to Copenhagen's lukewarm outcome. "We need to showcase solutions,"Kell said, such as the environmental and economic successes of Navarre, as a way to encourage collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Kell also spoke about recent media criticism of the IPCC's scientific credibility. "We should never forget that the bulk of scientific evidence remains today stronger than it was six months ago. The fundamentals about climate change have unfortunately not changed," Kell said. Kell ended his remarks by emphasizing the need for businesses to move away from an "obsession with short-term returns," and look to examples such as those coming out of Navarre for inspiration to value long-term results over quick, unsustainable fixes.

Unfortunately, the panel's final speaker, Elke Weber, co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, explained that humans are hard-wired to respond to short-term threats as opposed to those requiring long-term reactions. Basic human nature will inevitably be a piece of the puzzle when building a renewable economy, a shift that may require sacrifice in the short term for greater returns farther down the line. CRED recently published a downloadable guide, The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, that addresses some of these short-term/long-term disconnects.

President Sesma had the last word, explaining that most of Navarre's success in sustainable development is due to the willingness of business, government and the public to collaborate with a common goal. According to Sesma, a major help along the road to sustainability was the lack of lobbyists in Spain -- the government got on board, and that was that. The United States is of course much larger and our politicians are notoriously influenced by corporate lobbyists. We can only hope examples like Navarre's will trump the lobbyists' siren songs, and the sooner the better.