We stand at the threshold of a global transformation with the potential to secure a prosperous and sustainable future for us all.  But can we cross that threshold quickly enough?  That is the defining challenge of this most critical of times.

Tena tatou katoa

Ladies and Gentlemen, Acting Vice-Chancellor,

I am enormously touched that you should have asked me to speak here today and most grateful for this opportunity to visit Lincoln University, an institution I have long admired from afar. And I do apologise for keeping you all waiting for an inordinate amount of time but I rather knew when I looked at the programme this morning that this was bound to happen. So I do apologise, I don’t think what I am going to say is going to be nearly good enough to make the wait worthwhile, but anyway.

That I have been invited here today, to offer a few of my own observations about the State of the Global Environment, is a particular honour for me but, more than this, I fear it is a rather worrying indication of just how devastatingly serious the situation has become!

It is not simply the case that we face an urgent global crisis (in fact a climate and biodiversity emergency) – that has been clear for some time, as many of us have been trying to say for years, and as the long-delayed groundswell of global public concern and frustration now reflects.  We have, I am afraid, reached a defining moment in human history - a tipping point at which we still have the ability to change course - but really only in the next ten years – so a very small window,  after which there may be no going back.

For instance, today about fifteen to seventeen percent of the Amazon has been deforested. Should that figure reach twenty to twenty-five percent – which at current rates of deforestation is only twenty to thirty years away – the effects on the world’s climate system will be utterly dire.   This is science, not conjecture or “scare-mongering”. Or, some kind of plot to undermine the economic system as we know it.

The tragedy of our recent past, it seems to me, is that we have come to view human achievement in terms of our ability to defeat Nature, to defy the limitations she imposes on us, and to demonstrate our own supremacy as a species over the natural economy she requires.  We have abused and desecrated Nature; we have ruthlessly exploited her and given nothing back in return; and simply forgotten, or denied, that we are all part of an interlinked system without which we cannot survive.  Having sown these seeds of disregard for Nature, where literally nothing is sacred any more, we are now reaping a blighted harvest – of the alarming loss of biodiversity and of the ever more evident, frightening impacts of climate change.

Indeed, if we were to think about Nature and her assets as humanity’s own bank account, it is clear that we have been on a dizzying spending spree for centuries.  We now find ourselves dangerously overdrawn and urgently need to figure out how we are going to repay the mounting debt.  And if we were to think of this planet as a patient, any self-respecting doctor would long ago have made a precautionary intervention on the basis of the symptoms displayed…

We are feeling the effects of all of this now, and disasters are increasing with terrifying frequency and intensity, and causing unprecedented levels of physical and economic damage.  New Zealand is already seeing higher temperatures, more serious flooding, droughts, increased sea-level rise, and warmer and more acidic oceans.

In many ways, New Zealand’s ‘back yard’, the Pacific, is the front line in this struggle.  For small island nations such as Tuvalu, Tokelau or Kiribati this is an existential crisis which could see them quite literally disappear, or become uninhabitable, in the lifetime of our grandchildren.  But no nation, no region and no population will be inured from the impacts of food, water and energy insecurity, and the resulting economic and political insecurity that arise from our seeming utter determination quite literally to test this planet to destruction, as if we were conducting a scientific experiment.

Now in all of this, we could do well, as I have attempted to urge on frequent occasions, to recall the belief of many indigenous peoples around the world that, in making decisions, we should think about the consequences for unborn children seven generations in the future.  If we had followed their example, we might not face the situation that now confronts us - but there is still just time – but only just - to take that longer view and to secure the future for those who will follow us.

In so doing, it would be worth bearing in mind the Māori principle of Kaitiakitanga which holds that we are intrinsically connected to the natural environment and that it is beholden on us to treat it with care, guardianship and good management.  If we can find a place for this traditional wisdom at the heart of a new, decarbonised and circular bio-economy; if we can turn back to Nature with reverence and respect and recognize that we are utterly dependent upon her; and if we realize that our economy must be informed by Nature’s own, waste-free circular economy, then we still can change course.

That is why, faced as we are with seemingly insurmountable challenges, we are also surrounded by unprecedented opportunity.  To seize that opportunity will require bold and imaginative action, on a radically different trajectory - as Albert Einstein said “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them”.

In many ways, public opinion, the technologies, the Nature-based solutions - and crucially, as I will say today, the finance – are all there and waiting to be scaled up.  The solutions do exist - the crucial question is whether we can bring people, governments and markets together to focus on those that will make the very great difference we need, in the very little time that we have. 

Addressing this crisis is a challenge to which we all must rise – and we can, by doing just as New Zealand is doing, and taking ambitious action on mitigation and adaptation at home whilst promoting transparent, credible and ambitious action overseas.  New Zealand is offering vital leadership in this regard, with a climate change programme that includes a target of taking responsibility for reducing emissions by eleven per cent below 1990 levels by 2030, and a Zero Carbon Bill which will set an emissions reduction target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In every sector of the economy there are solutions available now, which can move us on to a trajectory of decarbonization and genuine sustainability – if given the right incentives that could be re-directed from the current perverse ones that are so damaging the planet.  How we grow our food is perhaps the most critical and yet easily resolved problem.  Industrialized agriculture – as opposed to extensive, agro-ecological farming - is responsible for around a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is the biggest single contributor to biodiversity loss - including the overwhelming proportion of tropical deforestation, either for beef or commodities such as soy and palm oil, as you all know so well, which are grown in vast mono-cultural plantations that are a classic example of how we unnecessarily desecrate Nature instead of working in harmony with her.  At the same time we have totally ignored the health and fertility of the soil for far too long by relying on artificial fertilizer made from fossil fuel, and so face declining yields from degraded land just as we face a remorselessly rising global population.  All this means that we have to change, radically, our farming practices.  I know only too well that this is a difficult issue in many places, not least in New Zealand, where farmers will be understandably nervous about radical change.  But here, as elsewhere, business-as-usual is simply not an option.  Instead, New Zealand’s commitment to becoming the most sustainable food-producer in the world, offers an opportunity, through an enhanced brand image, to guarantee agricultural productivity, and profitability, for the long term, whilst delivering better environmental outcomes for everyone.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I particularly want to say a word about the state of the world’s oceans and the parlous situation they face.  The peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand have always been close to the sea – literally, of course, as no point in these islands is more than eighty miles from the coast – but also spiritually.  Māori have long understood the importance of caring for, and managing, our precious marine resources because the Oceans are not just an essential treasure trove of biodiversity and a major source of food, they are also an increasingly important source of medicines and, vitally, they provide seventy percent of the oxygen that we breathe, as well as regulating our climate.  Furthermore, the ocean floor is a carbon sink – as long as it isn’t ploughed up regularly by deep trawling practices, as currently happens in many parts of the world.  So, we are utterly dependent on the oceans and their health for our own survival - we can no longer neglect, plunder and degrade them, as we have for centuries, let alone expect our damaging agri-industrial chemical and artificial practices on land not to have a cumulatively damaging effect on marine ecosystems through run-off from rivers.

Ninety seven percent of the ocean is open to fishing, with over ninety percent of the large fish gone, sixty-four percent of the stocks experiencing overfishing, and global fisheries heading towards collapse by 2048, when I shall be a hundred years old, if I survive, which is unlikely .  Longline fisheries have also wrought havoc on many bird populations, including in New Zealand, which has the most diverse seabird community in the world, with vital breeding grounds for over eighty-five species of seabirds. Many of these, ladies and gentlemen, are now in serious peril – in particular, the antipodean albatross, which could become functionally extinct within twenty years unless urgent action is taken.  In my capacity as Patron of the Southern Sea Birds Solutions Trust, I can only ask, whether we are really  prepared, Ladies and Gentlemen, to see this happen on our watch when there are already proven, simple mitigation methods that can reduce albatross deaths by some ninety percent?

Now as most people are now aware, we also face a crisis with ocean plastics.  An estimated thirteen million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year, breaking down into microplastics that infiltrate marine food systems.  Scientists estimate that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics circulating in the marine environments and, if nothing changes, there will be a greater mass of plastic in the oceans by 2050 than there will of fish.

Again, we have the solutions within our grasp.  We are a long way from protecting the ten percent of our Ocean by 2020 mandated by Sustainable Development Goal 14; indeed only 2.7 percent of the Ocean is fully protected, and yet recent studies demonstrate that with accurate and judicious protection of 30 percent of the Ocean, the global catch would increase by thirty seven percent!  Ladies and Gentlemen, as they say, this is not rocket science…!  It is called working in harmony with Nature, or “conservation,” by creating marine protected areas where fish can breed in safety.

Above all, however, we need to shift our thinking – and the outdated regulatory and financial models that constrain it – to move towards a truly circular economy which liberates us from the damaging “throw-away” society we have built, with its “take, make, dispose” approach.  Instead we can take less, make less, and dispose of less – massively reducing our impact on this planet and, at the same time, generating value from things we have been short-sightedly discarding as “waste”.

I must say I have been particularly impressed by New Zealand’s efforts in this regard, based on the principles of: designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and restoring natural capital.   Again, the solutions are there- including making the producer responsible for managing their own product waste, as happens in Sweden - and we simply must embrace them before we run out of rapidly diminishing time.

On every pressing issue that we face – energy, transport, forests - there are solutions that are not just available, but are increasingly cost effective. Critically, their success will be dependent upon us taking an integrated, system-wide approach.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is where the real opportunity lies, because an integrated approach will provide the framework to unlock large-scale, targeted investment, both from the public and private sectors.  In this way, we can move trillions of dollars away from the activities that are causing our planet most harm, to those which can help it heal – working alongside, not against, Nature in order to help her reverse all the damage we have done to her.

With consumers controlling over 60% of global G.D.P., we must remember that we have a choice in what we buy and we should be diligent in exercising it, for it is perhaps the strongest signal we can send.  The retail sector can play a significant role by embedding environmental indices into supply chain monitoring.  Arguably, we all have a right to know whether the products we buy – clothing, cars, technology, food – have substantial environmental and social footprints, and to have access to alternatives if they do.

While there continues to be much debate around the world on carbon pricing, it is increasingly clear that we should be factoring in the social and environmental impacts across the value chain.  At the same time, we should be incentivizing sustainable goods, services and behaviours and disincentivizing those that are causing most harm.  Surely we can no longer stand for the pollution of our waterways, the destruction of animal habitats, the poisoning of the air we breathe, or the exploitation of people for cheap labour?  With greater transparency and availability of information on the sustainability of goods and services, consumers will be able to make more informed choices, which will, in turn, drive sustainable market trends.

To do what I can to assist with this transition – and after nearly forty years of trying to encourage corporate social and environmental responsibility – I recently launched a Sustainable Markets Council, with the support of the World Economic Forum, specifically to build a coalition of industry and finance leaders with the vision, and the ability, to help transition the global economy towards sustainable markets and rapid decarbonisation. For what it’s worth, I have long believed that the private sector is absolutely crucial if we are to deliver change at the pace and the scale we need.  At the same time, it is a systems-level transition that is required and we must work across public, private and philanthropic sectors to achieve it. 

A transition to sustainable markets has the potential to spark innovation, new industries, new employment opportunities and economic growth, while at the same time offering social and planetary dividends.  The financial system is changing too, and sustainable approaches to financing, such as natural capital pricing, blended finance, impact bonds and climate financing, are starting to change the way people think about traditional financing models.

As the private sector and capital markets finally begin to awaken to the sustainability movement, there are an increasing number of sustainable investment opportunities.   Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, there are vast financial resources available - in sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, the insurance sector and asset portfolios, which can be mobilized in a way that drives real change, leveraging new technologies rapidly to decarbonise our global economy and help us move to a truly circular system.

Through my Sustainable Markets Council, we are working to convene key industry leaders in sectors such as forestry and agroforestry, renewable energy, automotive, plastic alternatives, the bio-economy, water and sanitation infrastructure, agriculture and aviation (where real possibilities exist for aircraft to be powered by second-generation biofuels including from waste materials -  blended with fossil fuels to reduce emissions, as part of an eventual transition to carbon-free flight). The centralised nature of aviation fuelling, with less than five percent of airports handling ninety percent of international flights, means that making sustainable aviation fuel available at a small number of airports could make a significant difference to the carbon-intensity of the sector.

This is just one example of the need to focus on alternatives, identify barriers to action, and match-make opportunities with the finance needed to bring them to scale.  In parallel, we need to increase consumer awareness in a way that accelerates demand for sustainable goods and services.  And if the perverse incentives that have been causing such widespread damage to the environment in sectors such as industrialized agriculture, fisheries and fossil fuels could be redirected towards genuinely sustainable investment outcomes that restore and enhance natural ecosystems and biodiversity, we would stand a far better chance of righting the balance we have so disastrously upset.

Nature-based solutions demonstrate that if we give space to Nature, she has an extraordinary capacity to regenerate.  Examples can be seen in protected/regeneration areas, forest conservation, sand dunes, mangroves, seagrass and kelp beds, coral and shellfish reefs, wild farming and fisheries, restoration of peatlands, and permanent grasslands.  Nature-based approaches can also fuel a sustainable bioeconomy and create new income opportunities in areas such as eco-tourism.

With so much innovation and development in sustainable technologies and alternatives, there must be a way rapidly to accelerate progress in the right direction.  To do this we need to find ways to match investment to ‘investables’ – including Nature -  ensuring that investors see the opportunities that exist and that the structuring is in place to seize them. There are many fascinating and promising innovations, currently under-capitalized, which could, perhaps, make such a substantial difference. Technologies such as for instance:

  • waste heat recovery systems that recycle industrial by-products into value added, carbon-free energy sources;
  • plant-based plastic alternatives which could render traditional plastics obsolete;
  • a type of charcoal made from biomass that can reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power plants;
  • energy storage innovations, such as peer-to-peer solar energy sharing systems;
  • transformational developments on carbon capture and storage, including as fertilizer;
  • environmental monitoring technology;

and I could go on.

Now, of course, none of them represents a silver bullet, but taken together could they help us fundamentally to change the trajectory?   I believe they could, and I have asked my Sustainable Markets Council to look at how to best match and scale a whole range of such sustainable innovations for global application.

The work I am trying to do with this Council is just one initiative among many others, but it might, I hope, help to accelerate the pace of progress.  If we are to bring about a transformative change, we need to build a global movement for low-carbon solutions, together with a global alliance of committed investors who see the increasingly valuable returns – socially, environmentally, and financially – from sustainable investment opportunities, that will assist the rapid de-carbonization of our planet’s atmosphere and the sustainable markets to enable them.  No lesser level of ambition will do.  We simply must be bold and we must make choices that are right for the future, not just convenient for today.  We must think seven generations ahead, and start thinking and acting in the interests of our grandchildren, great grandchildren and those that will follow them.  For the past, what,  40-50 years I have been driven by an overwhelming desire not, to be confronted by my grandchildren – or yours, Ladies and Gentlemen, whom I mind about equally as much – demanding to know why I didn’t do anything to prevent them being bequeathed a poisoned and destroyed planet.  Now, of course, we are indeed being confronted by these very children, demanding immediate action and not just words.

How much longer, therefore, can we dither and delay?  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (2018) estimates that, between 2016 and 2035, the annual cost of keeping the rise in temperature to 1.5ºC would be about $2.4trn, or roughly 2.5% of global GDP.   It’s not very much really.  Such investments, however, have the potential to yield transformative returns, for not only would we address climate change, we would also have cities in which we can move and breathe and ecosystems that are robust and fruitful. What better investment opportunity could there ever be?  And really at the end of the day, what is the point of all the wealth in the world if, ultimately, we destroy everything that makes this world worthwhile or habitable? What are you going to spend the money on?

Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand at the threshold of a global transformation with the potential to secure a prosperous and sustainable future for us all.  But can we cross that threshold quickly enough?  That is the defining challenge of this most critical of times. So,  I hope you will join me in this movement to build sustainable markets and transition to a decarbonized global economy.  With ambition, creativity and tenacity - the very essence of human endeavour - not only can we avert disaster, but the opportunities for prosperity are truly limitless. 

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.