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Sustainability Matters

I arrived at the venue of the first-ever renewable energy “global investors meet” in New Delhi in a modern-day rickshaw powered by natural gas and an intrepid driver named Ajay. My eyes smarted from some of the most polluted air in the world, but I quickly noticed something else in the air at the conference – a buzz of excitement. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had developed his call to increase India’s solar power capacity 30-fold over seven years, which would vault India from the back of the pack to the front among global players on renewable energy. And in that room, I could see enough international and Indian capital and expertise to make it happen.

In subsequent days I met with government officials, business magnates, investors, philanthropists, civil society leaders and academics in India. They wanted to know if their coal holdings were in fact in danger of becoming “stranded assets.” They asked how the U.S. shuttering of coal plants was proceeding. They asked which countries and companies were doing the most and who was most open for partnerships with India. Before my eyes I could see the prime minister’s vision transforming from what many had initially called “fanciful” to “smart,” “bold” and “achievable.” The power minister, buoyed by all the support, publicly proclaimed that the 100 gigawatt goal was a floor and that India could potentially do much more.

I went to India with Michael Bloomberg to work with Indian interlocutors on advancing 100 “smart cities” as well as to meet with them on their contribution to the global climate agreement under United Nations’ auspices later this year. I also went to build relationships for our School in a country that will help define what our world will look like in the coming years. I found huge challenges, but even greater opportunities. Dynamism is palpable across Indian society. Indeed, a group of 12 of our students contributed to it having recently spent three weeks in India with our philanthropy and nonprofit class as hand-on consultants to Indian organizations working to preserve India’s wildlife, expanding the reach of voluntarism and micro-finance, and addressing pressing needs of India’s disabled community. In India I heard testimony about the extraordinary work that our students had done.

I returned home to the clash over the EPA’s authority to regulate power plants’ emissions in the courts, the halls of Congress and the streets of Washington – all a stone’s throw from our campus. Meanwhile in Annapolis legislators were tussling over hydraulic fracturing here in Maryland. And next month I will be in China discussing many of the same issues and building partnerships for the School in this area.

In India, China, Washington and Annapolis sustainability is a rising issue.  While in all these capitals sustainability is debated first and foremost because it matters for locals, at the same time, our fates are inextricably tied together. If we solve our own problems but others don’t solve theirs, we will all lose. Collective action and good policy are required. We all have to get better at sustainability, and fast.

In short we need to move from just managing “sustainability matters,” to making it clear in word and deed that “sustainability matters!”

We aren’t just talking here of climate change. We also have to deal with toxic air, acidification of our oceans, catastrophic forest loss, biodiversity under threat, a crisis of soil depletion, a scarcity of clean water and an ever expanding list of threats to our world’s and our well-being.

Sustainability is not a niche subject for a few environmentalists, or just a specialization for some students at SPP. Rather, sustainability is an economic strategy for long-term economic health and growth. For the world’s richest countries it is a key to remaining competitive. For the world’s poorest countries it is an opportunity to leapfrog various stages of underdevelopment and mal-development.

Sustainability is also a question of individual and collective lifestyles. Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, giving the Schelling Lecture at SPP last month, spoke of “phishing for phools” and used the example of how anti-science climate policy is marketed and bought by some and artery-hardening, calorie-laden Cinnabon rolls by others. It is up to us to ensure that the number of “phools” in the world decreases. We need good policy to help ensure that neither people, nor our planet, die of systematic overconsumption and mal-consumption.

Sustainability comes down to leadership – by prime ministers and presidents, CEOs, investors and average citizens. It comes down to values and to incentives. It comes down to us. Do we walk, bike, take the Metro or drive electric cars to get to campus? (When I told a group of visiting Russian students that we have free charging bays for electric vehicles here on campus one asked, “Who pays?” and another said, “Awesome!”) Are we installing energy efficient windows, bulbs and solar energy systems at home? Do we know what our carbon footprint is and are we taking steps to reduce it? (Assistant Professor Elisabeth Gilmore has just been asked to help UMD define how we will measure our carbon footprints and how we can reduce them.) Are we still printing reams of paper needlessly? Are we eating more vegetables and less meat? (Global meat production accounts for more greenhouse emissions than transport or industry.)

Let’s make checklists for ourselves and see how many boxes we can check individually and collectively over the next year. And let us lead on good policy and lead by example.

The sustainability revolution starts here, and it starts now. It is global, and it is local and everything in between. All roads lead to SPP.

Creativity is the most renewable of resources. Let’s prove it.

PDF icon UMD SPP The Policy Exchange 2015_03.pdf


This is a post to The Policy Exchange, a monthly blog focusing on various topics related to policy and policymaking. Serving as a way to facilitate policy discussion, this blog features posts from UMD School of Public Policy Dean Robert C. Orr, PhD and guest posts from other policy experts. Any media inquiries and questions can be sent to policy-comm@umd.edu.

Dr. Robert Orr
Dean, University of Maryland School of Public Policy

Orr serves as dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and is the special advisor to the United Nations secretary-general on climate change. Prior to joining the University of Maryland, Orr served as the assistant secretary-general for strategic planning in the executive office of the United Nations secretary-general from 2004 to 2014, and was the principal advisor to the secretary-general on counter-terrorism, peace building, women’s and children’s health, sustainable energy, food and nutrition, institutional innovation, public-private partnership and climate change.

Orr joined the United Nations from Harvard University where he served as the executive director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. Prior to this, he served as director of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Orr has served in senior posts in the government of the United States, including deputy to the United States ambassador to the United Nations and director of global affairs at the National Security Council, where he was responsible for peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs.

Comments

Awesome!

Thanks for writing this Dean Orr.

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