Achieving net-zero needs three things: Empathy, Rethinking and Innovation

The past week, the news has been dominated by the IPCC report on Climate Change.

There is no more doubt. It’s us, the humans, that are warming the planet and changing our living world. 

Code red for humanity. 

The 200 scientists that worked on the report used much stronger language to let us know how bad the situation is, and worked out five scenarios, ranging from 1,5 degrees of warming to a staggering 5 degrees. 

Some of the impacts mentioned: 

An increase of 1,5 degrees Celsius of the global temperature will occur by 2040, in all scenarios

There will likely be a lot more heavy rainfall all around the globe

In many regions, there will be more extreme heat, and weather conditions will become more favorable for wildfires

It’s already too late to stop sea levels from rising at least 0,5 meter in the coming decades, which means more flooding and land loss 

The Arctic is likely to be practically ice-free in September at least once before 2050

This year we’ve already seen heat waves, torrential floods and raging fires. And not just in faraway lands. Regional authorities registered a local temperature of 48,8 degrees Celsius in Sicily yesterday, the highest temperature ever measured in Europe. The consequences are already felt everywhere, they’re increasing rapidly and they’re intensifying. 

If the urgency wasn’t there for you yet, we hope it is clear now. 

But if there’s one question that should be on your mind, it should be: “ok, so now what?” 

We propose to empathize, rethink and innovate. 

Empathize

In business and our working life, feelings have gotten a bad rap. We’re conditioned to believe they are less legitimate than thoughts. And so, we rationalize our way through and tend to jump from thinking straight into acting. 

But from the behavioral sciences we know there is a deep connection and interaction between what we think, what we feel and how we act. 

The Cognitive Triangle

So, once you’ve read the report (or the summary) first, of all, sit down and allow yourself to think about and feel what it does to you. Sit down with the thought that the main cause of climate change is our human influence and take a moment. Take a moment to reflect, and feel what that means to you. 

As any design thinker will tell you, the first step towards a solution is to empathize. This means interacting with the user, talking or observing, to gain insights into how they feel, what their pain points are, what tasks they’re trying to accomplish. Empathizing will help to deepen your understanding of the real problem, and not what you think the problem is. 

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

When it comes to the future of our planet, we need to go beyond empathizing with the current user and look much wider. We need to practice empathy not merely as commercial designers or problem solvers, but as a living being. In that sense, the word compassion is actually more appropriate:  

Compassion: the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” – Merriam Webster, 2020

So try to understand what climate change and its consequences might mean for your family, your friends, your children, and your future grandchildren. What is life going to look like for them? 

Extend your thoughts to the stranger that was behind you in the queue at the supermarket this morning, your children’s friends from school you’ve never met and their future kids. And even extend it to the birds, the fish and the giraffes and grasp the impact on future generations and all life on our planet. Can you feel compassion towards them? 

Whether you’re aware of it or not, most of our current values are based on individualism, open society and free market. We highly value freedom of speech and expression, but also hold the perception that value is determined by the utility of something, we have a constant need for progress and growth; and see the world as a competitive arena where the fittest survive. 

This is the story we’ve been telling ourselves for decades, and this is what the majority of our society currently perceives as normal. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the truth. There are other hypotheses and ideas of how the world works. 

The deep ecology movement for instance is based on the belief that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having certain basic moral and legal rights to live and flourish. 

Climate change simply cannot be seen as a problem of the future anymore, but how much do you really care about other, future humans and other living beings? Do you believe it’s important for humanity to survive? Does the living world have a basic right to exist? 

These are deep, confrontational and ethical questions. But we must face them. Individually, but more important, also collectively. Let’s tap into our sense of empathy, and find the courage to ask big questions about our collective values. 

The first step forward is to look beyond the here and now, beyond our ego-driven needs, wants and desires, and allow our actions and decisions to be driven by empathy and the greater good. 

If so -then you’ve found a solid point of departure to start rethinking and look at design and life-centered innovation

Rethink 

We all know the expression “only fools rush in”. Well, that goes for problem solving too. Once you’re on board with the urgency and feel the problem, we also need to rethink the way we think about the problem. 

Here’s a few things we see happening all too often around solving problems, and that you might recognize:  

  • Looking at the parts and not the whole
  • Seeking instant results
  • Treating the symptoms, not the cause

Looking at the whole

Most of our current ways of problem solving are based on reductionist thinking. In school, we’re taught that if we want to solve a problem, we need to break it up into smaller pieces and go: Define the problem, analyze the problem, and solve it in a certain order. We are trained to believe that when we do x, this will lead to y. 

Reductionism: the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.

Among others, we have philosopher René Descartes to thank for this, who argued that the world was like a machine, made up of pieces and that the machine could be understood by taking its pieces apart, studying them, and then putting them back together to see the larger picture.

Reductionist thinking and its methods are the basis for many areas of modern science, such as physics, chemistry and technology. It has brought us – and continues to bring us – absolutely amazing things. 

But we now also know that our planet and the climate are in fact complex systems, and are much more than the sum of their parts. 

Contrary to reductionist thinking, systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that the parts of the system are connected, how they influence each other and interact with each other, as well as how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. 

Climate change is a huge systemic challenge. That thought can be really overwhelming, but it’s also cool to know that we are all elements or players in this system, and thus we have the capacity to influence how the system operates. 

Expect delays, so act now

1,5 degrees of global warming is the safe global limit, but the clock is ticking. In human life, 20 or 30 years is a long time and 2050 seems far away. But for the climate it’s really short. 

Delays exist in almost every feedback system. Simply put, a delay is when time passes between one action and the resulting feedback. The length of the delay varies. Think of taking a shower, and adjusting the temperature. This might take 10 seconds. When you hire a new employee, it might take them 30 days to get settled.

For businesses, delays are both a risk and an opportunity, so they’ve gotten very good at managing them. They operate on just-in-time inventory management, two-week agile sprints, and lean manufacturing, all examples of solutions that manage and optimize delays in a system. 

We’ve gotten used to instant messaging, on-demand movies and one-day or even four-hour delivery for online shopping. 

We’ve gotten used to getting what we want, when we want it. And the fact that our brain is already wired to prefer short-term gratification over a possible long-term pay-off doesn’t help either. Because when it comes to climate change, we have to understand that there is no immediate effect or on-demand solution, and we have to adopt a much longer term view. 

The consequences of our actions in the past are only becoming visible now, so the effects of what we do today will not be visible tomorrow. 

Every drop of greenhouse gas we can prevent now, will not only have an effect in the next few decades, but for centuries and even millennia to come. Even though we won’t see the results instantly, it matters if we act now, or wait another year. 

Treating the cause

To prevent the climate from changing to a situation with all the dire consequences, we need to limit global warming as much as possible, preferably to 1,5 degrees warming. (which, as we’ve seen will already be the case by 2040). 

The IPCC scientists are very clear in their report: the main human causes of climate change are the heat-absorbing greenhouse gases that are released when we burn fossil fuel, when we cut down trees, and from our agricultural practices. 

Great, so we know what to do: stop burning fossil fuels, stop cutting down trees, and oh wait – stop growing food? 

Yes and no, but you can already see that it’s a bit more complex. The three main causes for climate change are in themselves solutions to other things, in this case three core human needs: energy, land and food. 

Energy

Almost 75% of worldwide emissions come from our energy consumption. And currently, 84% of our energy demand comes from fossil fuels. 

Energy is used for heating or cooling and lighting our homes and offices, powering our laptops and saving our files on distant servers, cooking, vacuuming, fueling trains, planes and automobiles, moving and shipping freight, and manufacturing the products we rely on in our daily lives are all functions that require energy. 

Speaking of those products in our daily lives, in the US, 7% of fossil fuels are not used for energy, but directly converted into products. Think construction materials, plastics, lubricants, fertilizers, and even skincare products.

In our modern world, energy is what keeps things moving, and currently, fossil fuels are everywhere. 

Deforestation

15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are directly caused by deforestation. 

The burning or decomposing of wood releases long trapped CO2 back into the atmosphere; and secondly, trees that are cut down are no longer capable of trapping CO2 from the atmosphere.

Planting trees is one of the most effective strategies to mitigate climate change. So why not just plant a shitload of trees to take back all the CO2? Well, it’ll help to an extent, but planting alone won’t be enough; we need to stop clearing existing forest. But we cut  down trees for reasons: for wood, and to make space for housing, cities, and farmland to grow food, so to be able to stop that, we need alternative solutions for these underlying problems. 

The challenge of deforestation is therefore deeply connected with our food system and consumption patterns; the things we eat, drink and consume. 

Agriculture

The third large cause can be found in our agricultural practices. Agriculture itself is directly responsible for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions. 

We’ve already written this article about the need to shift from monoculture to regenerative farming and the challenges that brings. 

Although Einstein wasn’t bothered by climate change yet, this is definitely ‘a problem we can’t solve by using the same thinking that got us there’ So before we jump into action and innovation mode, it’s crucial to rethink our thinking and look at the problem from different angles. 

Innovate

One of the key ways to prevent further climate change is for the world to be net-zero by 2050, framed as the “world’s most urgent mission” by the UN. 

Net zero: achieving a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere and those taken out.

To achieve net-zero (or any reduction for that matter), we need to do two things: 

  1. Lower the emissions we are sending into the atmosphere
  2. Remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere

Fortunately, the roadmap proposed by the Energy Transitions Commission shows that it is technically and economically possible to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. The question, of course, is how? Well, we’re going to need a lot of innovative thinking and behaviour change. 

What a net-zero economy could look like

Reducing our use of fossil fuels is one way to lower emissions, but reduction will only take us so far. Fossil fuels need to be completely phased out and replaced with other, clean and renewable sources and the remaining polluting GHG gases need to be captured and stored, or used. 

The development and implementation of those things by themselves already require new technologies and a lot of money and investment. But that’s only one part of the equation. Ultimately, the only way to get to net-zero by 2050 is a major transformation of the way we do things. 

We need to build a new system, with an economy, businesses, products and services that are net-zero by design. And – curveball – we need to go beyond net-zero as Climate Action and Clean Energy are just two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  

Like the other SDGs, Climate Change is one of the so-called super wicked problems of our time. These problems are difficult, there are contradictory forces at play and there are changing requirements. 

Solving wicked problems requires all sorts of new collaborations across companies, sectors, between public and private partners, and involving various stakeholders. It requires new types of investments, across all sectors of the economy. It requires the redesign of policies.  And it requires changes in human behaviour and consumption patterns. 

To get there, we need innovation – essentially the process of generating and developing new ideas and solutions – in all these areas. 

It’s a process 

When it comes to a wicked problem like climate change, there is no single solution, no silver bullet, no ‘right answer’ and no quick fixes. There might be quick wins on the roadmap, but there are no quick fixes – those usually just tackle the symptom. 

We often hear that the road to net-zero isn’t going to be easy. It entails a lot more than reducing, and it touches upon the very core of how we currently live our lives. 

Change is hard, and it’ll be messy and uncomfortable. We all suffer from status quo bias and uncertainty is stressful. But change is also the only constant, and the only certainty. So the sooner we get started,  the more influence we still have on the changes that will come one way or another.

Yes, there’s going to be a lot of investment needed. But doing nothing isn’t going to make the problem go away. On the contrary. In this case, doing nothing, or business as usual is a certain path to destruction and even bigger investments down the line, as the IPCC scenarios clearly demonstrate. 

And that brings me back to where we started. 

Empathizing, Rethinking and Innovating can help achieve net-zero and sustainability targets in a variety of ways:  

  • Challenging us, and opening up our thinking to new opportunities
  • Helping us adopt a beginners mindset 
  • Moving from reductionist to holistic thinking
  • Gathering insights from different perspectives and stakeholders
  • Creating and fostering partnerships and collaborations
  • Better understanding if our ideas will actually help solve the problem (building the right thing)
  • Building a bridge between technology and its application in the world
  • Helping to shift and nudge people’s behavior 
  • Developing sustainable business ideas that are viable, desirable and feasible
  • Better understanding if what we’re developing is going to have the desired outcome and no unintended consequences (building things right)

Smart businesses have already assessed the business risk and recognized the potential to rethink, redesign and innovate products and services as well as the business models to bring them to the market that have net-zero and sustainability at their core. 

If you’re ready to get started, drop us a line. 

Pamela & Minou

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