Benchmarks: part of nature, part of us

October 3, 2013 | 00:00

Benchmarks: part of nature, part of us

Human psychology being what it is, we’re happiest when working to a clear timetable. So it is that we set deadlines. In the case of longer term deadlines, we tend to embrace decimals: a ten-year plan, for example. But such deadlines have no direct bearing on the real world around us. The same goes for the EU’s 20% sustainability targets: they are not underpinned by scientific research, nor do they relate to the end goals that have more or less been mapped out. Now the year 2020 looks to be losing its appeal in several member states because the targets no longer seem attainable, new deadlines are being set in the 2030 and 2050. But what is the actual challenge we are facing? 

Looking for directions (c) Thinkstock
The weariness engendered by ten-year plans in the road maps of corporate organisations and governments is becoming increasingly obvious. It does little for their credibility. Existing targets are looking shaky, but instead of redoubling efforts in an all-out bid still to achieve them, new target percentages are being set for some time further in the future. Increasingly the new benchmark is being set at 2050. Sweden, for example, has formulated the ambitious goal that by 2030 national transport will be independent of fossil fuels and that the net emission of greenhouse gases will have been reduced to nil by 2050. Germany, meanwhile, is targeting 80% of power generation from renewables by 2050, while Britain has set a goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

Lack of long term strategy

Those who match that date with the associated transition targets will be forced to conclude that there is no link to a clear and final goal. It’s not the case that leaders or governments, the United Nations or even the global Climate Council have decided

We have as yet failed to agree on the sheer necessity of climate-saving measures and are far from certain about whether they can actually be realised
that a complete changeover must have been effected by 2100 and that fixed target percentages for the midpoint of this century are part of that process. Instead what’s at work here is that we have as yet failed to agree on the sheer necessity of climate-saving measures and are far from certain about whether they can actually be realised. Maybe 2100 could become 2200, or global warming might turn out to be a temporary flash in the pan. Breaking up the issue into separate questions is simultaneously a familiar psychological response and a pragmatic approach. But it runs counter to strategic thinking and the systematic planning this entails.

Those of us schooled in strategy have learned that setting clear end goals is a necessary condition for creating and maintaining unity of purpose. Interim goals constitute points of measurement and milestones helping to maintain momentum on the long road to change by flagging up the progress that’s already been made. Are we then to conclude from the current state of affairs that we actually don’t have a strategy to tackle an issue that many regard as a clear and present danger?

At the same time we can discern another influence at work, this time originating from that valuable source: experience. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, the saying goes, and it’s this life lesson that’s reflected in the simultaneous ramping up of the use of fossil fuels on the one hand, and on the other, the ongoing effort to develop and deploy more sustainable energy sources. This approach from the empirical school, life’s Alma Mater, didn’t originate with great thinkers or visionaries. More than 10 or 15 years ago experts in the field were already indicating that the transition to sustainable energy could only be made gradually. When it comes to fundamental provisions such as energy, a revolution is simply not feasible, they argued. Not because of a lack of will, but purely because such transitions take time. A revamped energy system based on wholly different principles can only be achieved without major damage and disruption if it is realised on the basis of a gradual dismantling of existing structures and a controlled conversion to, and replacement by, new processes. Proponents of a rapid changeover, who regard global warming as an irreversible danger already well underway, accused the experts in the field of pursuing their own interests. With commercial and industrial positions at stake, business interests were being allowed to prevail over the common good. In various cases these critics will have indubitably been – and be – right. But objectively speaking the case for a considered and gradual transition to renewables rather than an energy sector revolution is more realistic.

All these deadlines then, such as 2020, or the road maps for 2030, or 2050 are not so much based on a strategic approach or a compelling end goal as part of a process of gradual adjustment. Nature, in the form of our environment in the broadest sense of the word, is up in arms.

At the same time we can discern another influence at work, this time originating from that valuable source: experience
Our welfare is under threat and the added pressure of three billion more people in this century can only up the ante. Surveying the whole it seems that we’re experiencing more of a natural process than a collective, carefully mapped out progress to a new energy era, whereby the species under threat is bending over backwards both physically and mentally to keep out of any possible danger zone and to counter any threat. The current state of affairs calls for adaptation through intellect. Where time does not allow for adaptation along biological lines we shall have to use our existing talents to adapt along the lines of science and technology, these being the most recent achievements of nature.


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