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The COVID-19 pandemic holds lots of lessons for addressing the climate change challenge.  I’ll tackle the knottiest set of lessons — those concerning differing global responses, U.S. partisan cleavages, the psychology of risk and individual choice, and the ethics — in an upcoming post.

For now, I will simply set out a list of ten major impacts which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the climate change mitigation effort.  Four negative, four positive, and two ‘the jury is out.’

FOUR NEGATIVE IMPACTS

 

POACHING, LOGGING & PROTECTED AREAS LOSS

The impacts of COVID-19 — reducing mobility, leading to job cuts, and diverting world attention — have made the work of guarding against poaching, illegal logging and other threats to protected areas much more difficult to accomplish. Endangered specie and protected areas are suffering as a direct consequence.  Possibly, enhanced satellite surveillance and monitoring may be put to greater use in the future to help deal with this problem.

 

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

The Travel & Leisure Industry has been perhaps the single most hard-hit industry sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a new start-up, the Sustainable Tourism sub-sector has felt this impact particularly hard.  Many Sustainable Tourism operations are in underdeveloped or developing countries and run by local cooperatives which don’t have access to capital resources to sustain them.

 

CIRCULAR ECONOMY & WASTE MANAGEMENT

Circular economy refers to design solutions that repurpose waste from every point in a system so that is can be reused, optimizing the system from an efficiency and sustainability standpoint. Factories and entire cities are working to implement circular economies.  The logistics of waste management is a key link.  As you’ll know post-COVID if you’ve tried to recycle plastic bags at your market, that link in the cycle is currently broken.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION MOBILIZATION

Humans are hard-wired for connectivity and, while online methods of mobilization allow for greater efficiency and scale, they lack the impact of people gathering together … both from the standpoint of the participants and the observers of the activity.  Countless environmental action events have now been cancelled due to COVID-19.  Even the COP26 meeting to review progress on the Paris Accord has been postponed a year.

 

 

FOUR POSITIVE IMPACTS

 

REGENERATIVE URBAN GARDENS

Along with baking and at-home yoga, urban gardening is one of the activities which has seen a huge spike since COVID-19 forced us to stay closer to home.  This is a hugely positive development since urban gardens have shown — through programs such as the Philadelphia Horticultural Societies Growers Alliance — that they transform neighborhoods. Food deserts become locales with healthy food while improving the quality of the air.

 

15 MINUTE CITY CONCEPT

As  Financial Times and Treehugger have described, the 15-Minute City concept is “having a moment” thanks to COVID-19.  Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris and based on the Lazaretto model developed in Milan during a 16th c. plague, the 15 Minute City plan is to “offer services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home,” the same time a commuter might have waited on the platform for a train.

 

MORE INCLUSIVE LOCAL CLIMATE ACTION PLANS

Among the many things which the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully obvious is that fact that certain disadvantaged and at-risk communities take a disproportionately heavy hit.  One bright side from this realization is that Sustainability Offices throughout the country are dusting off their city’s Climate Action Plan and reimagining them with a more inclusive vision.  I don’t know if this effort is yet underway in Philadelphia but it should be.

 

IMPACT ON SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING

COVID-19 initially had a disruptive effect on social impact investing, but that disruption has been overcome.  Perhaps because the pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in our maximally-efficient economy (and maximally-stressed work-lives) ideas and innovations for more balance and resiliency in work- and life-styles are popping up.  Social impact investing is watering the growth of those new ideas.

 

TWO ‘THE JURY IS STILL OUT’ IMPACTS

 

AIR QUALITY

The shutdown of economic activity and drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels has of course led to a short-term amelioration in air quality, as the twin maps of China clearly shows.  But the jury is out on the critical question of what will happen as activity resumes.  Will economic pressure cause backsliding to abundant and cheap carbon fuels or will the Resiliency Lesson from our experience from the pandemic be learned?  We know that areas with worse air quality suffered more from the virus.

 

INFLECTION POINT – YES OR NO?

We can enlarge the air quality question to the environment as a whole.  Our efforts now to revive economic activity can either be rote or be reimagined.  There are lessons which the pandemic has taught us about our interdependence and about what is most important in our lives.  Will we apply what we have learned to recharging our economy in ways that are more resilient and regenerative or will be fall back on old habits? The answer will reverberate across coming generations.

 

These last two impacts are complex, still-evolving and extremely important.  I will return to each in a future post.

For now, stay safe, healthy and involved.

 

 

Crackdown or Startup w border

 Henry “Hank” Paulson — former Chairman of Goldman Sachs, former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and creator of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue — was in Philadelphia last Wednesday.  He came to publicize his new book Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower.

The media frame for the talk and Q&A which he gave to the World Affairs Council of Greater Philadelphia was:  ‘Hank, you’re a real patriot. Why are you helping China?”

In response, Hank Paulson was very clear that his interest in promoting a better understanding of China is rooted in his desire to do what is best for America.

You can read the full article here but, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on one small, but important, piece of the big contemporary China puzzle:  Is Xi’s ongoing crackdown (on corruption but also on foreign businesses, NGOs, press freedoms, social media, connectivity to the global knowledge-pool, etc) flashing green, yellow or red for China’s paramount challenge of rebooting its economy on a more sustainable basis?

China’s ‘old software version’ of infrastructure build-out, inbound investment and export of cheap stuff is clearly no longer operating smoothly on the new global hardware system.  China’s future – and Xi Jinping’s for that matter – depends on a smooth updating to a ‘new software version’ of consumer-led spending, outbound investment and innovation up the product value-chain.   Under any circumstances, that’s a tall-order to pull off in just a few years.  For those of us who believe that helping China matters to America’s future, the key question is whether the crackdown on political thought in China is – or is not — inimical to the desperately needed surge of commercial innovation needed to upgrade China’s economy to version 2.0.

It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that, in the same week that Hank Paulson was wrestling with this question in Philadelphia, so were two other leading experts on the trajectory of China’s globalization elsewhere:  Shaun Rein and Tom Friedman in respective articles.  If Hank Paulson occupies the pivot point as a U.S. patriot committed to helping China, Shaun Rein is a self-acknowledged China booster and Tom Friedman a “color me dubious” observer of China’s steep road ahead to globalization.

Here’s what each of them has had to say over the past week on the ‘sword of Damocles’ question facing Xi and China:  crackdown or start-up?  (Click on the name below in order to source the original publication from which the following excerpts are taken):

Hank Paulson

Paulson

“Paulson believes the Communist Party has reached a simple accord with the Chinese people: prosperity in return for continued state control. The question, of course, is whether China can have it both ways – economic freedom without cultural freedom, a subject I raised with Paulson at the World Affairs Council.

‘In today’s information economy, I don’t know how economies can innovate and do the sorts of things they do to stay on top without having a free flow of ideas and information,” Paulson replied. “I’ve run a global company, and, boy, you need to be connected. You can’t have an Internet that’s not connected. You need to know what’s going on politically, regulatory systems, economically, in terms of ideas all over the world.’

He added: ‘But understand what’s going on right now. Xi Jinping . . . is focusing on the things that the people care about the most. So, corruption. He recognizes the party won’t survive unless he curbs corruption. So he’s focused on corruption, the environment, dirty air, and water.’

“So . . . managing China, just think what it’s like because they have to deal with the kinds of issues that afflict developed countries at the same time they have to deal with issues that developing countries are dealing with because a big part of the country is still poor. It would be like, . . . looking at Europe, Germany and Slovenia. They are both European, vastly different stages of development, they need different economic policies. So think about managing both of those in a single country under one party, and I mean that’s sort of the challenge.’”

 Shaun Rein

rein-circular

“China´s much needed anti-corruption drive has now put the country into a lock-down mode, and new projects have halted,” tells business analyst Shaun Rein at CNBC.  “The cut in the reserve ratio ratio (RRR) this weekend is one way for a kickstart, although nobody know what will really work.”

 China Herald:  “What does the Chinese market need to stimulate the economy and if this growth continues to disappoint then would you expect an additional benchmark rate cut in the next couple of quarters, something that many experts are now talking about?”

Rein:  “I think what we need to look at is not gross domestic product (GDP) growth but we need to take a look at unemployment and the second reason why I am more concerned about the economy is in the last month urban unemployment has been hovering around 5 percent – that’s really a problem. So the unemployment rate in areas of manufacturing are still fairly strong and you can easily stimulate that by forcing state owned enterprises to do heavy investment; train construction, airport construction and you can get jobs there but the issue is urban unemployment is weak and there aren’t a lot of easy remedies. The government is trying to switch from manufacturing oriented economy more towards one of technology and innovation as I outlined in my new book ‘The End of Copycat China’ but it is not easy to do that. You cannot get companies that are producing things all a sudden to become innovators, so there is definitely going to be some weakness, some problems in the economy over the next three-four months and frankly there are no easy answers on how they stimulate the economy.”

Tom Friedman

friedman-circular-thumbLarge-v3

“Americans … are asking of President Xi: “What’s up with you?” Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is clearly aimed at stifling the biggest threat to any one-party system: losing its legitimacy because of rampant corruption. But he also seems to be taking out potential political rivals as well. Xi has assumed more control over the military, economic and political levers of power in China than any leader since Mao. But to what end — to reform or to stay the same?

“Xi is “amassing power to maintain the Communist Party’s supremacy,” argued Willy Wo-Lap Lam, author of “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform or Retrogression?” Xi “believes one reason behind the Soviet Union’s collapse is that the party lost control of the army and the economy.” But Xi seems to be more focused on how the Soviet Union collapsed than how America succeeded, and that is not good. His crackdown has not only been on corruption, which is freezing a lot of officials from making any big decisions, but on even the mildest forms of dissent. Foreign textbooks used by universities are being censored, and blogging and searching on China’s main Internet sites have never been more controlled. Don’t even think about using Google there or reading Western newspapers online.

“But, at the same time, Xi has begun a huge push for “innovation,” for transforming China’s economy from manufacturing and assembly to more knowledge-intensive work, so this one-child generation will be able to afford to take care of two retiring parents in a country with an inadequate social-safety net.

“Alas, crackdowns don’t tend to produce start-ups.

“As Antoine van Agtmael, the investor who coined the term “emerging markets,” said to me: China is making it harder to innovate in China precisely when rising labor costs in China and rising innovation in America are spurring more companies to build their next plant in the United States, not China. The combination of cheap energy in America and more flexible, open innovation — where universities and start-ups share brainpower with companies to spin off discoveries; where manufacturers use a new generation of robots and 3-D printers that allow more production to go local; and where new products integrate wirelessly connected sensors with new materials to become smarter, faster than ever — is making America, says van Agtmael, “the next great emerging market.”

“It’s a paradigm shift,” he added. “The last 25 years was all about who could make things cheapest, and the next 25 years will be about who can make things smartest.”

President Xi seems to be betting that China is big enough and smart enough to curb the Internet and political speech just enough to prevent dissent but not enough to choke off innovation. This is the biggest bet in the world today. And if he’s wrong (and color me dubious) we’re all going to feel it.”

What are the fundamental drivers transforming the landscape of opportunity for global cleantech?  Growing populations, diminishing quality of life, finite natural resources, financial and intellectual capital, and exponential proliferation of data.

As 13 million viewers on youTube have already seen, Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod, and Jeff Brenman have put together a brilliant, amped-up overview of our hyperbolic information curve.  Can we convert all that information into useful knowledge and perhaps even insight, if not true wisdom.  This video makes a pretty good case that the answer is sometimes ‘Yes.’

There’s a curious disconnect in discussions about China’s ability to innovate. Yes, there’s no question that China lacks the chemistry to produce tomorrow’s Google — rigid educational system, lack of intellectual property rights protection, constricted flow of ideas, top-down control of ‘right thinking,’ etc. But what tends to get overlooked in this discussion is China’s headlong embrace of the future, the attitudinal openness to change. It perhaps took the searing experience of the Cultural Revolution to burn into the consciousness of present-day China where never to return and thereby to point the way to where to head — a modern and global future. We should be able to respect China’s focus on the future and, in doing so, avoid getting too comfortable in our present.

This article by James Allworth at at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School puts this issue into clear perspective.

How the U.S. Could Avoid Being Disrupted by China by James Allworth, Harvard Business Review, 1:12 PM Tuesday December 21, 2010,

Last week, President Obama met with the CEOs of 20 of the largest corporations in the U.S. It was a widely praised meeting. But given what the President is hoping to achieve — creating sustained economic growth, which in turn leads to jobs — listening to much of what these guys have to say is the wrong approach. And asking them to start hiring misses the point. Obama is talking to the wrong people.
The U.S.’s position as a global economic leader has been based on one thing more than anything else: its ability to innovate. From Detroit to Silicon Valley, America has always been at the center of the “next big thing”. Each of the industries that have sprung up around these innovations has become an engine for America’s economic growth. Amazingly, each time as one has begun to slow down, the next one has picked up.
But this cycle is being jeopardized… [and in danger of] falling into the trap that leads to disruption — the same one that snares executives in many successful companies. Just as talented corporate leaders gradually shift their focus further and further upmarket in service of their best customers, the U.S.’s political leadership is increasingly doing that, too, by catering to the largest American companies… These are companies at their zenith. They have been through periods of exponential growth, but now they’re mature. America’s economic future is not dependent on the companies that are peaking now; the future is going to depend on the companies and industries that will peak in ten or 20 years time from now, the companies that are about to go through a period of break-out growth.
Unlike the startups that represent America’s future, the big players have an inherent bias toward protecting the status quo. They play a defensive game and face a different set of issues to their smaller brethren; fixing these issues is their priority when talking to politicians. The problem with this is that America’s economic competitiveness has always been built upon its ability to disrupt what it already has with something better. That’s a game played by smaller — not larger — companies.
Tilting the power balance in favor of large companies changes America’s winning formula. Here are just a few examples of where the big players and their undue influence in the political process have hurt America’s competitiveness, particularly relative to the U.S.’s emerging economic competitor, China:

• Big oil and big coal have stymied the growth of green energy within the U.S. Their lobbying and advertising have made it practically impossible to form political consensus. Putting aside the debate about the science, if the rest of the world believes global warming is real and is committed to stopping it, they’re going to want to get clean energy from somewhere. Right now, that’s not going to be the U.S. — it’s going to be China. What should be even more concerning to the U.S. is that while it remains too early to call, the green revolution looks like it’s going to be “the next big thing”, and the U.S. is set to miss out.

• The builders of every technical revolution — engineers — are being turned out at incredible rate in China. Compare the Chinese government’s attitude to that of the U.S. government. American politicians (at the behest of big content businesses) have tied federal funding of universities to anti-piracy efforts on campus. Do you think it makes sense to tie a country’s ability to innovate to protecting a business model that’s in the process of being disrupted?

• Intellectual property protections — frequently cited by big companies as being critical to innovation — are lacking in China. Ironically, this lack of IP is making China a more innovation-rich environment. The reason? The only protection you get in China is being able to innovate at such a rate that nobody else can catch you. Compare this to the U.S., where you create your IP and then rely on the legal system to keep your competitors at bay. This approach doesn’t work if your competitor doesn’t respect your IP laws. Further compounding the issue for America is that its current system strongly favors the big players. If a startup becomes a threat to a large company, then a common tactic is to rely on a long, drawn-out IP infringement lawsuit. Most startups don’t have the resources to fight back.

Over the past 20 years, America has gotten away with this shift in attitude, simply because it has had no competition. China changes that. The Chinese are determined to become a global hub for innovation, so America will have to compete to be the best environment in which to create the “next big thing” If the U.S. doesn’t want to lose its position and threaten its future prosperity, it’s going to need go back to its roots. The starting point is getting our political leaders to stop talking to the CEOs of large corporations and talk to entrepreneurs instead.

James Allworth is a Fellow at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School.
Find the complete article at http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/12/how_the_us_could_avoid_being_d.html

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