Transition: Rapid-fire change

The Rapid Transition Alliance wants to tell stories to inspire a sustainable future. Peter Newell talks to Huw Morris about moving from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’

Peter Newell is blunt about transforming the way we live now. “We are up against a clock,” says the research director of the Rapid Transition Alliance, a global network of around 50 mostly civil society organisations dedicated to changing economies, lives and jobs.

Launched in 2018, the alliance gathers and disseminates evidence as part of “a bigger conversation on the immediate possibilities of rapid transition and more sustainable behaviour”. Its case studies are numerous – from social movements in Brazil and US companies making sustainable products, to the way urban farming tackles food security. Narratives matter to the alliance, and it wants to offer a narrative of hope. “We need to inspire alternatives,” Newell says. “How can we move from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’?”

Newell, who is also professor of international relations at Sussex University, cites the IPPC’s landmark report on the impact of global warming of 1.5°C, and last year’s warning from the UN Environment Programme that relying only on current climate commitments under the Paris Agreement will mean temperatures rising by 3.2°C this century. 

Evidence-based hope

Newell describes the alliance as a “resource for learning to generate evidence-based hope” – holding up not a mirror to the world, but a window revealing what it could be. “How do we tell positive stories about the possibility of rapid transition, which is clearly now required to get near to a whole range of sustainability goals? We need these positive stories about the possibility of change around infrastructure, energy, finance, water – the whole gamut.”

Some transition is happening, he acknowledges, “but it needs to be upscaled, and quickly”. Another pressing aim is “to call out inaction by companies, governments, by whoever says this is impossible. We have stories to show what can be achieved if the political will is there.”

Many governments still plan for a fossil fuel future “when it’s clear most fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground if we to meet the Paris Agreement”. Government subsidies to fossil fuels globally are around $10m a minute; redirecting this money is a priority.

“A lot of it needs to shift towards more sustainable transport and energy systems, making services more affordable, redirecting planning rules and embedding alternative infrastructure,” Newell says.

He describes this as “the elephant in the room”, citing International Energy Agency projections that fossil fuel use will rise for decades to come. Carbon Tracker suggests restraining temperature rises to below 2°C means that 80% of coal, oil and gas reserves are now “un-burnable”.

Some governments are taking bold action to leave fossil fuels in the ground. New Zealand, France, Belize and Costa Rica have announced moratoria on new oil exploration and production. This informs the alliance’s radical call for a “fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty”, which is similar to the diplomatic initiatives for controlling nuclear warheads during the Cold War. “Even if people think a treaty is too ambitious, it at least asks the question of which countries still need to access fossil fuels, while acknowledging the responsibility of richer countries that have more than used their share,” he says. “There will be plenty of opposition, but some countries are seeing this as a registry of commitment which they can claim against climate change pledges. Over time, countries will be pushed or embarrassed into making concessions.”

Delay tactics

Companies are expected to use technological innovation, new finance models and operations shifts to adjust to the climate emergency – yet many move slowly because they profit from the status quo. Others are moving ahead. More than 760 businesses, including BT, Unilever, Carlsberg and Tesco, are committed to meeting the 2°C target via Science-Based Targets, while more than 1,100 have promised ‘bold action’ via the We Mean Business global coalition. 

Dutch materials company DSM has transitioned from engineering to health and zero-carbon materials; Danish ex-oil company Ørsted plans to slash carbon by 97% by 2023 and has shifted entirely to renewable energy; and Unilever is committed to zero-carbon by 2030. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate says $26bn could be earned by businesses that transition rapidly.

“Some businesses or business models may no longer be viable in a zero-carbon society,” says Newell. “We can no longer rely on having to make a ‘business case’ for climate change and sustainability action. A moral case should suffice.”

This means difficult conversations with stakeholders, customers and staff. Yet businesses are accustomed to technological and cultural disruption, he argues, and constantly adapt to threats from competitors and shifts in the commercial landscape. Climate change adds to such pressures, but also redefines many of them.

Cultural shift

Meanwhile, sustainability challenges – from water to biodiversity, land and food – will force businesses to rethink their corporate strategies. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for urgency, Newell adds. “We are seeing a chance to rethink some of these things, but we are also quickly seeing the danger of slipping back into business-as-usual in other respects. How do we want to design our food systems, energy systems, transport systems to make them sustainable and resilient? COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable those systems are, how dependent they are on ‘just in time’ and how prone they are to disruption.”

He is not overly impressed by UK government’s post-COVID-19 New Deal. “Positively, there are plans for 4,000 zero-carbon buses and new cycle-ways. But some moves go in the wrong direction by locking in higher carbon pathways, such as the £100m for new road projects. The emphasis on ‘jet-zero’ is also a distraction from the need to focus on high-speed rail and electric car infrastructure.”

Underlying transition is a cultural shift, he says. Job sharing, four-day working weeks and the way things are produced will all be considered. “Some of this means potentially slower cultural and social shifts, particularly as we need to look beyond questions of regulation, infrastructure and finance,” he adds.  


Rapid transition in the past

History is full of examples where the seemingly impossible has been achieved quickly. Newell points to the UK’s railway expansion in the mid-1800s, in which 4,400 miles of track – more than seven times the length of the country – were laid within seven years. In 1892, railway workers upgraded more than 200 miles of track in a weekend, with the line reopened on Monday morning. 

President Roosevelt’s New Deal spent $21bn over seven years and put millions to work on public and environmental schemes, with much of the preliminaries sorted out in his first 100 days in office, while the Moon landings turned science fiction into reality within seven years.

Governments will always find money if they need to. £400bn was pumped into the UK economy after the 2007 financial crash, and $3.7trn into that of the US.

More recently, Iceland’s volcanic eruption in 2010 grounded airlines and forced supermarkets to switch to local produce instead of flying in fruit and vegetables from across the globe. Video-conferencing took off and then prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, ran the government from his iPad as he was stranded in New York.


Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

Picture Credit | iStock
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