Anyone growing up when times just get worse will expect that they will continue to get worse. Growing up in a time when things just get better you will expect them to continue to get better. The worst are when things have been getting better but you know they are going to get a lot worse. That is where we are. It’s uncomfortable to say the least.
We are waking up the realisation that progress since the 1950s has actually been at the expense of earth systems and natural resources. The carrying capacity of earth systems has been eroded to such an extent, and populations and their material uses have grown to such a magnitude, we now find ourselves in overshoot.
Earth systems cannot support the way we live much longer. In fact, due to a lag factor, we are not experiencing the full effects of overshoot. That bill has, however, already been written and posted. We are not sure when it will arrive but it probably will, in our lifetime. The debt collectors are on their way.
What are we going to do about it? Since last spring, a group of scientists, engineers and other professionals have gathered online – in their own time – to frame a post-Covid response to climate change for the next COP to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.
The group hopes to put together a narrative that can be accepted by politicians, scientists and laymen alike. This narrative calls for an abrupt cap on resource outtake and a radical change in the way we live. This cap and change of direction they call the Pivot.
What follows is my own interpretation of what a pivot is, gleaned from the group and other sources. A pivot is a cap on resource outtake followed by a rapid reduction. A pivot can happen before or after the breach of capacity. When the pivot happens greatly affects how much resources will be needed to rectify the situation, as well as the costs of the negative impacts of overshoot.
That we need to pivot is clear: here is a proposal for a framework for scientists and policy makers to make the pivot a reality in as timely manner as possible knowing the early stages have already been passed.
Understand what a pivot is
A pivot is a response to an overshoot of outtake of resources. The concept of resource overshoot and its effects on populations date back to the report Limits to Growth (Meadows et al 1972) where computer models showed a peak to population growth around 2020 with subsequent falls in population due to increased deaths from among other factors, pollution and lack of food. A pivot therefore is an attempt to change outtake before it negatively impacts society.
In 2021 our most immediate (but not only) resource use issue is that of burning fossil fuels and the effects on climate system destabilization. As industrial output per capita increases, more and more fossil fuel is used to produce and transport goods and the world has entered a risk zone where ripple effects include climate destabilization, parts of the Earth becoming inhabitable, and bad weather reducing food production.
Example: pivot in carbon emissions
The diagram above from the IPCC shows the range of options in terms of CO2 budget the various scenarios offer. A clear pivot is needed in 2020 or thereabouts.
The pivot explained
A pivot is an abrupt change of direction, breaking a trend and moving in another direction. For example, if resource use risks exceeding limits of safety or has already gone beyond safe limits, outtake needs to rapidly fall to safe levels.
The schematic diagram below gives the general pattern:
Reading the schematic above from the left, population pressure causes a drawdown of natural resources that means that a point will come where the population can no longer be supported. It can happen suddenly.
Finding other ways to support the population, pivoting to a more sustainable outtake is best done before capacity is reached, otherwise the lag in responding to the need to reduce outtake may result in sudden impacts, possibly not as drastic as not mitigating the resource shortfall resulting from overshoot. The aim is to restore carrying capacity to a sustainable level.
In terms of policy framing, the reasoning behind the need to pivot should be explained clearly to prepare the way for broad acceptance. This framing would contain at least:
- Metrics on the current situation, rates of increase and likely trends
- For capacity and capability to be sustained, safe levels described
- Quantification and qualification of the risks involved in not rapidly halting and changing trends
Work out what to pivot
Not all nations have the same pivot:
Groundwater extraction is an example of differences between nations. If national use of groundwater exceeds replacement, water provision systems will come under stress.
The diagram below (courtesy WRI) shows the various levels of water stress in the world today.
Not only is the pivot country-dependent it is also provisioning-level dependent. This is explained below in the discussion of the natural-social-infrastructure system nexus.
Pivot planning will be informed by five different main questions at the nexus of social provision, earth system and infrastructure.
- Which Earth systems are involved?
- What drawdown stage of natural capital/function has been reached?
- Which societal functions are involved?
- How well is the societal function performing now?
- What is the capability and capacity of installed infrastructure to deliver the function in a sustainable manner?
Work out when to pivot
The diagram above shows five theoretical intervention points for a pivot along with the accompanying levels of risk.
- Represents a point where pivot results in resource outtake remaining at safe levels.
- Pivots before unsafe levels are reached but is introduced at a stage that results in levels exceeding safe levels before being brought down
- Pivots after safe levels are breached but level remain within medium risk
- Represents pivot after high risk levels are reached, resulting in dangerous pressure being put on society and resources
- Is the high-risk situation where pivoting is initiated at a late stage
Identify the three dimensions of any pivot
The natural system – social system – infrastructure nexus
Framing the need to pivot as a resource or emissions issue is necessary but not sufficient for a full citizen involvement.
Social provisioning performance
A second aspect is levels of social provisioning. Is the outtake of resources providing for all citizens? For example, in the case of water stress, it may be that the provision of clean water is not reaching all citizens anyway. A ceiling on outtake might mean even more going without.
Installed infrastructure capacity and capability
Thirdly, is current installed infrastructure capacity sufficient to provide basic needs to citizens and is it capable of delivering services without exceeding resource limits?
The diagram below illustrates the framing of the scope of pivot considerations. The most challenging pivot is represented by the circle in the middle where infrastructure is insufficient, needs aren’t being met and resource outtake is exceeding limits.
Match possible strategies to the situation
The table below summarizes the main challenges depending on the situation.
|Societal provisioning||Environmental /resource degradation|
|Infrastructure||Insufficient capacity to meet needs||Poor capability to meet environmental /resource demands|
|Distribution||Inequity. Not all needs are met||Possession of money allows a minority to pollute / draw down resources|
Identifying where in the infrastructure -provisioning-earth system nexus the pivot is informs an appropriate pivot strategy. The tables below show examples of strategic priorities:
When the performance of societal provisioning is high, and environmental performance is high strategies should focus on maintaining social and environmental efficiency. At the other end of the spectrum, when social performance is low and environmental performance is bad, twin strategies are called for to raise provision whilst reducing environmental pressure. The power of the market can be harnessed with the application of surcharges on pollution and extraction along with redistribution mechanisms so services are affordable for citizens.
Where infrastructure capacity is low AND societal performance is low, this is not a distributive challenge but one of finding investment to put the necessary infrastructure in place.
Where infrastructure capacity is already low and there is a high impact on resources strategies need to look at pivoting both distribution and installed capability.
Get ready to argue for the pivot
With rapid changes in infrastructure come new jobs. Fast pivot needs fast retraining as new jobs come along. Opportunity for this to be done online and on the job.
How to frame the problem of overshoot?
Scientists tend to present resource outtake as a graph rising rapidly upwards, like the one below showing CO2 levels over time.
This version of the graph adds the warnings and meetings to address CO2 increase illustrating how emissions growth seems unaffected. However, for the uninitiated it is hard to see how much increase is too much. A more informative approach for policy would be metrics framed from a normative viewpoint. The normative viewpoint compares what is against what should be.
Normative metrics format:
Politicians tend to claim What Should Be is their area as it involves subjective judgement. What Should Be implies values beyond metrics. Values is an area often claimed by economists – as a good’s contribution to GDP measured in money.
Normative measurements can, though, be framed in the narrative of sustainability. Another term for sustain is keep, and metrics can be presented by scientists in the format:
If you want to keep X, then outtake/emissions should (remain below Y).
Measuring current status would then take the pattern:
The diagram above gives us a better idea of the sense of urgency. If we want to keep climate stable we should limit concentrations to 350 ppm. The graph shows us what happened from 1960 onwards to when the safe limit was crossed and to the current situation.
Still, visualising the breaching of safe levels does not convey the risk involved with each increase. The schematic below illustrates the principle of adding risk levels to absolute metrics. Where green is safe and yellow and red represent raised risk levels.
Considering the schematic above, we see that at every stage it would be sensible to try to stop the trend. The longer the break in trend takes, the harder the transition will be. To help non-scientifically versed citizens, a visualisation of this trend break – a pivot- may help them engage in decision-making.
Health as the centre of the pivot strategy
A pivot is a halt in increase and a rapid movement towards sustainable levels – in all four dimensions. Returning the idea of normative and values we can use the following narrative:
If we want healthy people, a healthy environment, healthy organisations (paying their bills easily) and healthy societies (providing the services mutually needed) then the natural resources we take out should….
Interestingly, most of these areas are covered, both by the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Accord, science and by standards and regulations as the examples in the diagram below show.
Families can quickly see focus on health as a key feature of social benefit in the pivot and the congruence with cleaner greener more healthy lifestyles. This can be one of the first benefits of a bottom up approach involving citizens in the pivot. This needs support for low income disadvantaged people and maybe this creates a lot of jobs for everyone with incentives/support funded out of medium term healthcare costs savings.
Involve broad democracy
Four major steps in the pivot are exemplified by the acronym STOP
S= Stop or halt the unsustainable level of extraction or emission. For example, total world oil extraction quota equals to extraction from the previous year, no increases allowed.
T= Think. All options should be explored and considered and ways to present them to citizens in general.
O= Organise. Planning which measures to introduce first, roles and responsibilities etc. as well as metrics, monitoring and contingency.
P= Proceed to pivot.
Getting to the pivot
Our western political system might be effective in introducing incremental changes but it seems ineffective at dealing with pivots. The Covid crisis has shown how politicians can delay difficult decisions for fear of losing popularity. They also do not want to alarm citizens, which will immediately affect the economy. Stockpiling equipment – a just in case instead of the efficient just in time approach – is unpopular as it costs money and politicians will be seen to be spending public money without knowing if it will be useful.
The last 30 years of warnings and meetings about the climate (as in the diagram above) and the incessant rise of emissions shows us how hard pivots are. Science and engineering, along with policy making all need to work together on the reduction on the outtake side of the curve to offer alternatives to citizens once they have accepted the need to halt all further outtake – a first step, necessary but not sufficient.
After the stop – exploring drawdown options
A rapid halt to resource use expansion is the first step. The next step is reduction to safe levels. One way to envisage this is the concept of trajectory – the path of the drawdown. Measures to reduce resource use can be illustrated in “wedges”. Each wedge is a measure that will reduce demand for the resource, increase efficiency and introduce alternatives.
The diagram below shows how internal combustion engine personal vehicle kilometers might be reduced to zero with three main strategies: reducing travel demand by increasing proximity, increasing ridership in vehicles and swapping ICE vehicles for electric ones.
The diagram is presented to illustrate principles only and is not intended as a proposal, rather a starting point for discussions.
Most important: our young people. We could create a kind of emergency response organization and invite young people to work in it, teaching them everything we know and helping them set up organizations that will regenerate natural and infrastructure capital and create a resilient society able to handle the inevitable shocks of overshoot.
A tail risk is one that is small but devastating. When an 8 year- old asks about crossing the road to get to a bus stop you correctly point out that there is a 1% risk she will get run over. However you might want to suggest instead a 3-min walk to the traffic lights and pedestrian crossing. To frame tail risk you include probability distribution of the event (car colliding with girl), with an outcome function (girl likely dies if hit), and account for the cost of mitigation (3 minutes to walk to traffic light). In the realm of climate change, climate scientists are the ones charged with estimating the event risk, while other disciplines (e.g. economics, engineering) must be brought to bear on estimating outcome, and the costs of mitigating the risk or adapting to it. In climate change there is a 5% chance of the Earth’s temperature staying stable. And 5% chance it runs away to 4,6 degrees and mass die-off.
We need a multi-perspective method to frame a risk response. What would that look like? We cannot ask climate scientists to be truthful about the risks and then call them alarmists when they describe the tail risks. We need to create that space where the nexus of science, technology, social science and economics can meet to have a sensible discussion.
Politicians are incapable, and the political system is incapable of handling tail risks. The only solution I see is for citizens to demand politicians give up power to direct citizen involvement in things like citizens’ assemblies and these forums get informed at the nexus of the multi-disciplines. The political system works when there is no emergency. Facing potential catastrophe, even a tail-end one, people’s first tendency is to look after their own interests first and influence politics. We cannot have a system that amplifies that. Let us now create that space.
Calling for citizens’ assemblies
Wider citizen involvement is needed throughout the whole process, from identifying the need to pivot to planning and execution. Fortunately, there are many examples of deep citizens involvement in important issues. These include the ratification of the US constitution and the Irish citizens assemblies as well as the various referendums held throughout history.
Once the decision is made: using economic incentives
No proposal for a reduction of resources can be complete without a discussion of economics. Would that doing the right thing by people and planet automatically meant economic gain, and doing the wrong thing was unprofitable. Currently, many things that are right for sustainability cannot make money.
Much thinking has been done around aligning economic incentives to sustainability. We have some good examples to start from, including the Carbon Dividend proposed by the US climate leadership council and flexible pollution fees with dividend proposed by the Swedish Sustainable Economy Foundation (TSSEF).
Pollution dividends work on the principle of placing a fee high up in the supply chain for substances that cause pollution or are in short supply. This fee will be passed on to customers and eventually consumers to make the products more expensive. To encourage investment in alternatives, these fees are raised at regular intervals until the market complies. To make sure people have the money to buy alternatives the fees collected are distributed to every citizen as a dividend.
This mechanism has the advantage of ensuring that those who pollute or drawdown the most are the ones who pay the most, and those with minimum impact gain a net increase in their pocket. This helps build political acceptance for major pivots.
Ownership of property – like land or vehicles – often gives the owners carte blanche to pollute and consume within the margin allowed by law. Apart from tightening regulations, policy makers can work on increasing taxes for property that performs badly environmentally.
For example, land that is used for agriculture and pollutes rivers through runoff can be taxed harder than land which retains nutrients or indeed sequesters carbon. This will encourage landowners to improve the capability and performance of their property, and land which is taxed higher will be less valuable.
With the monetization of society nearing 100% it is important that citizens have the money to be able to pay for the basics, or the basics – like health care and education -should be provided by the state without cost.
Several mechanisms have been suggested that would ensure citizens have enough money to see them through any pivot. One is Universal Basic Income, another is a universal job guarantee financed through mechanisms proposed by Modern Monetary Theory. Universal Basic Services have been proposed, too where money is not needed by citizens.
Risk exposure, peace and prosperity
The diagram below from The Institute for Economics & Peace shows how areas of low peace coincide with areas exposed to water risk. The situation is urgent; in 2020 more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and about 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity for at least 1 month of the year. With basic need risks mitigated, the foundations of peace can be laid. With peace, comes prosperity.
References and further reading
Jackson, T., & Webster, R. (2016). Limits revisited: a review of the limits to growth debate. Report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth.
Meadows, D., Meadows, D., Randers, J and Behrens III, W. 1972. The Limits to Growth. Club of Rome: Universe Books. Available at http://www.donellameadows. org/wp-content/userfiles/Limits-to-Growthdigital-scan-version.pdf