By Diane O’Connor, vice president, Global Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability for Xerox
(From the editor: This article was first published on GreenBiz.com.)
Earth’s resources are unsustainable at current rates of consumption. By 2030, humans will require the equivalent resources of two Earths in order to maintain current lifestyles. Between now and then, society will progressively feel the pain of not having necessary resources and paying more for those that are still available. It’s clear that the world won’t be the same.
Part of the problem with addressing climate change is that the topic is so complex. For many today, it’s difficult to understand that we all have a role in addressing the issue. But I believe that over the next 10 to 15 years, cutting carbon emissions will become “the norm” – a widespread activity among individuals, organizations and nations.
How do we change cultural norms? Let’s turn to a familiar example: smoking. Here’s a snapshot of what things looked like just 50 years ago:
- In 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General declared that cigarette smoking was the leading cause of lung cancer, well over 40 percent of Americans smoked.
- Around the world, people smoked in virtually all public places, including restaurants, theaters, planes and trains, and even hospitals.
- Characters in TV shows and movies often smoked.
— Joel Makower (@makower) September 29, 2014
By the 1980s, significant changes began to occur. State governments began to prohibit smoking in public areas. Businesses required employees to smoke outside the building or not at all. In 2008, India banned smoking in public. Just this year, Russia extending its smoking ban to all bars and restaurants and China announced plans to outlaw smoking in public.
The approach to climate change is taking a similar path. Here’s the type of world I see in the not-too-distant future:
Carbon Footprint Goes Mainstream
It’s the year 2030, and I’m in need of a new dining room table. As I shop, I compare price, style and – most importantly – carbon footprint number. These days, the price of a good or service is correlated to its impact on the climate; a higher carbon footprint equals higher price. Everyday goods – from furniture to diapers – are labeled with carbon footprint numbers, similar to nutrition labels and calorie counts. As I shop, I stay away from goods with high numbers (easily spotted by warning labels) and gravitate toward those that bear eco labels indicating limited effect on the environment. (I recently read that the government has fined a group of manufacturers for not labeling their products with carbon footprints.)
The scales of supply and demand tip as consumers demand sustainable products. Carbon intensive or non-reusable/recyclable materials such as roof shingles become impossible to find, but we still have roofs over our heads. Industry has discovered a cost-effective way to manufacture solar roofs, and governments offer incentives to choose solar.
A Waste-Free Future
Advances in biotechnology also make it a very different world — one that is virtually waste-free. The byproducts of one process become the input to another, and energy sources are almost exclusively bio-based. Increased knowledge about genes and complex cell processes is driving the world’s economy. Gone are the days of lengthy medical testing with energy-intensive and expensive medical scans. Instead, we have quicker and easier ways to detect health conditions.
That’s my view of the world in 2030 – a place where our living conditions, financial health and day-to-day living/working conditions have been improved. We’ll recognize – as we did with the threat of cigarette smoking – that individual and collective efforts can change our world for the better.
Diane P. O’Connor and her team provide strategic leadership on all aspects of health, safety and environmental responsibility at Xerox. Their work ensures sustainability throughout the entire chain of activities leading up to the delivery of valuable services and products. She has served as the vice president of Xerox Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability since 2012, and is known for leading high performing organizations that are recognized both inside and outside of Xerox for their expertise and ability to make a positive business impact.
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We asked Xerox people
Over the next few decades, who will play the biggest role in our response to climate change?
What can we do to address climate change better than we are today?
Those who responded to the poll were split on who will take the reins against climate change in the coming decades. Many recommended that each of us “make small sacrifices” and “change habits.” Together, we can “build a culture such that all individuals believe that every ‘drop’ of climate saved makes a difference so that we behave habitually to protect the planet.”
Others took a wider view, saying, “the countries of the world need to get on the same page” because “it has to be a global effort to effect any measurable change.” “Developed countries would have to make more sacrifices in terms of their per capita consumption of resources before they will be able to motivate the developing countries to curtail their own absolute consumptions.” Perhaps this means adopting “frugal innovation/recycling/repurposing concepts” from cultures that conserve water and electricity as a matter of necessity. We may also need to rethink how we build cities. “Booming growth countries like China and India have a terrific opportunity to do growth ‘right’ and their chance is being blown using an outdated American template as the model for an ideal society: malls, suburbs, oil-based auto-culture.”
Communication is key when it comes to convincing the public to pitch in. “If the fight doesn’t get personal, we will lose it.” In the United States, there is a need to “depoliticize conservation, recycling and other energy-saving activities.” There’s also an opportunity to communicate sustainable advancements as they’re developed. “How can I say how to better address climate change when I am not really aware of the current methods being implemented?”
Perhaps most importantly, “we shouldn’t pay extra” to live sustainably. “I would be just as happy with solar panels, wind power, geothermal cooling and heating, and an electric car. I just need to be able to afford and justify the upfront investment to make that happen.” If we can “find alignment between [individuals’] immediate desire and green actions,” then we can make progress “less painful.”