One Wish

February 23, 2010
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by Georges Dyer, Senior Fellow, Second Nature

Bill Gates gave a TED Talk last week about how if he could have just one wish it would be to get to zero carbon.  Even with all of his understanding, passion and work on the issues of health, poverty, sanitation, disease and so many of the world’s urgent and interrelated problems – his wish, if he only had one, would be to get the big innovation breakthroughs that will make clean, carbon neutral energy affordable and safe.  This is because climate disruption is the problem we face today that will make all of the other problems so much worse.

It is incredibly exciting to see the country’s colleges and universities leading the way on this push to zero.  With 667 institutions committed to publicly reporting on their progress through the ACUPCC, and many more taking very similar steps, they are driving the innovation needed, educating the leaders who can make the breakthroughs, and serving as role-models to show that we can do this in ways that make good business sense.

In the talk, Gates lays out a simple equation: CO2 = P * S  * E  * C

Where P = population; S = services per person; E = energy per service; and C = carbon dioxide per energy.  He points out P is going up to 9 billion, maybe a bit smaller with big efforts in vaccines, education and reproductive health.  S is going up, and for most of the world’s population, where meeting the basic need of subsistence is a challenge, that’s a great thing (in the developed world we have plenty of opportunity to bring that down while improving quality of life). Energy per service is going down, another good thing (although I personally believe it can go down a lot further than he suggests, if we improve the design of just about everything we do).  Regardless, the only one that we can really go to zero is carbon per energy (of course the closer E gets to zero, the less zero-carbon energy we’ll need).

He also identifies four necessary steps in getting to zero:

  1. Basic Research Funding
  2. Market Incentives to Reduce CO2 (i.e. price on carbon)
  3. Entrepreneurial Opportunity
  4. Rational Regulatory Framework

Colleges and universities have a critical role to play in ensuring that all four of these steps are taken in a timely fashion.

Personally, I agree that all of these steps are necessary, but I do not think they are necessarily sufficient.  As David Roberts points out in this (bombastically titled) article at, we too often equate “innovation” with “technology” – when many (if not most, if not all) of the challenges we face in moving towards sustainability have more to do with how we think, what we value and how well we work together.  As he puts it: “Innovations in the way we think, interact, and structure our lives require just as much imagination, intelligence, persistence, and funding as innovations in technology.”

Leaders at all levels of ACUPCC institutions – students and sustainability coordinator, presidents and trustees – are experiencing first hand the challenges and rewards of mobilizing a community around this immensely difficult and meaningful purpose of becoming climate neutral (and eventually fully sustainable).  In doing so they are serving as great role-models for all other communities in our global society – and training the leaders of tomorrow to ensure that this one wish, and many others, come true.

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