Interview | Asun Lera St. Clair: “The development model and idea of progress on which our economies are based must change radically”

Asun Lera St. Clair, Àngel Castiñeira

Climate change is a systemic risk with potential impacts that could dramatically alter our socio-economic and planetary system. In 2015, the 2030 Agenda was adopted, a global commitment made by 193 countries to implement and meet the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. In an interview with Àngel Castiñeira, director of the ESADE Leadership Chair, Asun Lera St. Clair, member of the Committee of Experts on digitisation for sustainability at Future Earth, the Advisory Council for Sustainable Development (CADS) and the advisory board for the Horizon Europe Mission for adaptation to climate change including societal transformation, assesses the evolution of public opinion on climate change in recent years, and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its transformative potential. The expert also takes stock of the impact of the health crisis and the climate emergency and offers some reflections on how digitisation and artificial intelligence can influence sustainability. St. Clair also discusses how scientific advisory bodies can contribute their knowledge to informed decision-making in order to design more resilient public policies that are better adapted to the transformations that will be needed to implement the SDGs.

Evolution of public opinion on climate change

Àngel Castiñeira: In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put together its fifth evaluation report. The following year, the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted. It was also the year in which the Paris Agreement was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, known as COP21. How would you assess the progress of this debate and the public’s understanding of climate change between 2014-2015 and the present? Do you agree that, while we’re still at the awareness stage, we’re also beginning to see genuine vision and increased sensitivity from governments, corporations and society?

Asun Lera St. Clair: 2014-2015 was the moment we finally began to recognise climate change as something more complex than just an isolated biophysical problem; we realised there was a direct relationship between biophysical issues, environmental degradation, socio-economic issues and economic issues. That’s why the scope of the SDGs is much broader than just climate change. And we learned the importance of not only understanding climate data but how that data affects society. If society is vulnerable, the risks related to climate change increase. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of how biophysical and social factors interact together. The Paris Agreement and the SDGs are part of the same agenda; you can’t have one without the other. It’s impossible to comply with the SDGs but not the Paris Agreement, and vice versa. We cannot claim to have achieved sustainable development if we’re not resilient to climate change at the same time.

The transformative potential of the 2030 Agenda

Àngel Castiñeira: Accepting, then, that there’s a better understanding, an improved systemic knowledge and greater awareness, do you think this has transferred to real progress in the form of results and actions? Or, on the contrary, have there been setbacks and impasses? What would be your personal appraisal of the accomplishment of the SDGs and the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement?

Asun Lera St. Clair: The operative word here is the adverb “really”. Although we’ve improved our understanding and awareness substantially, we’re not yet in the “really” realm. We need more policy and regulatory incentives to force us to internalise the real cost of greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of the environment. Not only do we not have a price for CO2, but we don’t attribute sufficient importance to natural resources or environmental degradation.

Similarly, I would say we still don’t really appreciate how instruments like social policies can protect citizens in extreme cases. Those policies and mechanisms aren’t given sufficient weight within the workings of the economy. Therefore, not only do we need a change in business model for companies, but we also need a change in mentality, and I would say a fundamental change in values, so that we can begin to see progress as a way of life that doesn’t necessarily involve consumerism or destroying the environment. We haven’t yet reached that point of normalisation.

We need a change in mentality so that we can see progress as a way of life that doesn’t necessarily involve consumerism or destroying the environment

COVID-19 has been an interesting example because it’s reminded us that we’re vulnerable, in this case, to a virus, and that the responses of socio-economic systems and individual and collective behaviour are fundamental. Yet, at the same time, there’s talk of a return to the Roaring Twenties: What’s going to happen when we’re all vaccinated and can go out again? Will the Roaring Twenties return? If they do, we haven’t learnt much. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I am a realist. We’re not seeing that change in values just yet.

2021: what can we expect?

Àngel Castiñeira: From an optimistic perspective, the European Commission is headed by a leader who supports the EU Green Deal, and in the USA, President Joe Biden is looking to the Green New Deal. World Earth Day, an international summit on climate change, was celebrated on the 22nd of April, and COP26, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, is due to take place in Glasgow this November. These conjunctures and occasions are putting these issues in the spotlight in 2021. As Immanuel Kant would say, what may we hope, and what would be reasonable to demand of these significant events?

Asun Lera St. Clair: These events are hugely significant, and the political changes we’ve now seen in both Europe and the United States make a big difference. Having the United States recommit to the Paris Agreement is very important, as is the awareness that emanates from these summits. I would, however, like to ask the following, and I use the example of the changes that we’ve seen in the latest UNDP Human Development report released last January. I think it’s time to recognise that there are deadlocks between the SDGs and what really needs to be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically. We still need a better understanding of the trade-offs between ecological, social and economic goals. These are, I believe, the problems and challenges that these organisations need to debate. The 2020 Human Development Report attempts to do precisely that, to assess these trade-offs. In addition to measuring the economy, level of education and access to health services in different countries, it has now produced an index, which is still a pilot initiative, called the Planetary Pressures-Adjusted HDI. The idea is to see if we can measure not just advances in education, income levels and GDP, but also per capita emissions of CO2 and intergenerational inequality.

We need to accept that the development model and idea of progress on which our economies are based must change radically. These are complex issues, and talking about degrowth or having to reorientate savage capitalism throws up some uncomfortable questions. The fact is we have to change the way we value and contribute to the economy.

Another point I believe to be relevant is social transformation, which, as one of the key issues, must be debated at a global level. We need a social transformation that is simultaneously local, national and global, because nations and countries are part of a system that groups us all together and, therefore, our perspective must also be global. This highlights the need for multisectoral governance, which, in my opinion, has not yet been sufficiently discussed at the COPS conferences.

Social tranformation is one of the key issues that must be debated at a global level. This transformation needs to be simultaneously local, national and global

And lastly, I want to emphasise that while these large conferences are important and global action and multilateralism is essential; we have to consider the need for action from other actors such as NGOs, citizen organisations and the private sector. Despite being represented at these events, participation is limited almost exclusively to large corporations. The issue is more complicated for small and medium-sized businesses. Therefore, we need to look at how we translate the messages from these great gatherings into action from other equally necessary actors.

Àngel Castiñeira: Considering what you pointed out about the types of trade-offs we need to deal with this year, would you be cautiously optimistic about the climate change summit and the Glasgow meeting? Or are we just going to see “more of the same” in the sense that there will be lots of discussion but not much commitment to action?

Asun Lera St. Clair: I think the way the COPS are designed means they lack a committee system that can really get to work on these issues. I’ve participated in several events, including two years ago in Bonn, where the topic was the confluence between the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. In my opinion, we need to widen the focus of the debate and the instruments with which these big conferences are organised so that representatives from different levels of government can attend. Generally speaking, these types of events are the exclusive domain of climate change negotiators appointed to represent their country, but I think what’s needed is a more horizontal dialogue between different government sectors working in the social, financial, economic and climate change spheres.

Climate crisis: social, political and economic consequences

Àngel Castiñeira: In your latest articles, you call for a comprehensive agenda and a system-based perspective. In addition, you stress the importance of not forgetting certain blind spots when it comes to understanding climate change and its consequences, and also of not separating the vision of technical problems from that of problems relating to social, political and economic structures. What are you worried we’re not doing right? What do you think is the best way to tackle these three areas in the coming years?

Asun Lera St. Clair: Our approach to climate change is still dominated by technical issues and it’s imperative we understand the modelling and the earth’s biophysical system. Yet, while that understanding is fundamental to be able to envision what’s happening, if we don’t realise that there’s no planet without human beings and no human beings and social groups without being involved in a place, ecologies and territories, we’re not going to solve the problem. That’s not to say that everything is based on human behaviour because, to me, that seems to be a way of avoiding the difficult question and placing all the responsibility on individual behaviours. What we do have to understand is that our socio-economic systems, our business models, our forms of consumption, our forms of distribution, how we organise our cities… These are the fundamental aspects that we need to change and adapt in order to mitigate and adapt at the same time. In other words, we have to recognise the integral and systemic part of the problem, which involves socio-economic factors as well as biophysical ones. In social science, we talk about socio-ecological systems, but in fact, it should be sociotechnical-ecological systems because technology is a factor as well.

The other element that I think is fundamental, and which is hugely challenging but immensely important, are the differences between the north and the south, which is home to more developing countries and the most vulnerable part of society, compared to more advanced countries. These days many people argue there’s no reason for this difference to exist. The great inequalities in the world are one of the most significant barriers to making the necessary changes. Again, COVID is an example. Imagine if we were all vaccinated in Barcelona or in Catalonia, but nowhere else. That’s not being resilient; it has to be everybody or nobody. And the same applies to climate change for two main reasons: The first is that we cannot have an adapted minority with a business model and mitigation policy in place while the rest of the world still has to focus on obtaining the necessary minimum to safeguard their basic survival. Secondly, we need solidarity and a sense of global citizenship, which we do not currently have. Inequalities are a barrier because as long as they exist, the argument for global citizenship is a contradiction.

The great inequalities in the world are one of the most significant barriers to making necessary changes. We need to combat them and strenghten deliberative democracy and instil citizen engagement practices

We also have to debate the trade-offs. How do we assess them? How do we weigh them up? What voices are heard when these assessments are made? There has to be a democratic process. So, I would say that democratic deliberation and citizen involvement is another element that is all too often forgotten. This isn’t just a matter for technicians or politicians, or large corporations; these are issues that must be discussed with the public. One of the big solutions is to combat inequalities, strengthen deliberative democracy and instil citizen engagement practices.

Impact of the climate emergency and the public health crisis

Àngel Castiñeira: Rather than being exclusively confined to the north or south, the problems we have today, including both the health emergency derived from the pandemic and the ecological emergency, are issues that affect us all. Do you think the 2030 Agenda takes that into account and can help tackle these types of phenomena that will likely continue to affect us in the future, such as viruses or pandemics? Based on your knowledge, to what extent do you think there’s a direct relationship between what we could call environmental disruptions and the acceleration of problems that have direct repercussions for our health?

Asun Lera St. Clair: I think the COVID crisis has taught us that there’s a direct relationship between the destruction of the environment and our vulnerability to new agents that we are neither resilient to nor protected from. Although science has mobilised in an absolutely incredible way to produce vaccines in record time, this is a warning. A warning about the development model that began after the Second World War: the “more is better” model, of building large cities, moving into protected areas, interacting too closely with the animal world without giving it space. It’s a warning that this planet is not exclusively home to human beings, it’s also home to other living beings, and there must be space for all of us so that we can cohabitate in harmony. Nowadays, I think this harmonious relationship between human beings, the animal world, the environment and ecosystems is now much clearer in the minds of experts and the general public.

The concept of planetary health has been around for a long time, and the relationship between the impacts of climate change and health is a vast field of research that has made many advances. We need to learn how to coexist harmoniously on the planet with ecological systems, biodiversity systems and with respect for those ecosystems and their inhabitants. I think we have to put more emphasis on understanding its importance. We weren’t so clear on that in 2015 when the 17 SDGs were conceived.

Influence of digitisation and artificial intelligence on the economy

Àngel Castiñeira: Often, when the private sector asks what it can do to contribute to the 2030 Agenda and improving climate change, we look to decarbonisation processes and circular economy issues, and we also talk about the importance of digitisation. Executives from both the private and public sectors want to know, specifically, how digitisation can help improve sustainability? As someone whose initial field of expertise was philosophy and the social sciences and who also has knowledge of digitisation and sustainability issues, what can we look forward to in the coming years?

Asun Lera St. Clair: I believe we have an enormous opportunity to do something good for the planet, human beings and future generations while, at the same time, generating employment and economic growth for businesses. Today, digital technologies offer us a unique capacity for transparency that allows us to calculate, for example, the carbon footprint of a product by looking at its use of natural resources from the point of manufacture to the end consumer. A simple QR code could teach an entire generation to think about what they’re buying. We can use sensors and controls with software and artificial intelligence to use natural resources, such as water, more effectively. We can use them for precision agriculture that produces food products using far fewer natural resources.

The possibilities are immense, and this is an issue that has gained traction at Future Earth, the global sustainability network that started “sustainability in the digital age”. A larger coalition, including the UNDP, the German Environment Agency and the International Science Council (ISC), has also emerged. This coalition is beginning to investigate all of these issues in detail. These are great opportunities for the private sector and for citizens as well.

Instead of using artificial intelligence for the purpose of providing large multinationals with data, we can also use it to translate information from satellites about where exactly carbon emissions come from

Instead of using artificial intelligence for the sole purpose of providing large multinationals with data on our consumption preferences, we can also use it to translate information from satellites about exactly where carbon emissions come from in a specific place. This is an EU project the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) is involved in. We have technologies that allow us to do things we weren’t able to only very recently, and that represent a geometric change and a fundamental transformation. For me, philosophically, it means we have to ask ourselves how we can take these technologies and apply them to aspects that benefit the planet, benefit the future and benefit humanity. And within that process, evidently, we must also create jobs and generate economic benefits.

The role of scientific advisory bodies

Àngel Castiñeira: What can we do within our own local environment in relation to those digital initiatives that are being applied abroad but perhaps haven’t got underway here yet? Is Barcelona, Catalonia, or even the whole of Spain progressing at the same speed as the international organisations and platforms? And finally, what kind of advice would you give us?

Asun Lera St. Clair: I want to talk a little about something I think we lack in Catalonia and Spain in general. Significant investments are being made in digitisation, climate change resilience and sustainability. But we need those investments to be better informed by science.

England, Norway, and around 30 other countries, including the United States, have scientific advice systems that give governments access to a group of experts to help them deliberate not only the decisions they have to make now but also the issues they ought to start thinking about for the future. I think we lack precisely that, an independent scientific advice system that’s not associated with a political party or even with an administration; it has to be a system that remains in place, even if the administration changes. I think these systems have helped design better policies that are more prepared for the unexpected and much more inclusive.

Northern Europe, in general, has traditionally relied on scientific advice much more than we have here in Spain. Rather than being an ad hoc initiative to appoint a committee for a specific policy, this advisory body must comprise a group of specific, non-handpicked and completely independent representatives who form part of an institution with permanent procedures that can alert politicians to issues they may not otherwise have considered at a particular point in time. It’s incredibly important because we’re moving towards a world with many more unforeseen events. COVID has been one example, but if we talk about climate change and cascading biophysical and social risks, I think we need to be much more prepared for these unforeseen events, and it’s vital we identify them and formulate our responses based on science.

Àngel Castiñeira: The United Nations has called this decade the decade of action. We have ten years ahead of us to change the world, to transform it. Thank you, Asun, for your comments that help us provide vision, knowledge and strategy as we progress along this path.

Asun Lera St. Clair

Asun Lera St. Clair is a philosopher and a sociologist. She is Director of the Digital Assurance Program in DNV Group Research and Development and Senior Advisor for the Earth Services Unit of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC). She is member of the Advisory Committee for Sustainable Development of the Catalan Government (CADS), and serves on the Boards of international, multilateral and intergovernmental organizations, including the European Commission Horizon Europe Mission Board for Climate Change Adaptation and Societal Transformations and the Sustainability in the Digital Age Initiative of Future Earth. In 2014, she was Lead author for IPCC Fifth Assessment Report WG2, where she addressed issues such as the impact, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. She has over 30 years of experience with designing and directing interdisciplinary user-driven and solutions-oriented research for global challenges in the interface between sustainable development and climate change, and more recently on providing trust in digital technologies and leveraging these for sustainable development.

Angel Castiñeira

Àngel Castiñeira

Àngel Castiñeira is professor at the Department of Society, Politics and Sustainability from ESADE. He is also the director of the ESADE Center for Leadership, a centre for thought and applied research that acts as a forum for dialogue between organisations and participants who assume in a committed and responsible manner the challenges of governing a global and local world. Castiñeira holds a PhD in Philosophy and Educational Sciences from the University of Barcelona and his main fields of study are social and political philosophy, as well as geopolitical thought, applied ethics and values, changes in the social and cultural environment and democratic governance. He was the director of the Center for Contemporary Studies for six years (1998-2004). His most relevant publications are Catalunya com a projecte (2001), Societat civil i estat del benestar (2002), Catalunya, reptes ètics (2006) and Immigració a estats plurinacionals: el cas de Catalunya (2007).

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