Interviews / Stories

“The future is now” by Dr. Günther Bachmann

Martin Schwemmer

Dr. Bachmann, in your presentation, you emphasize that the future is now. What exactly do you mean by this phrase?

Many people and in particular the hard-nosed economist still say, wait a minute: future comes anyway, that is a constant, no variable. So, we’d rather wait for better times to invest. In decades, machinery and technology will be cheaper than it is now, and regulation will be easier to implement, and so it is wise to wait. Then, in the deep future we are still „on time”. This assumption no longer holds true, if it ever had. For a few years now, global warming is causing things to happen that we’ve never seen before. The world of climate change has us in its firm grip. grip made of heat waves, droughts, floodings, loss of nature, heat deaths and damage to people and assets. We are in a veritable gamble with our planet. In the 1950s, the historic first gamble was the atomic bomb and the uncertainty of physicists as to whether its first detonation would burn up the entire atmosphere. Today, we are again gambling with the world as we know it. So that little sentence expresses a fundamental political consideration: Delaying solutions makes problems worse. Playing for time does not put us in any better position.

An urgency that is obviously not seen by any player, isn’t it?

The current administrations worldwide are doing quite a bit, but at a level of activism and not strategically tied back to a larger reading of the times we live in and the challenges as a result of unsustainable development. The standstill is not the defining element of our times, transformation is. The standstill-talk is just scapegoating to avoid having to face the breathless poly crisis head on, and the big transformation stuff. That overestimates fears and risks, and it produces mistrust. Under-explained is the bigger backdrop of transformation, what it really means and how a transformation could work. This is a challenge beyond all normal challenges. That is exactly what a transformation towards sustainability is supposed to be, in a comprehensive way, encouraging and empowering people, and with high-ambition targets.

Where exactly are we in this transformation process?

The transformation towards a sustainable development is gaining momentum, despite all undesirable developments, malpractice and despite of the media gossip about the standstill. In 2015 the world community agreed on ambitious targets for sustainability and on combatting global warming. The recent UN stocktaking about direct impact and progress is sobering. But we also have to see indirect impacts. Because, since then, warming forecasts have fallen significantly: In 2015, scientists were assuming an increase of up to 3.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Today, the figures are much lower (between 1.7 and 2.6 degrees). Of course, emission cuts are not on track to meet Paris climate targets, but they have been going down. There are also other achievements: Economically, tech-fixes for sustainability are on a success path. That is undeniable. The cost of eco-technology dropped substantially. Circularity is gaining more and more economic traction. After too long a time of ignorance, we are taking first steps to carbon capturing. Finally, we are beginning to acknowledge the strategic importance of natural climate solutions and of biodiversity’s irrecoverable carbon stocks.

Where do you see the greatest leverage for driving the topic of sustainability forward even more energetically?

Infrastructure has been important in the past. For the future, we will see an increasing importance of infrastructure. It goes well beyond ports, roads and railways, and the internet.

  • Regularly, infrastructure is set to connect two points. The future design sees infrastructure as enabler of circular economy work streams. It reconnects A to A and recollects the material flows previously distributed in B to Z. Admittedly, today only a ridiculously small portion of secondary raw materials finds the way back into the productive economy. That will change with the future in architecture and construction, textiles, cars and non-food consumer goods.
  • Climate neutrality requires all kind of new infrastructure, from technical equipment and energy supplies to financial infrastructure and skilled work competences. Offsetting is a key to the future. Anyone who can bring carbon emissions to zero through renewable energies alone is to be congratulated. Offsets and compensations are essential for climate neutrality. I urge industry to be bolder about offsetting. We need to make offsetting the backbone of global climate cooperation to strengthen the global South.
  • The global warming makes us look even beyond mere achieving the Paris targets. In the (not so) long run we will have to face how to reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon. We need to clean up the atmosphere. This is a technologic challenge and a question of building up an infrastructure of e.g. direct air carbon capturing and carbon removal.
  • Generally, our most important common infrastructure is something that we usually do not even call infrastructure. It is biodiversity, soils and climate. A nature-positive economy will calculate its full cost and its full benefits.

Apart from these specific measures: What needs to change in people’s minds so that the transformation can be successfully managed?

As regards the transformation, we need to better understand its intrinsic asymmetries, the defining differences in speed and social impact, the conflicts of interest and the inconsistencies, the dirty duck-and-hide game of the carbon rich who hide behind the carbon poor. We also must develop a better sense of the big wins, the opportunities offered, the gains in purpose and trust, freedom and hope. The transformation, if successfully managed, will determine the promise of freedom and the openness of society. This resonates in these four words: The future is now.