Why we're getting better at changing the world

It's widely accepted that well written goals drive excellent business performance. Corporate goals, personal goals, quarterly goals, objectives and key results. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

Last week Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket successfully took off and returned back to earth.  What would a perspective from 100 kms above the earth's surface tell us about how we are getting on with achieving our global goals. Do we even have any?  

This Monday in Paris is the start of the  21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Or more simply, COP21.

Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 there is, for the first time, a real expectation that 196 countries will achieve a (sort of) legally binding agreement on climate change: to keep global warming below  2°C by reducing green house gases.

With over 50,000 delegates, this will be one of the largest conferences ever held in France

It’s easy to be skeptical about the likelihood of achieving a robust and ongoing commitment to change.  Some of the world’s most powerful nations are the highest polluters, with a reliance of coal (China, India) or very high emissions that need to be scaled back (UAE, United States). 


But this time it could be different

Tremendous progress has been made in the last twenty three years. It was in 1992 at Rio that climate change was first officially recognised as being caused by humans, and more specifically, as the responsibility of the industrialised countries. Despite the challenges, in the build up to the coming week many commentators have been expressing optimism about the chance of reaching agreements to increase the chances of keeping warming below 2°C. Much of the framework has been defined and negotiated in advance. Lessons have been learnt from past failures.  

France, as the host, is determined to avoid a rerun of the squabbling that characterised Copenhagen six years ago. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who will chair the UN conference, has spent the last year using skills honed in a career in the diplomatic service. These are underpinned by a tough line on the expectations for those attending. Heads of state have been convinced to turn up at the start of the conference, rather than jetting in at the end as happened at Copenhagen. Frequent communication with every country participating has been critical. As Mr Fabius told the FT last week "Negotiators sometimes hold firm positions that only ministers can unlock, I know their bosses - I see them all the time. We talk often, it helps".

The French are tackling the toughest problems early. Last month Francois Hollande visited Beijing. China has agreed to a mechanism to monitor cuts every five years.

There is, of course, a large risk that enthusiasm for change could ebb away after Paris, as other more immediate priorities divert attention. The economic and political cost of implementing measures that make a real difference will be challenging. More and more people recognise the compelling reasons to act now to slow down climate change in the future, but will we be willing to accept the short term costs and constraints? The answer is probably yes, because since Rio, something else has been going on that should give us hope.

What happened to the Millennium Development Goals?

Good news rarely makes the headlines. Yet we have already proved that real progress can be made with the progress towards achieving another set of global BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) over the last 15 years.  In 2000 the United Nations agreed eight Millennium Development Goals (shown above). Goal number 4, was to reduce child mortality by two thirds in 15 years in 138 developing countries. This was certainly audacious, but it built on what has been one of the most successful global campaigns in the last 50 years.

A 50% reduction in child mortality in 15 years

When Hans Rosling gave his celebrated TED talk in 2010 about winning the war on child mortality, annual deaths of children under the age of five had reduced by 2 million per year within the first decade of the 21st century down to 8.1 million. Today, at the end of 2015, there will be below 6 million deaths a year, close to a 50% reduction in 15 years.  That's still too high, and many countries will not achieve the original target of a two thirds reduction, but nonetheless it is a huge improvement. As Rosling points out, one of the strengths of the Millennium Goals is that they had measurable targets. Quantifying progress means we know it when we see it, and we can celebrate it.  The reduction in child mortality has been achieved by actions on numerous fronts,  including scaling up interventions such as immunization, access to clean water and antibiotics. Clear targets, at individual country level,  have driven the ability to lobby for increases in financial resources, motivate strong partnerships and highlight innovations in service delivery. 

Exercise more and eat your vegetables

Achieving significant life changes doesn't need to be expensive. In 2005 the World Health Organisation identified three lifestyle behaviours that, if widely adopted, could radically reduce four of the top six causes of death:  a healthy diet; adequate exercise and not using tobacco. Improvements could prevent at least 80% of Premature Heart Disease (#1 Cause of Death), 80% of Stroke (#3 Cause of Death), 80% of Type 2 Diabetes (#6 Cause of Death), and 40% of Cancer (#2 Cause of Death). 

So what are the lessons for COP21?

Individually, we can all also make a difference to a reduction in the impact of climate change with shifts in our own lifestyle behaviours. Re-cycling our newspaper may not be as impactful as Jeff Bezos bringing his rocket parts back to earth in order to re-use them, but even small changes in daily behaviour can trigger a different mind set. 

Ultimately, changes in global warming will need to be government led. The signals are that the world's leaders are not quite ready to sign up to be held legally accountable to missing their climate goals. We will require fundamental shifts in how energy is generated and emissions are controlled. There is still a lot more to be done.  Nonetheless, as the Millenium Goals show, clear and well defined targets that can be measured annually (“are we there yet?”) create the momentum to drive change forward.  The success of COP21 will be defined by the extent to which the set of sub-goals emerging are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bounded. Now that would be smart.

This article originally appeared in LinkedIn.