Schwarzenegger, UN leaders unveil virtual platform Sustainia

For sustainability advocates, the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations to produce a strong global agreement was a major setback to climate action. But a group of businesses and leaders saw an opportunity to change the conversation by focusing on a positive future and by bringing more businesses and people into the discussion.

That effort resulted in Sustainia, a concept of the future which will soon be created in a virtual world, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced today in Geneva.

The Sustainia initiative involves several elements, including a virtual world featuring sustainable solutions, an annual conference, a major award, an Internet TV channel and a continuously developing list of best practices.

"Until now we have been working very much top-down trying to get better conditions for climate issues," said Anders Eldrup, CEO of DONG Energy, a main partner in Sustainia. "Sustainia is therefore an endeavor to go the other way around ... We need to engage ordinary business and communities and try to make them engaged in climate issues and make things move, even in the absence of a global treaty."

Sustainia is being headed by Schwarzenegger, along with European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, special envoy on climate change to the UN.

The virtual aspect of Sustainia will be a model of the world showing what it could be like if currently available technologies and concepts to reduce emissions were put in place in cities, homes, energy stations and transportation systems. Sustainia is built on the technology behind the virtual world Second Life.

The idea behind the world, Eldrup said, is "to illustrate for ordinary people, consumers and companies how a more sustainable society could look."

Providing a virtual model of that world is intended to motivate change in the real world, hence the focus on sustainable solutions that already exist.

DONG Energy's involvement partly came out of its work to cut its own emissions. In 2009 the energy group set a goal to cut its use of coal so that by 2020 only half of the power it produces comes from coal and the other half comes from wind, biomass and gas. By 2040, the company wants those percentages to be 15 percent coal and 85 percent renewable, the inverse of what it was in 2009.

The company has already reduced its coal consumption by one-third and emissions by 21 percent, and has heavily invested in offshore wind power.

"It is possible to make significant changes over a rather short period of time," Eldrup said. "We want to broaden that to make other companies, cities and people take part in this change."

Developers are already working on Sustainia, and the world is set to launch between June and October. Once it's up, anyone will be able to visit it, inhabit it and participate in it as a sort of virtual construction site. Eventually the world is to host lectures, presentations, workshops and tours.

Sustainia will be built with input from partners and the application of best practices -- and in effect will be a virtual demonstration project of sustainability technology and innovation. Those are essential to the Sustainia initiative and form the basis of the Sustainia100, a dynamic list of 100 sustainable ideas and technologies that are available, scalable and have proven results.

Each year, a single solution from the Sustainia100 -- the one with the most potential to be implemented and disseminated widely -- will be honored with the Sustainia Award. The award ceremony is expected to be highlight of an annual conference called the Global Sustainability Forum.

The concept of Sustainia was introduced in October 2011 in the "Guide to Sustainia (PDF)," which the Scandinavian think tank Monday Morning produced in collaboration with 16 global companies, including DONG Energy, Microsoft, General Electric, Philips Lighting and Cisco.

The guide focuses on what cities, homes, energy and transportation could be like in 2020 if sustainable solutions were in place, focusing on the positive potential of technologies that can reduce emissions.

Since the guide's publication, a handful of Scandinavian companies, DONG Energy among them, other partners, the UN Global Compact and Schwarzenegger's R20: Regions of Climate Action initiative have worked together to develop the new aspects of Sustainia.

Elements of the photo illustration above courtesy of Monday Morning and the Guide to Sustainia

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