Leadership: Notes from Session 2 of the Countdown Global Launch

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Countdown is a global initiative to accelerate solutions to the climate crisis. Watch the talks, interviews and performances from the Countdown Global Launch at

Actor, musician and activist Jaden Smith cohosts session 2 of the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

The climate crisis demands leadership at every level. Governments, cities and businesses are three key players in designing and implementing the necessary transition. In Session 2 of the Countdown Global Launch, cohosted by climate advocate Al Gore and actor, musician and activist Jaden Smith, speakers discussed putting climate back on the political and social agenda, rethinking cities and what businesses can do to transform.

Gore and Smith opened the session by talking about how young people are at the forefront of climate activism, and discussed the global art collaboration between Countdown and Fine Acts: ten public artworks on the topic of climate change, аll launching on 10.10.2020 in ten cities around the world, all created by TED Fellows.

Climate advocate Al Gore cohosts session 2 of the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

The talks in brief:

Severn Cullis-Suzuki, environmental educator

Big idea: Nearly 30 years ago, 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit in hopes of reversing the planet’s slide into ecological disaster. Some at the summit listened, producing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, among other then-radical documents. But for the rest of the world, it was business, politics and full-steam-ahead economic growth. Now in 2020, with the Paris Agreement once again stoking the fervor to fight climate change, it’s time to make sure governments actually listen. 

How? Cullis-Suzuki believes that crises can show us not only the potential for societies to react decisively against existential threats, but also expose the inequities, injustices and weaknesses of our infrastructure. COVID-19 is one such crisis: it has sparked calls for social justice and shown just how deadly indecision can be. Cullis-Suzuki believes it’s a warning. She reminds us that if we don’t change, next time could be far worse. This time, if we can make our actions reflect our words around climate change, we can work towards a better world for our children.  

Ursula von der Leyen discusses the EU’s ambitious plan to become the first carbon-free continent by 2050. She speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

Big idea: The European Union has committed to becoming the first carbon-free continent by 2050, with the goal of reducing emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030. These ambitious goals are vital — and possible — and they require everyone’s participation. 

How? The evidence of climate change is unfolding before us: melting glaciers, forest fires, unpredictable weather. This is only the beginning. Such extreme circumstances call for extreme action, and that is exactly what Ursula von der Leyen has laid out in response. Resolving not to be derailed by COVID-19, the EU’s commitment to climate action milestones is now stronger than ever, von der Leyen says. She details some of the 50 actions in the European Green Deal aimed at building a more sustainable world, such as planting trees, creating a circular economy, recycling and more. With the crisis escalating every day, she calls for action from every direction.

Olafur Eliasson, artist

Big idea: Known for big, attention-grabbing installations — like his four towering waterfalls in New York’s East River — Olafur Eliasson has scaled down his latest project: an art platform for kids designed to spur budding climate activists to lead discussions on some of the biggest issues on the planet.

How? Inspired by world-shaping movements helmed by the planet’s youngest environmentalists, Eliasson built Earth Speakr, an app that helps concerned kids get serious messages in front of adults in a fun, novel way. The app uses AR to let kids animate photos of anything — trees, rocks, water — and record a message from nature, speaking in their own voices. These recorded messages help get the word out about the issues kids care about most — conservation, climate change, pollution and more.

Rebecca Henderson, capitalism rethinker

Big idea: Capitalism is driving climate change — but for-profit businesses can also help fix it. 

How? “We let capitalism morph into something monstrous,” says economist Rebecca Henderson. Companies emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases that wreck the environment and harm human health, and governments don’t hold them accountable to pay for the damages. If governments won’t do it, Henderson says, it’s time for businesses themselves to step up on their own. Sound counterintuitive? Henderson thinks it may be the only option: it’ll be hard to stay in business if the world continues to be rocked by the negative effects of climate change. She’s confident that business leaders can start to marshal change with a four-pronged framework: start paying for the climate damage they cause; persuade competitors to do the same; let investors know there’s money to be made in a clean economy; and convince governments to implement these changes far and wide. “The truth is: business is screwed if we don’t fix climate change,” Henderson says.

If trees could talk, what would they say? Novelist Elif Shafak shares her answer at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Elif Shafak, novelist and political scientist

Big idea: There is a sublime art at the heart of storytelling: the art of foregrounding silence, bringing to light things that we don’t talk about, and using these things to “speak louder than demagoguery and apathy.” Writers can learn to voice the unspoken loudly enough to inspire action.

How? “One of the many beauties of the art of storytelling is to imagine yourself inside someone else’s voice,” says writer Elif Shafak. Surprisingly, we can learn a lot from imagining the voices of trees, whose experience of time, stillness and impermanence are utterly different than our own. Listen to the trees, she says, and discover that “hidden inside [their] story is the past and the future of humanity.” 

Jesper Brodin, CEO of Ingka Group (IKEA), in conversation with Pia Heidenmark Cook, CSO of Ingka Group (IKEA)

Big idea: Success in business doesn’t mean being at odds with the Earth. What’s good for climate can be good for business, too. 

How? Jesper Brodin and Pia Heidenmark Cook discuss the company’s ambitious commitment to go climate positive (going beyond net-zero emissions by actually removing carbon from the atmosphere) by 2030 — and still remain profitable. The popular Swedish furniture and design company is rethinking how to make their entire business sustainable, from their raw materials and supply chain and to their products’ disposal. Their plan includes sourcing sustainable cotton for fabrics, buying wood from solely sustainable sources by the end of 2020 and committing to fully renewable and recycled materials for all their products by 2030. They’re also thinking about how to extend the life of products, once people have already bought them, through reuse, repurposing or recycling. The exciting part about their plan, Brodin and Cook say, is that none of these innovations will affect the quality, form, function and affordability of their products.

Dave Clark, SVP of worldwide operations at Amazon, and Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon

Big idea: Amazon is making a commitment to sustainability across its expansive array of businesses — and inviting other companies to do the same.

How? In 2019, Amazon cofounded the Climate Pledge, a commitment to become a net-zero carbon company by 2040. Dave Clark and Kara Hurst discuss how they’re working together to reduce Amazon’s carbon footprint across all aspects of business, from embedding sustainability teams throughout the organization to rethinking entire supply chains. For instance, last year Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from the startup Rivian in an effort to begin converting the company’s fleet to renewable energy. The scale of transformation will be massive, Clark and Hurst say, and they’re encouraging other companies to follow suit. “One thing we know about the scale of the urgent challenge we have in front of us is that it’s going to take everyone. We cannot do it alone,” Hurst says, “It’s going to take companies and governments, communities and individuals, to come up with solutions, new innovations and technologies.”

Aparna Nancherla, comedian

Big idea: Taking out the trash can be fun.

Why? If you love garbage, you can get an endless supply with “the stuff that our modernist, consumer, carbon-powered culture makes us buy endlessly, and often for no good reason,” says Aparna Nancherla. She runs through the pleasure and pain of garbage, from “micro-decluttering” by throwing things away, to the fact that only 10 percent of our plastic gets recycled. Nancherla shares the dire state of our recycling industry (imagining the Pacific garbage patch as a wedding destination), but there’s also plenty of humor around just how hard it is to stay green in a world that’s choking on ever-larger piles of trash.

Carlos Moreno introduces the 15-minute city: a new way of redesigning urban spaces that puts people’s basic needs within a 15-minute walk, at all times. He speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Carlos Moreno, scientific director, Panthéon Sorbonne University-IAE Paris

Big idea: Urban areas should be built to function as “15-minute cities,” so that inhabitants have access to all services they need to live, learn and thrive within their immediate vicinity.

How? City life has become more inconvenient than ever, with long commutes, underutilized spaces and lack of access. Our acceptance of this dysfunction has reached a peak. Carlos Moreno invites us to ask ourselves: “What do we need to create a 15-minute city?” This would mean access to necessities like school, work, parks, cultural centers, shops and living space all within a 15-minute walk, at all times. Moreno’s ideas to create cities like this are guided by four principles: ecology, proximity, solidarity and participation, with inhabitants actively taking part in their neighborhoods’ transformations. He calls for urban areas to adapt to humans, not the other way around. 

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, shares how her city is planting one million trees in just two years. She speaks at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone

Big idea: Trees offer us a crucial way to trap carbon and save the climate. Get planting.

How? Driving home one day outside Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr gazed out at the landscape in horror. The lush green forest she used to know had disappeared, replaced with barren hills. The shock wasn’t merely visual. Without trees standing as a critical bulwark against land erosion, the citizens of Freetown — where more than 70 informal settlements have sprung up in the last two decades — are at great risk of catastrophic effects of climate change, a fact driven home in August 2017, when a massive landslide killed 1,000 people there in less than five minutes. In that moment, Aki-Sawyerr vowed to save her city in the most direct way she could — she ran for mayor, won and has now committed to making Freetown a “tree town” once again. She’s on track to increase vegetation cover in the city by 50 percent by the end of her term in 2022, planting one million trees along the way. Freetown citizens have planted half a million seedlings so far, all tracked using a custom app, setting the stage for a safer environment and stirring collective civic pride. “A million trees is our city’s small contribution to increasing the much-needed global carbon sink,” Aki-Sawyerr says.

Actress and musician Yemi Alade performs “True Love” at the Countdown Global Launch on October 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Actress and musician Yemi Alade joins the show to close out the session, singing and dancing to the upbeat tune “True Love.”