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Interview - Julien Dossier (Quattrolibri) - The Great Rethink

About Julien Dossier

Julien Dossier, the founder of Quattrolibri, an innovation consultancy on transition strategies. Julien is an expert in carbon neutrality and co-authored the Paris Carbon Neutrality Strategy.

In order to cut our emissions by 60% in Europe by 2030, a clear rethink of European governance process is needed, with accelerated procedures for the implementation of the Green New Deal says Julien Dossier, founder of Quattrolibri.

Why is time critical in the fight against climate change?

April 1st, 2021 is no time to fool around. On that day we will only be 116 months apart from December 31st, 2030, and 356 months apart from December 31st, 2050. Let’s pause for… a second: 116 months is the timeframe we have in order to cut our emissions by 60% in Europe (target voted by the European Parliament), or a “mere” 55% if we use the Commission’s target.

That means renovating 60% of our stock of houses, retrofitting or removing 60% of the cars from the roads, reducing by 60% the meat we consume daily… Just for starters. These are only the most “visible” targets, to which we must add the provision of materials, transformation of factories, training of staff, planting of seedlings, restoration of ecosystems, upheaval of our legal and normative environments. We must ensure the decarbonated solutions can be covered by insurance, therefore update the insurance models with the properties of these solutions, which require completing and updating safety procedures such as the new materials’ wear and tear or fire resistance testing (we don’t want another cladding scandal).

If we have to change the law, to adjust the rules to the needs of this transition process, time hits again as a major constraint. The legislative process now starts with the drafting of texts debated by the European parliament, before its transposition in the national legal systems. Boom, that’s 36 months gone, to the very least. How can we shoehorn such lengthy procedures in a 116 month window of opportunity? Here’s a case in point: France has committed to 55% cuts at the European level in 2020. However, this target isn’t yet integrated in the current #climateResilience law debated by the French parliament in 2021, which would shift the re-writing (and upgraded ambition) of the law to the next legislature, with a best case scenario delivering the revised law in mid-2023, hence a 24 months shift in a 116 month process. This clearly points to the need for a renewed European governance process, with accelerated procedures for the implementation of the Green New Deal (and its massively increased size, to match the Chinese or American investments).

The challenge is not only huge, it’s getting worse and less feasible as time goes by. If so much remains to be done in such a short period of time, we will need to have our factories belching out as much as they can, in order to deliver the replacement infrastructure, which adds further pressure on the decarbonation of our energy mix, in order to avoid worsening our climate contribution, while we’re trying to reduce our emissions. This ends up representing switching the carbon economy off, as if we were switching off the lights. Our system can’t take in such a violent “cliff fall”. This is why the ECB is founded in describing the systemic risk of climate change in the paper published on March 18th, 2021 by the ECB’s VP, Luis de Guindos[1].

HOWEVER : “All is not lost, yet”.

We still have a minute window of opportunity to still operate a coordinated process, short of the “cliff fall” eventuality, IF we take it as a massive sprint, with no caveats, wavers, lighter clauses, IF we don’t allow ourselves to be slowed down by any “prisoner dilemma” or “freerider” qualms, IF we boldly decide to shift, with a coordinated timetable. A lot to ask?

As Greta Thunberg puts it, we must treat the crisis for what it is, and act accordingly. Don’t fret at the mention of Greta’s name. She’s merely stating what one can read in the IPCC’s 1,5ºC special report, published in 2018, which can be summarized in three sentences: “each half degree matters; each year matters; each choice matters”.

Managing against time must therefore become our standard project management and risk/return norm. Will this project deliver on time or not? If yes, then we must adjust our risk weighting to incentivize its prompt delivery. Why not weigh the rates of return based on the timeliness of the carbon cuts? Should there be “transfer rates” affixed to the EU taxonomy, whereby returns in the brown / black sectors would be capped / taxed / transferred to a green fund, and allocated to green projects based on the time-weighed carbon cuts?

If a project can’t deliver the cuts in time, then we analyse its merits against the 2050 target, and adjust our priorities.

The joint management of two-time targets, 2030 and 2050 is another subtlety of the time-based management of the transition. A project may be discarded for the 2030 target, but relevant for the 2050 target. Typically, this applies to diversified forests. However, a project may become obsolete or may be discarded if it ends up mismatched with both time targets: too late for 2030, and no longer relevant for 2050 because the project will have been replaced by shorter term alternatives.

This timing misfit risk specifically applies to nuclear energy. We’re no longer in the situation of the early noughties, when we were questioning the relevance of launching new nuclear reactors, the time of Hinkley Point and Sizewell for instance in Great Britain or the time of Flamanville in France. Given the length of time induced by the ever more complex security features applied to the nuclear industry, time has run short and new nuclear reactors would miss the 2030 target if we were to start them now. This raises the question of their continued relevance beyond 2030: will they still be the technology of choice to decarbonate what will remain to be decarbonated? If we stick to the 2030 objective, we will have cut our emissions by 55% If not by 60%. We will therefore have cut the emissions of the lower hanging fruits, both the usage driven changes (cutting meat in our diets) and the large-scale emitters, highly intensive in energy. Which technologies will we need to cut the remaining 45% or 40%, the harder bits?

The taxonomy should be further refined, with a time element: at what stage is this technology green / brown / black, how long does it need to be rolled out at scale? Only then, could we decide where to allocate our funds. We risk otherwise a misallocation of our (scarce) resources, underinvesting in what can be delivered in time, overinvesting in what may work, but too late.

Talk to us about the Fresco concept you have developed and why it’s important?

The fresco of Renaissance Ecologique is my personal interpretation of a fresco painted by Lorenzetti in Siena in 1338, the allegory of the effects of the good government, which I discovered by chance while researching a lecture to HEC students on sustainable cities.

I wanted to prove a point on the importance of our representations, pointing at the paucity of our representations of a “green city” (experience this and type “green city” or “sustainable city” in an Internet search). I wanted to show that our misrepresentation of the subject induces a misallocation of our efforts and time: our minds are “colonised” by these images and we can’t think of anything else. We therefore continue to talk about hyperloops, automated cars, new green buildings (often in concrete, covered by PV panels and or wind turbines), large swaths of green grass. But no history, landmarks, people, production centres, food provision, heat, material sources…

I wanted to show that this misrepresentation of an “ideal city” isn’t new, and looked for photographs of the “Cite ideale” of Urbino. That’s where Lorenzetti came up, among the vignettes. It immediately struck home. At last, a vision of the city that was balanced between a built environment and a natural environment, linking both in a symbiosis. At last a vision where humans and nature were interacting productively. At last a vision of a diversified set of walks of life, jobs, ages, wealth levels. At last a vision that could be read both for the bigger cities and the smaller ones. The more time I spent analysing the fresco from the Renaissance, the more I felt it was perfectly matched to the challenges of our modern times.

That’s when I decided to produce a modern version, and commissioned an artist, Johann Bertrand d’Hy, who first used tracing paper on a print of the original allegory to recreate the proportions and composition of the original. I then drew up a table of equivalence providing a modern version of each of the functions depicted in the fresco, a sort of “Rosetta stone”, which guided the artist’s rendition.

This fresco is proving more important as time goes by. It has been used with countless groups, in France, in Europe, in New York City, in New Zealand or even in Benin! Each time, the allegorical nature of the fresco works: everywhere, participants could say “oh, this is my place”, “this is me”, “this is where I live”, “This is what I do”. This inclusion is fundamental: once you find your place in this representation, it becomes relevant to your story, in its entirety. You can swiftly adjust your real-life representations of the functions depicted in the fresco. You’re hooked!

Then, the fresco serves as a systemic matrix, which allows to represent a very wide range of interactions across the main themes, pillars of the transition (I’ve identified 24 key zones in the fresco). This helps connect the 17 sustainable development goals of the UN, adding here the additional benefit of identifying ways of “hitting several birds with one stone”: one can more easily mutualise efforts in hitting SDG 1 and 4 or 7 or 17… And the composition of the fresco helps us memorise the various dimensions of the SDG. I challenge anyone to memorise the full list of the 17 SDG. But you will find that you will have memorised the composition of the image with ease, and that this image will help you map the issues.

Today, the fresco is being deployed in schools, in companies, in local governments (including in Luxembourg, as it is being used by one of the teams competing in the Luxembourg Transition programme), it is being used by philanthropists, climate activists, by researchers, specialists in the mobility, construction, agroforestry, agriculture, circular economy and other major themes of the transition.

The fresco connects and empowers people. It doesn’t hurt, especially in these dark COVID times, that the fresco is often seen as a source of serenity, if not joy. The aesthetics prove important in moving viewers, galvanising their energies and strengthening their beliefs that this transition can be with our reach, that we can relate to it, we can get started.

If used at scale, then the fresco can further help by providing a joint timescale for those using it. It is simple enough to be shipped to all classrooms across Europe, all city halls, all boardrooms… and therefore provide a joint vision, which will mean different things to different players, but will lead to compatible actions, compatible methodologies, compatible timetables.

The composition of the fresco is a tiered agenda. The bottom layer describes projects which can be implemented in less than a year: simple, no special requirements, they just require our willpower, they modify the demand side of our economy: how much meat we eat, how frequently we buy clothes, whether parts of what we buy is reused or upcycled, whether we collect and compost our organic waste…

These projects pave the way for more structural projects, which we can roll out in less than five years: solar roofs, conversion to organic farming, retrofitting of a car, opening zero waste shops, earning a degree, changing the lamps in the city… Finally, the conjunction of a vibrant demand and a thriving production infrastructure puts us on the right trajectory to meet the more structural transformation programmes in a five to ten year horizon: planting forests, reducing farming’s water consumption, regeneration of ecosystems, adaptation of our legal system, of our factories and industrial sites, renovation of our stock of buildings… Evidently, planting forests, changing our value system or our international relationships -all implied by this endeavour- will not be solved in a ten year horizon, and we must understand the upper part of the fresco as our horizon -which it literally is, in visual terms!

This is what leads me to speak in months and days. With the fresco, one sees the steps that connect our starting point with the interim and further time targets.

In short, could a simple image, derived from a 700-year-old Italian fresco turn out to be an open guidebook for our mega-meta project of transition? Based on the string of successful deployments across such a diverse range of use cases, I happen to think it could.

More information

Luxembourg in Transition programme


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