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Tomorrow is too late…but what about today?

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

A few weeks ago, I touched down on the island of Malta for the Green Vision Summit and Expo (GVSE) 2024. 

Anyone who has ever attended COP or any of the other big sustainability jubilees – unfurl yourself from that defensive crouch. GVSE wasn’t just another bloated talking shop for lobbyists to cut deals and politicians to cut headlines. In fact, the politicians didn’t even show up – and that was no bad thing. Malta is bottom of the EU for clean energy. The government don’t care. 

Instead, I got a wonderful glimpse of what climate politics could be if you took COP and cut out the 80,000 hangers-on. What remains is a kernel of passionate, intelligent, remarkable green leaders. After three glorious days together, we had formed connections and collaborations that might otherwise take years to get off the ground. It was inspirational, and I want to share it with you.

I had been invited to give an opening keynote on the theme, ‘Tomorrow is too late.’ As I watched Malta’s government do everything it could to frustrate the Summit’s organisers, I knew that the island’s green vanguard didn’t need any further wake-up calls. They needed a dose of positivity instead.

So here are the first three of the five stories which made up my presentation. Each illustrates a different moment that taught me that tomorrow is too late. Each gave me more hope, too. 

China, 2002

I was on my first trip to China as a new investment banker. The country was in the middle of its post-WTO boom, and I was excited to see the engine of tomorrow’s growth.

As glamorous as Beijing and Shanghai were in those days, I spent that first trip inspecting a new waste heat production facility in the countryside. Everything went well – another success story for China’s economic miracle – until I decided to poke down a roped-off alley at the back of the complex. 

What I found is hard to describe. In the middle of a huge crater of excavated dirt stood a lone cottage, sticking out like a broken tooth. In Europe, such a beautiful old building would have been preserved as a museum. Here, an old woman was hanging washing out front.

“It’s called dingzihu - a nail house,” one of my guides said. “Because removing them is like pulling the last stubborn nail from the wall.”

What will happen? I asked.

Don’t worry - we’ll move her over there, my guides said confidently. Except every one of them was pointing in a different direction.

That’s when I realised that some things, once lost, can never be recovered.

Tomorrow is too late to clean up after the party.

The good news is that China now leads the world in renewables. Next year it will have installed 1.37 terawatts of clean energy, and 2025 may even see it’s emissions peak at last.

London, 2011

Seven years later I was a director at a major bank. Late nights were routine, but there is one I will never forget. A last-minute hitch spiked the completion meeting for a long-awaited project. My opposite number Alison and I step out to make the same call: ‘Sorry, I won’t be back for dinner.’

Making that call got harder the more I realised the City wasn’t my true calling. Since that China trip, I had become obsessed with climate change. But there always seemed to be one more deal, and one more bonus, keeping me in that corner office. Maybe next year.

Finally, at 3am, we signed on the line and headed for the exit.

“Shame to miss that one,” Alison says.  

“What do you mean?”

“That dinner. It was a special one for my daughter. We’ve lived together her entire life, and she’s emigrating to New Zealand tomorrow.”

Alison’s taxi pulled up, and I never saw her again.

I got home around four in the morning and looked in on my family, asleep. My body just wanted to collapse into bed too. Instead, I shut the door, went to my study, and began drafting my letter of resignation. 

Tomorrow is too late to become who you were meant to be.

The good news is that the company I started that year now has over 35 renewable energy projects running around the world, and another 20 in the pipeline. 

Northern Ireland, 2011

“Don’t do it.”

That’s what everyone said to me, when I told them I planned to build the first ever commercial wind turbine in Northern Ireland. 

The problem isn’t a shortage of wind – believe me! Instead it was a mess of fractured landholdings, skeptical communities and untested regulations. It was all too risky for the big developers, who were waiting for someone else to blaze the trail. It was impossibly risky for a new start-up with no track record and literally everything to lose. But I didn’t understand that history at the time, or I’d never have been foolhardy enough to try!

It was one of the biggest challenges of my life – and one of the biggest adventures. We were laying the track ahead of the train the whole way, and nearly flew off the rails a few times. But two years later, I had the privilege of cutting the ribbon on the country’s first ever wind energy asset. 

Tomorrow is too late to go second.

The good news is that today, wind makes up over 40% of Northern Ireland’s electricity supply. Where we blazed the trail, others followed.

Choose today

We all know that when it comes to climate action, tomorrow is too late. But that is true of our own lives too. We only get one go around the carousel of life, to find our calling and make a difference.

The good news is that today is not too late, for us or the planet. Today is just in time.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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