By Marielouise Slettenhaar-Ket

“At my Rotary club lately we had speakers from industry, telling us that human-caused climate change was not proven yet, and that we have plenty of time. At the Rotary Institute however I understood that climate change is very real and urgent, and the advanced solutions presented by other Rotarians inspired me to step up environmental projects in my club.” – Antonio Rossi, RC Genova Centro Storico

In November, the Rotary world gathered for the Rotary Institute in Basel in the heart of Europe to focus on intercultural exchange, our commitment, and our future. Environmental sustainability was one of the four focus themes at this major international Rotary event.

28 great presenters covered ethics, water, plastic, climate and energy, biodiversity, and sustainable lifestyle in four breakout sessions. Very apparent in the room was the sense of urgency for this topic and the energy of the solutions that we discussed. We shared a compelling mix of alarming scientific data, but also scalable and broadly applicable solutions. 

We still have about 2,500 days till 2030 and learned that although the climate crisis is a global crisis, 75% of the actions for lowering our emissions are within the power of municipal and regional sphere of influence. This is an ideal opportunity for Rotary clubs to engage and support our locally elected representatives!  We learned many ways to reduce our personal footprint and how to make small steps that create a bigger impact, especially when we do it regularly with a bigger group.  This article summarizes what was shared at the Basel Zone Institute, with links to learn more.

We started with some ethical questions about resources management and use, and how environmental protection and our footprint relate to the 4-way test – for current and future generations. Environmental concepts were introduced to guide us, like the planetary boundaries and the Sustainable Development Wedding Cake, with the biosphere goals as the base layer for all other SDGs. A chemistry professor explained in five sentences what climate change is and what this means: if we do nothing, average global temperature could rise 8 degrees Celsius. We saw what climate change means already for the Baltic Sea, the Arctic, and glaciers. Environmental pollution and climate change are not faraway: Europeans are dying because of heat, broken roads, floods, and forest fires. 

We had a whole block about plastics with collaborating organizations, learning about nanoplastics, microplastics, waste management, and the consequences for people and nature of plastics in our environment.

Speakers presented a wealth of project-based solutions: 

  1. Supporting start-up businesses to become more sustainable
  2. The multiple benefits of biosphere reserves
  3. Creating a Green Belt in Europe and Africa
  4. Sustainable tourism
  5. Solar lighting systems in schools
  6. Urban farming – with an example about strawberries that yield 20% more 
  7. Using feed additives to reduce cows’ methane production 
  8. Clean-ups
  9. Rewetting and rewilding a marsh;
  10. Mushroom production to increase nutrition and income security and protect the environment;
  11. Holistic, sustainable village development
  12. Futuristic, but feasible integrated green energy systems
  13. Exciting awareness and education projects and  scholarship programs to educate a network of Rotary global change-makers.

We looked ourselves deep in the eyes at this Zone Institute – and we need to continue to do that, everywhere in the Rotary family, on all levels. But also there we have solutions and many scalable ideas to make our clubs and private and professional life nature positive – or at least decrease our footprint and climate impact. As Rotary we should urgently make a commitment about our carbon neutrality, as many companies and organisations have done already – when will we be CO2 neutral as Rotary? We should publish an environmental report on our own footprint: not only for our climate, but also to remain relevant as an organisation, and to remain a credible partner.

I noticed we are collaborators – almost every presenter was eager to share and collaborate, within and beyond Rotary. There were examples of engaging across zones, clubs, and countries; of engaging with other local civil society organisations, local government, communities, schools, even with Lions Clubs! 

Twenty years ago, we might not have really known what to do, but now we do. We are people of action, with access to power, resources, knowledge, and the ability to act. I hope we can keep the spirit of this Institute strong in Action Groups, networks, projects, and forums where we work together, drawing on the energy we gained in Basel.

I am very grateful for having had the chance to be part of this Institute. Wonderfully organised, without a profusion of plastic – I have seen differently at Rotary. It sometimes feels lonely at Rotary, or in the world at large, if you are fighting for a greener future for our planet. But this institute showed me that I am definitely not alone with my green heart in Rotary. That there are many soulmates. That we made huge steps in the last few years. Let’s say the train has left the station, but it’s going too slow, and we need all hands on deck to make our ambitions come true. Protecting our environment is not about sending money or expertise overseas or “raising awareness for future generations”. No, it’s about ourselves – our own footprint as very privileged people in this world. It’s about our credibility as partners as well. The future is now. The future is here. 

Marielouise Slettenhaar-Ket serves on the leadership team of ESRAG Europe and is a member of the Rotary Club of Voorburg-Vliet in the Netherlands.