Beauty of Antarctica inspires environmental action

Brad Sparks and Derrick Rehn had a chance meeting at the bottom of the world.

The Appalachian State University alumnus and student explored the Antarctica Peninsula together as part of Inspire Antarctica Expedition 2009 (IAE). The program, led by explorer Robert Swan, brings together an international team of 80 corporate leaders, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, teachers and young people to learn firsthand about climate change and develop leadership skills to educate others back home about the importance of using renewable energy sources.

Sparks participated as a representative of his employer KPMG, one of the world's largest accounting firms. Rehn, a sustainable development major from Charlotte, served on the logistics team. Neither knew the other was going on the trip. Once there, both got the extraordinary opportunity to explore one of the earth's last pristine areas and meet others dedicated to preserving the planet.

They traveled by ship from Argentina to Antarctica and then explored the peninsula in inflatable boats to observe up close Antarctica's eco-system and wildlife.

"It was the best experience of my life," said Rehn, a junior. "How many people get to go to Antarctica? It was nothing like I'd seen before. It illustrated to me what the world could look like—untouched and not exploited in anyway. I felt inspired to keep it that way."

Sharing what they've learned

Polar explorer and environmental leader Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both the North and South poles, has dedicated his life to preserving Antarctica through the promotion of recycling, renewable energy and sustainability to combat the effects of climate change. Much of his work is to keep in place the Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty, which prevents the exploitation of Antarctica for minerals and fossil fuel.

During the IAE trip, the international group visited Swan's educational base that runs solely on solar and wind power. The facility impressed Sparks. "That showed me that if we can use renewable energy in Antarctica, the most hostile environment on earth, it can work anywhere—even in an urban, city environment," said Sparks, director of KPMG International's Global Green Initiative.

"Our hope is that we can use this unique and unbelievable experience to raise awareness of climate change and of the Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty that expires in 2041," he said.

"KPMG is the first of the Big Four accounting firms to create a global response and strategy to climate change. Our goal is to reduce the company's carbon footprint by 25 percent by 2010. It's an aggressive goal, but we want to publically state this is what we want to achieve. We're raising the awareness of climate change within KPMG around the world as well as with our clients and suppliers," he said.

Sparks and Rehn both said they hope countries around the world will increase their use of renewable energies so that there will never be a need to drill or mine resources in Antarctica for fossil fuels, thus preserving the continent's natural beauty.

The value of learning different cultures

When Rehn wasn't keeping track of outdoor gear or pulling boats ashore, he hung out with IAE participants and asked how their nations are addressing climate change.

"I got ideas of what sustainable development means to people from different parts of the world," he said. "There was a guy from Pakistan and another from China who spoke of 'energy poverty' in parts of their country. Because they know non-renewable energy sources aren't the best decision, they hope to bypass industrialization and use alternative energy sources right away. What I learned wasn't just abstract or theory based ... it was what people are actually putting into practice."

Travel and study abroad has been a major emphasis at Appalachian for many years. It more fully prepares young people for successful lives and careers, especially as the global community has become more interconnected.

Sparks had never been on a plane before he journeyed to England as an Appalachian student in 1995. Before graduating, he traveled twice to China as a Holland Fellow in the Walker College of Business, as well as to Australia. Those experiences led to an international career that has included work as a consultant in South Africa and Bangkok, and travel to Dubai, Malaysia, Canada, Singapore, Australia, Brazil and Japan for his current company.

"My international experience was among the longest-lasting impacts of my Appalachian education," said Sparks, who earned his bachelor's degree in 1997 and a master's degree in accounting in 1998. "Having that cultural exposure and an increase in global awareness has been pivotal to my career."