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Sustainability First and Foremost

In a recent blog, Richard Adams recommends focusing on adaptability as a better defined and more active goal than sustainability. I see his point, but I do not fully agree. Relying on human adaptability is not a sufficient answer to the problems facing the planet. It is necessary, but it will never be sufficient. Sustainability and the delivery of demanding sustainable development goals must still come first. Properly understood sustainability is not a passive concept. It is a call for another industrial revolution.

Adapting as best we can to the many changes taking place in the world around us is of course necessary. For example it is right and proper that the climate change community is devoting increasing attention to the action that needs to be taken around the world to cope with the consequences of the climate change that is already taking place. And enhancing our capacity to make such adaptations - human adaptability - is indeed a vital task.

But many changes to the global environment do not just happen ineluctably through natural processes. Most of the changes currently taking place in the world are caused by human activity and in particular by the remorseless pursuit of economic growth and resource consumption. And since some of these changes are at the same time actively damaging to the global environment and to the future well-being of humanity as a whole we absolutely do need to get our act together globally to alter the direction of some of the changes and mitigate their damaging impacts.

Adaptation by itself is a kind of appeasement of the economic forces that are leading to destruction of the environment. But economic forces are insatiable and can never be appeased. We need to identify and confront these blind forces, to divert them from their destructive pathways and to guide them to a more sustainable future.

Making the transition to a more sustainable world frequently implies incurring some extra cost in the present or short term in order to secure longer term benefits or avoidance of longer term losses. Forestry management provides a good example. There is a growing global demand for timber and other forestry products. But we no longer allow this to lead inexorably to the destruction of the world’s forests, adapting to this loss as best we can. On the contrary sustainable forestry management is now the norm in many parts of the world and is gradually spreading more widely.

Under such management new trees must be planted after any forest fellings so as to ensure forest cover and timber for the future. In order to ensure that this happens the economic regimes governing forestry are arranged so as to provide incentives to forestry owners and managers to secure their willing compliance and commitment to replanting and sustainable management. The purchasers of timber and other forestry products and/or the taxpayer may incur slightly higher costs in the short term, but all will benefit in succeeding generations.

Establishing a fully sustainable model of energy production and consumption is proving much harder.  Everyone can see that renewable energy sources are cleaner and more long-lasting than fossil fuels. Some progress in installing renewables is now being made in many parts of the world. But the technical problems and costs of the transition to a more renewable world are still formidable, the policy instruments are complex and contested and public and political support for the change is variable.

It is particularly difficult to maintain support when the costs of investing in renewables are perceived as driving up the price of energy, exacerbating fuel poverty and eroding the competitive position of businesses. Progress is also difficult to maintain when the provision of energy is dominated by a small number of incumbent suppliers with vested interests in maintaining conventional generation and distribution systems.

As a result of all these factors the renewables revolution is bedevilled by stop-go policies and is being implemented much more slowly and inefficiently than would have been possible with a firmer common purpose.

No doubt there has to be adaptability in the policy response to short term fluctuations in the energy market place, the relative prices of different energy sources, and the affordability of energy prices. But there needs to be a steely underlying resolve in the basic sustainable development goal of growing the renewable energy sector to a dominant position over the next generation and reducing the potentially catastrophic carbon emission overload on the planet. And there needs to be a clear political determination to build effective alliances between governments, regulators, energy suppliers and consumers to maintain steady support for this sustainability transition. I am very glad that Sustainability First has been able to play a significant role in strengthening this alliance for progress on energy sustainability in the UK. 

Derek Osborn

Derek Osborn CB has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Richard Adams.  Derek is a senior environmentalist advising on long-term strategic issues for governments, international bodies, business and the voluntary sector. He is also president of the Stakeholder Forum for Our Common Future.  Like Richard, Derek is a Trustee of Sustainability First.

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