Sustainability has been a topic for some time: for forty years (counting from the ‘Limits to Growth’ report), or even for fifty years (counting from Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’). During those years, it has moved from the periphery to the centre of world problems. Whereas the crises of the day dominate newspaper headlines and top meeting agendas (like the worldwide financial system which is in urgent need of repair), sustainability is the rising undercurrent. We will hopefully manage the financial crises with better agreements, but sustainability issues are here to stay.
Climate is by far not the only sustainability problem. Sustainability pertains to everything endangering mankind’s continued existence on planet Earth. Among sustainability problems we include: overfishing and contaminating the oceans, reduction of the world’s gene pool by affecting biodiversity, exploitation of finite resources, decline in soil fertility, and increasing bacterial resistance against antibiotics. In developing countries, social problems like child labour and poverty are counted among sustainability issues, to which testify the prominence of these problems in the Millennium Goals.
Corporations assume responsibility
No longer we regard these problems as side issues, propagated by other-worldly environmentalists. On the contrary, major members of the business community now embrace sustainability, at least in strategy. Sustainability policy by companies stems from taking a longer-term view. As early as in the 1990s, captain Iglo himself, i.e. the later Unilever chairman Anthony Burgmans, made a phone call to the fisheries in order to inform them that by 2010 he would still like to sell fish. Lack of sustainability undermines corporate earning power, too.
In corporate circles, one may hear: ‘Suppose that in the ‘70s and ‘80s governments had lent an ear to the then dominant industries, who judged environmental costs to be way too high – in what state would industrialised countries have ended up? They would have been polluted, the general populations’ health would have been seriously undermined, people would have moved away to healthier areas. It would have ended up in economic decline. But fortunately, governments then acknowledged environmental problems to be serious. And the same arguments hold for today’s sustainability problems.’ The corporate community has grown into a more responsible attitude. Laudable as that may be, decisive for the future is to what extent these new responsibilities are cast into new decision structures, which would anchor the strive for sustainability. We still have a way to go in this field. Right now, the world is too much engaged in finding solutions for short-term (financial) problems.
Among the structures in which the world deals with environmental problems are the so-called ‘Round Tables’ with common goals like sustainable sugarcane, palm oil, soy or cocoa. They are a manifestation of the ascent of ‘light’ forms of cooperation, mentioned in trend 3. Again, we witness a close cooperation between businesses and NGO’s. Sustainable cocoa, a goal intended to be achieved worldwide by 2015, has even been a corporate initiative.
Sustainability has many sides, requiring choices and patience: climate neutrality first, or banning child labour, or adequate answers to the energy problem? Participating companies will have to resist a tendency to make false public claims on sustainability, and stick to their real achievements instead. Round Tables require permanent negotiations – but surprisingly enough they achieve more than intergovernmental organisations, many of which have proven to be ineffective. Sustainable cocoa will be achieved in a few years’ time, sustainable sugarcane is still a distant goal; but sustainable fish, negotiated by government agencies, is a nightmare. Would worldwide consumer action be a step too far yet?
We are haunted by haste and impatience, they do not work out well in matters of sustainability. We would want to put today’s technological discoveries to practice tomorrow, before they are fully developed. When first generation biofuels hit the market, we already wanted second generation biofuels to be available at the pump. Often, there is not enough room for proper policy evaluations. We will have to become much smarter in signalling adverse developments. Could we have foreseen sustainable palm oil’s adverse results, because logging virgin forest would carry more profit than reuse of fallow land? We will have to be more alert when taking sustainability measures, which will allow us to correct policies embarked on earlier.
‘Green’ has become a recommendation
Sustainability appears to have conquered consumer’s minds. Several years ago, the first big company went bankrupt because it did not judge sustainability to be a serious issue, and used all its lobbying powers for its unsustainable products instead (General Motors). ‘Green’ now seems to have become a recommendation for almost all consumer goods. And sustainability is not just an issue in the rich West. The last Chinese five year plans are full of sustainability.
From ca. 2007 onwards, China has started to acknowledge the greenhouse effect. Its leaders may fear water shortage in Chinese rivers: China harbours 20% of the world population, and a mere 3% of fresh water resources. Since 2007, China has stimulated solar and wind energies at every level: from feed-in tariffs to the build-up of national industries. Since 2010, China is the world’s largest producer of both wind turbines and solar cells. China’s goal for 2020 is to produce 15% of its energy from sustainable sources.
Public opinion supports this policy. In 2007, according to Wikipedia (article Energy Policy of the People’s Republic of China), 97% of the Chinese population was of the opinion that their government should be more active on climate change; 62% judged that industrialised countries could indeed demand adequate measures on CO2 emissions from developing economies. Local protests against polluting industries have attracted much media coverage in the past few years. Still, Chinese (and other BRICS countries’) policies need to be followed closely, as sustainability could easily move into the background if they would perceive a ‘hard’ economic motive for that (just as might be the case with Western companies). Is it surprising that non-BRICS companies have the highest scores on sustainability indexes?
The number of European companies which make a case for sustainability is striking. In their respective categories, DSM, AkzoNobel, Unilever, Philips, Air France/KLM and PostNL rank first in the sustainability indexes. On the other hand there are companies for whom sustainability would mean a contraction of their markets, in particular oil companies and other mining corporations. They face a dilemma. They cannot be sustainable, even if they should wish to be so. Some companies try to find a way out of this dilemma by launching aggressive PR campaigns in order to undermine their adversaries’ credibility; other try to reformulate sustainability, in order to define themselves as being sustainable after all. We should take a very critical look at these attempts.
But on the other hand, we might have to support the oil companies in an adequate way. In a sense, their dilemma is ours as well. We will need fossil energy for decades to come, albeit in declining volumes. The effects of oil recovery from tar sands on climate and the environment are disproportionally large; but that might not be true for shale gas, depending upon local circumstances. A ‘sensible’ energy policy might entail agreements on responsible shale gas recovery.
Governments lag behind
While the corporate community has assumed responsibility for sustainability, governments lag behind. They are no longer in the lead. Many of them fall terribly short of reasonable expectations. The main problem appears to be that both problems and their solutions exceed by far politicians’ time horizons. Every government has excellent advisors in these areas, they do not fail. But politicians stall the implementation of their advice. Alpha and gamma scientists should pose the question, how to develop better mechanisms for this. Governmental bodies without direct policy responsibilities like the European Commission try to take the lead, but national governments lag behind – by slow implementation of European guidelines, and notably by excluding sustainability from economic policy goals.
We reiterate: society has taken up responsibilities neglected by the state. Whereas until quite recently, government was the custodian of sustainability, nowadays the business community assumes this role, stimulated by their customers.
This article consists of the following paragraphs:
Does the future look grim?
Trend 1. Women will take the lead
Trend 2. Organisations will be founded on trust
Trend 3. New social networks are on the rise
Trend 4. Sustainability as a common goal
Trend 5. Decentralisation of industry in a biobased society
Trend 6. Small-scale energy systems
Trend 7. Europe was, is and will remain one of the most important producers of scientific knowledge in the world
Conclusion: think global, act local