16. 06. 2016

20 Years On: Good Progress, but Must Do Better!

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It’s uncomfortable having to think back to 1996. At that time, there was still a real sense of hope that the agreements stuck at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, four years earlier, could still translate rapidly into real change on the ground. Unfortunately, that hope proved groundless.

Indeed, it took another 20 years for world leaders to follow through on the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change – with the historic Paris Agreement at the end of 2015. And even now, we’ve seen far less progress on either the Convention on Biological Diversity or much of the still radial contents of the Earth Summit’s Agenda 21.

This may not be the narrative people want to hear! We’d all love to think that politicians the world over would be focussed first and foremost on the science of what is happening to planet Earth. After all, that’s the one thing that’s been constant throughout these 20 years: increasingly robust evidence, accumulating year on year, as to the impact of humankind on both the planet’s resources and its ecosystems. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It would, however, be wrong to claim that nothing’s changed on the political front. After all, in September last year, the leaders of 193 nations signed off on the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 high-level objectives speaking powerfully to many of today’s most pressing social and environmental needs. If delivered by 2030, progress in this area would genuinely transform our world.

Closer to home, here in the EU, the current Referendum campaign has allowed people to take stock of just how much has been achieved since 1996. EU Directives and Regulations (on habitats, biodiversity, waste management, recycling, energy efficiency standards, air pollution, rivers and beaches, and so on and so forth) have ensured reasonably high standards in most countries, and at least some effective enforcement.

This legal bedrock (and similar legislative frameworks in the USA and elsewhere) ensure that many individual battles against inappropriate economic development are indeed won. But we’re still losing the war – as the pace and intensity of that development puts more and more of the natural world at risk. The pursuit of conventional GDP-driven growth still trumps all, just as it did back in 1996. And that kind of growth is now being pursued even more enthusiastically in developing and emerging countries – it is, still, the only tried and tested way, so far, of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

Which means, quite simply, that with the sole exception of Green Parties around the world, there are no mainstream political parties prepared to question that growth paradigm, let alone to acknowledge what the science now incontrovertibly tells us: that there is no good outcome if we continue to address poverty and pursue progress for 7.3 billion people today (and, in just a couple of decades, for 9 billion) in the way we pursue progress today.

It would of course be a lot easier for those hard-pressed politicians if their citizens / voters were demanding, ever more energetically, that their representatives should open their eyes and confront what a Nasa-funded study highlighted as a potentially ‘irreversible collapse’ for our industrial civilisation. Here again, this may not be the narrative that people want to hear, but the vast majority of citizens / voters make no such demands of their elected representatives. There are of course many vociferous minorities, demanding radical change, just as there were in 1996, but as we saw after the financial crisis of 2008, this particular model of turbo-charged, at-almost-any-cost capitalism is one resilient sucker. And the political and business élites that benefit most from that model of ‘klepto-capitalism’ aren’t about to hand over the keys to their deposit boxes in Panama any time soon.

OK – that may well be enough painful reality for a joyful 20th Anniversary blog! Especially for an organisation that was set up specifically to celebrate all the brilliant things going on out there rather than dunk people ever deeper in the prospect of an impending eco-apocalypse!

Which is where we turn to the role of the business community. 20 years ago, the conceptual foundations of today’s corporate sustainability world were being painstakingly laid. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development was just five years old, testing out the notion of ‘eco-efficiency’ to prove the business case for sustainable development. John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line (first rolled out in 1994) was doing the hard yards to persuade business leaders that profitability and sustainability were mutually compatible. The Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme had just started out on its own 20-year challenge of getting senior business leaders to think about this agenda strategically rather than operationally. Lots of pioneers, therefore, but relatively little traction at the time.

20 years on, that world has been transformed. Notwithstanding the all-too-frequent horror stories (just think VW for the time being!) the contribution that progressive multinationals are now making to the pursuit of a more sustainable world is substantive – and politically material.

For instance, in Copenhagen in 2009, the majority business voice was warning governments not to further shock the global economy by moving too fast on decarbonising their own economies. Six years on, in Paris, that majority business voice was imploring governments to get on with it, to map out a ‘no surprises trajectory’ to the kind of low-carbon economy on which our future prosperity depends.

Forum for the Future has been at the heart of that 20-year corporate evolution. We’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most outstanding companies and leaders involved in that journey, co-creating long-term strategies, innovating real breakthroughs, challenging continuing complacency and short-sightedness through our role as ‘critical friend’, whilst lending support and credibility in the face of often persistent NGO and media hostility. And as a UK-registered sustainable development charity, we’ve been focussed first and foremost on our mission of making life better for people today without undermining life chances for future generations.

Along the way, we’ve learned (often the hard way!) how to create and coordinate genuine multi-stakeholder collaborations – involving NGOs, academics, and public sector bodies, as well as the private sector.

There was a time (up until the 2010 General Election, as it happens!) when Forum for the Future worked almost as much with the public sector as with the private sector. One of the most wretched consequences of 10 years of austerity, privatisation, and outsourcing here in the UK has been a progressive hollowing out of the public sector and its contribution to more sustainable ways of living, place-making and creating wealth for all.

Which is why, in our 20th year, we’re keen to celebrate our growing presence in the USA, India and Singapore. One of the most significant aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals is that they’re universal, embracing both the rich world and the poor world. And one of the most exciting aspects of today’s technological, pro-sustainability breakthroughs (in energy, waste and water management, manufacturing and so on) is that they’re at least as relevant in developing and emerging economies as they are in the already over-developed rich world. Which means that the next 20 years for the Forum will be increasingly focussed on those global perspectives.

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