2021 will be ‘a critical window’ for creating a sustainable future, major report warns

The decisions taken by businesses, investors and the government in the UK over the next six to 18 months will either lock us into unsustainable systems or bring about a resilient future with intersectional benefits for the environment and society, a major new report argues.

2021 will be ‘a critical window’ for creating a sustainable future, major report warns

A truly green recovery is not yet guaranteed for the UK

Published by Forum for the Future today (14 October), the report outlines how the system shocks created by the Covid-19 pandemic are impacting mindsets and cultural narratives, and how these changes are likely to reflect in the key decisions made by policymakers and the private sector in the short-term.

It explores four possibilities, each of which were repeatedly raised by respondents to the Forum’s interviews with more than 100 business and thought leaders. The first possibility – Compete & Retreat – will see the UK pushing the narrative that the time for global and cross-sector collaboration has passed, arguing that there are not enough resources to go around and that nationalism and regionalism can help prevent risk. While this would potentially decrease emissions from sectors such as transport, social equality would likely take a hit, as would individual wellbeing and the possibilities of collaborating to solve pressing social ad environmental issues. Brexit would feed into this possibility.

Discipline – the second possibility – is perhaps closest to the approach being taken by the government at present. The Forum identifies greater state control and increased use of technology as key characteristics of this scenario. While these measures have helped to manage public health and safety, the report concludes that they cannot bring about a sustainable future in isolation, as this approach requires a sacrifice of some personal privacies and is interpreted as ‘survival mode’ – i.e. holistic planning for the future is shelved.

Should the government fail to work with investors, businesses and public society to provide clear, long-term certainty over the next 18 months or so, the Forum believes we could end up in an ‘Unsettled’ scenario characterised by ongoing disruption. Rather than one ‘new normal’, organisations and individuals would need to adapt to a series of new scenarios, one after the other, leading to volatility and burnout.  

Green recovery

It’s not all bleak, though – the report does outline one possible scenario in which the green recovery movement’s overarching ambitions are realised for the UK. Called the ‘Transform’ trajectory, this scenario would see a growing recognition of the intersections between biodiversity, climate change, social sustainability, individual wellbeing, public health and the economy. Policymakers would work with the public and private sector to catalyse a just transition towards net-zero, characterised by a huge shift in business models.

The ‘Transform’ scenario plays into ideas that the pandemic could be used as a chance to ‘reset’ economic models which prioritise short-term profit over all else. It would see environmental and social impacts properly factored in during the decision-making processes, a long-term approach taken by all businesses and policy frameworks joined up to deliver net-positive impacts.

“This needs to become the dominant version of our future if we are to deliver the systemic change needed to solve our climate, biodiversity and public health challenges,” Forum for the Future’s chief executive Sally Uren said. “We now have a unique opportunity to deliberately and thoughtfully drive systemic change for sustainability.”

Like many organisations across the green economy, the Forum takes the stance that the greater shocks than the current pandemic will materialise in the coming years and decades, without a step-change in ambition and action. On a business-as-usual trajectory, the biosphere could break down, technology could be used to block transformation and social inequality could deepen, the report acknowledges. But if a holistic approach to long-term value were taken, benefits could be delivered across the board, it argues.

edie has notably evolved its ongoing Mission Possible campaign to place a focus on the green recovery. You can read related content and stay up-to-date with relevant events by clicking here.

Sarah George

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