CISL: In an age of turbulence, we need bold sustainability leadership

Lindsay Hooper (pictured) is the Interim CEO of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Will Ursula von der Leyen get a second term as European Commission president? Will Narendra Modi win a third as Prime Minister of India? Will the three-decade dominance of the African National Congress come to an end in South Africa? Will the Labour Party return to power in the United Kingdom after fourteen years in opposition? And will Donald Trump take back the White House?

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that not only are these are all fascinating questions politically, but that given the scale of the poly-crisis facing the world, the answers will have immeasurable consequences for the future of human life on earth.

By this time next year, the die will be cast. More than half of the world’s population will have the opportunity to elect leaders in over sixty national elections – depending on how you precisely define it – as well as some critical elections for multilateral representative bodies, such as the European Parliament, which will determine the balance of power in the EU and who gets to serve in the European Commission.

Some of the elections will be more free and fair than others. Fear of false information and the manipulation of public opinion is justified – whether through older techniques of secret donations, via newer ones such as the use of ‘bots’ to shift the mood in social media conversations or the new threat posed by Artificial Intelligence. It is no surprise that ‘misinformation and disinformation’ came in at number one in this year’s edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Report, especially as it links fake news to the widening of societal and political divides.

But the ‘so what?’ question must also be asked. Why should we care about the implications of these elections when trust in representative democracy has fallen so low?  Elections always matter, at least to democrats. But this year they matter even more because the leaders elected by around three billion voters will hold public power for most of the rest of a decade that the science indicates will be critical to addressing the climate emergency as well as attaining ‘30×30’ goal – the global target to protect 30% of the planet for nature by 2030.

Facilitating a just transition

Indeed, the decisions being taken now by leaders at home and abroad will determine progress towards addressing the nature and climate crises.

Alongside the climate and environmental crises there are deep challenges of social justice and inequality; Covid-19 reversed many of the gains of recent decades, threatening progress on the UN SDGs and eroding trust within and between nations.

In many parts of the world, the poor are getting poorer and the infrastructure needed to provide public goods needed for a dignified life as well as low-carbon, nature-positive economic growth need massive investment if they are to be fit for future purpose. Energy, water, food and transport will need to be provided for even more people, as the demographic trend tips global population towards a peak of almost 10 billion by 2060.

A combination of tech innovation and market forces may well drive the necessary energy transition and associated phase out of fossil fuels. But this is not guaranteed. Moreover, without effective government leadership, there is little hope for progress to address critical nature-related risks, for progress in areas where there is an imperative for action but no near-term commercial case for the private sector.

And there is a very real risk that – without good governance – the combination of tech and market forces will amplify existing social inequalities and instability.

The challenge is not simply one of domestic leadership; on a finite planet with global competition for resources driving geopolitics, there is a need for effective international governance and co-operation, with national governments on the front line of negotiations.

These are the vast challenges that confront us all. They require an economic revolution – a transition that must also be a ‘just’ one if societies are not to turn against their leaders and foment a revolution of a very different kind.

A new kind of leadership

To rebuild the ecological infrastructure that the global economy needs but has abused for too long (particularly in the global North), and to unleash the wider social benefits of tech innovation while guarding against the risks, will require courageous and visionary leadership. This requires leadership that recognises that no country can be prosperous over the long term in an over-heated, ecologically degraded and volatile world; leadership that understands the economic and social benefits of swift action and which can galvanise both civil society and private sector support – while forging the necessary international collaborations.

But this is no easy task. Despite survey after survey finding that the majority of global citizens want to see government action on climate and nature, these remain either highly politicised issues, or politically irrelevant – with ambitious manifesto pledges on climate and nature seen as irrelevant at best, and naive and vote-losing at worst.

The leaders elected this year can either navigate a pathway through this quagmire or deepen the divisions. They can opt to ignore the science, pursue populist or nationalistic agendas that fuel divisions within and between nations, and placate those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, or they can articulate a positive vision for the future, while also levelling with citizens on what it will take to achieve it – and involving them in the process of doing so.

This requires leadership that understands not only the cost of action, but the costs of inaction, and that engages with the tough reality that in some cases we may need to choose between long-term prosperity and short-term returns – cakeism is unlikely to help achieve the task at hand.

Of course, we recognise that the leadership required must extend far beyond a small group of government leaders. We will need action from those who influence capital allocations, global governance and standards, R&D priorities, infrastructure planning, and so much more.

We need effective ways to engage with and involve citizens, to contribute to solutions and support those in positions of power who are willing to grapple with these challenges. But wider leadership across economies will be vastly accelerated by good government leadership, and greatly delayed by its continued absence.

As up to four billion people go to the polls the stakes could not be higher. There is a huge opportunity for all of those with a voice and a vote to use them at this critical moment in history to secure the political leadership that can forge a shared ambition about how to co-exist within planetary boundaries.

It is a monumental challenge that will require monumental leadership and over the coming months, a large part of humanity gets to decide who has what it takes.

Lindsay Hooper is the Interim CEO of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

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