VOTE: What will be the defining sustainability issue of 2020?

With many of us heading back to the office for our first day at work in 2020 this week, edie has explored the environmental issues which could dominate sustainability conversations this year - and is giving you the chance to have your say.

Have your say on what the 'hot topics' in the UK's sustainability sphere could be in 2020

Have your say on what the 'hot topics' in the UK's sustainability sphere could be in 2020

New years are always a time for reflection, introspection and planning - for sustainability professionals and the general public alike. As we return to the office after the festive break, our social media feeds are being swamped by contacts pledging to fly less, phase-out plastics, quit fast fashion or go vegan in the name of climate action – and by stories of how climate conversations dominated this year’s Golden Globes ceremony.

If 2017 and 2018 were years for the Blue Planet effect and for plastics action, 2019 was the year of climate activism. From a one-woman protest outside of the Swedish parliament in August 2018, the school climate strikes movement ended 2019 with a 500,000-strong demonstration in Madrid, with adults and businesses now joining students and schoolchildren on the streets on a monthly basis.

While these actions and conversations will doubtless continue into the new year, several other sustainability issues are beginning to come to the forefront of the UK public’s attention – be that through exposés on primetime TV, callouts on social media or new scientific studies laying bare their negative consequences.

With this in mind, edie has scanned the horizon for five sustainability issues which could begin to have their “Attenborough moment” within the next 12 months.

1) E-waste

The finger may have been pointed at plastics since Blue Planet 2 first aired, but e-waste is actually the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream. Research from the United Nations University (UNU) found that more than 44 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated globally in 2016 – up 8% on 2014 levels - with just 20% documented as recycled. Experts believe that figure reached 50 million metric tonnes in 2018, with recycling rates stagnating and a further 21% tonnage increase by 2021. 

Consumer awareness around the issue has been mounting for several years, with Repair Cafés having grown from a one-location movement in 2009 to more than 1,500 locations globally. But awareness exploded last October, when news that the EU was introducing its highly anticipated “right to repair” legislation hit the mainstream media headlines. The success of this story was doubtless helped along by scientific research documenting, for the first time, the long-term effects of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in e-waste, including their impact on human food supply chains.

With the UK Government currently consulting on its first major update to resources and waste policy in more than a decade – and with unpopular decisions having already been made around e-waste – the stage is set for conversation and action in this space to take off in 2020, among businesses and the general public alike.

2) Carbon offsetting

Amid a backdrop of climate activism, conversations around plastics seemed to peter out slightly in 2019, as more noise was made around the aviation sector.

Though responsible for just 2% of global emissions at present (compared to, for example, 31% for electricity and 11% for agriculture), aviation is one of the world’s fastest-growing and hardest-to-abate sectors – facts brought to popular attention by Greta Thunberg’s refusal to fly and by the IPCC’s landmark report recommending that the world reaches net-zero emissions by 2050.

With passenger sentiment changing far faster than policies and technologies around electric aircraft and low-carbon fuels, airlines and airports keen to maintain consumer trust and investor confidence turned heavily to carbon offsetting. Large investments in this space were made by the likes of Qantas, easyJet, JetBlue and British Airways’ parent firm International Airlines Group. Some organisations offering carbon credits reported a four-fold year-on-year increase in uptake in 2019.

But the growth of the carbon offsetting and net-zero conversation has largely been spurred by concerns around greenwash. Consumers and investors alike continue to raise questions around whether companies investing in credits are doing so to avoid working to decarbonise their own business (see Shell’s willingness to offer offsetting but failure to shift away from fossil fuels), and whether they are properly managing risks such as double-counting.

Sustainability professionals have repeatedly told edie that all businesses should be approaching offsetting as part of a broader decarbonisation agenda. But a new decade doesn’t automatically mean a new era in which public trust in business climate action is restored, meaning the offsetting debate is likely to rumble on for months to come.

3) Energy efficiency

The growth of the war on plastics has repeatedly been attributed to visibility – we all use plastic products and packaging on a daily basis, and those of us that don’t will still see them in every supermarket and food-to-go outlet they visit, or littering local streets, waterways and beaches.

In contrast, energy managers have repeatedly told team edie (anecdotally) that they struggle to communicate the importance of efficiency to colleagues, customers and other stakeholders, because energy isn’t as “tangible”. Indeed, less than 3% of climate-related media coverage between 2017 and 2019 mentioned energy efficiency.

This could all be set to change in 2020, however. Research published today (7 January) by Igloo Energy after a survey of more than 2,000 adults reveals that almost half (49%) of Brits are already taking actions to become more energy-efficient at home and that a further 29% want to do more in this space in 2020. After much chiding from the CCC, the Government has also vowed to implement better policy mechanisms in this space, too. 

In tandem, the business case for energy efficiency is mounting as electricity and gas prices rise, and as the cost of energy-saving technologies such as LED lighting falls amid improving legislation and technologies. Recent research by EDF Energy concluded that the average commercial property could make annual savings of £10,800 per site by installing efficient lighting alone, and that UK businesses could collectively save more than £45m just by addressing “low-hanging fruit”.

4) Food systems change

Veganuary is the new January. This month, more than 300,000 people have committed to going vegan for 31 days – and trying to change their dietary habits in the long-term. The campaign has been running since 2014 but recorded record registrations for 2020, attributing this growth in popularity to the growing prevalence of climate conversations in everyday life.

Back at the start of 2019, it was already common knowledge that emissions from the livestock sector account for 15% of the global annual total. But the IPCC’s land use report, the beef sector’s links to the Amazon forest fires and the Lancet’s research on diets for planetary and human health took the conversation to a new level over the past 12 months.

Businesses across the grocery and food-to-go spaces took notice, selling less beef and pork and pushing new plant-based offerings. Huge employers like PwC bolstered their staff engagement initiatives. And, this week, the Golden Globes went vegan for the first time.

In other words, the drive to transform the global food industry to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050 became sexy in 2019, setting the stage for more action – hopefully beyond the creation of a new ‘vegan’ burger that isn’t actually suitable for vegans - in 2020.

5) Nature conservation and restoration

2019 saw the conversations on climate and ecological emergencies – rightly – linked at an unprecedented scale. The year began with the IPPR’s landmark report on the intersection of climate, biodiversity and social crises, and continued with headlines repeatedly warning of a sixth mass extinction.

As a result, activities such as tree planting, eco-tourism and beach cleans became popular antidotes to mounting eco-anxiety among the UK public. ‘Climate emergency’ declarations were built upon with ‘nature emergency’ declarations.

Ministers responded by implementing biodiversity net-gain requirements for developers and launching a review into the economics of nature, while businesses began making more sizeable investments in initiatives such as coral reef restoration, peatland restoration, reforestation and regenerative agriculture. Net-positive became even more of a green business buzzword, as the uptake of resources like the Natural Capital Protocol and Business Ecosystems training course soared.  

The environmental motif that kick-started the ‘Blue Planet effect’ is the well-known image of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose, or tangled in plastic fishing nets. As we enter 2020, photos of koalas begging for water and kangaroos burned to death are dominating social media as the Australian bushfires continue to ravage the landscape. They are doubtless front-of-mind for any politician or professional involved in the environment.

Have your say….


edie Staff


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