Despite the world’s challenges, IEMA members are surprisingly optimistic about 2023, finds Tom Pashby

2nd February 2023


Professionals working in environment and sustainability know it’s impossible to predict the future, especially relating to trends in our sector. With that in mind, I asked IEMA members to send me their thoughts on what we can expect to see in 2023 – a steep challenge.

In 2023, we mark the first full year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the third year of Covid-19 and the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We are five decades into the mainstream Western environmental movement and we have just seven years left to dramatically change the way our economies operate if we’re to avoid cataclysmic climate breakdown, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At the start of 2023, the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee called for a “war effort” in ramping up the UK government’s action on sustainable energy security following the Russian president’s use of gas supplies as a lever of war. IEMA members told me they believe 2023 will be a major year for energy efficiency in the built environment, both from a corporate and bottom-up approach, as well as a top-down, policy-driven area of work. We will also see significant advances outside the purely energy and climate space. Defra rules on biodiversity net gain will come into effect following the implementation of the Environment Act. Developers will be forced to prove they take their impact on biodiversity into account and are benefiting the natural world. More companies are already choosing to act on social issues and wider sustainability challenges such as governance, cybersecurity and supply chains.

ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) has seen an explosion in activity over the past couple of years, with everyone from asset managers to plant hire service providers committing serious money and time into pushing for sustainability. One thing I was surprised by when reading comments from members was the high levels of optimism. The living world faces massive challenges, yet in the face of the task ahead of us, IEMA members choose hope. I think this is because we know the incredible volume and variety of work going on both in public and behind the scenes to transform the world to sustainability. I have written previously of my pessimism about the climate and biodiversity crises. That doesn’t detract from the fact that every increment of global heating which we avoid by acting now means that more of the planet remains habitable for future generations.

As I write this, over the past few days I have seen dozens of news reports and videos on TikTok of people living on the west coast of the US experiencing extreme weather, washing away their homes. Reacting to a raging torrent of water near her home, American talk show host Ellen DeGeneres said: “We need to be nicer to mother nature, because mother nature is not happy with us.” For years, people in the Global South have been experiencing these events, like the extreme flooding which saw one third of Pakistan under water last year, and rising sea levels encroaching on small island nations, which are the least responsible for the climate emergency.

“[IEMA members] know the incredible volume and variety of work going on both in public and behind the scenes to transform the world to sustainability”

At the end of 2023, COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates, a petro-state whose wealth derives almost entirely from its oil and gas industry. The president of COP28, HE Dr Sultan Al Jaber, is also the head of the UAE’s national oil company. This is the first time in COP’s history that it will be chaired by an oil boss. Holding the world’s foremost climate summit in a nation dependent on revenue from fossil fuels is an excellent illustration of the situation we face. Continuing to rely on polluting energy sources that have brought a relatively small number of people untold riches while simultaneously trying to build a global society that is a net-zero greenhouse gas emission polluter will be the challenge of the year and for decades ahead.

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