Sustainability in the age of climate breakdown

30th May 2019

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Timothy Wilkes

Environment and sustainability professionals are acting with rising urgency in the face of increasingly acute warnings, says Greg Webster; he outlines a number of initiatives that are taking place in his local area of Oxfordshire

“We are entering an age of unprecedented environmental breakdown.“

These are just some of the dire warnings that have been published during the past 12 months by a range of sources, including reports from the IPCC, IPPR, WWF and the widely read Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy paper by Professor Jem Bendell, founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria. International reports that were once peer reviewed and politically diluted to within an inch of their lives now speak openly of the cataclysmic situation we have created. Climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, food scarcity and precipitous declines in animal populations are happening now, and the window of opportunity to mitigate this multi-faceted crisis is closing fast.

The language and landscape that we work within is changing rapidly. The historical reluctance to share the true extent of the crisis we face (for fear of despondency and resignation) is receding. What does this mean to environment and sustainability professionals? How does one respond to the sheer scale of the problem, both personally and professionally? Speaking to a sample of professionals working hard to deliver the sustainability agenda in Oxfordshire, key messages emerge. Firstly, there is widespread recognition of the enormity of the challenge facing us. “A catastrophic state of affairs“, “extremely scary“, and “concerning“ are just some reactions, as we move into “unknown“ territory. “Climate change and the wider issues around the quality of the environment, natural extinction rates, all of those things are naturally bound together. The issue is that the way we run human affairs means we have a degrading ecosystem rather than an aggrading ecosystem. Increasing carbon emissions are just one symptom of that. We need to make systemic changes,“ says Barbara Hammond MBE, CEO of Oxford-based Low Carbon Hub, a pioneer in community energy projects.

This sober reality is leading to a doubling down of efforts. Major new local initiatives such as the recently announced Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire) and One Planet Oxfordshire are driving radical and ambitious targets for change – creating infrastructure purposed for the rapidly evolving energy landscape of the future, and quantifying the web of change required to live within our means across all areas of society. IEMA practitioner Dale Hoyland, one of the team that recently established Oxfordshire Greentech, a new business network helping to support and grow the low-carbon economy, observes that “there are a lot of extremely good individual projects – they just need to be vastly accelerated in order to make the impact that is so urgently needed now.“ Barbara adds: “all sorts of systems are emerging, particularly around low-carbon energy. There is an inexorable shift for all sorts of reasons, including mainstream market reasons, towards a tipping point.“

“Disruptive impacts from climate change are now inevitable.“

Project LEO is an example of a multi-agency approach to delivering a low-carbon energy network, empowering local communities to become 'active energy citizens'. The three-year, £40m trial is led by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) with partners including the Low Carbon Hub, Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities, local councils, and energy marketplace operators and suppliers, with a brief to “understand how we need to re-engineer the technology and markets that underpin our energy system to... meet Oxfordshire's energy needs in a way that's good for people and good for the planet.“

Real-world projects will include further increasing local renewable energy generation (building on more than 40 existing clean energy projects), matching supply to demand through increased storage capacity or managed energy demand, and highlighting the policy and regulatory changes necessary to drive the decarbonisation of our energy system. Ultimately, the project hopes to provide a replicable model that can transform the energy system nationwide.

One Planet Oxfordshire is no less ambitious, bringing together local councils, organisations, businesses and community groups to collaboratively create a 'One Planet Action Plan' for a better, more sustainable future. One of four pilot schemes globally, the initiative uses 10 simple principles covering all aspects of social, environmental and economic sustainability to map out desired outcomes, targets and indicators, with the aim of living greener, healthier and happier lives. Facilitated by environmental charity Bioregional, the holistic nature of their 'One Planet Living' principles is key to widening the scope of actions beyond more obvious areas (zero carbon, zero waste) to ensure a joined-up vision of the future. The initiative has seen impressive engagement across multiple sectors, with stakeholders workshopping a bold vision to which individuals and organisations can add their own action plans, creating an interconnected web of change.

“Climate change is just one of a range of global environmental threats which could combine to create unprecedented crises and threaten the stability of societies.“

Beyond these innovative projects, personal behaviours are changing, too. The major contribution to the climate emergency from sectors such as transport and the meat industry are driving professionals to assess their own habits and choices. Adopting a vegetarian or flexitarian diet is widespread, and flying is fast becoming a questionable option. “Our diet didn't really reflect our beliefs“ says Barbara. There is a sense that sustainability professionals recognise the need to 'walk the walk' and lead public behaviour towards lifestyles compatible with a survivable future. Dale reflects that “impacts individuals can make may seem small and insignificant, but small changes add up to a bigger whole.“

Against the backdrop of an uncertain future, hope and determination remain. Driving the systemic change required will not be without major challenges. Pushing reluctant corporate and political mindsets towards radical change can seem like pushing water up a mountain. Dale summarises our task succinctly: “With all this research behind us, we've got to at least try to engage and agree on a set of principles and actions we can all work towards. It's time for radical change and no one is saying it's going to be easy. To actually do something is really, really difficult – but not to do something is unthinkable.“

Greg Webster, PIEMA is an Oxford-based freelance consultant.

Image credit: iStock


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