Five shifts in sustainability that will make waves in 2011

Sensemaking / Five shifts in sustainability that will make waves in 2011

07 Jan 2011

2011 - the year for biodiversity, Saharan solar power and consumer supremacy. In the first of an annual series, James Goodman and Martin Wright track the trends which will influence the coming year's sustainability debates.

1. Nowhere to hide, as the open society finally arrives

Wikileaks is just the start. When anyone can tweet and be tweeted, keeping the lid on is no longer an option. 2011 will see transparency become the new normal, thanks to the unprecedented rush of digital empowerment. Three in every four people on the planet have a mobile phone, and the use of Twitter is growing at over 1,000% a year. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen consumers able to:

  • monitor working conditions in one of Asda’s Bangladeshi clothes factories via a live cam feed
  • compel Gap to abandon ditching its cherished logo
  • use their mobiles to pull sustainability information from a product’s barcode

…and then add their own subversive messages (“this product’s rubbish/cheaper in the shop across the road”) using Stickybits software. Command and control won’t cut it anymore. The result will at times be messy, barely manageable: think Wikileaks again. Scared companies will try, and fail, to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Smart ones, by contrast, will seize it as a golden opportunity to get close to their market and learn from their customers.

2. Africa: from basket case to boomtime?

It may still be wracked with civil war and failed states, but Africa is fast emerging as the world’s unlikeliest opportunity. Rich in resources and people, its economies are set to grow by 6% next year, pulling in record levels of investment. By 2020, says McKinsey, there will be 128 million Africans with discretionary spend. And the continent’s on track to have the lowest dependency ratio in the world by 2030 – an achievement associated with rapid development. Around that time, too, the Sahara could be the powerhouse of Europe, thanks to concentrated solar power… By then, of course, China – which has already grasped Africa’s potential both as a market and a resource mine – could well be the world’s largest economy. And if present trends continue, it could also be the biggest investor in green technology. If you’d made that prediction a couple of decades ago, you’d have been cast as a hopeless Maoist dreamer. It’s a salutary reminder of the speed with which a settled world can shift. So 2011 will surely see new markets, new influences – and new competition for resources.

True size of Africa

3. Biodiversity: it's a business issue

Business is used to counting carbon; now it may have to start counting bees. Biodiversity is shrinking fast, and the consequences are just starting to bite. According to a study by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (see 'Can we put a price on nature, asks Dax Lovegrove'), natural pollinators like bees are worth over $200 billion a year to the world economy. (If that sounds a lot, imagine pollinating crops by hand, as Chinese farmers had to when bee populations were wiped out by chemicals.)

Meanwhile, against a backdrop of growing uncertainty and rising fuel costs, food prices soared in 2010. Volatility is the rule, but they seem set to rise further this year, triggering concerns about commodity speculation and wider food security – not to mention food riots. So how are we responding to these twin, related threats? So far, so slow. Take one example: ICCAT – which in any sane world should stand for the International Commission for the Collapse of Atlantic Tunas. It’s agreed a catch quota for 2011 that scientists say gives the species a 1 in 3 chance of commercial collapse. It’s an all too familiar example of the failure of governance set-ups to manage ecosystems – reaching environmental limits, and not knowing what to do about it.

One thing is for sure: we certainly can’t tackle biodiversity in isolation. Burning forests to grow more food would boost global warming, leading to further food shortages in the future. And some misguided efforts to tackle climate change – such as the mass conversion of cropland to biofuels – mean more food insecurity in the here and now. We are facing the acid test of our ability to tackle threats at a systemic level, rather than picking them off one by one.

If you’re looking for a silver lining, try this. Climate change helped spark the cleantech boom; could business take a similarly entrepreneurial response to the conservation crisis? The UN estimates that the battle to avert ecosystem collapse could generate a $5 trillion industry. And McKinsey’s reports that CEOs now think of biodiversity in the way they thought of climate change in 2007: a worrying issue on the horizon that they ought to start planning for now...


4. The return of climate change: will science strike back?

2010 was the Year of the Sceptics. By contrast, 2011 could just see the triumph of science, for two reasons.

First, the facts are increasingly stark. 2010 looks set to equal or exceed 1998 as the warmest year on record. And it doesn’t stop there. 1998 hit record levels in part because it coincided with the warming impacts of ‘El Niño’. By contrast, 2010’s highs have happened despite the cooling influence of ‘La Niña’.

Second, in the wake of Climategate, scientists are realising that pure research ain’t enough: they need to communicate much better, too – and engage openly with their adversaries. The more that happens, the more threadbare the rhetoric of denial will appear. Grudging agreement at Cancún will help; all the more so because both China and India have come on board as never before. Climate diplomacy has shrunk back from the brink. And as political power plays get under way in the run up to Kyoto in December, so the issue will start to creep back onto the front pages.

This doesn’t mean scepticism will melt away overnight, any more than the Himalayan glaciers. With the impacts of global warming, as ever, lagging behind the rise in temperatures, the sceptics will still find a hearing. And they’ll be fired up by a new kind of energy. For years, advocates of bold action on carbon cuts have argued that energy insecurity strengthens their case. That’ll be harder to maintain now that shale gas has entered the mix. Not only is it relatively cheap, but there is a truly humungous amount in the US. The science may be settled, but the coming year will show that the debate is far from over.

5. CEOs have finally cottoned on – what now?

As the year turned, there was growing evidence that virtually every CEO worth their salt saw sustainability as vital to future business success. Of those surveyed by Accenture, 93% agreed with that statement. Other polls reported similar results.

More intriguingly, nine out of ten CEOs questioned by the Echo consultancy on behalf of the International Business Leaders Forum believed their companies would have to employ new sustainable technologies to remain competitive five years from now. No wonder HSBC estimates that the low-carbon market will be worth a cool $2.1 trillion by 2020.

Solar panels

James Goodman is Head of Futures at Forum for the Future. Martin Wright is Editor in Chief of Green Futures.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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