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What next for sustainable development

25 March 2011

Houses of Parliament with targetFor several decades now, scientists and advisors around the world have been alerting us to a set of global trends that will require prompt, large scale and profound decisions to be taken if we are to avoid their potentially devastating effects. It is now commonly agreed that human activity is resulting in serious impacts on the planet. Added to this, the effects of the global financial crisis show us how urgently we need to make the transition to a more sustainable economy, and one with fairness at its core.

And yet, more than twenty years after the Brundtland Commission, governments still struggle to place sustainable development at the heart of what they do. It is not as if politicians and civil servants don’t care - there are a great many who have devoted their careers to tackling issues of the environment, fairness and a sustainable economy. Yet we still seem to find it hard to treat the future as if it really is as important as the present, and seek to tackle each problem separately from the others.

The establishment of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) in 2000 was, in part, a recognition that government is not yet structured to be able to rise above the limitations of short term political and budgetary cycles and narrow departmental remits to make the kinds of long-term decisions and connected responses that these major challenges demand.

There is a growing recognition that politics, the environment and commerce can no longer be treated as separate. A great deal of evidence shows that attempts to solve issues in isolation all too often result in perverse consequences elsewhere. Sustainable development is about seeing this bigger picture – now and in the future. To give just one example: improving access to, and the quality of, green space can improve local infrastructure for active travel, whilst improving health and well-being across the community, at the same time as improving the local environment.

Since 2000, the SDC has worked to help decision makers and advisors embed sustainable development as the operating system of choice in the four Governments of the UK. Has there been progress? Of course, due to the hard work of many officials and some Ministers. Has the job been done? Emphatically not. In fact, to paraphrase Churchill, it has barely reached the "end of the beginning". Our final report Governing for the Future, provides a summary of this work, sharing the successes and barriers, challenges and opportunities experienced by those who have made sustainable development work for them.

Embedding sustainable development into the architecture of Government and the work of the wider public sector is essential if we are to tackle most pressing issues of the day in a more joined-up way, a way which has the potential to deliver the sorts of benefits we can only dream of at present – and which puts the UK in the strongest possible position to progress complex international negotiations. In our evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in November 2010, we set out a number of tests which need to be met to embed sustainable development in Government. The EAC’s report to the Government on the mainstreaming of sustainable development in Government drew extensively on the SDC recommendations. In February 2011, new proposals from the Coalition emerged. These were hugely disappointing given our ongoing advice to Government and the clear recommendations from the EAC, which is made up of members from all the main political parties.

But sustainable development involves every part of society, not just Government. Over the past ten years the SDC has found increasing and encouraging evidence of action at grassroots and individual level, as well as leadership in each sector of business, amongst NGOs and academic institutions. These activities, if scaled up and rolled out, could take us a long way towards a more sustainable future. Many of the key players came together at the Big Sustainability Summit held in March 2011, and plans are unfolding to create a new, citizen-led network and establish a world-class sustainability knowledge hub amongst some of our leading universities. You can find out more about these proposals here.

Finally, it will also be essential to find ways of hard-wiring this approach over successive political cycles. If this is not done, we run the risk that the changes that have been made, and the benefits that have been so hard won step by painful step, will unravel. There is as yet no equivalent for sustainable development of the Climate Change Act, carbon budgets and the reporting role of the Committee on Climate Change. These mechanisms do bind successive Parliaments and Governments to a clear overall direction of travel, even if their specific policies vary.

A Sustainable Development Act? A Commissioner for the Long Term? An Office for Future Generations? All have been mooted for the UK by a range of stakeholders and some have been established, or are being planned, in other countries, as a way of taking the future well-being of people and our planet out of short-term parliamentary cycles and partisan politics. If ever there was a candidate for cross-party consensus this is surely it. The Alliance for Future Generations is looking at this very question.

Humanity can no longer simply think of existing from generation to generation, but must ensure that the world we leave behind is as good as, if not better than, the one we found. In other words, we must govern for now and the future. We wish all who are engaged in this endeavour, in whatever organisation or community, courage and determination to continue this journey.

Will Day, Chair and Andrew Lee, Chief Executive, on behalf of the Commissioners and staff of the Sustainable Development Commission. 21st March 2011.

 

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