I recently attended the event, Sustainability in Turbulent Times: how can research, policy and business meet global challenges? The one-day conference was an exploration of the complexity of sustainability in the current context of uncertain times in the Western world. The breadth of the discussions can be explored in the visual representation of the day, as can be seen in the image below. The complexity comes with the decision for the UK to leave the European Union, and the potential implications for the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ on our current Environmental Legislation, of which, 80 per cent is suggested to come from the European Union. In addition to the uncertainty in the UK, there is the environmental uncertainty in the USA with Donald Trump’s political views on environmental climate change.
Achim Steiner, Director of Oxford Martin School, gave a fascinating opening keynote speech on ‘Global sustainability goals in a new political climate’. He stated we are currently in “turbulent, but amazing times”. Although turbulent times, he acknowledged in society there are greater connections, capacity to act, and wealth than ever before. His discussion of amazing times included the historical significance of the COP21 agreement by 195 countries adopting the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal, and the significant adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Steiner acknowledged, if the SDGs are used appropriately to frame the collective and used at local governance levels, rather than a global governance system, they will have a significant impact. It can be suggested by others, that Wales are global leaders in the implementation of the SDGs at a national policy level, through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Steiner also discussed the challenge of managing transition and complexity in the context of developing a different economic vision. This is often discussed in terms of Green Growth, the Circular Economy or in terms of happiness/ well-being. He acknowledged the need to embed people as part of an economic shift, to ensure social choices help the paradigm transition from an economy focused on GDP to a new set of economic priorities. Steiner gave the example of the renewable energy sector as disruptive in creating the shift in priorities through the global implementation of renewable energy to decarbonise electricity, due partially to the Chinese mass-production, which significantly reduced costs.
A further session of the conference focused on the ‘Post-Brexit environmental policy’ and the implications of Brexit for agriculture, fisheries, wildlife, water, energy, climate and nexus issues. There was consensus from the panel about the significant influence European legislation has had on the UK environment. Diverse areas were discussed, such as clean beaches, cars, river ways, improved resource management, air quality, and agricultural subsidies. The panel noted the need for the UK to go beyond the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to introduce environment legislation that will protect the UK environment and agriculture sectors. The UK must also recognise that any legislation introduced will require monitoring, reporting and enforcement. The panel also discussed the need for a land use strategy for the UK, to measure and monitor what landscape is used for and to explore the value of land beyond agricultural production.
The conference also had the cross-cutting theme of communication. In a current era where the populist view is sceptical of ‘experts’, the way environmental research and evidence is communicated to the public is more critical than ever before. Steiner noted the need for effective communication of environmental challenges in ways that individuals could relate to and understand. This was again reiterated by Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth with the need to communicate effectively with positive messages, but also negative messages when necessary. He noted the need for Friends of the Earth to segment their audiences to communicate differently dependent upon the audience, but always ensuring it is accessible. For example, “our bees are in crisis” campaign used bees to communicate a complex discussion about the loss of ecosystems and habitats in the UK to a wider audience.
Another theme of the conference was the need to continue to develop evidence that explores complex areas of society for the right policy decisions to be made. At Miller Research, we are pleased to be a part of the evidence development to inform policy in Wales. Our recent projects showcase our insight into the complexity of development evidence for sustainability in the complex political and social landscape. A couple of our projects are outlined below.
- Environment and Rural Affairs stakeholders’ response to the decision to leave the European Union. We carried out a series of workshops with stakeholders to gain a clear understanding of the key opportunities, risk and threats to creating a sustainable future for Wales’ agriculture, fisheries and environment sectors post Brexit. This resulted in a summary paper about the opportunities and risks of Brexit for the sector; this was developed for the Welsh Government team and the Cabinet Secretary to inform their discussions with partners.
- Bridgend Well-being Assessment, as a requirement of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The assessment discusses the nexus complexity of the social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being of members of the public living in Bridgend. This research conducted for the Public Service Board will inform the Local Well-being Plan to meet the requirement of all public bodies to carry out sustainable development aligned with the seven well-being goals.
As Steiner explored, we currently live in complex, but amazing times, and we have the opportunity to develop evidence to inform the social, economic and environmental policy decisions for our uncertain future.