On the day that Worldwatch Institute launched State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? 69,578 cyclists crossed the Dronning Louise Bridge into the centre of Copenhagen providing a very simple answer to that very weighty environmental question. Of course sustainability is possible, if we make sustainable choices. In the Danish capital, hundreds of thousands of people have chosen the bicycle as their main mode of transport, turning Nørrebrogade, a main thoroughfare into the city, into Europe’s busiest road in terms of bicycle traffic.
Worldwatch president Robert Engelman kicked off the launch event by talking about the concept of “sustainability”. He asked whether the word itself is “sustainable” – coming to the conclusion that yes, it is possible, but that a lot of work needs to be done. In the spirit of the first section of the State of the World 2013 report, which he authored, Engelman explains that the book examines if there are market indicators that show us when we are surpassing sustainability in the different resources that we use, and in the second section whether we can use those methods to develop policies for a more sustainable state. The third section asks how we will have to adapt if we don’t manage to achieve a sustainable society.
Is there a way to bring real prosperity and real quality to the world without having to overuse the earth’s resources, he asks. He explains the importance of moderating the amount of fossil fuels that are responsible for increasing temperatures which may potentially make the world uninhabitable by humans.
Engelman gave the example of Cuba becoming truly sustainable when it lost its main patron in 1989 - after the collapse of the Soviet Union - and was forced to become more self-sufficient and less dependant on fossil fuels. Cuba also started creating municipal gardens, and improving life and health indicators.
He said that we can not have environmental sustainability without social sustainability because it will not last. He highlighted the potential of using natural methods to absorb carbon and added that we cannot solve the problem of sustainability if we do not have national, international, and local governance. “Get the government to prioritize public interest over private well-being.” Engelmans says. The real question Engelman raises is how to make people think of the welfare of future generations when they live so well today, and concludes that the real work in sustainability will be made in the social sphere. “Time is the scarcest resource of all, but our minds, brains, hearts, and souls are the most abundant natural resources of all. We need to use them for this cause”.
The Danish Development Minister Christian Friis Bach followed by also talking about the importance of cutting down on fossil fuels. “If we got rid of fossil fuel subsidies we could cut global emissions by 13%”, and gave the example of the World Bank who offered Egypt a social protection scheme in return for cutting fossil fuel consumption. He says that the combination of less fossil fuels, energy efficient measures, together with tariffs for renewable energies and a social protection scheme would result in lower CO2 emissions, less poverty, more growth, and improved welfare for the country. “That’s how one needs to tackle sustainability and it can be done”, he said.
The General Secretary of the Nordic Council of Ministers Dagfinn Høybråten pointed out ways in which leaders can move the sustainability road from “babble” to action. “If there is political will to stay on the goals and stay on the action, we can do it”, He says that it’s not about scarcity but about access to resources. He also outlined the importance of teamwork and showcased a number of joint projects. He said that in the decision making process, there needs to be more content, and not just minor improvements.
Questions from the audience to the speakers on pension funds, de-growth, and de-population, and whether the world is moving away from sustainability sparked vigorous debate. The President of the Worldwatch Institute, Robert Engelman, said that what we need to achieve is a higher standard of living with more quality, and that this in no way implies reducing the population to do that.
The second session of the conference, Getting to True Sustainability, examined policies and perspectives that could build a truly sustainable society if implemented. Ed Groark, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Worldwatch Institute, set the tone for the discussion asking how we came to live in a society that is exploiting all of its resources to make products that we dispose of. “It takes a hundred cans of water to make aluminum for one can” was just one of the examples he gave to show that we do not really think about where these products go once we no longer need them. Is it possible that corporations evolve in a way that they can support our grandchildren’s society indefinitely and sustainably? He suggested five principles in order for a corporation to become sustainable - recycle materials, renewable energy, waste free production, resource productivity, non-linear productivity. He concluded that companies will get a competitive advantage over time and will evolve to become more profitable through sustainability.
Jasper Steinhausen, Chief Market Manager of Sustainability at COWI, a leading northern European consulting group that provides state-of-the-art services within the fields of engineering, environmental science, and economics, responded positively to the question of whether businesses can function as a driver of sustainability. He suggested a shift to renewable energy and biodegradable materials. “Reuse of second or third-hand products might create local jobs” he said and concluded that companies should challenge existing structures and routines in order to survive.
Katherine Richardson, Professor in Biological Oceanography at Copenhagen University, took the debate to a different level by talking about the climate and about how the human species can actually affect the whole way that the planet functions. She pointed to the different stages the earth has gone through in the past, where at some point the human species understood its course, and thrived, and underlined nine different points where scientists wouldn’t want to intervene but let nature and humans take their course.
On the question of whether sustainability is still possible she said that this is not the question we should ask ourselves because “We’ve only just developed the tools for sustainability and there is no definition for the environmental and social components". “Who has the right to use the last half of a certain resource?” she asked and concluded by saying that if we are going to use that resource we should use it properly. “We have an important role as human beings and we should not ask how to take care of the planet but how to take care of ourselves”, Richardson said.
Last but not least, Martin Ågerup, Director of CEPOS (Centre for Political Studies) appeared in the role of the devil’s advocate, and challenged the previous three speakers by saying that he does not consider sustainability an emergency - he said it’s all about adapting because “society was never sustainable is a steady state but we’re still around because we have adapted to new situations”. Instead he defended the free market by saying that it has been quite capable of dealing with scarcity and environmental problems. “Most of us are better off than 20 years ago and we are solving environmental problems by recognising that we can adapt” he said. He questioned certain aspects of the book such as working time policies, minimum and maximum wages, progressive tax rates approaching 100%, rewriting our cultural narrative and copying New Guinea and Cuba as an example of sustainability saying that all this is utopian stuff and not the kind of thing that will move us forward. He agreed with the idea of a common tax system.
Katherine Richardson responded by saying that there is a labour, economic, and resource limited market, we need to make the transition and it’s not certain that the market can do that on its own. She also argued that some things the market and technology can not change in the natural system such as phosphorus which cannot be replaced. Technology can’t make energy either. There will be a transition to other forms of energy, Martin Ågerup says but the question is how and when.
Can businesses find ways of using resources more efficiently? Is sustainability a useful term? Should we be limited to how much we earn or how many crops we grow? "No, I don’t want that", Martin Ågerup says. But in Richardson’s opinion, “Businesses will take it where they want to go”. Groark is keen to point out that. “Corporations will start responding to a little bit of scarcity but unless it is hurting them economically they will not have the motivation, but they are quite adaptable. We just have to give them the motivation to do that”, he adds.
“We are not talking about picking the winner. All we are saying is where society wants to go in the future.” Richardson concludes.
A lot of ideas, a lot of different opinions, and a lot of intellectual passion did not always agree. But where the experts DO agree is that as human beings, we need to collectivley get on our bikes and make sustainability a practical reality. Copenhagen’s thousands of cyclists would surely approve.