Sustainability in this Brave, New World

So 2016 has been a pretty “interesting” year then. We find ourselves in a situation whereby the previously unthinkable has occurred:

  • The election to office in Australia the likes of Pauline Hanson and her so-called One Nation Party, following an election with a frankly farcical length of time to announce final outcomes as to control of the Lower House and Senate (one could have been excused for thinking we were in 1916, rather than 2016).
  • The decision of the UK people (albeit by a slim margin) to want to leave the European political and economic union, leaving even those that pushed for it dumb-founded and at somewhat of a loss as to what to do next.
  • And last but by no means the very least, the election of a climate change-denying property magnate and reality television star to the highest office in Western democracy (and the oldest president-elect in US history to boot for those that are interested).

Whatever your political leanings or beliefs, I think most would agree the year has been an “interesting” one.

So where does this leave sustainability and sustainable development?

My initial thoughts and feelings, particularly after the election of Trump in the US, was one of dismay (and that’s putting things mildly. I’ll admit I did have a few choice words to say at the time), but having had some time to reflect I’m thinking otherwise. Whilst the political context has shifted, drivers for change have not and those drivers have driven a number of things down the road (or started on the journey at least) towards sustainable development enough that I believe they will continue apace.

Such as?

Cost

Well, one of the big ones is cost drivers. Costs for renewable energy technologies is dropping, and business cases are really starting to stack up now with economies of scale in the market, particularly in comparison with less sustainable, non-renewable energy sources (not to mention the environmental impacts of reaching and extracting fuels and their transport).

There’s also the relatively little time it takes to set-up either larger scale or more localised energy generation schemes. Far less time than a new gas plant, coal gassification, coal or other large-scale non-renewable technology plant.

Risk and Divestment

And besides, large institutional investors are beginning to divest away from fossil fuel technologies (see Hazlewood as a case in point), because of the climate change risk realities we’re faced with, desire for wider community to start divesting away from such technologies and no doubt the economics of such infrastructure (see points above).

Resilience and Capacity Building

The need for and understanding of the need for more resilient energy generation and distribution (see recent South Australian black-outs as a case in point). With increasing intensity of weather events impacting on infrastructure, the ability for local communities to generate and distribute their own energy becomes more of a physical requirement and makes more sense from a community resilience point of view.

Innovation and the Business Imperative

There are companies like Tesla, who are doing exceedingly well at making a great business and competitive edge out of driving more sustainable technologies, that people are beginning to purchase. It’s not mainstream market as yet, but it’s definitely headed in that direction (see Tesla Powerwall, electric vehicles, solar roof tiles). Who knows where this will lead, but so long as there is competitive advantage and a business case companies like Tesla will continue to thrive and grow.

Community Action

Communities are also demanding and creating forward momentum in sustainable development too. There are a number of local council communities here in Victoria, from my own personal experience and knowledge, that are really pushing things foward with the likes of community solar schemes using the power of the people within a small town or region to generate scale, drive down prices, and then with solar systems being donated to schools and other community facilities once enough units have been purchased. Within the community, community members and civil society groups are also demanding greater transparency from business and the corporate sector, improved governance, greater equality and so on.

In closing, with Trump’s election, the election of Hanson and her ilk in this country and the desire for swathes of people in the UK, primarily those outside of major urban centres, to separate from the EU, one of the important things to do at this time is to really understand and consider what it is that is driving ordinary people to elect in people of this nature.

Yes, sustainable development will continue apace, is my belief. It just makes sense. However, we need to be cognisant of the reasons behind why 2016 has been such an “interesting” year and the messages indirectly relayed.

What is it that people feel like they’re being promised by these people or by making a move in a certain direction? What is not happening for these people, and hasn’t happened for a long time, that we really need to take note of? Sustainable development encompasses all, and for this brave, new world we need to take note.

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