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Climate breakdown: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ | Guest blog, Stephen Martin and Stephen Sterling

Tags: climate change, guest blog, publication, research, sdgs
Published on March 29, 2019

2018 and 2019 launched a wide range of dire warning about the fragility of our planetary systems, notably David Attenborough’s speech at COP 24 on climate change and another dire warning about the alarming loss of planetary biodiversity from the UN’s biodiversity chief, Christiana Pascal Palmer. All of which cries out for a global call for action to exert immense pressure on our governments to set ambitious global targets.

Yet our political systems seem incapable of responding at scale and urgency to this existential crisis.  Our government was one of the first to sign up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Global Goals) in 2015. The 17 Global Goals and associated targets represent an unprecedented opportunity to tackle the root causes of climate change, biodiversity loss, eliminate extreme poverty and put the world on a more sustainable path. And yet three years after the goals were agreed, the UK government does not have a compelling and coherent plan on how the UK is going to achieve them. The government has made a commitment to report on the UK’s progress at the UN in New York in July 2019. This is closely followed by the UN SDG Heads of State Summit on the 24 and 25 September. The UN SDG Summit will be one of three high-level events taking place in September, along with the 2019 Climate Summit and the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development. These events will be mutually reinforcing in identifying areas for action to accelerate the progress towards sustainable development.

Growth in all of its forms is one of the greatest conundrums facing humanity in the 21 century. It can improve our living standards and health and well-being. Yet as a recent global photographic competition ( has depicted in graphic detail the dizzying growth of our cities and their dependency on scarce resources along with the relentless growth of the world’s population, all of which now threatens our very existence. We face a global environmental catastrophe in land use, food production and resource use which could undermine existing fragile economies and the sustainability of our civilisation.

And our politicians search relentlessly for solutions which will re-energise economic growth, with little evidence to date that their interventions are making any fundamental difference. So it’s not surprising that some of the worlds’ so – called sustainability experts have also found it impossible to reach any consensus on whether sustainable consumption and economic growth are compatible

But some recent analysis of the UK’s Material Flow Accounts for 2001-2009 suggest we are using less stuff now than the previous decade (Guardian 1/11/11- The Only way is Down ).

It seems that the grand total of stuff we use (minerals, fuel, wood etc) in the UK amounts to roughly 2 billion tonnes per year about 30 tonnes for each and every one of us. For our former London Mayor’s benefit that’s as heavy as 4 Route Master buses!

This data is potentially good news because it implies at least as I read it that we may have “decoupled “economic growth from material consumption. Genuine decoupling has been seen by many of us as unachievable. But is this really de-materialisation and hence the emergence of a Green Economy or as others have suggested is it the dawn of de-growth?

Whatever the answer our unsustainable lifestyles and commitment to perpetual economic growth are major political and social obstacles because they have become the major drivers of climate change on Earth. Jason Hickel recently suggested that the solution is “about changing the way our economy operates” (Guardian: 5 March).

Encouragingly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) form a new roadmap for our future that in principle aligns the economy with the Earth’s life support systems.  Yet a recent report by the Stockholm Resilience Centre[1] shows that attempting to achieve the socio-economic goals using conventional growth policies would make it virtually impossible to reduce the speed of global warming and environmental degradation.

The research team tested three other scenarios and the only one that met all goals was the one that implemented systemic transformational change. A key element in the model was reducing inequality by a redistribution of wealth, work and income, including ensuring that the 10% richest people take no more that 40% of the income. A huge challenge for many of our wealthy political elite!

We need immediate action and committed leadership now from our government to create a movement for change that embraces and actions the Global Goals: why is it so rare that we encounter in our political leadership the qualities needed to enable sustainability: humility, respect for all forms of life and future generations, precaution and wisdom, the capacity to think systemically and challenge unethical actions? And more worryingly on the basis of current performance, what hope of improvement is there for our collective future?

We have an unprecedented and immense challenge before us – with little choice but to engage.


Guest blog by:

Dr. Stephen Sterling is Emeritus Professor of Sustainability Education at the Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Plymouth, UK. A former Senior Advisor to the UK Higher Education Academy on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and a National Teaching Fellow (NTF), he has worked in environmental and sustainability education in the academic and NGO fields nationally and internationally for over four decades, including as a consultant and advisor on UNESCO’S Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programmes.He is currently co-chair of the UNESCO-Japan Prize on ESD International Jury, and a Distinguished Fellow of the Schumacher Institute.  He has a reputation as a thought leader in ESD and is widely published in this area, including The Sustainable University – progress and prospects. His most recent book is Post-Sustainability and Environmental Education: Remaking Education for the Future,  (co-edited with Bob Jickling, Pivot/Palgrave, 2017).

Professor Stephen Martin: Hon FSE; FRSB; F.I.Env Sci is a passionate advocate for learning for sustainability and has spent nearly 40 years facilitating and supporting organisations and governments in ways they can contribute towards a more sustainable future. For nearly a decade he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Further and Higher Education with national responsibility for Environmental Education and served as a special advisor to the Secretary of State in the Department of the Environment in drafting the education and training sections of HM Government’s first white paper on the Environment-Our Common Inheritance. More recently he was the founding Chair of the Higher Education Academy’s Sustainable Development Advisory Group and a former member of the UK‘s UNESCO Education for Sustainability Forum. He has held visiting professorships at the Open University, University of Hertfordshire, University of Gloucestershire and  currently, at the University of the West of England Over the past 15 years he has been a sustainability change consultant for some of the largest FTSE100 companies such as BP, Barclays, Tesco and Carillion as well as Government Agencies such as the  UK National Commission for UNESCO,Environment Agency, OFSTED, the Higher Education Academy and the Learning and Skills Council. He was formerly Director of Learning at Forum for the Future.

Please see this recent publication from Stockholm Resilience Centre for more on the themes explored in the blog: Transformation is feasible – How to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals within Planetary Boundaries


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