The Growth Versus Environment Narrative Needs To Change In 2014

The last year was not a landmark one for progress on sustainability here in the UK. The government has remained obsessed with short term GDP growth and the sense that policy and ambition for sustainability are in reverse gear is palpable.

The prime minister's alleged call to "get rid of the green crap" rather sums up the dire circumstances now faced by those looking for progress in response to ever more certain scientific reports.

Despite the reluctance of many ministers to even recognise sustainability challenges, never mind actually doing anything about them, positive progress is being made through some other routes. I suggested at the end of 2012 that 2013 would see progress in the collection, use and reporting of environmental and social information by companies to complement that which they provide about their financial performance. This has indeed been the case, with a number of initiatives, such as TEEB for Business, gathering considerable momentum. There is a long way to go on this, but at least this ball is now rolling.

Looking forward to 2014, the UK will be in pre-election mode. This will be the time when environment and sustainability questions need to get back on the agenda. If this is to be the case in a way that leads to substantial manifesto promises, then it seems to me that the growth versus the environment narrative that has become so prominent among key ministers and media outlets needs to be effectively challenged and changed.

This is not simple, but is doable. Conservation and environment groups, leading companies, commentators and economists could work to embed a different narrative, one that describes the social and economic benefits that could come through embracing sustainability. That is my hope. My prediction is less positive. I fear sustainability will remain at the margins of debate with a near total absence of leadership from politics and with the small group of leading companies struggling to maintain profitability in the face of competitors who favour business as usual.

On the global stage too I fear 2014 will offer more disappointment than it does progress. Crucial will be Ban Ki-moon's Heads of State level Climate Summit at the UN in September. This attempt to get the outline of a climate change deal well in advance of the deadline in Paris in December 2015 could well be the world's last chance to avoid very damaging levels of climate change. The outcome from the UN climate talks in 2013 in Warsaw does not provide good foundations for rapid progress.

Moving forward in 2014 will be a challenge, both domestically and globally. Where leadership will come from is not clear, and unfortunately neither is strong public demand for action. Under such circumstances, those who do get it need to find different ways to achieve impact. Whatever that might be, the first job is to change the narrative. While crude growth at any cost trumps sustainability, I don't believe we are going anywhere different any time soon.

This article was first published by The Guardian 30th December 2013.