Sustainability is good, right? Its promise is a world where resources are used responsibly and a future that does not include the nightmare of catastrophic climate change. Yet, so far, we have not made the changes in our lives that would make sustainability a reality. We may agree in theory, but we seem unable to put it into practice.
Recent history is not encouraging. The extent of the climate-change threat has been known for almost two decades, yet global emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases continue to grow.
But the past may not be the best guide to the future. History is full of examples of rapid unexpected changes, both good and bad, from the antibiotics revolution to the outbreak of the First World War. These are tipping points, where many factors combine to spark a sudden alteration in the course of history.
On the brink
Could we be on the brink of a tipping point on sustainability and climate change? That is something that up to now has been seen as merely possible, but today is moving from possible to likely.
There is no exact science of the tipping point. It seems that a combination of authoritative data, policy interventions and powerful public influencers can combine to create a moment where the accepted way of doing things suddenly changes. And research shows that massive disruptions such as the Covid-19 pandemic can also be powerful catalysts for long-term behaviour change.
Some of these conditions are already in place. One widely-noted policy innovation is the reorganisation of urban transport during the coronavirus pandemic. From Milan to Bogotá, from London to New York City, planners have been increasing the space allocated to cyclists and walkers to help reduce close contact transport in buses. New infrastructure to support distanced mobility has sprung up in these cities, and it is there to stay. Almost by stealth the expectation of a zero-carbon mobility alternative has been established.
A small change, perhaps – yet it is the nature of tipping points that small changes can have large effects. And one large effect already visible is the way underlying attitudes are shifting, worldwide.
The Pew Research Center has been tracking attitudes to climate change since 2013, and the latest surveys show big increases in the percentages of people who think climate change is a major threat. In France, for example, 83 per cent of people said this in 2019, up from little more than 50 per cent in 2013. Many other countries show comparable increases in awareness.
The power of personality is aiding some of these changes. Recognised figures such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough are probably a lot more influential than cold data when it comes to altering people's expectations and behaviours – particularly aided by social media.
And now change is also visible in the heart of the establishment. A number of influential voices in business have started arguing the case for very big carbon-emission cuts, from oil companies to carmakers.
What countries do and say is probably more important still. The world's two biggest emitters of CO2 are the US and China, and both countries are adopting ambitious new carbon reduction policies. The US is set to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, while China surprised many in 2020 by announcing a target of carbon neutrality by 2060.
These are the kinds of initiatives that help change people's mindsets. The question now is whether tangible actions will follow.
There is one big reason to think so, and that is Covid-19. We have just been through a year when everything has had to change. We have learnt that it is possible to alter deeply ingrained habits, and to do it quickly.
We already knew that adopting sustainability and heading for net zero carbon was going to be very expensive. But after this pandemic year, the world economy needs to be rebuilt anyway. So why not build it back sustainably?
In the coming months, as the pandemic recedes, there will most likely be a rush back to normality – and for a while it will look like the old normal. People will drive and fly again, making up for lost time. The year of coronavirus will (hopefully) seem like a bad dream.
But deeper down things will be different, because, almost by accident, we may have passed the tipping point on sustainability. And nothing, including the world of mobility, will ever be quite the same.