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Sustainability isn’t about being fluffy; it’s about being strategic



Unless you have a good set of instructions to follow, the end result will often never be as good as you’d hoped for or often not what you expected. At pretty much every level of society and across the globe, we often fail in applying sustainability effectively.

Some say this is because the components of the challenge are too complex. Others may state there are too many issues and actors; the systems we live within won’t enable success. A killer blow is often the exasperation of how can we be sustainable when the definitions used are so vague, incomplete and inapplicable.

When it comes to wanting to create a future sustainable planet and the societies that would inhabit it, I’d wager that every individual, society and country would agree to this as their main goal. Ask every business if they would like to be sustainable in the future and I’m sure they would all say yes (the alternative would illustrate quite a lot about the company’s ethics).

So, to begin with we should have consensus for a shared vision for example: to contribute fully to the creation of a future sustainable society.

If we are to agree on such a vision, we have to get the basics right. How do we define sustainability to be complete, applicable and able to deliver our vision? Many will go back and select the widely known Brundtland’s 1987 definition (“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”), or one of the many others but when applying the definition will face real confusion.

Are they applicable in all areas of life? How easy is it to know our progress? How will we know when we have arrived at our goal?

For success, we need to select our definition more wisely. One that can be used by anyone, regardless of location, culture and situation. One that can be applied in ways that we can identify progress towards our goal, and enables us to deal systematically. One that provides a common language, so that we all can work together, collaborate and create the new systems, products, services and relationships we need to forge ahead to achieve our vision.

With such a definition we would have the solid foundation to move society towards our vision.

Does such a definition exist? Yes, though many readers probably haven’t heard of it. Until seven years ago, I hadn’t heard of it either, yet the more I discovered about it the more I recognised this as the missing piece of the jigsaw that shows us the path forward.

It was designed based on principles set in science, peer-reviewed and able to be applied from a local to a global level. It recognised that human societies alter the natural systems that support all life in three fundamental ways. From this, it is possible to define the three basic ‘system conditions’ that have to be met if we are to ensure the natural systems can be maintained to meet our needs into the future. There is a fourth that helps us humans meet the social and economic sustainability needs of our fellows, many of which, if ignored, will generate human responses undermining the sustainability of the natural systems upon which we all depend.

The creative commons licensed Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (aka The Natural Step) is now over 20 years old and since implemented successfully by Nike, Ikea, InterfaceFLOR and many other large and small organisations and municipalities including Whistler (which set these principles in the delivery of the 2010 Winter Olympics).

It has also become the foundation to master’s programmes in Sweden (at Blekinge Institute of Technology, of which I am an alumnus), Brunel, Lund and a number of universities that see sustainability as an essential element of our future success.

The key word here is ‘strategic’. It could be argued that this is what we have been really poor at when applying sustainability. Though, with our vision to drive us and our applicable definition and framework as our principles and guidance tools that instruct us we can begin to deliver strategically towards our shared goal. The organisations above successfully did this, though society has generally failed in the strategic sustainability transformation we really need.

It could be argued that companies and societies that truly apply sustainability can, more or less, control their actions and outcomes. Such a state is far more preferable than what we will otherwise face: increasing competition for resources, natural support system collapse and the tragic social consequences of resulting from an unsustainable planet.

Yet how do we do this in the real world? Can governments do this? Can regions do this? Can the planet?

For some the argument that we haven’t been able to create consensus and effective action about climate change illustrates my view as optimistic, to say the least. I’d say that the climate change issue though central does not provide the framework for the changes the system has to make to ensure that climate change is achieved. With sustainability we are able to look at the whole system, identify the failings of the current systems and apply new ways of thinking that focus our capacities to innovate and deliver on systemic outcomes.

For success we have to seek this consensus, set on our vision to enable the buy-in to ensure commitment to the cause. We need sustainability literacy of leaders to recognise the challenge exists, our survival (success and thrive-ability) depends upon it. With this literacy and knowledge we can begin to frame existing systems, ideologies and processes in terms of their contribution to our long term success and adapt and move away from those that can’t deliver our vision.

We have leaders in business and municipalities delivering sustainability, there’s masses of academic research proving that using such a framework we can transform the way we do business and strengthen societies. What we don’t have is time, and sufficient leaders yet willing to challenge the status quo and defend our futures. We certainly have the proven, solid, science and organisationally backed definition and framework. We now have to use them strategically to build a successful society that we can be proud to say that we contributed to.

Simon Goldsmith has worked in the sustainability arena for the past 20 years, working in many sectors from campaigning for environmental NGOs, to reducing the impacts of multinational oil and gas companies. He has master’s degrees in both in sustainability leadership and environmental policy and works to help create innovative local solutions and lever ideas for transformational sustainability change. He is currently head of sustainability at the University of Greenwich, helping co-create and deliver their sustainability ambitions and visions throughout the organisation and beyond.

Further reading:

Success means seeing ourselves as part of the bigger system

We need more people with complete sustainability literacy

What gets measured gets managed: sustainability in 21st century business

Business rife with short-termism; just 7% feel pressure to deliver long-term returns

The Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility 2013

Simon Goldsmith has worked in the sustainability arena for the past 20 years, working in many sectors from campaigning for environmental NGOs, to reducing the impacts of multinational oil and gas companies. He has master’s degrees in both in sustainability leadership and environmental policy and works to help create innovative local solutions and lever ideas for transformational sustainability change. He also explores ways to engage people to connect authentically and passionately to become the sustainability leaders and heroes the future needs.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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