I remember when the solution to creating a sustainable world looked simple. It was symbolised by a three-legged stool. Each leg represented an equally important set of factors which were all that was needed to support a stable and equitable future for people and the planet – environmental, economic and social. Back in the 90s, there was a general sense that if you had these three covered in some way you could sit back and relax as you were doing ok.
But sustainability is far more complicated than that.
Instead of three key factors, try the 17 priorities which the United Nations has since set out in its vision for a better, more sustainable future for all. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relate to the interconnected global challenges we all now face. Intertwined with climate change are a host of other crises, including poverty, hunger, gender inequality, environmental degradation and social injustice.
But while it’s important to meet each one of the 17 Goals, there is an obvious tension between delivering on all of them while recognising the overriding, urgent need to combat the climate emergency. That goal is at the centre of the list, at number 13, and it graphically illustrates the complex web of damaging consequences resulting from our collective and lasting failure to live within our means.
However, there’s no denying the need to improve living conditions for people across the globe by establishing more schools, safer sanitation, accessible health care and digital transformation for all. The challenge is in how we do all of that without using up the Earth’s limited resources, thus creating yet more problems in an endless spiral of biodiversity loss, pollution, soil erosion and global warming.
For the first time in history, the materials entering the global economy each year now exceed 100 billion tonnes. That stark statistic, revealed during the latest World Economic Forum in Davos last month, follows an earlier OECD report forecasting that our global demand for resources is set to almost double from 90 billion tonnes in 2018 to 167 billion tonnes by 2060. What is more pertinent is that all of this consumption will accelerate faster still as global temperatures rise further, while also directly causing greater habitat loss, water scarcity and environmental injustice.
Put in the context of global pledges to make genuine progress and the reality is harsh. It is just four years since 182 countries, including the UK, signed the landmark Paris Agreement (2016) committing to try to keep average global temperature rises to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. It is also only five years since the adoption of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015) to tackle the growing inequalities around the world.
Instead we have further evidence, where none was needed, that the more we plunder our planet’s limited resources for more raw material for our over-consumption, the more the threats to survival grow. And Scotland is part of the problem – but also part of the solution.
Our demand for resources is the single greatest cause of Scotland’s own global carbon emissions. Around 80 per cent of our own carbon footprint comes from the products and materials we consume. Roughly half of this impact comes from the stuff we import from overseas to feed our huge consumption habit. The way we live doesn’t just create carbon emissions here in Scotland. It also causes significant emissions (and all the other related environmental damage) in the many other countries which we increasingly buy in goods and materials from.
Scotland was among the first nations to declare a climate emergency, a statement which the Scottish Government backed up with a bold commitment to end the nation’s contribution to the climate crisis by 2045. The government’s target to reach net-zero by 2045 is one of the most ambitious in the world. It’s a fantastic start, but it can’t be the endpoint. It only takes us half-way to eliminating our impact.
That’s because net-zero only addresses the emissions we create within Scotland’s borders, our territorial emissions. It doesn’t include any of those consumption emissions from that vast array of imported products and services. If we are serious about eradicating Scotland’s contribution to the climate crisis, we must do something about this too. We need to go beyond net-zero. And we need to do it now.
The switch to a circular economy is the key. That means making things last. Our traditional linear economy – of ‘make, take and throw’ – and the rise of disposable goods from fast food to fast fashion is now so wasteful this model is well and truly broken. There is no place for needless single-use products whether plastic or any other material.
Switching to circular maximises the value of what we already have by keeping things in use, while also designing everything we still need to make so it is easy to reuse, repair, remake and finally recycle. This not only avoids waste but also lessens demand to extract more raw materials from dwindling supplies in the ground.
I spoke about this earlier this month at a key conference on public sector sustainability held at the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh.
Councils, universities and NHS boards are uniquely placed to drive the change needed to create the sustainable, fair future that we want – not just here in Scotland but globally.
The public sector’s vast spend gives it the power to lead national transformation, radically changing how Scotland demands and uses products and materials.
Scottish public sector bodies spend around £11 billion each year on goods and services. So, by switching to circular procurement the public sector will not only make vast savings in waste and carbon emissions, but will crucially act as a ‘market pull’ for circular businesses and more sustainable supply chains which will then also release such savings across the private sector and the country at large.
Switching to circular definitely makes sense economically. Zero Waste Scotland has calculated that it could save Scottish businesses at least £3billion a year. We are already working with more than 200 pioneering circular firms across Scotland who are demonstrating that there is a new way of doing business – and a new way of ensuring that our valuable resources create continuing economic, environmental and social benefit rather than mountains of waste and unwanted byproducts from industry.
Among the most successful pioneers so far is innovative Glasgow firm EGG Lighting, which leases light fixtures and fittings as a service instead of a product to be bought and binned the minute a single part stops working. By providing ongoing maintenance for existing lighting, EGG eliminates the need for more raw materials to make more new fittings, cutting costs in waste, carbon and cash for itself and its customers.
In East Kilbride, Re-Tek leases refurbished IT equipment, providing technology as a reusable, repairable service. Exciting emerging Scottish businesses are developing ways to provide sound, heating and cooling services in a similar way. After all, for buyers it is performance that is being sought, not ownership of expensive pieces of hardware which soon become disposable and outdated.
All of this is supporting innovation and building more sustainable supply chains, creating jobs, training opportunities and greater social cohesion. The impact that the circular economy can have on social cohesion is growing too. Scotland Excel (the national centre of procurement expertise for local authorities) is enabling councils to buy second-hand furniture and white goods from social enterprises and SMEs to help rehouse families in crisis. The scheme, established in 2016 with support from Zero Waste Scotland, has saved councils more than 10 per cent on community care grants and seen them spend more than £1 million, supporting hundreds of families in need and preventing nearly 2000 household goods from being sent to landfill. What lies beneath, however, is the opportunity for training and employment for a new workforce in the refurbishment and re-supply of the reused goods.
My speech last week was a ‘call to action’ for the public sector to understand the global impacts our purchasing decisions can have, and to realise the opportunity each organisation and member of staff can have to shape a fairer, more sustainable world. This opportunity doesn’t rely on having the ‘right’ frameworks and processes in place, it’s about leadership – real leadership in a time of crisis.
And that crisis – the climate crisis – remains the greatest challenge of our lifetime. Pressure is mounting as Glasgow gears up to host global leaders at COP26, the next global climate crisis summit, in November this year. The world is coming to us. We will soon be face-to-face with people from other countries whose daily lives are blighted by the impact of our own wasteful lifestyles and ways of working. The urgent need, and the opportunity, to lead the world is greater than ever. We must demonstrate that we are not only ending our contribution to the climate crisis here in Scotland, but also preventing the damage we are causing across the globe. As the UN has made clear, we must leave no one behind. There is really no time to waste.