In so many ways sustainability requires working against the grain of much of contemporary society. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to join you today – and not just because I am hugely encouraged that the Sustainable Development Commission has been looking for breakthroughs for the 21st Century and we certainly need plenty of those!, but largely because it gives me an opportunity to congratulate Jonathon Porritt on his role as the first chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission.

Jonathon or Sir Jonathon Bt., as I like to call him occasionally! has been, as everyone knows, an extraordinarily brave champion for the environment over many years. Indeed, I first came across him when he was considered a dangerous radical involved with what was then thought to be rather an alarming organization. That was well over two decades ago when it was distinctly unfashionable to be talking about climate change, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. Now associating with dangerous radicals is of course a hazardous pastime. But how things have changed (he is now a much older radical! for a start and the fact that some of these things have changed is in large part due to Jonathon’s courage, determination and foresight, and he is owed the greatest possible debt of gratitude by us all for all his efforts.

Having said that, I also want to congratulate the more than 300 people who put pen to paper and submitted breakthrough ideas to the Commission. If only I’d known, it took me sometime to catch up with exactly what was going on here today, I would have submitted quite a lot of ideas of my own and from my organisations. It would certainly be interesting to see if any of their suggestions end up being put into practice.

This country has always excelled at producing great ideas. We just need to ensure that they are followed through. But that’s not so easy to achieve. I remember going to the United States thirty-something years ago and coming across a fascinating example of extracting methane from a landfill site before they then regenerated that landfill site and turned it into a golf course. The methane was being used for energy. I cam back to this country thinking what an interesting idea and tried to see if I could get some interest but it was just too early to achieve any kind of response.

Of course, sustainable development has never been an ‘easy’ concept. But few of the things that really matter in life are ‘easy’. Sustainability is difficult to define and difficult to achieve. That doesn’t make it any less important as an organizing principle of humanity for the 21st century.

I think it might actually be simpler to look at a list of the things that are clearly not sustainable about the way our species is currently living on its one and only planet. Most people would probably now start that list with the way much of the world’s banking system has been operated in recent years. The list would then go on to look at the giant global experiment we are conducting with the world’s climate and indeed with Nature herself. As a reminder, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you Ladies and Gentlemen here today, the latest science suggests that unless greenhouse gas emissions reach their absolute peak within about 96 months – yes, months – it may well be too late to stop temperatures rising to dangerous levels with all the terrifying consequences that will have for the whole of humanity. It isn’t very long at all when you think about it.

But the list of unsustainable human activities simply goes on and on from there. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was the most comprehensive stock-take of Nature ever undertaken. It revealed that roughly sixty per cent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth – such as fresh water, wild fisheries, air and water regulation, regional climatic regulation and natural pest control – are being degraded or used unsustainably.

The review looked at twenty-four different ecosystem services and found that fifteen of them are suffering ongoing degradation. It concluded that humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the last fifty years than in any other period. More land was converted to cropland in the thirty years after 1950 than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, first made in 1913, ever used on the planet has been used since 1985. As a result of our collective demands, some ten to thirty per cent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction. These facts are all truly frightening, and yet it is increasingly hard to understand why the whole world is not as gripped by this disaster as it was by the global banking collapse. Not least because, and this is the trouble, the long-term effects will be far, far more severe for every man, woman and child on this planet.

So, yes, we do need some breakthroughs. But we need breakthroughs in thinking and in mind sets, as well as in actions. Sustainability by its very nature is about integration, about weighing up all the factors, with a broad approach. Yet in today’s world that is a big disadvantage. I vividly remember asking in the run up to a visit to the European Commission, about 15-20 years ago, if I could meet the Agriculture and Environment Committees together to talk about sustainable agriculture. When my office put this request forward there was a long, appalled silence, followed by the suggestion that ‘Perhaps His Royal Highness doesn’t understand. The Agriculture Committee looks after Agriculture, and the Environment Committee looks after Environment, so what would they have to talk about?’ Needless to say, we did have a joint meeting and it went rather well. But I think you will find that that was the last time they ever met together.

The Sustainable Development Commission has, I know, done a huge amount to encourage integrated thinking. But the question of who ‘owns’ sustainability still seems to come up with alarming regularity – in Governments, in companies, among agencies and with the general public. The answer, of course, has to be that something so fundamental has to be ‘owned’ by each and every one of us, whether at home or at work. But that approach doesn’t fit well with the silo-thinking that still, whatever anyone says, dominates in most walks of life and expects someone to be nominated as ‘in charge’.

Another dimension of sustainability is that it tends not to produce clear-cut opportunities that can be developed and exploited in a conventional manner in market economies. It requires the joining up of disparate ideas, working across cultures and frequently across national boundaries. And it may mean taking some risks. Not everything is going to work.

In so many ways sustainability requires working against the grain of much of contemporary society. 

It feeds on better inter-disciplinary understanding and breadth of vision – in a world of ever-increasing specialization – and on new and more open dialogues – in a world that looks increasingly inwards.

It is easy, too, to see why sustainability, despite good intentions, all too often just doesn’t happen. Poorly designed incentives take people in the wrong direction; the need to deliver quick results for shareholders or electors can drive short-term thinking; or narrow ambition over-rides the precautionary principle. Indeed, this is precisely why I started my Accounting for Sustainability Project some five years ago.

If you think about it, when business or investment decisions are taken there is never a shortage of information about the financial dimension. We can see, for example, the prices of financial assets and the quantum of lending in a clear and measured way. However, the consequences of climate change and of over-consumption of finite natural resources are not as visible and quantified; and to add to this our current systems of reporting and accounting are too focussed on measuring short-term financial impacts, with values rarely given to the ecosystem services which, at the end of the day, sustain us. In other words, we lack the tools and systems to assess and report information about broader and longer term issues which, in the great scheme of things, are so much more important for us, and for our children and grandchildren, than any earnings per share or debt to equity ratio. The point of my Accounting for Sustainability Project is to help tackle this issue and ensure that sustainability is not just talked and worried about, so that it becomes “business as usual with very small green knobs on”, but becomes embedded in organizations’ ‘DNA’.

I am delighted that my Project Team, with the help of the wide range of companies, government departments and accountancy bodies that are very kindly working with us, is helping to develop the tools needed to survive and prosper in the face of the “sustainability revolution”. 
To give a very simple and, I am sure, well-worn example: we buy tomatoes grown in Southern Europe at good prices because the water used to grow them is not charged for fully. As a result, the water is being over-consumed and is rapidly running out, and those involved in the sector will in due course lose their livelihoods and we will face a shortage of tomatoes, which will become very much more expensive.

And, of course, it isn’t just manufacturing and producing companies that need better information to understand sustainability issues. When I was in Indonesia last year I happened to spot in the local English language newspaper an article about banks lending to companies that are cutting down the world’s great tropical rainforests to produce palm-oil. As many of you will know, the rainforests are the world’s life-support system, generating and storing much of the freshwater needed to grow food, fostering biodiversity on which mankind ultimately depends and providing livelihoods for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people. And to cap it all, deforestation contributes about twenty per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than the entire worldwide transport sector – and is the third largest contributor to climate change. In other words, banks, and financial institutions generally, also urgently need the tools and systems to be able to understand more clearly the longer-term and broader consequences of their lending and investment decisions

The whole point is that the environmental, social and economic challenges we face are linked. They cannot be addressed separately, however convenient that may seem to be. The links between them are so strong that the integrated solutions of sustainable development are essential in addressing the underlying issues. Issues such as energy and water, housing, health, land-use, transport and food and farming have to be addressed together.

In this way, it will be possible to deliver real benefits to developing communities which neither destroy the planet’s resources, nor shatter the very communities we are actually trying to help. For the concept of sustainable development is, of course, also about people and their needs. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to discover these solutions and to follow a path of development which will genuinely bring us forward.

I might however, just at this point, make it clear that I do not believe we should put all our eggs in the ‘techno-fix’ solutions basket. Of course we need to use all our power and ingenuity to find answers to the problems we face. But we do need to be careful that the cure is not worse than the disease at the end of the day.

I believe the challenge for the scientific community today is be at least as creative as it has in the past, but to develop solutions that respect the boundaries defined by sustainability considerations. For instance, there are huge opportunities for intelligent electricity distribution, with decentralized pathways and energy produced close to where it is consumed. This would maximize the potential for renewable energy and allow both heat and power from energy generation to be utilized. Finding a breakthrough that would achieve this at minimum cost will be a major challenge, but probably a good deal more sensible than geo-engineering. And incidentally Ladies and gentlemen, I was fascinated by some of the people I met just outside before I came in here with their ideas. Some of which were particularly interesting and valuable.

We should also, dare I say it, not dismiss old ideas. I was delighted to see that ‘biochar’, used by traditional peoples in the Amazon for tens of thousands of years to enhance soil fertility, is advocated in at least a couple of the breakthrough suggestions, but with the added dimension that it could sequester carbon in the soil on a huge scale.

I also remember seeing an inspiring example of sustainability in Northern India. Traditional, village-based systems of harvesting the monsoon rains, developed over thousands of years, fell into disrepair in the 1950s when powerful pumps allowed groundwater to be extracted instead. But this was an unsustainable short-term solution. The groundwater was not being replenished. Levels dropped below the reach of the pumps, irrigation became impossible and the villages began to decline as people drifted away to look for work in the cities. The breakthrough here was advocated and led by a remarkable man called Rajendra Singh. He encouraged a local self-help approach to rebuilding the ancient system of dams and ponds and started harvesting the monsoon once again. Groundwater levels crept back up, having disappeared almost entirely. Previously dried up rivers started flowing again and, twenty years later, more than half a million people in Rajasthan benefit from this particular example of sustainability in action. What this example also shows is that where we learn to work with Nature rather than against her, we can live more sustainably. And as we all work to rebuild the global economy, it is perhaps just worth recalling what the economist Herman Daly wrote about the natural world, he said “it is the envelope that contains, sustains and provisions the economy” – not the other way around’. To be truly sustainable we have to begin by understanding that we can no longer live off Nature’s capital. Once it is gone, it cannot be replenished. 
So we need to put Nature’s capital and community capital at the heart of a reformed approach to economics which recognizes that the current system is inherently unsustainable and in many ways the cause of many of the problems threatening to overwhelm us.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are a frighteningly long way from establishing sustainability as the central organizing principle in the battle for survival of our species. But the potential breakthroughs showcased here today and the work which the Sustainable Development Commission has done under Jonathon’s inspired leadership show just what could be done if we have the courage to harness human ingenuity, take a few risks, break the straightjacket of conventional thinking and – above all – take the long-term view that our descendants will surely expect of us.