Pathways to Sustainability conference story
Accelerating the sustainability transformation
“Nature is sending us a message,” said the UN Environment chief, Inger Andersen, responding to the corona crisis. While we all try to make sense of corona, we are all also aware of other crises looming: the climate crisis, with biodiversity loss, thawing ice, and rising social inequality. Many would argue that the corona crisis should be understood against the background of human encroachment of nature and ecological degradation of the planet.
Even more reason to think about pathways to sustainability. How do we speed up the sustainability transition? On 5 March scientific director of Pathways to Sustainability Prof Maarten Hajer took us on a journey into accelerating the sustainability transformation. Below we tell the story of the exchange of world leading experts with the 500 participants of the Pathways to Sustainability Conference in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht.
Today’s struggle for sustainability is not merely about reducing CO2 emissions and respecting biodiversity. Today, we stand for the challenge to address our fossil culture. Defining pathways is not just about taking technical measures. Recent inaugural lectures by our scientists, whether on high mountains or deep seas, all end with a firm conclusion: we have to rapidly start to cut back on our CO2 emissions, radically and quick.
It is always ‘five to twelve’ and there is always ‘ten years to save the world’. Is it not time to reconsider our role more fundamentally?
For this we must change tack. We sound like a broken record ever since the early 1970s. Our role as scientists was to predict, to appeal to the political leadership. In the best of cases the leader then appealed to us, citizens, to try and help create a ‘decent world for our children and grandchildren’. And then the leader closes off with the call to act now. This has been the narrative and our practice for half a century. It is always ‘five to twelve’ and there is always ‘ten years to save the world’. Is it not time to reconsider our role more fundamentally?
Frankly, I cannot see that we can get on to a pathway to sustainability if we continue this way. It requires a shift in performances, new ways of acting, new alliances, new insights, new imaginaries of what the world could be like. We will need to address our engrained habits, our very idea of how we want to live.
Fortunately, there is hope. The system is changing, although it is difficult to judge where we are in changing tack exactly. We can see some indicators of a shift. The financial sector is waking up. A new environmental movement has become active. The moral dimension is reintroduced into the debate. Moreover, our practice as scientists is starting to change. We step out of the confines of the routines and dare to connect the dots and use language and concepts that cannot not be fully supported by empirical evidence.
Academics can help make a difference if we are willing to join hands, across disciplines and across the university - society divide.
Academics can help make a difference if we are willing to join hands, across disciplines and across the university - society divide. I think this could amount to creating a new cooperative commonwealth of scholars and stakeholders, exploring new ways of accelerating the transition.
From the heart of European green politics
So how are we going to achieve the sustainability transition together? What role could Europe play to speed it up? Let us hear from Dr Hans Bruyninckx, who reports from the heart of European politics.
The Director-General of the European Environmental Agency, in charge of a major assessment agency, has investigated transitions and regimes in environmental governance himself. How does he perform the science-policy interface? (ppt slides)
The dynamics is elsewhere
For too long we have assumed that politics will be in the lead. Perhaps we should reconfigure our understanding, and appreciate the web of interdependencies that dominate the political in our day and age. A more appropriate way of considering effective politics may be to conceive of it as the art of being the first follower. This suggests that the dynamics is always elsewhere, is social or socio-physical: chemicals, a fair transition, the logic of a changing system. So let’s now look at other potential sources of acceleration. We’ll hear from Utrecht University professor Petra de Jongh on the promise of next generation catalysis and energy conversion and storage (ppt slides), and Utrecht University professor Koen Frenken on mission-oriented innovation policy (ppt slides).
Achieving change on the ground
What does accelerating the sustainability transition look like on the ground, in Utrecht? One of the faces of the sustainability transition in Utrecht is alderwoman Lot van Hooijdonk from the Green Left party. Her responsibilities include mobility and the energy transition. Dr Peter Pelzer from Utrecht University interviews her.
Connecting the physical to the social
If there is reason for hope it is also because we seem to find a new voice, one that speaks to our existential crisis. I feel encouraged by recent scientific papers on tipping points and social tipping elements, which in their set-up suggest there is a growing recognition for a new type of interdisciplinary science. One that reconnects the physical back to the social. On tipping points in climate science we should hear from Tim Lenton, Professor of Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter (ppt slides). As part of our growing attempt to find modes to connect in a more sustainable way, Tim spoke to us via a video connection at the conference.
How do we achieve breakthroughs in accelerating the sustainability transformation in practice, in sectors such as food, industry, and circular cities? In interactive Breakthrough Sessions, we discovered how to reach ‘unreachable’ allies, advance sustainable deltas, protect crops without chemicals, reshape Dutch industry towards 2050, and build circular cities.
Whirlwind of positive energy
The Pathways to Sustainability conference went like a whirlwind in which we all felt the positive energy that comes from exchanging thoughts, from listening to people who share their imaginations in creative ways, who dare to go on untrodden paths and explore new collaborative formats. We hope sharing this story of the conference helps to generate the massive collective energy needed to break with unsustainable habits and create a sustainable future for all.