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Government has a huge part to play in ensuring that sustainability is put at the forefront of our minds. Without its endorsement, it can be tricky for sustainability to seem relevant and practical in our daily lives. But government should not see sustainable practise as a burden: it is an opportunity for growth and for change. Governments – local and national – have the ability to motivate us to transform crises into opportunities, and many governments around the world are responding to the plastics crisis by creating interventions to help us create a more sustainable society.
Subsidising the right kind of energy is crucial
Although fossil fuel subsidies are decreasing, they still attracted US$260 billion in subsidies globally in 2016. This figure does not include the disastrous cost to the environment that will ensue via climate change, which effectively forms a second subsidy governments must cover. Meanwhile, renewable energy attracted US$140 billion in subsidies in 2016. To encourage the innovation, development and widespread use of renewables, this imbalance must be addressed.
To encourage sustainable behaviour, it must be made easy or be rewarded. ‘Return and earn’ schemes to reward recycling of bottles and other containers may be successful at removing plastics from the streets or general waste. In Germany this approach has seen an astounding 98.5% of refillable bottles returned by consumers. But the end use of this material is not as green as we may think, with some returned material still being burned elsewhere. Preventing use of these disposable items via plastic taxes and social norms should be paramount.
Transport and urban planning can increase the likelihood of people opting to travel in sustainable ways like walking or cycling. Designing cities with increased urban density in mind is positive for ensuring that people can walk safely to their destination.
Alongside positive measures, government bans can also be effective in discouraging unsustainable behaviours. France has banned supermarkets from throwing away unsold food with the aim of decreasing its contribution to the 1.3 billion tonnes of global food waste created each year.
Stories not statistics to make sustainability meaningful
The environment is not part of the economy. Rather, the economy is part of the environment. As a society, we need to recalibrate our view on this to fully appreciate the importance of sustainability as the foundation on which we build our world. To do this effectively, we need to hear stories not statistics. As the recent Iceland advert promoting the brand’s avoidance of palm oil demonstrated, people respond strongly to specific, meaningful stories, even at the expense of objectivity.
Government must therefore increase awareness that the linear (disposable) economy model is not sustainable via meaningful messages. This will increase the understanding of the importance of sustainability, the tangible risks of climate change and environmental destruction and will prompt people to act.
‘Do as I do, not as I say’ is crucial if policies are to result in action. Government have a role to play in ensuring their own policies are sustainable, in making it easy or appealing for others to act sustainably and in communicating issues meaningfully to maximise understanding and impact. A radical shift of worldview is required, but is not out of reach.