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Opinion: Just Climate Politics Depends on Redefining How We Think of ’Sustainability’

Updated: Feb 16

Disclaimer: Opinion pieces are representative of the opinion of the individual, rather than Fifty Percent as an organisation.

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted by world leaders in 2015 and came into force in 2016. The 17 goals set out a path by which the world is to transition from a linear economy, largely regarded as responsible for the earth’s ecological breakdown, into a more socially just, circular one. The SDGs address pressing global issues such as poverty, gender equality, access to clean water and energy, as well as education and climate action - among others.

And here’s why this is not enough.

In the Western world, the dominant narrative around sustainability focuses heavily on renewable energy and more ’sustainable’ ways to consume, no matter your income or social class. People are increasingly being directed toward choosing more climate-friendly alternatives by the use of different incentives. Which ultimately ends up shifting the blame for the climate crisis onto the consumption choices of individuals. In this framework investing in climate related stocks is being branded as the entirety of the solution, and the green agendas of governments encourage the growth of industries branded as ‘green’, as SDG12 stresses more responsible production and consumption patterns. The growth-centric economy, that has played a substantial part in creating our current problems, is now being branded as the solution in fear of placing overt criticism on the system. ’Sustainability’ has come to be associated with something that, in my opinion, cannot be truly sustainable. Namely a capitalist system relying on growth.

There is no ‘sustainable’ growth on a finite planet.

The system upon which the current plan to save us from the looming climate catastrophe is built is inherently incompatible with the finite nature of our planetary resources. No matter how the natural resources are exhausted, as long as the wellbeing and livelihood of people all over the world rely on ever-increasing consumption, the solutions are not socially or ecologically sustainable. As long as climate politics revolve around making growth greener, the planet will not soon recover from the current level of overconsumption.

The current dominant perception of the concept of ’sustainability’, and its close ties to economic growth, often overlooks the social aspect. Climate politics that fail to consider the wellbeing and survival of groups who are currently at a disadvantage in our global society create fragile foundations for the building of a greener future for all. By doing so, they therefore endanger the transition to a long-lasting and truly just society. We are at the risk of ending up with a society that is merely sustainable for the ones who can afford to make greener consumer decisions, or who live in the global North.

The idea that people in all realms of the global society can be held accountable for reaching a future in which growth can be ‘sustainable’ is counterintuitive. This would entail that everyone on the globe has had the same means of accessing this ‘sustainable’ growth and prospering from it.

Instead, we should acknowledge the existing power imbalances and centre the responses to the climate crisis around these. Then we would be taking a step closer to a more just definition of sustainability.

Here’s to hoping that in the future, in addition to bringing their own coffee cups to the talks at the next COP meeting, the delegates will be prompted to view sustainability from a social agenda. This is what will be needed in order to guide us in the direction of more just and truly sustainable solutions to the climate crisis.

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