The Big Sustainability Summit

Six years of sustainability: Rebecca Willis by heatherknight08
February 8, 2011, 9:16 am
Filed under: The transition to a sustainable economy, Think piece | Tags:

I was appointed the Sustainable Development Commission in 2004 – in the same eventful week that my first son Sam was born. He’s grown from a wailing infant to a sparky six year old with a head full of dinosaurs and solar systems. But while he’s learned to walk, talk, love and reason, what have I learned about sustainability?

In year one, I learned the power of the inside track. My first job at the SDC was to set up a collaborative working arrangement with the Department for Education, sharing staff and ideas between the Department and the Commission. The relationship grew and prospered, surviving Departmental restructures and barrages of initiatives. It helped to build sustainable schools, encourage outdoor learning, and equip young people with the skills to build a sustainable future. A brilliant legacy for the SDC.

In year two, I learned some limits. Thanks to the SDC, 2005’s Sustainable Development Strategy was the first time that government had accepted the need to keep within environmental limits – or, in the time-honoured phrase, that the economy is a subset of the environment, not vice versa. It caused ructions in what was then the Department of Trade and Industry, who threatened to pulp the printed copies. But the point was made.

In year three, I learned that the wood is more important than the trees. Working with the brilliant Anne Power, fellow Commissioner and LSE professor, in 2006, we challenged the government’s Sustainable Communities Plan and argued that sustainable housing is not about building eco-homes. It’s about building resilience and cutting carbon through supporting existing settlements and communities.

In year four, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the Allis Shad, a rare, shy fish whose existence would be threatened by tidal barrages in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere. Advising government on options for tidal power made the SDC look squarely at some difficult dilemmas about habitat protection and energy generation.

In year five, I learned how powerful it is when strong politics and strong evidence combine. 2008 was the year of the Climate Change Act, when the UK set a global first. It enshrined carbon targets based on scientific recommendations into law, thanks to support from government and opposition politicians alike.

But in year six, the year of climategate and Copenhagen, I learned that politics goes backwards as well as forwards.

The seventh year began with the election of the self-styled ‘greenest government ever’ – and time will tell whether they live up to their promise. The SDC won’t be there to bite at its heels. But SDC commissioners and staff, in whatever roles they find themselves, will remember the lessons they have learned, and continue the patient work of embedding sustainability into the warp and weft of government.

By 2020, Sam will be an adult. We will have to leave it to him and his contemporaries to judge whether we succeeded or failed.

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[…] The Sustainable Development Commission has been quangoed. Its functions will be absorbed into government at the end of March this year. We’re gathering friends and colleagues at a Big Sustainability Summit on 1 March, to plot the way ahead for sustainable development after the SDC, in partnership with our good friends at Futerra. And we’ve just set up the Big Sustainability website for blogging and discussion – please join us. I’ve posted a rather nostalgic, personal account of six years of the SDC – you can read it here. […]

Pingback by Where next for sustainable development? | Rebecca Willis | Independent Researcher & Vice-Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Harriet Kingaby, Becky Willis. Becky Willis said: My slightly nostalgic thoughts on six years at the Sustainable Development Commission #Bigsustainability […]

Pingback by Tweets that mention Six years of sustainability: Rebecca Willis « The Big Sustainability Summit --

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