Seven sustainability trends for the 2020s

Plastic waste in the environment

A new report identifies the plastic pollution crisis and biodiversity loss among seven key trends that will shape the future of sustainability in the UK and around the world.

The report, launched today (27 February), comes from Forum for the Future, a non-profit working to solve sustainability challenges. Titled ‘The Future of Sustainability 2019: Driving systems change in turbulent times’, the report, building on last year’s publication, predicts the difficulties and opportunities that will emerge over the next decade when it comes to tackling the climate crisis and addressing waste and resource use.

Sally Uren, Chief Executive at Forum for the Future, explained: “To tackle sustainability issues, we need to understand how the world is changing and what we’re seeing is a convergence of trends that will shape the 2020s.”

The seven trends identified are as follows:

  1. The plastics kickback: Anti-plastics sentiment is higher than ever but the attention given to the issue is yet to translate into substantive change.
  2. Migration and the climate crisis: The number of people displaced by climate crisis is predicted to reach up to one billion people by 2050, according to UN agency International Organisation for Migration.
  3. The rise of nationalism: Divisive politics may make sustainability goals harder to achieve.
  4. Greater online access: With half the world coming online in 2019, the report states that we will need to ‘accelerate the energy revolution’ and think hard about new ways to share information.
  5. Participatory democracy: Citizen and community action is increasing across the globe.
  6. Asia’s changing consumers: A more circular approach to business and consumption is emerging in Asia.
  7. Biodiversity: The extinction rate of species is now thought to be about 1,000 times higher than before humans dominated the planet.

These diverse pressure points, the report states, will each impact how the world addresses challenges such as climate change and the global waste crisis.

Looking at plastics in more depth, the report states that ‘despite the high profile of plastic pollution, responses are mostly not joined up nor do they address the root problem of throwaway mindsets.’ Forum for the Future research suggests that ‘only a small amount of the current activity has truly transformative potential. In fact, some efforts could even be reinforcing the status quo by suggesting that it’s possible to ‘clean up’ the problem without addressing the structural drivers of the problem, namely linear, high-growth, low-responsibility business models and the regulations, lack of distribution innovation, consumer behaviour and mindset of disposability that enable them.’

The latter half of the 2010s has seen an increased level of engagement with global sustainability issues, in particular the plastic pollution crisis – with a growing number of initiatives in development to address this. The UK Plastics Pact is singled out by the Future of Sustainability report as one step in the right direction. However, the 2020s will need to be the decade in which pledges and promises become action.

Forum for the Future concludes that, as it stands, the world is ‘poorly equipped to manage the trends and global challenges’ that the report sets out. ‘Among the trends we explore here, there may be ripples and waves on the surface that are moving towards sustainability, but the deep undercurrents are flowing in the opposite direction.’

The report calls for more scaled-up and ‘systemic’ action to tackle the challenges of the modern day, an approach that ‘must target the structural and mindset level’ – for instance encouraging businesses to develop new supply chain models that deliver services and products that will enrich the environment and livelihoods.

Also key moving into the future will be better collaboration between governments, governments, businesses, NGOs and investors. Uren commented: “At Forum for the Future, we specialise in taking a systems approach to address these challenges. But the clock is ticking and we have a limited window of opportunity that we can’t afford to miss. Now is the time for all of us – business, non-profits and more – to step up and skill up if we’re to create a more sustainable future.”

You can read the full report – ‘Future of Sustainability 2019: Driving systems change in turbulent times’ – on the Forum for the Future website.

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