Young People's Voices

Here is Kirsty Reed's, winning essay from YPTE and Eurostar's 2,000 Words to Change the World competition.  It was written when she was 17 years old.

Is it possible for development to truly be sustainable? Is Industry without impact a myth?

Development means change for the better. Geographically speaking, this is about improving a country or region’s economic position to ultimately improve the quality of life for its citizens. However, with the climate emergency the world currently faces, development must be partnered with sustainability. What links these two key ideas is longevity and taking society forward. It is irrefutable that one can’t come without the other. However, it is a fine balance which must be struck. How can there be change for the better whilst what looms if we continue unsustainably will inevitably threaten the survival of our planet?

When considering development it is crucial to look at the starting points of each country. Through physical reasons such as challenging topography or access, or historic reasons such as exploitation and colonialism, each country had a different initial point. Industrial revolutions began in England in the eighteenth century and over the next 100 years spread across Europe and the United States. However, with many countries especially across central Africa still pre-industrial it is evident there is a lot of catch up to be played. However, there is another crucial consideration now (one which was largely not prevalent at the time of the British shift to industry); climate scientists currently propose carbon emissions must be halved by 2030 to limit global temperatures from reaching one and a half degrees higher. Therefore, perhaps it is the way we view the path to development that must change. A shift from primary to secondary industry with lots of coal powered factories and manufacturing may be deemed simply inappropriate at this point; however, others would argue this is a necessary evil, a step which each country must go through in order to progress through the economic sectors and eventually reduce their heavy industry. Overall, while the process of development can’t be fully sustainable it could and should be the end product of increased development that sustainability is reached.

Sustainability is a concept demonstrating how to meet the needs of the current generation without sacrificing what is available for future generations. In a world where the poverty gap has ensured the wealthiest 26 people have the equivalent wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people. The idea of “need” evidently means very different things to people in different countries. Perhaps it is not about further global development but rather better equity in development that is needed. When considering sustainability in regard to the climate crisis it is imperative that it is considered on a wider scale - a global scale. Sustainability must go further than the borders of nations . Ultimately sea level rise and loss of biodiversity ( some consequences of continued unsustainable development) will not respect human-imposed borders. An idea about limiting emissions proposed by climate activist Greta Thunberg is the idea of a carbon budget. This is similar to the more familiar concept of a monetary budget and would work in a similar way. Each country has a carbon budget and amount which they can’t exceed, if the world is to meet the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) target of carbon neutrality by 2050. This idea in theory seems very promising, yet it ultimately fails to consider how in practice countries start from different levels, and different carbon emitting activities are more and less necessary. For example, building a factory or an office block in a developing urban area will result in waste and carbon emissions. However, it can be considered more valuable and ultimately a more necessary use of a carbon budget than, for example, business or recreational flights across Europe.

Currently, it is comparatively more achievable for developed rather than developing countries to act sustainably; poverty rates are lower, literacy rates are higher and their citizens are better informed regarding environmental issues. However, it is only fair to note that citizens in developed countries rely heavily on these industries especially since the global shift of the 1980s. For our benefit, in a developed country, the carbon footprint is driven up in the producing developing country where such factories are located. This is where it appears greatly unfair. A developed country claims to have low emissions and carbon use, however, if their citizens are purchasing or their transnational corporations (TNCs) importing consumer goods from a developing country, really should these emissions be taken from the receiving countries' carbon budget?  Nike, a popular trainer and sportswear brand, can be used as an example of how developing countries are often left to be the producers, so they incur the environmental cost. Ultimately, it is the drive and demand from the developed countries which keeps this production going. Interestingly, while Nike has factories in 40 countries worldwide, there are none in the USA, however, this contrasts greatly with the fact North America is, by far, their biggest revenue area with last year over $15 million revenue there. In a consumer society which has only become more materialistic, it must be remembered that if the developed country is feeding the demand for these products, they are responsible for maintaining the demand for secondary industry work, which is, by its nature, more polluting. Stronger government intervention is necessary, however it is profit which many TNCs and even national governments will see first and ultimately prioritise.

Greater responsibility needs to be put on the shoulders of large TNCs and industries. However, if a will to protect the planet isn’t strong enough to want to consider increased use of environmental practices, use of safer chemicals and materials and less reliance on fossil fuels, perhaps it does become necessary for sanctions to be put in place. It is crucial that those who lead work in industries don’t just halt production, as this could prove detrimental to economic security, but that they prioritise sustainable practices. A shift in focus is needed from being profit to planet driven. Surely, there is no purpose to profit if there is no longer a habitable planet earth where these profits can be enjoyed? Sustainable industry requires the commitment of all to work, suggesting industry without impact is largely a myth at the moment but that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.

One proposal to lead to a spark of change in how we consider sustainable development and emissions is linking countries. This could start bottom-up from the simple twinning of small towns in countries of varying levels of development to join together and share their carbon budget. However, this could be used more successfully on a global scale. For example, the UK a high income country (HIC) could work alongside a lower income country (LIC) for example, Chad. The aim of the sharing of carbon budgets is not only to reduce the amount of carbon emissions but to allow those in developed countries to realise the dire need for them to reduce their carbon use to allow developing nations to catch up in a sustainable way. Without better global awareness of the need for emissions in a developing nation, it would be easy to put the blame on the developing regions for their high carbon emissions. It is inevitable that there is no industry without any impact. However, this is a necessary impact in the case of a developing country. By thinking globally, those in a more developed nation can work to “offset” the emissions globally to allow for catch up of developing nations. Then, once their basic human development state and individual wealth rises they will be in a better position to act sustainably and care for the environment.

Everything has an impact, inevitably this includes industry. However, it is more about whether the primary, initial, impact is offset or mitigated in any way to prevent a more damaging secondary impact. Therefore, it is important to consider the responsibility that should be placed on the industry leaders and governments themselves, especially in developed countries. A key example of this is the development of green technologies in China. Here, many technology companies are the ones leading the way and sparking green change. Not just in heavy industry where renewable fuels are being prioritised but in financial technologies too. For example, Alibaba hosts a banking service called Ant Financial; Ant has launched an app which encourages customers to be aware of and ultimately reduce their carbon footprint. Considering that they have over 200 million users signed up, this is a strong leap forward in terms of utilising their platform to encourage change. China has also set up three sustainable development zones, each with a slightly different focus. The way China has used technology and government intervention to pursue sustainable development can be seen as an example for other countries to follow. The reason China can be seen as such a good example to the rest of the world is that as a BRICs country, they are newly industrialised. Developing countries can look to countries like China in a more realistic way of developing than perhaps the UK. This is because they have balanced, to a large extent, the pressures of economic and environmental security in terms of their development. In some ways, developing countries, with more investment in green technologies may be in the position to leapfrog over stages which developed countries went through. For example, if rural communities such as in India begin by producing energy from biogas and then consider solar technology they can potentially miss out fossil fuelled power stations altogether.

It is important to remember how a global approach must be provided. It is not necessarily enough to allow countries to put their own management in place. Having said this, it is important that targets do not serve to restrict countries. This is where the role of twinning countries and sharing a carbon budget could be vital. It would serve to create a shared responsibility but also allow the developing world to take a larger share of the carbon budget to allow them to catch up. This doesn’t mean green technology should not be encouraged but it creates a realistic upward spiral of change towards a more sustainable future.

Overall, it is evident that industry without impact is a myth to a large extent. However, the goal of development is very much sustainable. Yes, the path to get there may feel a process of two steps forward one step back, but this situation is still one more step forward than no change at all would be. Action is becoming increasingly urgent and it is intergovernmental action which is required to firstly raise global awareness to the issue, and to encourage governments to take much needed collective action over their carbon budgets. To quote climate activist Greta Thunberg; “We must lay the foundations, while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling”.

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