The century of sustainable transformation

Apostol Dyankov is an expert in the field of green economy and climate change. He works with state administration, NGOs and various industries in order to implement low-carbon and ecosystem-based solutions.

От МOVE.BG, публикувана на 11 ноември 2015

Apostol Dyankov is an expert in the field of green economy and climate change. He works with state administration, NGOs and various industries in order to implement low-carbon and ecosystem-based solutions. Apostol is also a senior consultant in Denkstatt, a member of Climate Coalition - Bulgaria and adviser of MOVE.BG on the topic of sustainable development.

apostol dqnkov

I belong to a generation which has grown up during the peak of the information revolution. Somewhere between the 4th and 5th grades at school, Intel changed its processors 486 with Pentium. I entered high school when the Internet entered Bulgaria. On my graduation ceremony my classmates were making selfies on camera phones and posted them on the freshly created Facebook. I doubt that any other generation has gone through or will go through such technological transformation of its lifestyle and personal horizons.

I was still at university when someone told me that thanks to the information revolution my children`s profession one day will likely be invented after they were born. It turned out to be true not for my children, but for myself.

The field in which I chose to study and then specialize further was "invented" by the UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and called by the somewhat cumbersome and contradictory name "sustainable development". On the one hand, "sustainable" so as to ensure the survival of critical species and ecosystems on the planet. On the other hand, "development" so as to give a chance to  poorer part of mankind to reach the living standards and democratic institutions of societies which we consider traditionally as "developed". The UN defined sustainable development in one sentence: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.".

During  the next 20 years this definition of "sustainable development" put on paper has evolved into one of the "horizontal" principles, on which national and regional policies are based, and found a permanent place in the lingo of institutions, the media and political platforms. Today, as if every Western politician knows sustainable development is “done”, and even in Bulgaria the phrase provokes in our minds an image of popular and unpopular reforms and investment measures, mainly in the environmental sphere.

Of course, things are not that simple anymore. Moore's Law does no longer describe so well the progress in information technology, economies grow intermittenlty  or stagnate, while some developed countries seem to crawl back into the ranks of the developing. Uncertainty regarding the "sustainable" component of development is painfully highlighted in Bulgaria – in economic, environmental, energy and even demographic terms. The processes enveloping our country cannot be said to be unequivocally contributing to improving or even preserving our quality of life in the long term.

Globally the news is not all that bad. Climate change remains an acute threat to civilization (even more dangerous than terrorism), but world leaders are on track to achieve a global agreement. In recent months, we are witnessing the third coral bleaching pandemic, but at the same time 2015 saw more of the planet’s service being protected than any previous year. And while large parts of the melting Arctic were explored for oil in 2014, for the first time in the history of industrial mankind, more gigawatts of green energy were added, than all "dirty sources" put together.

These divergent trends cannot be understood from the perspective of our experience with gradual economic progress combined with a gradual increase in pressure and risk of ecological and social systems. We need a fundamental new concept. Generally speaking, we should throw away old understanding of "growth" as a major engine of all other processes and to replace it with the paradigm of "transformation" - regardless of its direction, without limitation, in areas which this transformation affects.

The paradigm of "sustainable transformation" cannot be unfamiliar for me and my generation. The entire conscious life of my peers has been defined by transformation. I may be 30 years old today, and drive a diesel car emitting toxic exhaust gases, but there is no reason for me not to be confident, that in 10 years time,  I will ride in an environmentally-friendly autonomous electric vehicle. We expect that kind of transformation to happen not only within our lifetimes, but even before we retire. Or why not tomorrow - only a month ago, Tesla Motors has made all cars sold by the S series in almost completely autonomous - by downloading a single software update!

Of course that coin has a flipside. Transformations occur unevenly, not always and not everywhere. The expectation of steady green achievement and innovation puts industry under pressure and causes decision makers to make questionable decisions - such as  the(relatively) climate friendly, but NOx-spewing diesel engines of Volkswagen.

The irregularity of transformation is visible everywhere. The Bulgarian countryside sports modern photovoltaic parks next to trailer park ghettos without electricity or running water. Within one city - Rio de Janeiro - are built ultra-modern and green sports facilities only a few kilometers from the most dangerous and violent favelas in South America. What an incredible irony if one considers that Rio is the birthplace of the now so basic (and even commonplace) phrase "sustainable development".

Luckily the world is starting to adapt to the new reality of sustainable transformations of the 21st century. An ambitious new start was made this September in New York, when more than 150 world leaders adopted a new sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030 and a global mechanism for science, technology and innovation in meeting the objectives.

Dramatic request gives even the very title of the so-called Agenda 2030 - "Transforming our world." Unlike previous sustainable development objectives ("Millennial goals" MDGs), the new 17 general  and 169 specific objectives include more than categorical and pompous slogans such as "eradicate poverty," "eliminate hunger" and "halt the loss of biodiversity." This time, the slogans and goals are supported by at least one or more quantitative and measurable indicators - such as the area of sustainably managed forests or access to computers for children in primary schools.

All this probably sounds more than nice to the ears of Bulgarian citizens and Bulgarian politicians who rejoice when things get decide by the “bosses up high” (the leaders of the Great Powers). The UN goals actually set a framework of measures and reforms, as well as a dimension of solidarity, which we should definitely subscribe to. However, they are not just another train, whose last carriage we will manage to board at the last possible moment, hopping along the platform (a famous phrase one of our politicians used to describe our EU accession). In order to have green and social transformations in our economy and society, we will need to exert the full resource of intelligence and will, of which we are capable.

We, of course, are quite capable. The experience of my generation living in the middle of sustainable transformations gives me confidence that we can manage. If only we set our mind to the task.

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