Sustainable Futures

5 turning points that will shift the course of sustainability

Sign photo by pixbox77 via Shutterstock

Not many years from now, you may find yourself sitting on the sundeck of an Arctic freighter tucking into your grasshopper-and-fries, reading in Mandarin about calorie taxes in Africa. Why? Because long-term trends playing out today are shaping a very different future for you and your business. If you are interested in sustainability, then you also should be interested in the future (and vice versa). In 2013, we witnessed five turning points that could be significant in the years and decades to come.

1. September saw the first commercial use of the Northwest Passage by a large cargo ship taking coal from Vancouver to Finland.

This journey saved a week's worth of fuel by turning north rather than south through the Panama Canal. The Northwest Passage, hugging the indented coastline of Canada's far north, hitherto has been ice-bound even in summer and impassable to shipping. Warming seas and the retreat of Arctic ice is opening it up. It could become a major — although always high risk — shipping route in years to come.

This is a sign not just of shifts in trade patterns and geopolitics, but of a planet being shaped by climate change. In May 2013, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reached 400 parts per million for the first time in 3 million years. Although the Warsaw IFCCC climate conference came and went with hardly a breeze, the World Bank took a huge step and adopted the fight against climate change as a central priority, announcing it no longer will fund coal-fired power plants where there is an alternative.

2. A hamburger was created from lab-grown cow muscle cells and eaten during a live broadcast.

A good deal of PR and a genuine wow factor meant this was covered by media around the world. According to the tasters, the flesh, grown from bovine stem cells, had the right texture but the taste wasn't fatty enough. Teething problems apart, the development could be hugely significant for the long-term future of food, perhaps one day allowing the mass consumption of meat without the current environmental and animal welfare concerns.

It was also emblematic of a year in which food security moved further up the agenda and mainstream debate seemed more open to alternative solutions: There was a surge of interest in urban agriculture, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation released a report in May exploring the role that eating insects — or entomophagy — could have in feeding the planet.

3. Mexico became the most obese country in the world.

Excepting countries with tiny populations such as the Cook Islands, as of 2013, Mexico has more obesity per capita than anywhere else: 32.8 percent of adults are obese, compared to 31.8 percent in the U.S. This is the culmination of three decades or so of changes in diet, as well as increases in the consumption of meat, fat, sugar and salt. Weight-related diabetes is the leading cause of death in Mexico — a country that, although a strong performer in the global economy, still has a GDP that's a fraction of the U.S.'s, confronts widespread poverty and must cope with under-nutrition.

This "double burden" pattern of obesity and under-nutrition, sometimes present in the same households, is spreading across the world. The greatest health risks of the future are from non-communicable diseases, requiring an overhaul of health systems and presenting a challenge in particular for food companies that anticipate tobacco-like restrictions on some ingredients in the future.

4. There are now more cellphones than people. 

It is hard to believe that in much of Europe in the 1970s, fewer than 10 percent of households had a phone. Fast-forward 40 years and sometime in late 2013, the number of mobile phones on the planet finally overtook the number of people. The growth in connectivity is an almost unambiguously positive development, and there is a frenzy of activity around how mobile technology and distributed networks can increase access to finance, education, information and a host of other things. For example, citizen sensor projects such as Smart Citizen and Sky Truth have proliferated, allowing people to gather information that was once the preserve of governments or multinational corporations. The transformative potential for sustainability is huge. 

5. The global economy finally shifted south.

We've had years of anticipating the arrival of a new economic order, and there's a decent basis in 2013 for saying this finally has happened. According to World Bank data released in January, South-South trade now exceeds North-South trade. The IMF also forecast that in 2013, the total GDP of emerging economies would outstrip that of so-called advanced economies.

China is at the heart of this shift. It may not be the world's largest economy in measured GDP yet, but it is already by far the world's biggest consumer of raw materials, according to a report from UNEP in August, with a rate four times that of the U.S. In 2012, Alibaba, China's leading e-commerce site, became the world's largest, dwarfing Amazon and eBay in sales revenue. In 2013, China made the first soft moon landing since 1976. Another year, another clutch of signals that China is the most important economy for the future of the world.

Taking these five milestones into account, your Arctic trip might not seem so bizarre. If anything, change will accelerate and become ever more far-reaching and volatile, as our planet's population and economies grow and as we become more interconnected. What will your business do now to anticipate change and prosper in an uncertain future?

Sign photo by pixbox77 via Shutterstock

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