Sustainability principles for a disrupted world

The underlying principles that policy makers and regulators use to guide their every-day decisions need to be transformed if we are to survive and thrive through Covid-19 and the biodiversity and climate crises.

Sustainability First's latest Viewpoint: A question of principle? paper examines the need to change our economic approach - such as how we regulate for investment in our future energy and water networks - for a resilient future.The paper proposes eight 'sustainability principles' that should underpin economic policy and regulatory decision making in public utilities.

Covid-19 has made us more aware that we are part of the natural world, not separate from it.It has led many of us to connect with the natural environment and to recognise the importance of access to good quality green spaces for our physical and mental health.

At the same time, we are learning more how human encroachment on natural habitats and species can damage the planet's life support systems. With The Living Planet Report 2020 identifying a 68% decline in global wildlife populations since 1970, it is clear that current rates of loss are unsustainable and pose a real risk to our way of life. Awareness that carbon emissions have real world impacts on people as well as planet is also increasing, with the UK floods in February 2020 making this tangible in a very real way at home. These are clearly no longer 'one-off' events.

Despite ongoing work on things like natural capital accounting, the way we frame many decisions in key sectors of the economy has yet to fully catch up. Significant work from the Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which is shaping activity in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), and the Dasgupta Independent Review of the Economics of Biodiversity, that will feed into the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), is starting to change thinking.

This work is of clearly of fundamental importance.However, these processes take time and can seem remote from every-day lives. And given the dynamic environment, and the fact that change is not always linear, developing a coherent approach – where the environment is seen in its totality covering climate, biodiversity and adaptation - is challenging.

Whilst the tectonic plates of institutional and cultural change start to move, and new metrics are developed, a shift from complex and bureaucratic policy and regulation to a principles-based approach is needed now.

On one level, it is difficult to argue with many of the principles frequently used by economic regulators in the UK; accountability, predictability, coherence with the broader policy context and adaptability.However, these principles are often narrowly focused on short-term consumer interests and non-existent 'average' users. They can also fail to recognise the dynamic lived experience of many citizens and communities - and future needs.

Given the affordability challenges being faced in so many homes and businesses across the country as a result of Covid-19, a short-term focus is in many ways understandable.However, to avoid being buffeted from one crisis to the next, we need a new set of principles.

There is much that decision-makers can learn from the natural world here.Here is a possible set of eight 'Sustainability Principles' to help guide decision-making in essential services for a more resilient future:

1.Give appropriate weight to the wellbeing of the next generation – pay due regard to long-term interests, recognise resilience, be transparent about trade-offs and understand the value of things, not just the cost. 
2.The precautionary principle and duties of care – this should be enshrined as a duty of environmental and social care in all decision making. 
3.Lived experience - understand the importance of different life-stages and how the communities that we are part of provide a crucial context, and rich contribution to, our lives. This principle requires a greater focus on implementation and an inter-disciplinary approach in tune with the varied needs of citizens and the rhythms of life.


4.Systems and 'joined-up' thinking – focus on desired outcomes for environmental and social systems and understand and act on boundary issues and interdependencies through identifying common ground and developing more integrated approaches to delivery.

5.Symbiosis and collaboration - create the right conditions and governance processes for partnership working to thrive and to ensure fair sharing of risk and reward, the delivery of 'co-benefits' and co-creation.

6.Recognise that change is constant and adaptation crucial– the space for ongoing innovation - and judgement, hard work, patience and practice – are needed.

7.Diversification and participation - diversity is needed in terms of the composition of governance bodies and policy, regulatory and corporate approaches. This requires stakeholder engagement and taking account of a range of perspectives, including at the local, regional and devolved levels.

8.Circularity – decisions need to help 'design in' circular and zero waste/emissions solutions and recycle learning; how to honestly learn the lessons from what works and what doesn't.

Fundamental changes to policy, regulatory and corporate cultures, frameworks and institutions are essential to ensure a more sustainable and resilient future for people and planet. But while the clock is ticking, lets adopt a new set of sustainability principles in economic policy and regulation now. Principles can help shape long-run underlying values and norms. They can help develop a consensus view as to what policy and regulation should be seeking to achieve and send strong signals to regulated firms about expected behaviours. They must be collectively created and supported. The principles in our latest Viewpoint paper are a strawman.We'd love to hear what you think.