Sustainable development – is real change happening?

Sustainable development – is real change happening?

Climate change has been with us for a long time – since long before we declared a Climate Emergency.

Much has happened in recent years, as the science advanced, the emergency deepened, and the pressure mounted on world leaders. Climate summits were held in Marrakesh (2016), Bonn (2017), Katowice (2018), and Madrid (2019). Every conference produced a lot of talk, followed by a lot of writing.

Commitments were made – and then mostly broken by administrations around the world.

The changes needed to halt the climate emergency did not happen. People are gluing themselves to bridges and sitting down in front of traffic, but climate change accelerates and its consequences become more apparent.

COP26 Glasgow was the latest climate change conference organised by UNESCO. It was well-attended and wide ranging. It has once again produced a lot of talk and writing – including this blog. Significant commitments were made. And protests continue.

The cynic in me has been here before and wonders why anything should be different this time around. But the optimist in me wonders...

I recently attended a webinar hosted by Historic Environment Scotland (HES): Responsible Tourism, from Policy to Practice. HES Chief Executive, Alex Patterson, talked about the changes already happening in this industry. Some 300 organisations at COP26 signed up to the Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism, a pledge to halve emissions across the sector by 2030. Other heritage organisations described the measures they were taking to meet this important target.

I’m currently working with Orkney Islands Council, HES, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise on a business case for the Heart of Neolithic World Heritage Site.

The site is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels – most prominently Skara Brae, the remarkable Neolithic village on Orkney’s rugged shoreline. When it was re-discovered in 1850, the heritage was dug out of the sand that had covered it for millennia. The threat of losing it once again to the sands and the sea is a powerful call to action.

This project could be an international exemplar for responsible tourism, driven by an innovative approach to transport around the World Heritage Site that will see carbon emissions cut, active travel increase, and inspiring longer visits from tourists. The HES webinar singled this project out, citing how it aligns with its Responsible Tourism aspirations.

It was over the course of this work that I noticed a change. The HM Treasury’s Green Book requirement for applicants to quantify carbon and social impacts – first introduced in 2020 – is making a real difference. Environmental impact is no longer a footnote to a financial report. It matters. The carbon calculations can make or break a funding application. That’s new.

Funders and planning authorities are taking more informed and confident positions on environmental statements that used to be a procedural afterthought, buried in an unread Appendix. Last month, Norman Foster’s much-publicised Tulip was refused permission because its construction would involve too much unnecessary carbon emission. There was a time – not so long ago – when its hyperbolic claims of ‘tourism impact’ would have trumped the trivialised notion of ‘environmental impact’.

Two years ago, carbon embodiment was a fringe topic discussed by environmentalists and some more enlightened architects. Now, planning inspectors are blocking landmark projects on the grounds of climate change.

This is important, because these ‘gatekeepers’ – the policymakers, funders, planning authorities – don’t just decide on individual projects. They send signals and set incentives. That’s what forces change. That’s the difference between virtue signalling gibberish and actual progress.

None of this is new. We see it all the time. Ministers, advocates and agencies can write policy all day long. But when the Heritage Fund calls a tune, the sector dances. When it is the difference between planning consent or failure, developers adapt. For the first time, it feels like a project’s delivery is dependent on environmental responsibility. ‘Net zero’ ambition is no longer a nice-to-have slogan for the brochure – it is a necessity.

Most important, however, is the fact that I’m not sensing much resistance to any of this. All these onerous research and reporting requirements, all these new design and operational challenges, are not being talked about like an obstacle to sidestep. They are mostly being treated like a ‘new normal’. It’s as if the sector has been belatedly nudged in a direction it was already straining to go.

Maybe it was the pandemic. Maybe Glasgow just ‘gives good conference’. But something definitely feels different.  At the Responsible Tourism webinar, Alex Patterson suggested ‘change is not coming, it is here’.

The optimist in me agrees.

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