Building bridges, not walls

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The 4th Growth in Transition Conference linked sustainability discourses at the global, European and national level

How do we build a sustainable future? It was none other than Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations, who formulated the current message to world leaders. In his keynote speech at the start of the conference, he highlighted that the need to build bridges of international understanding and cooperation instead of dividing walls of nationalism was as urgent as never before. Everyone in the room understood that the message was also addressed to US President Trump, who continues to stand by his election promise to erect a wall against illegal immigration between Mexico and the US.

Other high-level political speakers at the conference included Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, Austria’s Federal Minister for Sustainability and Tourism Elisabeth Köstinger, as host, and Stientje van Veldhoven, Dutch State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management. Beyond that input came from Hans Bruyninckx, President of the European Environment Agency, Kate Raworth, economist and sustainability expert at Oxford and Cambridge, who presented her concept of the “doughnut economics”, an economic model that respects the planet’s borders but also allows people to live well, and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at Surrey University and author of “Prosperity without Growth”. The topic of sustainability at the national level was discussed by social researcher and poverty expert Michaela Moser, Christoph Badelt, head of the Austrian Institute for Economic Research, and Willibald Cernko of ERSTE Bank Group. In 20 sessions and workshops, the topics of “Growth in Transition” were also dealt with in more depth on a smaller scale.

The conference also provided an opportunity to learn about best practice examples and eco-innovative ideas from around the world. Successful founders such as Victoria Soelle from the Berlin DO School, Julian Paul Melchiorri from the UK (CEO Arborea), Reet Aus from Estonia (CEO Upmade), Nkemdilim Begho from Nigeria (Managing Director Futuresoft), Rodrigo Aranda from Spain (CEO Sintala Design), and Michael Fassnauer, CEO of UBIMET Austria, presented their visions and projects.

Considering important messages from the three levels:

A) The Global Level

“We are living in times of transformation”, Ban Ki-moon stated at the beginning of his keynote titled  “Sustainable Development: The Pathway to the Future” and provided examples of technical progress that had spread at great speed. This had been made possible by world markets and multilateralism, which had reached a climax during his time as UN Secretary General with the adoption of the SDGs in September 2015. “These are the most far-reaching goals ever formulated by the United Nations,” Ban said.

In recent years, however, there have been delays in implementing the goals, as well as open resistance on the part of individual nations to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He wanted to counter this, among other things, with his Center for Global Citizens, which was founded in Vienna and is committed to providing well-founded training for future state leaders and leaders. Ban is also involved in the Strategy Unit at the Austrian Federal Chancellery (“Think Austria”), which commenced its activities on 14 November. It will focus on strategic issues that are important for Austria’s development.

In October, at the initiative of the Netherlands, a new international climate commission began its work in The Hague, chaired by Ban Ki-moon, which presented an action plan to protect against climate damage. “We are running out of time,” Ban stressed with regard to climate change. “But we don’t have a Plan B, because we don’t have a Planet B either.”

The Austrian Minister for Sustainability and Tourism, Elisabeth Köstinger, also expressed this view in her keynote speech. “If we look at the world today, we can see that we are at a crossroads, especially in the area of climate protection,” said the politician, “This is certainly the greatest challenge of our time.

Because the Paris Climate Agreement is “the central pillar in climate protection”, the negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice in December will also be of great importance. “This will show what the Paris resolutions are worth,” said Köstinger. The Minister expressed her concern that there was an ever larger group of critical states in the international community for which climate protection was no longer of overriding importance. “We must work  on solutions to get these states back on board, because Europe alone can be a pioneer, but not a saviour of the global climate,” Köstinger explained.

Finally, the Minister for Sustainability stressed that the organisation of this conference, in cooperation with Ban Ki-moon, was “a truly great honour” for Austria. “We are thus positioning ourselves very strongly in this thematic area, also in terms of global perception”.

B) The European Level

Science and research had to constantly keep an eye on the “grand challenges” that are crucial for the future of the planet and develop solutions. That was the message from Wolfgang Burtscher, Director General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission in Brussels. This focus on the major challenges, such as the protection of common goods which include the the atmosphere or the oceans, was also important because it was the only way for science to continue to gain acceptance and support from society. “We therefore also need more direct participation of citizens in research projects,” said Burtscher. Sustainable Development plays a major role in the preparations for the next Research Framework Programme “Horizon Europe”. At 77 billion euros, around 60 percent of the budget is earmarked for these topics.

In her capacity as current President of the Council of European Ministers for the Environment, Köstinger announced her intention to conclude important dossiers at the European level by the end of the year. “If we reach a final agreement between the Parliament, the Commission and the Member States on the CO2 reduction for new cars, that would really be a huge success in European climate policy,” explained the Minister. As part of the “Growth in Transition” conference, 10 concrete proposals were formulated in a “Call to Action” to the European Commission and the Member States on the second day of the conference. These include increasing the importance of SDGs, strengthening eco-innovation, creating sustainable financing instruments, better integrating stakeholders in all fields of action and providing more concrete support for the knowledge society.

Moreover, Europe’s most innovative companies received the “European Business Award For The Environment” at the conference. The prize was awarded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment in the categories “Management”, “Product and Services”, “Process”, “Developing Country Cooperation” and “Business and Biodiversity”. The finalists included two Austrian companies: Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur GmbH and ecop Technologies GmbH, which develops and produces highly efficient rotary heat pumps. The evening event on 14 November at the Palais Niederösterreich was organised by the European Commission, the Office of the Provincial Government of Lower Austria and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism.

Hans Bruyninckx, Director of the European Environment Agency, called for unity and international cooperation: “There is an urgent need for action, we must not lose any time and we must not believe that we are already doing everything we can. We must think beyond 2030. We need a different, strong policy and a fundamental transformation of our economies. And we should work with young people in particular.”

“Fight for Multilateralism”

Frans Timmermanns, the First Vice-President of the European Commission, emphasised in his closing speech that the UN’s SDGs were the only future perspective for mankind. But the UN is currently being threatened and questioned. “Please fight for multilateralism,” Timmenmanns exclaimed. “We need the United Nations.”

The world was at the beginning of the 4th industrial revolution, which would consequently affect every human being. At the same time, the boundaries of the planet would be felt for the first time. Timmermanns painted the picture of an inclusive world society, in which the wealth generated was distributed more equitably, instead of making “only a few richer ones even richer” as at present.

He foresaw far-reaching changes in the private economic sector, such as the energy revolution and the switch to a circular economy. “None of the problems facing us are insurmountable,” he said. It was important to benefit from science and rationality and to look to the future with confidence and joy about the possibilities for shaping it.

In his remarks on artificial intelligence, Timmermanns himself deviated from his recommendation by expressing great concern. Technical development was very rapid, and if no precautions were taken, machines with their own consciousness could elude human control. “This can go tremendously wrong,” warned the EU Vice-President. “Dealing with this new technology must now have absolute priority,” demanded Timmermanns.

Frans Timmermans accepted the Call to Action at the conference. He said: “If everyone lived like the Europeans, we would need almost three planets. It is clear that the great challenge of our time is to change the way we produce, consume, work and live. Nobody can afford to be a freerider because we are all affected. Europe has the capacity, the ingenuity and the courage to lead the way. And that is exactly what we should do together now.”

C) The Austrian Level

The President of the National Council, Wolfgang Sobotka, said at the beginning of the conference that a holistic approach was necessary for the transformation to more sustainability: “Sustainability policy does not end with environmental and climate policy, it affects all areas of policy and life. We have to address people, explain connections and reach their understanding. This is best achieved if we involve as many citizens as possible, above all at the level of the municipalities.”

Sobotka told the Political Panel on social development that he was concerned about the “break-up of society” and the increase in “fears of losing out”. More and more people moved in their own communities of information and self-affirmation. Here, politics had to address interdependence and the feeling of togetherness more strongly. Participation was a key to this. “When people are no longer heard and taken along, they create their own world,” said Sobotka. But the emphasis on tolerance was also important. “Sustainability is also always about accepting the other positions,” the politician stressed.

Sustainability Minister Köstinger stressed that Austria was not cutting back on its climate goals. In concrete terms, she explained: “We want to reduce emissions by 36 percent by 2030, we are sticking to this target and will make every effort to achieve it”. Commitment should also be stepped up in the case of the SDGs. Austria currently ranks 9th in international comparison in terms of the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Austria wanted to make a leap forward here during this term of government. “I discussed with Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that we want to be among the top 5 worldwide in the implementation of the SDGs,” explained Minister Köstinger.

Köstinger: “I am very encouraged by the committed discussion.” The conference had once again provided an impetus for the discussion about economic growth in the context of sustainability. For example, the number of social enterprises should be clearly targeted for growth. The aim of the conference to make a contribution at the European level in this direction had been achieved. Köstinger also hoped that future Growth in Transition conferences would “continue to grow”.

We do not wait for the future – we shape it!

On the second day, the conference adopted an action plan, the so-called “Call to Action“, addressed to the EU Commission which was represented by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.

The Call to Action was developed by the participants of the conference and calls on the European Commission and the Member States of the EU to address relevant issues such as decarbonisation, circular economy, sustainable management of natural resources, mitigation of climate change and digitalisation. generations are guilty of. The Call to Action also proposes promoting eco-innovation and sustainable finance. In addition, a stronger focus is to be placed on sustainability research and awareness of sustainability issues among the population is to be raised, not least through more intensive cooperation with the media. It also proposes to strengthen the “Growth in Transition” initiative at the European level and to involve citizens more in shaping the sustainable future of the European Union.

Find the Call to Action here.

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