The future is green – but it can also be bright

Written by on May 24, 2021


Madeleine Gabriel is the director of Nesta’s Sustainable Future programme.

The United Kingdom’s commitment to achieving net zero poses all kinds of challenges. Possibly the biggest of all is a challenge to the imagination: to persuade each other and ourselves that it can be done.

If people don’t believe they can make a change then they won’t have the impetus to try.  We need not just to inspire but to persuade them that they themselves can be part of achieving it.  And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is possible.

In the Netherlands, what started with a literal earthquake led to a metaphorical one. A series of tremors stimulated public concern over fracking which in turn led to a wider examination of the country’s years of reliance on natural gas.

Since then, the country has managed to kick its fossil fuel dependency and rebuild its infrastructure to be more energy diverse. It’s a model of what can be done when political will and public support are harnessed together.

And then there’s Finland which has managed to transition away from its long-established wood and oil burning past to heat homes via carbon-neutral heat pumps. The vast majority of new-build homes use the system now and thousands of older buildings are switching every year.  Finland too got there through political intervention enabled by strong public backing.

The current global pin-up for ambition on climate change action is South Korea.  Its Green New Deal package will see £75 billion of investment in a wide range of renewable energy schemes that will deliver hundreds of thousands of new jobs too.  This hasn’t been foisted on a reluctant population; they voted for it, delivering the DPK party a landslide election victory, with it a mandate for action.

The challenge for the UK is to mobilise the same degree of public positivity to embrace paths to change – because we need everyone on board to deliver this.  Thankfully, closer to home than Korea, there’s precedent to demonstrate that this confluence of public will and political action can happen here.

Take the introduction of the proper sewerage and indoor bathrooms, twin key historical steps in raising British public health standards.  By the end of World War One few British homes had indoor toilets or baths.  Even as recently as 1967, a quarter of our housing stock still lacked one, other or both. Now they are universal.

What began with London’s ‘great stink’ of 1858 – when the dire state of the Thames became impossible to ignore and created demand for investment in a substantive sewer system – evolved into a sustained and committed national drive to raise hygiene standards which changed lives.  The political establishment was empowered to enact dramatic and far-reaching change by the public will.

We can also look to the more recent past for an example of mass change – the global lightbulb moment. In under 20 years, most of the world has pivoted from ubiquitous decades-established use of incandescent and halogen bulbs, which wasted as much of 95% of their output creating heat rather than light, to low-carbon, sustainable LED.

The UK didn’t even formally begin this phaseout until 2009 but now it’s all but complete. And the shift has saved us money, not cost it.  Because when technological innovation and environmental creativity collide, the outcomes can be both transformational and economically stimulating.

Fulfilling Britain’s legally-enshrined commitment to reach net zero on time – and we at Nesta want to help get there ahead of time – will require multiple initiatives and a sustained commitment that engages millions of people.

Experience shows us it’s achievable.  When governments and business are emboldened by strong public support, be it in Victorian London or in contemporary Seoul, that can be a formula for real, positive change.

We are moving towards consensus that the future is green. It can also be bright.


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