From education to employment

What is sustainability?

Greg Steel

Greg Steel, Ph.D. Head of Sustainable Construction at @BordersCollege shares with us his vision for a sustainable future.

Using the planet’s natural resources at a rate that is able to be replenished naturally and is available for future generations.

Currently, we are not doing that. We are consuming too much and everything we do is interconnected – we are sharing one planet.

Our society is based around a linear economy: we harvest our natural resources, materials and labour, water and energy. We make goods, we use them and they wear out or fashion changes and we throw them away and buy new goods to replace them. This not only consumes our natural resources but generates a huge amount of waste.

We argue that it is cheaper, and financially it is cheaper for us, but mostly we do not see the true cost. Manufacturing in developing countries, stripping natural resources at an unsustainable rate, increasing pollution, poor health and working conditions. Relying on energy derived from fossil fuel sources all contribute to our ‘cheap’ goods.

We are beginning to feel the consequences and the damage being done by taking this route: greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, leading to a climate emergency. Drought, water and food shortages. Wildfires, storms and flooding, due to an increased energy in our weather systems. Economic collapse, conflict and climate migration on a massive scale.

Governments have taken note and the intergovernmental panel for climate change (IPCC) has independently assessed all the available science on climate change. This evidence has led to the Paris agreement and a commitment to keep warming below 1.5oC. This will require deep and fast cuts to our emissions to begin to limit the warming trend.

The Scottish government has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2045. The UN has developed 17 global goals to sustainable development. We, as a college, have to work together with our local community to work towards these ambitious goals.

We need to fundamentally change our culture if we want to have a sustainable future. We need to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels across all sectors of society. Key areas to address include our built environment, our working lives and our transport and infrastructure.

We need to develop our local economy with a circular approach, where goods are designed to be repaired, not replaced – where resources are recovered, repurposed and reused so that we can minimise or eliminate the waste that we produce.

We need to build a collaborative local supply chain that promotes innovation and sharing, that creates jobs, opportunities and expertise in our local area. With the focus now on a green recovery, this is our chance to build back better, with our focus on sustainable growth. Creation of employment opportunities and stimulation of the local economy will go toward reaching the global sustainable development goals 1 and 8: reduce poverty and promote decent work and economic growth.

In our built environment, the technology exists to build homes that are net-zero for emissions (zero carbon). It is even possible to build new homes that are net positive, that generate and sequester more carbon that they emit over the lifetime of the building. Our existing housing stock is ready for a sensitive upgrade with energy efficiency measures and the use of sustainable materials. Upgrading insulation in houses leads to warm and comfortable homes, promotion of healthy living environments and bringing people out of fuel poverty with much-reduced heating bills.

With the phasing out of gas boilers and internal combustion engine (ICE) driven vehicles, we are moving into a world of new technological advances. Heating systems that are very efficient and run on electricity that is generated from renewable sources (>90% currently in Scotland).

Our Sustainability Hub in Hawick, as part of the Green Energy Academy collaboration, has training courses available for upskilling and retraining on energy efficiency measures in the built environment, and training on the latest sustainable heating technologies.

Electrification of our transport system requires a massive investment in the infrastructure of the Borders region. Huge civil engineering efforts will be required to install the generation capacity and infrastructure network to deliver electric vehicle charging points in our rural region.

Our college will train the next generation of civil, mechanical and electrical engineers to make this happen. Locally trained specialists to drive this innovation forward and meet UN global sustainable development goals (9), industry innovation and infrastructure, (11) sustainable communities, and (13) climate action.

Working from home has made people more reliant on the local shops, and this provides us with opportunities to travel less, and walk and cycle more. We should use this time to plan sustainable communities by promoting green spaces, safe spaces – a regionally focussed society, whilst being globally connected.

With the promotion of a culture change towards a circular, local economy, there are opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle precious resources. We can begin to think of our buildings as material banks, storing our materials until the time comes to reuse them. This is responsible consumption and production (UN sustainable development global goal 12).

Local business opportunities exist to repair and upgrade, to use sustainable and biodegradable materials and move away from plastics and other composite materials that are difficult to repurpose. This will help to reduce waste production and stimulate local economic growth.

We have to be smart and plan carefully for the future: for example, the move away from single-use plastic bags to thicker ‘bags for life’ in some cases has led to an increased consumption of plastic!

In summary, sustainable development needs a cultural and behavioural shift. We must use our unique position within the heart of our community to show an alternative path to consumption and not a throwaway society. We have a chance to shift to a society that nurtures our resources and builds a strong and resilient community around collaboration, innovation and circular economy.

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