Forum for the Future’s new 2023-2025 strategy, For a just and regenerative future, calls on us all to ‘go further and act faster’ if we’re to tackle our intensifying social, environmental and economic challenges. 

But we need to be clear on what that means. Recognising that the world continues to fall short in driving lasting change, Forum’s CEO, Dr Sally Uren, explores what taking systemic, urgent action really looks like.

Amidst a devastating cost-of-living crisis, economic turmoil and political upheavals, the sustainability agenda finds itself vying for attention once more as we enter 2023. At a time when we need to invest in finding and scaling sustainable solutions to our social and environmental challenges, they are at risk of being deprioritised altogether. 

Against this backdrop, I take comfort in seeing recent calls for the UK to ‘go further and act faster’ if we’re to deliver on net zero–a call we at Forum for the Future have been making ourselves. The much-anticipated Net Zero Review has made more than 120 recommendations for how we can transform economically, politically, and socially. But with the world still firmly on a vastly unsustainable trajectory, and with vested interests threatening to undermine years of progress, we need to get clear on what ‘going further, faster’ might actually mean.

For me, it starts with recognising that the world has persistently fallen short in its efforts to tackle the climate emergency, nature in crisis and mounting inequality. For too long we’ve seen well-intentioned but only short-term ‘fixes’ that at best provide temporary relief or at worst, perpetuate the status quo. Or fixes that address one issue but ignore the full picture.

Take for example reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food supply chains while ignoring the potential negative impacts these interventions could have on soil health. Or a concerted focus on deploying renewable energy technology while failing to tackle human rights abuses in supply chains. Or businesses prioritising their own decarbonisation journey without accounting for the need to ensure new jobs are created as old ones are lost.

Going further

Let’s consider ‘going further’. This is about system change. The last two decades have seen exciting innovations, the mainstreaming of corporate responsibility and promising new technologies. 

But to be effective, any solution must tackle the root cause of the challenge it’s trying to address, going beyond the surface to recognise the multiple interconnecting layers that exist within each challenge and the wide-ranging groups influencing progress (one way or another).

From there, we need to understand who to engage and how. We need to aim for transformational, not incremental change—think ‘A to Z’, not ‘A to B’—and as part of that, fundamentally reset the goals of a system, placing people and planet at its core. And we need to maintain momentum; after all, change is only meaningful if it lasts. 

Acting faster

Which brings me to ‘acting faster’. For decades, the sustainability movement has called for urgent action, yet here we are, falling short. So, what can we do differently?

Perhaps we could start with every single one of us acknowledging that the consequences of the climate crisis are already here: raging wildfires, rising sea levels, droughts, extreme weather events, crashing biodiversity, supply chains buckling—the writing is on the wall.

Every one of these is exacerbated, if not caused in some way, by a rapidly changing climate—yet we are not meeting them with the urgency they command. As many have said before, our house is on fire; let’s act like it.

What gives me hope is knowing just how innovatively humanity can respond to an imminent, existential threat once it’s recognised as one. Just look at the resilience shown over COVID-19 and imagine what we can deliver on climate with the same tenacity.

What’s slowing down progress? 

Inflation is soaring, it’s ‘heat or eat’, health systems are collapsing. But rather than seeing action on sustainability as a distraction from these issues, we instead need to recognise it as part of the solution.

False dichotomies have cost sustainability dearly. ‘It’s profitability or sustainability— we can’t have both’. This argument can no longer hold weight, if it ever did. It is a classic false choice. As ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investment gains traction, people are waking up to the huge social and economic opportunities that decarbonisation offers.

Done well, investment in transforming how we live and work can and must be seen as an answer to the challenges we face. Sustainability is the path through our current multiple crises, and the potential outcome is what should keep us all going.

Consider a future in which agricultural supply chains adapt to radically different climate patterns, helping ensure food readily reaches every plate and at affordable prices without damaging the earth. Imagine a future-fit energy system, no longer dependent on oil and gas, that reaps the benefits of renewable sources while creating new job opportunities and safeguarding the rights of all in its value chain. Or picture new business models that prioritise ‘giving back’ to the many rather than maximising short-term profits for the few.

Turning the tides, together

It’s a future very different to what we see today, but it’s within our grasp. Promising examples of real change can already be seen. Nestlé is investing CHF1.2 billion over the next five years to spark regenerative agriculture across the company's supply chain. Businesses like Unilever are committing to ensuring they and all their suppliers pay a living wage. Danish energy business Ørsted has transformed from one of Europe’s most coal intensive businesses to become a global leader in offshore wind power.

So, maybe, we are starting to turn the tides as we stand at a crossroads: climate catastrophe or a better, sustainable future? Our collective willingness and ability to go further and faster, acting systemically and urgently, will likely decide our path. It really is up to us.