The next frontier after climate change is the fight against social inequality

We speak with Fernando Prieto, CEO of the Spanish Observatory for Sustainability.

You are a pioneer in the protection of the environment. Tell us how you started

I gained a Phd in Ecology as far back as 1993. My thesis discussed trends in forest ecosystems, including extraction of wood from forests, wildfires, environment planning and the balance that needs to be struck between conservation of ecosystems and socio-economic development. I was very inspired by my lecturer, Fernando Gonzalez Bernáldez who was an ecology lecturer, and a remarkable scientist, who taught in my biology degree. It wasn’t the mainstream subject which it is today but I remember that his classes were immensely popular and oversubscribed so he sparked the interest in ecology in many of my peers.

Tell us about how your career in sustainability evolved over the years

In ‘86, straight after university I joined the government where I worked for the President’s Cabinet in the area of economic affairs as politicians were very concerned then with fires and forest degradation. I then worked for 10 years at the Ministry for the Environment where I developed data and statistics methodologies about climate, sustainability and the environment in order to inform public policy at the Spanish and European (EUROSTAT) and international level (OCDE). During that time, I was also working on my Phd with Santiago Gonzalez Alonso, profesor in planning and projects in the Polytechnic University of Madrid.  

What are your insights about environmental awareness over the last decades?

I’ve observed a huge increase in interest on everything sustainability over the years with climate change being the big game changer in terms of public awareness. From 2005 onwards society has gained increasing awareness of the problem and then over the last decade the level of awareness in the corporate world, particularly finance, has been remarkable. The progress is extraordinary as going back a couple of decades, climate change was a marginal subject at university. When I was working for the government the national Met Office did not even monitor temperatures in relation to climate change!

What have been the failures and breakthroughs of the environmental movement?

Awareness levels need to increase on other types of pollution including in aquifers, national use of water, soil and biodiversity loss. These issues attract less media attention but are still unsolved. Fortunately, other types of pollution, such as air quality in cities, are beginning to be addressed as they are responsible for the deaths and health degradation of millions of people around the world. Another critical problem that worries me is the ongoing unabated emissions from the corporate world which exacerbates climate change while trying to shift the burden of blame and behavioral change to individuals.

We are still pumping lots of CO2 into the atmosphere and we need to bring down the Keeling curve from current 417 ppm to the safer 350 ppm zone.

Greenwashing remains also a big problem both with companies and governments. We need to develop effective legislation to enhance transparency and accountability on public sustainability commitments. At the Observatory for example, we analyse public and scientific data to publish annual reports on Spanish IBEX 35 listed and unlisted large companies big polluters. We have also partnered with Heinrich Boll for a report on the European Transport Atlas. In addition, we publish an annual report of Sustainability in Spain assessing progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

The slow-down of the destruction of the ozone layer is certainly one of the environmental breakthroughs of the last decades. Big polluters like Dupont reviewed their whole production process to become more sustainable. It is not a solved problem as the hole stills persists over Chile and Patagonia but the progress made has been astounding.

We need to develop effective legislation to enhance transparency and accountability on public sustainability commitments.

Tell us about the Sustainability Observatory and its mission

The Sustainability Observatory of Spain was set up in 2005 under the umbrella of the University of Alcala and funded by public money. The current King inaugurated the Observatory with an opening speech. We were tasked with releasing an annual report on the state of sustainability in Spain. In 2012 we stopped receiving public money and thus we became known as the Observatory of Sustainability with a wider international remit. Our mission remains to educate, evaluate public policy and enhance accountability of public and private actors and disseminate the results.

What projects have you developed and what are you planning in the future?

We have contributed to the improvement of the air quality in cities, we started to call city authorities out as early as in 2006. We have also published reports on coastal mass urbanisation in partnership with GreenPeace which has raised awareness about its impacts on ecosystems. We are currently working on the conservation of the green Mediterranean belt to link all the protected natural areas with IUCNMED. Since 2014, we have made proposals for solutions such as the 1 million solar roofs target and have been publishing a yearly index on how the country or the regions are decarbonizing.

We don’t charge for our reports in order to preserve our independence which is a problem sometimes as we are all volunteers. We have been approached by big polluting companies offering to fund but we have turned them down. Having said that, we do carry out reports for specific industries and sectors that request in-depth data-based studies.

We are excited about an upcoming project to bring sustainability awareness to the public via public/private museums which will show artworks in the light of the Agenda 2030 prism

What’s your take on the current state of the fight against climate change and what needs to happen to accelerate the sustainable transformation?

Over the past 2-3 years, we have witnessed very encouraging developments. New movements like Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion have made an impact on wider sectors of society and the new generations. People are now more aware that climate change is affecting them directly, not just the penguins. Having said that, the last 26 COPs have been a failure and the world emissions continue to rise. Currently, more carbon is still being burned than in pre-covid19 times, which shows that we have not learned much from the pandemic.

We are still missing the link between citizens’ rising climate-change concerns and the governments’ response. We need to see a full adaptation of cities to cope with climate change impacts and there are lots of best practices to get inspiration from worldwide. In Spain, we have cities like Vitoria, which have deployed an effective green network, the city of Madrid has carried out an important natural restoration of the river and Valencia has developed an extensive cycling network. Internationally, Vancouver is also a flagship sustainable city that has implemented widespread urban forest solutions or Medellin with its sustainable mobility network. On the other hand, some Nordic countries are known for their green leadership which is misleading as they continue exploiting and relying on their fossil fuel industries for economic growth.

We are still missing the link between citizens’ rising climate-change concern and the governments’ response

What’s the role of data and technology in this transformation?

The availability of good quality well structured data is critical to establishing where we are in terms of climate degradation and where we are going in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation. We at the Observatory have worked with Google Earth National Geographic Institute to map Spain’s land use in order to better understand what needs to be done in terms of public policy and urban planning. Obviously tech is also instrumental in bringing solutions to climate change but it is not the be-all end-all solution to mitigation and adaptation efforts in the short and medium term. Having said that, CO2 sequestration technology holds a lot of promise and I am looking forward to seeing its full potential come to fruition. Also, we at the Observatory work with Ais Group and ESRI to monitor sustainability levels in cities based on a wealth of satellite-based data fed from the Copernicus network.

What would you say to those who are thinking of starting a career in sustainability?

I would tell them to get a really good education on relevant academic disciplines for instance engineering, economics, natural sciences, sociology from the best academic institutions available in their area. Having said that, there is an acute ethical ecosocial underlying issue in the fight against climate change so multidisciplinarity is critical to approach this problem comprehensively. The next frontier after climate change is the fight against social inequality. We cannot have a sustainable future when global inequality is pervasive.

The window of opportunity to find solutions is becoming narrower and narrower but it is still open for bright committed professionals to make an impact.

There is an acute ethical ecosocial underlying issue in the fight against climate change so multidisciplinarity is critical to approach this problem comprehensively.

And to start-ups and companies that want to be part of the solution?

I would say that they need to choose a market niche and apply all their knowledge and efforts to solve problems. Nature-based solutions, the circular economy, CO2 reducing technologies, or water purifying solutions are some promising areas where entrepreneurs could deliver high-impact solutions. Collective intelligence, not technology, is the main weapon to fight the climate emergency

Are you optimistic about the future?

I am optimistic as I see energy and commitment from the younger generations. I don’t see discouragement or eco-anxiety. The vast majority of the public want a more sustainable and secure  future with fewer inequalities. They are tired of empty words and are demanding bold science-based actions and results from their Governments. And they will have to listen if they don’t want to be voted out.

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