Businesses, government and civil society should harness the opportunities from trends impacting global societies to improve sustainability, think tank Forum for the Future said.
Changes in consumerism and mobility, regenerative agriculture, action against plastic pollution, and blockchain technology can all bring benefits for the environment and society, the organisation believes.
In a report, it highlights the implications and opportunities to reshape current behaviour and practice which could result in a more sustainable world.
For example, conventional agricultural models are putting increasing pressure on natural systems with significant implications for feeding growing populations and climate change.
In contrast, alternative approaches to agriculture, which give more to the environment than is taken out, could be scaled to create an entirely new farming system, it suggests.
Such regenerative agriculture uses techniques such as intercropping, where two or more crops are grown together, keeping living plant cover on soils, and using insect predators instead of chemical pesticides. It can be complemented by the use of data and even robots.
In Brazil, Leontino Balbo, the world’s largest sugar cane farmer, has boosted yield through new harvesting techniques that reduce soil compression and soil loss, while increasing wildlife and water retention. His company Agros Fortis is now developing a weed control robot.
The report considers the reality behind blockchain, technology that acts as a decentralised ledger that records transactions.
While the initial application was for cryptocurrencies, new uses are being found. For example, food retailers and manufacturers Walmart, Unilever and Nestle have teamed up with tech giant IBM to explore how to use blockchain technology to maintain secure records of their supply chains for important products such as chicken, chocolate and bananas.
Similarly. Provenance, a blockchain start-up, is creating digital histories for products enabling businesses and consumers to trace and verify origins and ownership across a product’s lifespan.
In transport, Forum for the Future believes that a change as radical as that from horse to motor is underway. A wave of commitments to electric vehicles from manufacturers, nations and cities in 2017 coinciding with new business models and journey tracking apps means that the divide between public and private transportation looks set to collapse.
Mobility as a Service will take over, with a shift from private vehicle ownership towards subscription-based models. This could impact the design of vehicles, parking, roads and buildings, the think tank predicts.
However, a significant policy change and infrastructure investment is needed to avoid societal disruption due to job loss in the transport sector, congestion in poorly managed transitions, and urban sprawl if technology encourages longer commutes.
Good management on the other hand could be rewarded with breathable, liveable cities, significant reductions in carbon emissions and congestion, and major efficiency gains.
Another trend highlighted in the report is action to prevent plastic pollution, which has become mainstream following high-profile research by organisations such as the Ellen McArthur Foundation, and documentaries including Blue Planet II and A Plastic Ocean.
Efforts are now underway to find alternative materials to single-use plastic. For example, British company Polymateria is working with Imperial College London to develop a cost-effective method for producing plastic products which are 100% biodegradable, and do not release toxins in decomposition.
James Goodman, director of futures and projects at Forum for the Future, said: “We live in a world of great political, economic and environmental uncertainty, in which sudden and major changes have become the new normal.
“We need a better understanding of the trends emerging today that will impact the future, how they are linked, and also how we are part of ongoing processes of change. Only then can leaders make better decisions that ensure that we survive and thrive in the future.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.