Earlier this month, delegates from across the world gathered in Stellenbosch to discuss sustainable development at the 19th annual International Sustainable Development Research Conference (ISDRS).
You couldn’t have asked for a better place to host such a meeting. This was the sentiment expressed by a number of speakers at the ISDRS conference on Monday. The conference was the first of its kind to be hosted by the International Sustainable Development Research Society in the global south. Some have said there is no better place to discuss the conference’s theme; Just Transition, than South Africa, a country with one of the world’s greatest income inequalities.
For example, take the setting of the meeting place; the stunning Spier Wine Farm outside Stellenbosch. This is a popular tourist attraction, equally adored by all locals and yet you don’t have to drive too far to spot the nearest shacks and informal settlements.
There are other reasons South Africa makes for a good spot to discuss a just transition to sustainable development. For instance, it is a country caught, more than most countries in the global north, in a tug of war between economic development and environmental concerns.
Where the developed meets the developing
“It is here where the ‘extremely poor’ live, in one of the most carbon-intensive economies,” explained Stellenbosch University’s Professor Alan Brent, chairperson of ISDRC19.
“South Africa is a hotspot. The country’s “mineral-energy complex” has led to inequality and resource exploitation, while also inspiring a wealth of innovations and changes. Some of us actually see it as a living laboratory of the world; this is where we bring the developing and the developed world’s together,” added Brent.
The conference’s packed three-day programme covered a range of topics around its central theme of Just Transitions. This included the complexity of that transition, a rethinking of development geared more towards a greening of the developmental state, new forms of urbanism and how a rapid transition towards a more sustainable living can be achieved.
Some of the speakers included:
- Professor Eugene Cloete (below), Vice-Rector: Research and Innovation, who painted a picture of the crisis the world faces in trying to provide for seven billion people.
- Jenny Cargill, Special Advisor: Office of the Premier, Western Cape Government, spoke about some of the programmes and initiatives of the province aimed at striving for a green economy within certain constraints.
- Mapula Tshangela, Director for Sustainable Development and Green Economy at the National Department of Environmental Affairs, laid out the national government’s comprehensive plan as found in South Africa’s Green Economy Modelling (SAGEM) strategy.
Other speakers showed the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the world. Frank Geels, who is Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, spoke of the difficulties of making ‘niche innovations’ in existing regimes.
Gerald Steiner, visiting scholar and former Schumpeter Professor at Harvard’s Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, addressed the questions of how innovation can contribute to a just and sustainable transition.
Talks for the rest of the day were equally varied and delegates were spoilt for topic choice. There was input from Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Kenya, Russia, the UK, US and, of course, South Africa, covering both theoretical and more hands-on projects.
One presenter discussed how agricultural policies could lead to the demise of small-scale farming in Russia. Another presentation outlined how wind power could impact parts of Kenya’s off-grid tea sector. A speaker from Brazil pointed to the ways that regulations in that country could see new threats to the country’s prized rain forests.
“It is not just the delegates who reap the benefits of all the talks and discussions. It also helps sponsors to check how they are doing on the sustainability front,” noted Brigitte Burnett, head of sustainability at Nedbank.
“Part of our philosophy is to partner with like-minded organisations, Institutions and people to learn from them as part of our journey. A lot of our focus is on trying to be a leader in this space, but to do that collaboratively with the right partnerships.”
“This was a fantastic opportunity for us to learn from other academics and other thinkers from around the world, who can help us check whether we’re on the right track and how to shape our strategy from a sustainability perspective going forward,” she added.
On day two of the conference delegates explored the main themes further in another broad array of talks and presentations.
1. Prof Alan Brent, Professor at Stellenbosch University and Associate Director at Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies .
2. Prof Eugene Cloete from Stellenbosch University is Vice-Rector of Research and Innovation, and one of the speakers at the event. Photographer: Morgan Morris