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Sustainability 50: Green innovators from overseas

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Tougher regulations and more committed politicians have seen sustainability thinking advance at a much greater rate outside the UK.

While we are fast establishing a reputation for innovation in sustainability, many of the field’s most influential pioneers have come from overseas.

The definition of sustainability came from Europe in 1987, in a report by the commission named after Gro Harlem Brundtland. The former Norwegian prime minister is now special envoy on climate change to the UN secretary general.

Passivhaus is another European concept, conceived by Germany’s Wolfgang Feist, and now the world’s fastest growing energy performance standard. Feist founded the Passivhaus Institute in 1996 and remains its director.

Despite consuming more oil than any other nation, the US has produced several notable sustainability advocates. Former presidential candidate Al Gore is one of its most high-profile proponents of sustainability. His campaign to raise awareness of global warming became the subject of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Rocky Mountain Institute chairman and chief scientist Amory Lovins has been equally influential, publishing numerous books and papers on energy efficiency and renewable energy while advising some of the world’s largest corporations and governments.

Europe and the US have dominated the field to date. But sustainability pioneers can also be found in the world’s developing nations. Marina Silva is an environmentalist and Green party presidential candidate in Brazil who worked with Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper who was assassinated for defending the Amazon rainforest from loggers.

Former environment minister of Barbados Elizabeth Thompson, is executive coordinator of the Rio+20 United Nations conference on sustainable development.

Even China has its high-profile sustainability supporters, notably environment minister Zhou Shengxian, who has warned that the country’s pollution problem is threatening to stifle its economic growth.

As more and more nations recognise the merits of a sustainable approach, not least the economic opportunities offered by the growth in green industries, innovators will emerge from a growing range of locations.

The UK has made good progress in recent years. But when countries such as China signal their intentions to change, there can be no complacency if we are to maintain our position in the increasingly competitive global rankings.

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