Will power will drive sustainable future

The ways to build a sustainable planetary society are being developed rapidly; the challenge is to put the best ideas into effect, and quickly.

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It's one of the oldest adages of the industrial era, and in many places it is still observably true: "Where there's muck, there's brass."

This week experts from 140 countries, and many global organisations, are meeting in Abu Dhabi, trying to move past the environmental damage, waste and resource depletion that so often accompany industrialisation and the prosperity it brings.

The challenge for the participants attending Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, and for all the people of our only planet, is to move the whole world from Sustainability Week to the era of sustainability.

There is evidence that this is possible, and that's good news, because the solution to the problem has grown urgent. A report this week said fish everywhere are increasingly tainted with mercury, pumped into the air when coal burns. And this month air pollution in Tehran and Beijing, among other cities, reached levels truly dangerous to public health.

But London is not on that dirty-air list. Sixty years ago last month, a four-day "great smog", caused mainly by the use of dirty coal in home heating and industry, brought London to a halt - and prompted legislation, in 1953 and 1956, that improved air quality. To be sure, nobody will confuse modern London's air with that of a mountain meadow, but the example shows that progress is possible.

Now Sustainability Week is offering modern options for a cleaner, healthier world through advances in renewable energy, waste reduction, recycling and more. Scientific research and engineering are bringing us many of the answers we need. Just this week, for example, British researchers said tidal power has more potential than previously recognised. Masdar scholars have reported, in The National, on progress toward nuclear-powered desalination plants. A turbine to be tested at Ghantoot is designed to extract water from the wind. In these and innumerable other ways, the world is responding to the need to be cleaner.

The task before policymakers is to facilitate all the necessary transitions. Dead ends such as biofuel must be detected and abandoned, while promising innovations must be encouraged and tested. There is also public education to be done. Even people who consider themselves to be eco-friendly may baulk at paying a little more for petrol or a plastic bag.

The challenges of sustainability must be, and can be, met. Technologies will come. Harder will be finding the will power to adopt them.