In the light of crises like climate change and the global corona pandemic, one would almost think the world is coming to an end. Wrong, writes Mark Swilling, academic director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch, in his latest book. Humanity, despite all these challenges, is moving towards an era of sustainability, one that is as significant as the industrial revolution of the 1700s.

The world has had better days. While billions of locusts are eating their way through the Horn of Africa, with new swarms forming in war-plagued Yemen, ice caps are melting faster than ever before. Then there is COVID-19, which is keeping the world in its grips.

“War, climate change, outbreaks of known and novel diseases, food insecurity and other crises are threatening everything, including ecosystems, human health, peace and the global economy,” explains Swilling, who is launching his new book Age of Sustainability: Just Transitions in a Complex World this week. Virtually, that is, because of the coronavirus.

Humanity is, however, not heading for an apocalypse. “These crises, including the corona-pandemic, are paving the way for a transition to a sustainable paradigm, one in which progress isn’t defined by GDP growth, profits, and technological advancements alone,” Swilling explains.

Instead, the age of sustainability he describes in his book will consider all 17 Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs), not just the cherry-picked few that revolve around economic and financial prosperity.

“Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the economic and social needs of present generations without depleting natural resources and compromising the ability of future generations to meet their social, economic and environmental needs,” Swilling says. “This sustainability revolution will be as significant as the agricultural and the industrial revolutions once were.”

Key players in this transition are the digital revolution, mass protests led by young people, and the global move towards investment decarbonization.

“In 2017, for the first time, global investments in clean energy amounted to $279.8 billion, outstripping the investments in coal, gas, and nuclear combined,” Swilling says. “2018 and 2019 have shown a similar scenario.”

What feeds this is the fact that in over a hundred countries, solar and wind power are cheaper than fossil fuel-generated electricity. Take South Africa. The weighted average tariff across all renewable projects of the REIPPP’s last window was R0.70 per kWh, 66% lower than during the first round (R2.02). To compare: data by the Centre for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) shows that 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of new Eskom base-load coal costs R1.10 to R1.20.

“Old coal comes in at R1.50 per kWh and 1 kWh of new base-load nuclear costs R1.20 to R1.30,” Swilling says. “The business case of renewables is astonishing and will help solar and wind to push out all coal-fired, gas and nuclear plants in Africa and beyond.”

This is amplified by companies such as BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, disinvesting from coal. “The $7-trillion investor knows that if we don’t change course, life as we know it – including their own existence – will come to an end within the next 50 years.”

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Professor Mark Swilling is a co-director of the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) and serves as the academic director of the Sustainability Institute, both at the University of Stellenbosch. He also sits on the management board of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES). His research primarily focuses on societal transitions concerning sustainable development and governance. For his work, he has won several awards, including the prestigious 2010 Aspen Faculty Pioneer Award.