1. What is sustainability and where does the term come from?
Sustainability means to meet the needs of the present whilst neutralizing environmental harm and
ensuring that resources are not depleted for current or future generations. The term, as we currently understand it, has its roots in a 1987 report known as the Brundtland Report. The report, which defined sustainable development for the first time; “explored the causes of environmental degradation, attempted to understand the interconnections between social equity, economic growth, and environmental problems, and developed policy solutions that integrated all three areas.”
2. Why is environmental sustainability so important?
Many scientists argue that environmental sustainability is the most important component of sustainability due to the fact that the natural environment underpins human life and financial models. Currently humanity is using far more resources than the earth can sustain and pollution is causing accelerated global overheating and climate breakdown. If this continues, it will lead to many dire consequences such as more extreme weather events (like drought and wild-fire), an increasing lack of resources and resulting social conflict, mass loss of living systems and the potential for human extinction. Addressing these environmental concerns is paramount to sustaining human life and doing so in just way in order to achieve a more equitable and thriving world.
3. How can sustainability be achieved?
Solving the current environmental and social crises is no easy feat and there is not one single solution. However, there are a number of ways that we are aware of that can create positive changes that we need to see. The United Nations has adopted 17 global goals that “recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”
Unfortunately, a lot of what is suggested by the UN is not put into action and changes to become more sustainable are not happening fast enough. Whilst the UN is 100% correct that we cannot achieve sustainability without addressing the climate crisis/global heating and ending social injustice, In the same breath, they push the agenda of spurring economic growth while making the world more sustainable. However, the current system of capitalism which suggests we can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet is simply not sustainable.We cannot simply improve “eco-efficiency within a capitalist growth-oriented system” It will not save us. As Guardian journalist George Monbiot says “we need to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it” if we are to achieve a better future for all.
So what might post-capitalism mean? The idea of degrowth and focusing on a “wellbeing economy” is already being suggested by researchers and considered by politicians like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Degrowth would see a reduction in material and energy consumption, reduced working for individuals (yes, please), less stuff, simpler lives and a public service focus on wellbeing.
4. What is climate change?
The Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) defined climate change as “a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, that alters the composition of the global atmosphere, and that is in addition to natural climate variability over a comparable time period.”
Changes in climate have direct effect on humans and all species on the planet. It not only effects the temperature of the planet but also determines the availability of resources like water, the ability to grow food and live in certain places, as well as whether or not the planet is habitable for humans and other species.
Whilst the earth’s climate has gone through fluctuations throughout history, the current period of global overheating, climate and ecological breakdown is happening at an unprecedented and accelerated rate due to man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and the destruction of our living systems. (Not sure you believe it? Or maybe you know a denialist. Read this).
Climate change is no longer in the future – it has arrived, is happening faster than we had predicted and threatens all life on earth – including humans. Some media outlets like the Guardian have also taken to retiring the use of the word climate change and replacing it with words like climate crisis, climate chaos and climate breakdown in order to showcase it as the emergency that it is.
5. What is the difference between climate change (chaos) and global warming (overheating)?
According to Nasa, “’Climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are often used interchangeably but have distinct meanings.” Global warming is the long-term warming of the earth since the beginning of the 20th century. This warming has most notably increased since the late 70s due to increased fossil fuel dependence and emissions since the industrial revolution. The world is currently 1C warmer than preindustrial levels and we are already seeing the effects. If we continue to burn fossil fuels we will enter a period of runaway heating leading to earth becoming potentially unliveable in the near term future.
Comparatively, climate change is a wide range of “global phenomena created predominantly by burning fossil fuels, which add heat-trapping gases to Earth’s atmosphere.” These phenomena (which are on significant increase) include the results of global heating as well as aspects such as extreme weather events and natural disasters, sea level rise and ice mass loss.
6. How can we reverse the climate and ecological crises?
There are certain things we can no longer reverse such as the extinction of certain species, for example. But in October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report by the world’s top climate scientists. The report stated how humanity has just 12 (now 11) years to make “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to limit global temperatures and mitigate climate catastrophe.
By doing so we would still see climate and ecological breakdown (which we see already) but we would be able to limit the catastrophe and potentially begin to build a new world. But how?
The key to change will be the involvement of policy makers, institutions, corporations and individuals. Some of the key areas of change include:
- Education and persuasion around the urgency and reality of the climate crisis including having governments declare a climate emergency
- Conversion from fossil fuels to clean energy to reach zero emissions
- Divestment from fossil fuel investments
- Changes to policy at city and country level
- Mass restoration of natural living systems such as forests
- A massive reduction in animal agriculture and high meat diets (particularly in westernised countries)
- A cultural and paradigm shift (particular by the wealthy and those in wealthier nations) to stop believing in the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet and to live more modest lives (bye, bye capitalism)
There really is a vast array of solutions that already exist in order to reach the point where we can begin to reverse the man-made effects of global over heating. In fact, Project Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, contains 80 solutions to do just this.
“Sustainable Development Goals .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform”. Sustainabledevelopment.Un.Org, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300. Accessed 16 Dec 2018.
“1. What Is Climate Change? | Australian Academy Of Science”. Science.Org.Au, 2018, https://www.science.org.au/learning/general-audience/science-booklets-0/science-climate-change/1-what-climate-change. Accessed 14 Dec 2018.
Pielke, Roger A. “WHAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE?” Energy & Environment, vol. 15, no. 3, 2004, pp. 515–520. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43735505.
Shaftel, Holly. “What’S In A Name? Weather, Global Warming And Climate Change”. Climate Change: Vital Signs Of The Planet, 2018, https://climate.nasa.gov/resources/global-warming/. Accessed 14 Dec 2018.
Vagg, Xander. American Security: The Impact of Climate Change. American Security Project, 2012, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep05955.
“How The U.N. Climate Change Report Could Serve As A Wake-Up Call”. Knowledge@Wharton, 2018, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/climate-change-report-ipcc/. Accessed 15 Dec 2018.