Environmental sustainability is a critical contemporary issue that affects how we live, use and steward the natural resources we have been given.
By managing consumption and preserving the natural world we can ensure the wellbeing of future generations.
In this concise article, we will explore what environmental sustainability is, why it is important and how societies and economies can become sustainable.
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What Is Environmental Sustainability?
Environmental sustainability is concerned with the conservation of the Earth’s natural resources and ecosystems. This programme of protective and restorative strategies is deemed essential for the preservation of long-term global health and wellbeing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes environmental sustainability as “meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”, emphasising the future-focused approach to safeguarding environmental and human health.
Continued industrial growth and consumption leaves a legacy of environmental damage and depletion
Almost three centuries of progressive industrial advancement and increasing energy consumption have caused significant environmental and ecological problems including air and water pollution, deforestation, and depletion of fossil fuel reserves.
Some scientists have hypothesized that emissions of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of combustion from industrial activity, are causing global temperatures to rise, though there is no clear evidence of this as it is 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere and naturally occurring.
Urbanisation has been a significant contributor to the change in consumption and the patterns of human activity that may be damaging like large-scale intensive agriculture and toxic manufacturing byproducts and sewage being leached into fragile ecosystems.
Environmental sustainability is a critical issue for human health and wellbeing
Despite the illusion of the modern lifestyle and diet being abstracted from the environment, human wellbeing is, in fact, closely intertwined with the condition of the surrounding environment.
According to the WHO, 24% of deaths may be related to avoidable environmental factors. For example, in central London, the high levels of air pollution have already been attributed to the deaths of young children and shocking environmental contamination has been the disputed cause of death of a young child in Surrey.
Without clean air and water, decent sanitation and environments that are not saturated in man-made toxins, endocrine disruptors and hazards, the next generation of people will not be able to thrive and be productive.
Without reflection and considered action to address the long-term consequences of industrialisation the environment is likely to deteriorate to a condition that will have significant harmful effects for subsequent generations.
It is widely acknowledged that something has to change and the concept of environmental sustainability is proposed as a social contract that will encourage everyone from government, the public and private sector to private individuals to adopt environmentally sustainable practices long-term.
What is being done about environmental sustainability now?
Notable efforts are being made by individual nations as well as an overarching global push to get environmental sustainability on the political and social agenda.
At the moment a variety of public-private partnerships, corporations and philanthropic or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are at work to influence domestic policies to promote environmental sustainability.
The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is an example of this. However, if environmental integrity is to be preserved for the future, what are the policies that should be implemented to support the move to sustainable consumption?
Here are some ideas:
Standards for environmental sustainability are a key area of activity in the drive for environmental sustainability.
These policies, rules, laws and regulations vary massively between countries and are usually based on the prevailing domestic economic, social and environmental conditions.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency delivers robust regulation of substances that include air pollutants, refrigerants and hazardous waste.
By setting standards for environmental factors like air and water quality, levels of soil contamination and protecting wildlife habitat, agencies like the EPA can start to turn the tide on environmental damage and enforce transgressions with litigation and fines.
Behavioural and lifestyle changes
Policy and regulations need to be partnered by a change in the prevailing culture that leads to people consuming fewer resources and living more sustainably.
At a governmental level, this may mean the imposition of restriction or higher levels of taxation, but it does not have to be that way.
Many grassroots movements and personal choices are turning the tide on the fast food, fast fashion, consumer-driven culture:
- Divestment: People are becoming increasingly discerning about the companies they choose to invest their money with. Companies and equity funds that are associated with activities that pollute and damage the environment are increasingly shunned.
- Localism and seasonal consumption: People across the world are becoming more oriented to consuming the food and resources they can obtain locally, which do not have to be shipped or flown across the globe.
- Reducing consumption: Increasing numbers of people are questioning the materialistic nature of the Western lifestyle and looking for ways in which they can live sustainably. Smallholdings, where people grow their food and even live off-grid, are increasingly desirable residences.
- Reuse and recycling: There has been a big push to get people to recycle glass, plastics, metal, paper and composting organic waste. Grassroots movements like Freecycle are also ensuring that reusable items like furnishing go to a new home rather than the landfill.
- Family structure: Over the past century the rates of family breakdown and single living have soared. Despite people living in smaller households, individualised living consumes more resources than families or multi-generational households which are also more productive, sustainable and capable of meeting the needs of individual family members.
Environmental sustainability and economic growth
The corporate sector plays a key role to change how it operates and adopting environmentally sustainable practices that will sustain societies long-term.
It is large investment houses, global banks and mega-corporations that are driving the unrestricted consumption that is damaging human welfare, and their mercurial motivations that need to be curbed.
The change in business activities and regulations do not have to be punitive, and in fact, environmental sustainability can work effectively with business goals.
A successful business can be sustainable and fledgling industries like renewable energy are at the cutting edge of developing a more environmentally friendly approach to economic productivity.
What is ESG?
Environmental, Social and Governance, known as (ESG) is an important framework for evaluating how companies are tackling environmental sustainability and their collective awareness and engagement with social and environmental factors.
It is a score that is comprised of several metrics related to the business activities and assets.
ESG is now routinely adopted for benchmarking and disclosing data and is a preferred term of investors and the capital markets.
The linking of ESG to investment is considered to be an effective means of promoting environmental sustainability, but any immediate impact is yet to be seen.
Unlimited and often needless consumption, rather than population growth is the driver of the environmental degradation that has necessitated efforts to stem the tide with environmental sustainability.
There will always be a breaking point and it now falls to individuals through to nations to make positive changes in the way we live to secure a livable future.