True sustainable development embodies a balance between using the Earth for the benefit of the human race and respecting the environment. Sustainable solutions set out to achieve this balance through the following goals:
- To continue to meet the fundamental needs of human life, society and communities – food, water, housing, transport, communication, etc.
- To inflict no lasting harm on the environment – ecosystems, animals, water bodies, air quality, etc.
In order to develop sustainable solutions unsustainable practices must first be identified and analysed. Unsustainable practices are human actions that cause lasting damage to the environment, directly or indirectly. Examples would include practices resulting in the pollution of rivers or the atmosphere, or the destruction of animal habitats. Once identified, the practices can then be analysed. Questions such as these may be incorporated in the analysis:
- Are the benefits of the action necessary for human survival?
- Are there ways to lessen the impact on the environment?
- Is there an alternative, more sustainable way to create the benefits of the action?
Through the analysis of current practices it is possible to target the systems where change is most needed. Developing practical, just and realistic solutions however, is an extremely challenging task. A number of these challenges, outlined below, will be discussed in this section.
- Global Cooperation – Global warming and climate change are global issues, and as such, require global solutions.
- Responsibility at all levels of society – Individuals, communities, nations and international bodies need to realise the importance of adopting sustainable development and actively make changes to reduce global warming.
- Traditions of Sustainability – Humanity needs to look to past traditions of living in harmony with the environment in developing appropriate sustainable solutions.
- Carbon Reduction – The reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is an easily identified target for sustainable solutions, but it is not the only area sustainable solutions should focus on.
- Taking Action
Our challenge is not so much to invent global cooperation as it is to rejuvenate, modernize, and extend it…Global prosperity need not be limited by dwindling natural resources; the world economy need not become an us-versus-them struggle for survival.
Global cooperation is vital for humanity to combat climate change and alter systems that have negative impacts on the environment. In order to avert the global ecological and economic crisis predicted as a result of climate change humans worldwide will need to unite and work together. Successful sustainable solutions incorporate global cooperation in the implementation of fair trade systems, sensible management of resources and the creative use of technology. The term ‘Earth Democracy’, which has been coined by political and environmental activists, is used to describe a movement towards fairer and more sustainable social, economic and political systems. This movement promotes policies and systems that benefit the environment and local communities as a priority ahead of ‘The Market’ or ‘Economic Growth’.
Attempts are being made to form global solutions through the development of national and international policies. Listed below are a number of key meetings attended by world leaders where climate change and sustainable development were the focus of debate. Follow the links to read more on each:
The Brundtland Commission, formally the World Commission on Environment and Development, was convened by the United Nations in 1983. The commission was created to address growing concerns about the increasing deterioration of the environment and natural resources, and how it would affect economic and social development. In establishing the commission, the UN General Assembly recognised that environmental problems were global in nature and determined that it was in the common interest of all nations to establish policies for sustainable development.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992 is more commonly called the ‘Earth Summit’. Over 100 national political leaders and 10,000 delegates from around the world were in attendance. The summit received widespread global coverage. The Conference Secretary-General, called the Summit a “historic moment for humanity” and stated that the summit produced the most comprehensive and, if implemented, effective programme of action ever sanctioned by the international community.
The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005. The Protocol recognises that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and sets binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – Cancun, Mexico 2010
The United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in Cancun, Mexico in late 2010.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – Bangkok, Thailand 2011
The most recent meeting of world leaders to decide upon climate change policy took place in Bangkok in April 2011.
These meetings have prompted many public debates. Here are some challenging questions that have arisen from these debates:
- Who is responsible for developing climate change solutions?
- Is it morally right for a price to be put on a natural, global commodity, e.g. the atmosphere?
- Will a carbon market be effective in reducing emissions in the long-term?
- Whose responsibility is it to enforce global policies on greenhouse gas emissions?
- Will countries that do not contribute substantially to greenhouse gas emissions be reimbursed for the food, water, security or economic crisis they are facing due to the adverse affects of climate change?
Responsibility at all levels of society
Realisation of the need to work together globally in the effort to combat climate change is one element of the challenge in implementing effective sustainable solutions. Another aspect is the realisation of responsibility at all levels of society and that this responsibility is motivation to act now, and make changes. Outlined below are some examples showing action at the different levels in society:
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation set up a panel to tackle the problem of declining fish stocks in the southwest Indian Ocean in 2005. The panel, the South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission (SWIOFC), functions as an advisory body to promote the sustainable development and utilisation of coastal fishery resources. To read more on this check out: INDIAN OCEAN: New body to promote responsible fishing
In December 2010 Kenya adopted a new constitution that includes the following environmentally positive declaration in Article 42:
- Every person has the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes the right: “to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures.”
To read more check out: Vision: Kenya Enshrines the Environment in Its Constitution — This Should Be Our Future
The Malawian government has endorsed a crop diversification strategy to support farmers in growing a variety of crops to avoid dependence on crops that are likely to be adversely affected by climate change. The government also provides subsidised fertiliser to poor farmers. However, at one stage the distribution of the fertiliser was done at a time that favoured the planting of maize. This led to a dependence on maize. Seed for alternative crops such as millet and sorghum were also not available from official outlets. Community representatives, along with government officials, highlighted the gap in the official crop diversification strategy and were successful in their campaign to have the fertiliser distributed at a different time to support other crops.
To read more check out: In-depth: Gathering Storm – the humanitarian impact of climate change
Without individual action real change for more sustainable practices is impossible. International, national and community policies are not going to be effective unless the citizens themselves challenge these governing bodies to implement change and incorporate change into their own daily lifestyles. For information on taking action as an individual see the section below, Taking Action
Traditions of Sustainability
To mitigate and adapt to climate change we need to stop the assault on small farmers and indigenous communities, to defend their rights to their land and territory, to see them not as remnants of our past but as the path for our future.
Knowledge of using the Earth’s resources to sustain human life is embedded in family, community and cultural traditions worldwide. Respect for the land is also intertwined with this knowledge. According to the US Environment Protection Agency average carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by around 38% from pre-industrial levels and are now well above the natural range over the last 650,000 years. These gases are directly contributing to global warming and climate change, resulting in climate-related disasters affecting over 262 million people annually. What does this say about the use of the wealth of knowledge embedded in humanity’s cultures?
Sustainable development is a crucial concept that needs to be embraced in order to preserve the planet and sustain human life – as discussed in the section “Why should we care about Sustainable Development”. In developing sustainable solutions there is support for communities to look to the values and traditions of their people for inspiration. These traditions are rooted in the knowledge of living and supporting community needs in harmony with the needs of the land and surrounding nature.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes substantially to Global Warming. The potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming, due to the presence of greenhouse gas concentrations, have influenced the focus of many sustainable development solutions to revolve around reducing carbon emissions. First World systems rely heavily on fossil fuels to support industries, production, heating, transport etc. First World governments are also leading the creation of development solutions and, as such, there has been a focus on promoting solutions and technologies that reduce carbon emissions. These solutions range from improving ways to harness renewable energy sources (eg. solar, hydro, wind) to installing air purifiers on factory chimneys. The Kyoto Protocol sets a binding target for 37 industrialised countries and the European community to reduce carbon emissions by an average of five per cent against 1990 levels by 2012.
There is growing support, however, to re-address the growing demand for fossil fuel use i.e. to question the reliance on fossil fuels from its roots; the emphasis in societies of economic markets centred on industrial systems, production and consumerism.
Another view that should be highlighted is the fact that carbon emissions are not the only un-sustainable aspect of human activities and sustainable solutions should not only focus on reducing carbon emissions. As the following graph shows, a substantial portion of the human ecological footprint is comprised of elements not relating directly to carbon dioxide, for example deforestation, water pollution,urban sprawl, etc. Therefore, it is imperative that global sustainable development solutions do not solely focus on systems that directly reduce carbon emissions but also incorporate the human actions that indirectly contribute to climate change.
The majority of sustainable development solutions involve change. This is because change is necessary. As discussed in the previous topic “Why should we care about Sustainable Development” humans are using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide resources and absorb waste. In some countries this ranges as high as 5 planets (eg. USA), in other countries (e.g. Haiti, Yemen, Togo) their Ecological Footprint is well within the ability of the planet to support them. This highlights the global imbalance in national contributions to climate change across the world. The polluter-pays principle would suggest that the implementation of sustainable solutions should run parallel with a country’s contribution to climate change. If policies and changes are to reflect this then what changes are needed to reduce a country’s ‘planet use’ from 5 to 1? And to what extent will these changes impact the daily lifestyles of the countries’ residents?
There is growing support for the polluter-pays principle, especially from Third World activists who strongly object to the enforcement of policies, charges and changes to societies who are living within the capacity of the earth.
The Kyoto Principle attempts to put the responsibility for reducing greenhouse gasses on countries. In Earth Democracy the responsibility of resolving the climate change problems would be on the companies – and their CEOs. The responsibility of governments and intergovernmental agreements would be to ensure that production and consumption patterns operate within sustainable cycles.
To find out more:
For further information on how to ‘live green’ and take responsibility for the consequences daily lifestyle choices have on the environment, check out the list of recommended websites below:
This website has an excellent variety of information on how to incorporate environmentally friendly tasks into daily life. It also provides information on getting involved in community activities and environmental campaigns.
This website is teeming with information on a broad range of environmental topics and active campaigns; energy sources, ocean pollution, deforestation, chemical use, sustainable agriculture to name a few. This link is to their campaign for individual action on climate change.
This website provides practical lifestyle tips for reducing individual carbon emissions and getting involved in campaigning for greater change within communities for lower fossil fuel use.
This link is to the Ethical Consumption topic on this website. This resource includes information how the production and transportation of products can have an adverse effect on the environment. The site also outlines 5 Ethical Shopping Tips.
Measuring your Carbon or Ecological Footprint
These websites allow you to measure your carbon or ecological footprint by answering questions about your lifestyle, housing and transportation.