Environmental Sustainability: All You Need to Know
On average, we waste up to 30 gallons of water unknowingly every day. If we keep going at this pace, we’ll end up using freshwater resources way faster than anticipated. The current drought in the UK is a clear indication in this regard. Even though it is more of a climate change consequence, it's closely related to environmental sustainability, which means fulfilling the current needs without compromising the needs of future generations.
Three pillars govern sustainability. These include social equity, economic viability, and environmental protection. Similarly, there are six factors involved in this concept, which are climate change, environment, innovation, technology, people, and ethics.
Examples of environmental sustainability are all around us. Starting from something as small as throwing waste items in the correct bin to something as major as having a circular supply chain.
Similar to other areas, environmental sustainability also requires legislation, which varies from country to country. In this post, we’ll cover all this and more, so let’s get started!
What is Environmental Sustainability?
As per the United Nations (UN) World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), environmental sustainability entails living in a way such that future generations have better, or at least equal, natural resources available than the current generations.
Even though there are various minor variations of this concept, it’s generally accepted throughout the world. The alternate versions usually are extended definitions that include other perspectives, such as human well-being, a clean and healthy environment, and natural beauty and wildlife protection.
In 1987, the universally accepted and famous sustainability definition provided by the ‘Brundtland Commission’ in our ‘Common Future’ was released:
‘Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
Alternate Definition: According to Syed Shameer and Prasad Tollamadugu N.V.K.V in Recent Developments in Applied Microbiology and Biochemistry, environmental sustainability is the rate at which renewable resources are used, pollution happens, and non-renewable resources deplete, so that the natural resources last indefinitely because they are crucial for the survival of living organisms.
What are the 3 Pillars of Sustainability?
The three pillars of sustainability are social equity, economic viability, and environmental protection. Each of these pillars has six broad topics within them.
Three pillars of sustainability | Image via EPA
Social equity governs the societal aspect of sustainability. It includes that all members of society throughout the world have fair access to resources and opportunities. In addition to this, it also involves the full participation of everyone in a healthy social life and culture. All in all, it’s centered around liveability and viability.
The six topics of social equity include:
- Environmental justice
- Human health
- Resource security
- Sustainable communities
The second pillar of sustainability is economic viability, which involves supporting the economic growth and financial stability of communities and individuals without compromising on their social, environmental, and cultural aspects.
The six topics within economic viability include:
- Supply and demand
- Natural resource accounting
As the name indicated, the environmental protection pillar of sustainability involves ensuring that the natural environment, including natural resources, air, land, and ecosystems, are healthy, protected, and restored (if necessary).
The six factors within environmental protection are:
- Ecosystem services
- Green engineering and chemistry
- Air quality
- Water quality
- Resource integrity
What are Sustainability Factors?
There are six factors of sustainability: climate change, environment, innovation, technology, people, and ethics.
Climate change tops almost all the sustainability lists as it is one of the biggest challenges faced by our planet today. It started due to the excessive greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions because of the unsustainable fossil fuel burning and usage for energy purposes.
The current global warming trend is at a rate that hasn’t been seen in numerous recent millennia. Scientists believe it is because of the heat-trapping characteristic of GHGs since the mid-19th century.
Comparison of CO2 levels of current times with previous millennia | Image via NASA
So, what shall we do to stop it and maybe reverse the consequences?
Well, the only answer is to shift from fossil fuels and opt for renewable energy sources for all activities that involve their usage.
This factor of sustainability is all about protecting our environment by developing sustainable methods to switch from extensive usage of natural resources, such as wood, oil, or water. It’s about moderation and reducing our unchecked consumption of natural resources so that they are available for the coming generations.
Given the current population, and our never-ending requirements, we need innovations to cater to them, without burning through natural resources.
These new developments don’t necessarily need to be new or technologically advanced, they can be something as simple as opting for natural materials for construction or using locally sourced materials for manufacturing.
Innovation and technologies, in most cases, go hand in hand. We can’t achieve a truly sustainable planet for the ever-increasing population without developing new renewable technologies and adopting them on a large scale, to cater to the needs of people without polluting the environment and causing further damage to the climate.
An excellent renewable technology example in this regard is Infarm, an agri-tech startup, that saves water, doesn’t use chemical pesticides, and reduces transportation while farming through high-capacity indoor farming systems.
We, humans, are, unfortunately, instinctively, concerned more about our facilities and comfort than the planet or the environment.
Without changing our daily practices, we can’t achieve true sustainability.
The recent heat wave shows that we no longer need to think about our future generations as we, ourselves, are suffering from the consequences of our atrocities on the climate and the planet.
Keeping this in view, to keep Earth liveable, we have to change our lifestyles and learn how to live in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.
Ethics is about accountability as an individual and as a part or owner of an organization. Whether it’s our professional or personal life, we have to lead it in such a manner that we treat its other inhabitants with respect, be it fellow humans, flora, or wildlife!
On a personal level, following a sustainable diet, doing sustainable fashion, and ensuring minimal usage of fossil fuels and their products are some of the main forms of ethical sustainability.
In terms of business, ensure that you communicate transparently about your business practices and strive to make them more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
How Environmental Sustainability Works
There are numerous different definitions and interpretations of environmental sustainability, which often lead to many questions as to how we should contribute, as individuals and through our businesses, towards the remediation and betterment of the environment.
For example, how shall we change our lifestyles so that they have minimal impact on the environment? Or how shall we do business to ensure it doesn’t harm the planet?
Many believe that business can serve as a major force behind bringing positive change. Some say finance and a positive environmental change can go hand in hand if the institutions become sensitive toward the effect of their activities on the planet.
Here are a few ways in which we can sustainably lead our lives so that the planet is conserved for future generations:
- Modifying living conditions by opting for sustainable societies in the form of eco-villages and sustainable cities.
- Promoting business practices that have sustainability at their forefronts, such as sustainable architecture and renewable energy production.
- Innovating and developing new technologies, such as carbon-negative transportation and climate-responsive buildings.
- Opting for a sustainable lifestyle that uses minimal natural resources and doesn’t involve a high carbon footprint.
What are some Examples of Environmental Sustainability?
Common examples of environmental sustainability include sustainable architecture, sustainable forestry, sustainable construction, efficient waste management, sustainable water management, and sustainable energy sources.
Repeated farming of the same crops on the same area of the land reduces the soil quality, which in return, depletes the farmed crop quality. To counter this, farmers often take help from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, that leach into the land or run off into the waterways causing eutrophication.
Sustainable agriculture ensures that the farm produces long-term crops and that the agricultural practices and livestock don’t negatively impact the environment.
Common examples of sustainable agriculture include crop rotation, feeding livestock such that it doesn’t release high GHGs in its excreta, planting cover crops, permaculture, and improved water management.
Since 2010, we’ve lost 4.7 million hectares of net forests per year, which shows we desperately need sustainable forestry.
Sustainable forestry involves maintaining, regenerating, and managing the bio properties of the forests.
Examples of sustainable forestry include planting seedlings in greenhouses and transferring them to forests and thinning existing trees every five years to improve and sustain their strength and growth capability.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), approximately 25% of the global total CO2 emissions come from the building sector, which clearly shows the need for sustainable construction.
So, what exactly is sustainable construction?!
Sustainable construction means building structures with renewable and recyclable building materials and resources with minimal impact on the environment.
Common and simplest examples of sustainable construction are using locally sourced or natural materials.
Efficient Waste Management
Daily, at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste are generated throughout the world. The majority of this waste is mismanaged and ends up in the oceans, which has had a massive negative impact on the environment for centuries to come.
Sustainable waste management can eliminate this issue. It starts from the very beginning of the lifecycle of a product by ensuring that it is made such that minimal waste is produced, and that this waste is biodegradable.
Packaging is a big factor in this regard, and companies need to ensure that they eliminate plastic from it as much as possible.
Next comes awareness. The general public needs to be aware of how to dispose of the generated waste. This means they should know what to put in the recycling bins, what to compost, and what to avoid buying so that they don’t produce non-biodegradable waste.
Sustainable Waste Management
Approximately, 1.1 billion people around the world lack access to water, which shows how quickly this essential natural resource is depleting. We need to implement sustainable water management practices in our daily lives and businesses to make sure the situation doesn’t further worsen.
It starts from an individual level, such as reducing water wastage by cutting down on shower times or having water-efficient washing machines and dishwashers. Similarly, on an industrial level, water treatment plants can play a major role. Businesses can also take advantage of rainwater through rainwater harvesting systems.
Environmentally Friendly Energy Sources
Non-renewable energy sources, AKA, fossil fuels, are one of the biggest contributors to our planet’s current miserable situation. We need to switch them with renewable energy production sources so that there’s something left for the upcoming generations. The main sources of alternate energy include:
- Wind Energy: As the name indicates, wind energy is derived from wind. It is generally cheaper as the only cost involved is that of setting up the windmill.
- Solar Energy: Solar energy is the most common source of renewable energy throughout the world. It is used for numerous purposes ranging from generating electricity to a heating source for cooking.
- Geothermal Energy: Geothermal energy is the heat produced within the Earth’s core, where the temperature reaches around 5000°C. It can be harvested as a renewable heat and electricity source.
- Hydropower: Hydropower involves generating energy through falling or fast-running water. It involves producing electricity through dams, reservoirs, waves, and tides.
Ecology, climate, social systems, and business practices vary from country to country, so there isn’t a specific mechanism on how environmental sustainability should be practiced. Countries throughout the world have their own policies to incorporate sustainability, which are tied together through goals set forth by international global organizations, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the UN.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes and enforces environmental laws and regulations. They cover air, water, land, environmental risks, human health, contaminated lands and toxic sites, and chemicals review.
In the EU, environmental protection is governed by the EU environmental policy, whose foundation was laid in Paris in 1972 after the UN conference on the environment. The legal basis of the European environmental policy is in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) Article 11 and 191 to 193.
Violations of environmental law throughout the world are considered white-collar crimes, with punishments of fines, probation, jail, or a combination of either two of these or all three. Businesses generally face fines, which may range from thousands to millions of euros.
Environmental sustainability is the usage of natural resources such that the current needs are fulfilled without compromising that of the future generations. If done correctly, it has the potential to go hand in hand with businesses and improve their finances.
Since this planet is our only one, we should do our best to protect its environment - unless, some of you want to move to Mars shortly.