Every day, we are presented with a range of “sustainable” products and activities—from “green” cleaning supplies to carbon offsets—but with so much labeled as “sustainable,” the term has become essentially sustainababble, at best indicating a practice or product slightly less damaging than the conventional alternative. Is it time to abandon the concept altogether, or can we find an accurate way to measure sustainability? If so, how can we achieve it? And if not, how can we best prepare for the coming ecological decline?
In the latest edition of Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World series, scientists, policy experts, and thought leaders tackle these questions, attempting to restore meaning to sustainability as more than just a marketing tool. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, experts define clear sustainability metrics and examine various policies and perspectives, including geoengineering, corporate transformation, and changes in agricultural policy, that could put us on the path to prosperity without diminishing the well-being of future generations. If these approaches fall short, the final chapters explore ways to prepare for drastic environmental change and resource depletion, such as strengthening democracy and societal resilience, protecting cultural heritage, and dealing with increased conflict and migration flows.
State of the World 2013 cuts through the rhetoric surrounding sustainability, offering a broad and realistic look at how close we are to fulfilling it today and which practices and policies will steer us in the right direction.
"In a lecture delivered at Stanford University, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the current state of the world and "the future we must shape together." He outlined three ways to navigate our way through this "Great Transition," namely by advancing sustainable development, helping people meet their aspirations for democracy and dignity, and empowering women and young people.
On the sustainable development challenge, Ban underscored that he has made sustainable development the leading priority of the UN. He stressed the need to urgently "change course" to build the clean energy, low-carbon
"At the current rate, we will soon need two planet earths. But we have only one planet. There can be no Plan B because there is no planet B. Both science and economics tell us that we need to change course – and soon."
economy of tomorrow that will address the challenge of climate change. Noting the size of the economy of California, he noted that the state has "a special role" to play in spurring the on-going climate negotiations in order to reach a global, legally binding agreement on climate by 2015.
Ban also mentioned his Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL), stressing that California can contribute to efforts made to reach the goals set by the Initiative, namely to ensure universal access to modern energy services, double energy efficiency, and double the renewable energy share in the overall global energy mix. In concluding, Ban stated that "this time of Great Transition is also a period of great opportunity." [UN Secretary-General's Statement] [UN Press Release]
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS (SDGs)
The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), due to expire in 2015, are being reformulated into a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a renewed attempt to address the global scale and complexity issues involved in sustaining both people and planet. Six interconnected goals are under consideration: thriving lives and livelihoods, food security, water security, clean energy, healthy and productive ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies. Reportedly, "the targets beneath each goal include updates and expanded targets under the MDGs, including ending poverty and hunger, combating HIV/aids, and improving maternal and child health. But they also define a set of planetary "must haves": climate stability, the reduction biodiversity loss, protection of ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle and oceans, sustainable nitrogen and phosphorus use, clean air and sustainable material use." For more information on the SDGs, see the following:
The 2013 Human Development Report (HDR) – “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World” – was launched 14 March 2013 in Mexico City. It examines the profound shift in global dynamics that is being driven by the fast-rising powers of the developing world - and the implications of this phenomenon for human development. Excerpts:
"The rise of the South is radically reshaping the world of the 21st century, with developing nations driving economic growth, lifting
hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and propelling billions more into a new global middle class, says the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2013 Human Development Report. "The rise of the South is unprecedented in its speed and scale,"
the 2013 Report says. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast."
"The 2013 Human Development Index (HDI) Report shows major gains since 2000 in most countries of the South. Over the past decades, countries across the world have been converging towards higher levels of human development, as shown by the Human Development Index," says the 2013 Report. "All groups and regions have seen notable improvement in all HDI components, with faster progress in low and medium HDI countries. On this basis, the world is becoming less unequal."
“Environmental inaction, especially regarding climate change, has the potential to halt or even reverse human development progress.”
IEA World Energy Outlook Facts & Graphs
McKinsey Resources & Urban World
OECD Country Statistics & Outlooks
UNDP Human Development Database
UNEP Issues for the 21st Century
UNEP Global Environmental Outlook
UNEP Environmental Data Explorer
World Bank Country Statistics
Corporate Sustainability Research, Analysis, and Tools
WRI: Aqueduct Water Resource Maps
WRI: Corporate Ecosystem Services
WRI: Greenhouse Gas Protocol
WRI: Stories to Watch
WRI: Profits & Sustainability Alignment
BCG & MIT Sustainability Tipping Points
Sustainable Business Modeling Tool
KPMG: Expect the Unexpected
Oxfam, CERES, and Calvert Investments
Physical Risks from Climate Change
WBCSD Vision 2050
Berkeley Earth video representation of the land surface temperature anomaly, 1800 to the present. The map of the world shows the temperature anomaly by location over time. The chart at the bottom, shows the global land-surface temperature anomaly. The Berkeley Earth analysis shows 0.911 degrees Centigrade of land warming (+/- 0.042 C) since the 1950s.
The Human Development Index (HDI) is based on four indicators: life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, and gross national income per capita; and three dimensions: health, education, and living standards
8. Sustainable Development Modeling and Simulation
The graph below is a simple simulation of world population, gross production/consumption, and energy availability trends:
As of EOY 2011, World Population = 7 Billion, World GDP = 61 Trillion PPP Dollars,
World Energy Use = 0.5 Zeta Joules (or approx 82 billion barrels of oil), and
Average Consumption per Capita = 9000 Dollars
The simulation tipping points would seem to approximate current trends. If the supply of usable energy from fossil fuels peaks and declines as shown by the green curve, how much energy would have to be generated from other sources to support the current GDP output? Even for the sake of social solidarity and ecological sustainability, would most people in the "developed" nations be able/willing to "survive" with $9000/year?
The past cannot be changed, and the future is unknown, but there is empirical evidence to the effect that:
1. Fossil fuel resources are high in energy content but are not infinite.
2. Fossil fuel emissions are environmentally detrimental and/or potentially unsafe.
3. Currently known clean energy alternatives offer relatively low energy content.
Given that fossil fuels are being depleted, pollution levels are damaging the environment, and clean energy alternatives may not provide enough energy to sustain industrial economies, is it wise to just continue doing "business as usual" and trusting that some earthshaking technological breakthrough will come to pass soon enough? Is it fair for people in the "developed" nations to keep indulging in energy consumption and waste while approx. one billion people must subsist on $2 per day or less?
The scale of the global sustainable development challenge is unprecedented. The fight against extreme poverty has made great progress under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but more than 1 billion people continue to live in extreme poverty. Inequality and social exclusion are widening within most countries. With the world at 7 billion people and current annual GDP of US$70 trillion, human impacts on the environment have already reached dangerous levels. As the world population is estimated to rise to 9 billion by 2050
and global GDP to more than US$200 trillion, the world urgently needs a framework for sustainable development that addresses the challenges of ending poverty, increasing social inclusion, and sustaining the planet.
Under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, and in line with the recently launched High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was announced on August 9, 2012 and will provide global, open and inclusive support to sustainable-development problem solving at local, national, and global scales. The SDSN will work together with United Nations agencies, other international organizations, and the multilateral funding institutions including the World Bank and regional development banks, to mobilize scientific and technical expertise to scale up the magnitude and quality of local, national and global problem solving, helping to identify solutions and highlighting best practices in the design of long-term development pathways.
Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General on the MDGs, will direct the project with the core aim of creating an open, inclusive, and world-class global network of expertise and problem solving. The network will comprise mainly universities and scientific research institutes, but will also tap technical expertise within technology companies, science foundations and academies of sciences and engineering. Columbia University's Earth Institute will serve as the Secretariat for the Network.
The global network will accelerate joint learning and help to overcome the compartmentalization of technical and policy work by promoting integrated approaches to the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world.
The network should therefore spawn a new kind of sustained problem solving, in which experts, leaders, and citizens in all parts of the world work together to identify, demonstrate, and implement the most promising paths to sustainable development.