What Is Sustainability and Why Is It Important?

Environmental technology concept. Sustainable development goals. SDGs.
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Sustainability is a comprehensive concept that acts as the base of all environmentally friendly systems; in ecology, it means to maintain a process or cycle at a rate that can continue on its own. Sustainable processes avoid inputs that consume natural resources in an effort to uphold ecological harmony. Whether it’s in agriculture, energy use, or personal habits, prioritizing sustainability is crucial to reduce a system’s environmental impact.

Primary Goals of Sustainability

In 2015, all United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda established 17 sustainable development goals that work to preserve the environment while upholding human rights. The rules cover everything from poverty and education, to industry and gender equality. Importantly, a handful of these rules specifically address environmental impacts:

  • Sustainable water management that ensures clean water access to all.
  • Affordable and clean energy for reliable, sustainable, and modern energy across the globe.
  • Responsible consumption and production, prioritizing recycling, reuse, and overall sustainability to cut down on fossil fuel consumption in supply chains.
  • Action to combat climate change and fight for environmental justice globally.
  • Conservation of oceans and marine resources in the face of environmental destruction.
  • Sustainable land use to protect and restore biodiversity.

Environmental Sustainability Definition

A sustainable system is one whose cycle can continue independently of outside resources. Environmentally sustainable systems or processes can be thought of like a wheel: They are structurally sound and don’t need a constant flow of outside resources to keep them rolling; they can do that job on their own.

Clean energy is a prime example of environmental sustainability. Clean, renewable energy must come from a source independently capable of continuous production. It’s a system that doesn’t rely on depleting natural resources; instead, the fuel sources restore themselves, like wind and solar. 

As the global population continues to climb, more people will need electricity. Investing in renewable energy can offer a solution to that problem without harming the planet. According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the right energy efficiency policies could facilitate a more than 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and effectively fight climate change.

While the world has not fully transitioned to clean energy, progress has been made. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) , 17.5% of power was generated through renewable sources as of 2017.

Climate action is another environmental goal included in the Agenda for Sustainable Development, as countries across the planet experience the devastating effects of climate change, which can have irreversible consequences. 

Sea level rise is one of those devastating consequences that can destroy coastal habitats, contaminate drinking water, and much more. According to the UNDP, sea levels have risen by about 8 inches since 1880. By 2100, they’re projected to rise up to 4 feet.

Since setting a goal to combat climate change and take action, countries have begun to step up and create greener, more sustainable systems while relying less on finite natural resources. These systems are easier on the planet, minimizing human-derived greenhouse gas emissions and working against climate change.

Sustainability goals organize a group of people, companies, or governments to work together to build sustainable systems in the name of planet Earth. Sustainability stakeholders, those with a vested interest in the environment, are generally people who are affected by a goal’s outcome. They are the driving force behind building or improving on sustainable systems. 

In the environmental world, stakeholders can include organizations, government entities, businesses, scientists, and landowners. Their specific roles can vary. Stakeholders can support a goal by funding its programs, using their platform to promote it, and providing or facilitating physical action.

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Environmental protection is just one of the three pillars of sustainability. The other two pillars are social equity and economic viability. 

The concept is usually depicted with the image of a Venn diagram, with each pillar represented by a circle. The target all systems should aim for is in the center of those circles, where all three intersect and overlap. A true sustainable system harnesses all three of the pillars.

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Each pillar is a distinct system with its own goals. In the environmental pillar, goals could include habitat conservation, air quality improvements, and pollution cuts. Social equity goals may be to protect human health, enhance education, or to maintain access to basic resources like water. And examples of economic goals are creating jobs and reducing costs.

A system that maximizes all of these goals simultaneously is considered sustainable. Such systems work to protect the environment and enhance social issues, all while reaping economic benefits.

In an ideal situation, sustainable systems that work to conserve the natural environment also bolster society and facilitate economic prosperity. But when one of those pillars is weak, the others are as well. 

Environmental sustainability should be the highest priority in any sustainable system as the environment is what houses all other systems. The next prioritization should be the social sustainability pillar — ensuring people are healthy and happy. Luckily, when those two pillars are maximized, economic prosperity usually follows.

How Can Environmental Sustainability Be Achieved?

Many systems in place now uphold one or two pillars of sustainability but lack in the environmental department. Systems must raise that environmental impact pillar in order to be truly sustainable. Environmental sustainability can be vastly improved upon in various systems, including energy, commerce, and agriculture. To do this, they must address these major aspects of environmental sustainability.

Renewable Fuel 

Photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm, Palm Springs, California, USA. This solar installation has a 2.3 MW capacity
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Renewable fuel is exactly what it sounds like — fuel that replenishes itself using energy from resources that don’t deplete, like wind and solar. Harnessing this clean energy from renewable sources is easier on the environment because it doesn’t consume and deplete natural resources like conventional energy production does (which relies on fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource). Transitioning to clean, renewable energy would create a sustainable system that can run independently of outside resources.

In 2020, the United States produced almost four times as much renewable solar and wind energy as it did in 2010. In 2001, the U.S. produced 0.5% of its electricity from renewable sources. In two decades, that number increased to more than 10%. Globally, that number has increased to more than 17% — a feat that proves we are heading in the right direction.

If the current trends in both fossil fuel use and population growth continue, carbon emissions will certainly exceed those outlined by the UN’s clean energy goals. Those goals can be met, however, if governments make energy-efficiency measures a policy and investment priority. Policies that maximize the potential of energy efficiency can improve energy intensity at a rate of 3.6% annually, which would make clean energy a reality for millions across the globe.

The rise of electric cars, energy-saving LED lights, and personal solar panels have supported and continue to support this progress. Still, millions of people across the globe are lacking clean energy, which affects their well-being. The world must continue to support the use of renewable energy in all sectors to achieve full sustainability.

Carbon Emissions

The climate crisis is being driven by the greenhouse effect. In short, extracting and processing natural resources from the planet emits greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2), that add up in our atmosphere and trap the sun’s heat. This process leads to an increase in the average global temperature, which subsequently leads to a slew of environmental consequences as the world’s climate adapts.

Carbon emissions are at the heart of this process. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is emitted through human activities. Some natural sources emit CO2 as well, but human-derived emissions are responsible for the sharp increase in the atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas since the industrial revolution.

Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels, which are burned in energy production, manufacturing, and a variety of other industries, have increased significantly since 1900. CO2 emissions have increased by about 90% since 1970, and emissions from fossil fuels make up about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions between 1970 and 2011.

Greenhouse gas emissions are ever increasing across the globe as climate change leads to more demand for heating and cooling energy in some areas and the need for  food production continues to grow worldwide. According to the World Meteorological Organization, CO2 levels grew in 2019 and the rise has continued in 2020, with the annual global average surpassing 410 parts per million.

Sustainable systems like clean energy help reduce emissions, but global net carbon dioxide emissions must drop by 45% between 2010 and 2030 to limit the effects of the climate crisis. The more sustainable systems put in place, the more that number will drop. Sustainable agriculture and improved water management will be part of the solution.

Protecting the Environment

In order to achieve global environmental sustainability we must protect the natural environment. That includes both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, which human life ultimately depends on for nourishment. 

We rely on the economic benefits and the sustenance provided by agriculture. Plants provide 80% percent of the human diet. Wildlife depends on land as well, as forests cover about 30% of the planet and provide essential habitat to millions of species. In addition, healthy forests are crucial for clean air and water, and they even act as carbon sinks.

Human life also relies on systems driven by the world’s oceans. Worldwide, more than 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity. The ocean provides more than half of the planet’s oxygen, which humans need to survive. And, like forests, oceans act as effective carbon sinks and help combat the climate crisis.

Much of the increased heat experienced globally as a result of greenhouse gases is absorbed by oceans, with the top 330 feet of ocean showing warming of more than 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969. That temperature rise leads to environmental consequences like ocean acidification, making our oceans less productive and less sustainable.

Environmental protection has made progress since the UN committed to land and ocean conservation in 2015. The global mean percentage of protected marine key biodiversity areas increased from 30.5% in 2000 to 44.8% in 2015. From 2015 to 2019 it jumped another percentage point.

The world’s forests are continuing to shrink, however they are shrinking at a slower pace than they have in the past. The annual rate of deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares between 2015 and 2020, down from 12 million hectares the prior five years. As of 2020, the proportion of protected or sustainable forests has increased or leveled off in most regions of the world. Sustainable forestry must be prioritized to save humans livelihoods, conserve wildlife, and fight the climate crisis.

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