Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

Alexandra Varga [1]

 The term ‘sustainability’ has become somewhat nebulous over the last decade or so, as it has been used by everyone from governments and corporations, to academics and social workers to talk about the economy, development, the environment and more.  In Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7, the focus is environmental sustainability, but what does that mean exactly? Environmental sustainability as it is most simply defined refers to the practice of protecting and maintaining the Earth’s resources while ensuring that human byproducts (waste, emissions) do not exceed the planet’s carrying capacity.[2]  MDG 7 adds to this the belief that a healthy and safe environment is a basic and fundamental human right and that through achieving environmental sustainability, we will fulfill the prerequisite requirements for long-term human well-being.

Perhaps in part because of the fuzziness surrounding the term sustainability, and what it means in practice, as we examine progress on MDG 7 to date, we can look back on some amazing achievements and valuable lessons learned, yet the fact remains that we have failed to meet many of the targets we set out for ourselves twelve years ago, and many of the goals fall short of what actually will be required for environmental sustainability.

MDG 7 is separated into four sub-goals:

Target 7.A: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources

Target 7.B: Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss

Target 7.C:Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation

Target 7.D:  By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers

Looking at MDG 7 accomplishments, the most significant progress has been made with regards to water access.  The 2015 target for water coverage was met earlier this year, three years ahead of schedule!  Rates of deforestation have slowed thanks to country wide forest management plans and aggressive tree replanting programs, and 200 million slum dwellers gained access to water, sanitation and improved housing.[3]

Despite this progress, the challenges that lay ahead are still many and great.  While water coverage increased across the board, an emerging challenge is water quality, as byproducts from human enterprise contaminate water supplies.  In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia over 60% of the population still lack basic sanitation and open defecation is still largely prevalent.  Rates of deforestation in many parts of the world remain unsustainable and little progress has been made towards a global agreement on climate change, without which emission scenarios predict a major impact on the Earth’s climate system.  The rate of biodiversity loss is unrelenting with currently over 17,000 species of plants and animals threatened with extinction.[4]

Numerous reasons have been cited for the slow and often lack of progress in MDG 7, including inadequate data and monitoring, lack of political support for environmental issues, and lack of investment in science and technology, yet one overarching problem is with the way the goal is viewed in itself.

There is scientific evidence abound showing the strong linkages between human well-being and healthy functioning ecosystems, citing that failure to reach specific targets for reducing green house gas emissions, slowing the loss of biodiversity, and managing the use of natural resources, is not only a direct threat to the sustainability of the natural environment but may further compromise or reverse progress on other MDGs.  Yet, environmental sustainability is not a sufficiently integrated part of other development strategies.  Poor people across the world are often directly dependent on natural resources and ecosystems as their source of income and livelihoods.  Degradation of crop land, coastal systems, and forests can reduce the services provided by nature (food, shelter, marketable commodities) and thus exacerbate conditions of poverty and hunger.[5]  Environmental contamination and climate change pose significant risks to the health of the poor.  As temperatures warm in many parts of the world, it creates more favorable conditions for many life-threatening diseases such as malaria.  Additionally, poor sanitation services and pollution from agricultural and manufacturing practices can cause serious harm in healthy adults.  The risk is even greater for pregnant women and children.[6]

By acknowledging and studying these linkages, MDG goals can become mutually reinforcing, instead of at odds for scarce development resources.  Luckily, the chance to reshape how we practice development and strive towards environmental sustainability may come sooner than previously thought.   This summer marks the two decade anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio + 20. The conference’s goal is to create a focused political agenda outlining the steps needed to create a global green economy and is expected to generate a new set of goals and targets (Sustainable Development Goals) which will integrate the MDGs.  At the local level, researchers and practitioners across disciplines are continuously working together to find innovative new ways to integrate environmental and social goals as a holistic strategy for poverty alleviation.  Check out the Millennium Villages, a project of the Earth Institute.

What you can do:

The scale and magnitude of these issues can at times make us feel helpless, but reaching the MDG 7 targets (as well as 1-6) will require strong cooperation from everyone: from individuals and communities to nation states and international governance bodies.

In certain ways, the actions of individuals and communities are of the greatest significance to achieving environmental sustainability.  One of the strongest drivers of everything from green house gas emissions, and pollution, to deforestation and biodiversity loss is the overconsumption of resources (particularly in the developed world).  The choices that we make as an individual and as a community are a great place to start looking for ways to reduce our ecological footprint.

And the good news is that simple actions, when practiced at a large scale can make a huge difference!  Reducing individual waste, eating less meat, and personal reductions of water and energy usage all contribute to a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle and will be required if we are to adequately and justly distribute the world’s resources across 7 billion people and growing!

To get an idea of where you stand- check out your own ecological footprint: http://www.myfootprint.org/

[1] Alex Varga is the Science Program Manager for the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

[2] Goodland, R. and H. Daly (1996). “Environmental Sustainability: Universal and Non-Negotiable.” Ecological Application 6(4). pp 1002-1017

[3] and [4] United Nations. (2010)  The Millenium Development Goals Report. Goal 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability.  http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG%20Report%202010%20En%20r15%20-low%20res%2020100615%20-.pdf

[5] and [6] DFID, EC, UNDP and World Bank (2002).  Linking Poverty Reduction and Environmental Management: Policy Challenges and Opportunities. DFID, London, UK

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One Response to Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

  1. rockybalsamo says:

    Great insights Alex! Thanks for sharing. I’ll add one more…

    Catholic social teaching dictates that we must care for God’s Creation.

    “We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.”

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