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Sustainability

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Sustainability

There is an obvious relationship between human populations being at risk and a degrading environment. Air and water pollution are the biggest causes of death worldwide, while simply being able to enjoy nature has been shown to improve human wellbeing. This is where sustainability comes in. Sustainable practices are essential in improving the long-term success of companies, reducing environmental degradation, and striving for global equality. Today we are going to look at the issues surrounding sustainable development, the aims of sustainable development, and the types of environmental sustainability.

Sustainability Definition

Sustainability is the ability of a process or system to continue functioning over time without degrading or becoming devalued. In the modern world, increasing global populations are using up natural and finite resources at a much faster rate than they are replacing them. To guarantee a sustainable future we must make the switch from finite to renewable resources and consider the environmental implications of human development.

There are limited numbers of finite resources, and they are not replenishing, whereas renewable resources are replenishable and involve sustainable methods.

Fossil fuels do replenish, but only by millions of years of compression of biological material. Soils are disturbed so much in modern times that fossil fuels are less likely to form.

Sustainable development does not only concern the environment. There are three pillars of sustainability we must consider:

  • Environmental sustainability: to gain environmental sustainability the waste released from human development must be successfully absorbed so that the Earth's systems that we depend on are not affected. These systems include soils, ecosystems, the water cycle, and the atmosphere.
  • Economic sustainability: for such large populations to survive we must make the most of natural resources. This requires economic growth. Economic sustainability refers to the balance between economic and developmental growth as well as environmental trade-offs.
  • Social sustainability: to achieve social sustainability, governments and businesses must consider all potential individuals that may be affected by new developments or policies and account for these effects. Social sustainability aims to promote equality and achieve global food security.

The Circular Economy

One model representing a sustainable economy is that of a “circular economy”. In regular, “linear” economies many goods are discarded after consumption, representing pollution and unrenewable single-usage of resources. Circular economies attempt to reduce this level of waste, which they do by encouraging lower levels of consumption or by intervening directly after consumption. This intervention can take many forms, with two of the most popular being reusing and recycling. Reusing involves keeping goods that have been used in situations where they can be suitably used again. Commonly reused goods include plastic bags used in supermarkets. Recycling involves separating and converting waste into usable materials. Commonly recycled goods include drinks cans, which are recycled into aluminium. Ultimately, it’s currently impossible for a truly circular economy to operate and there is always some waste. However, by implementing circular practices, more value is retained throughout a good’s life-cycle and less burden is put onto the environment.

Types of Environmental Sustainability

Let's have a look at some of the types of environmental sustainability:

  • Reducing pollution: human activity can release a variety of chemicals that cause air and water pollution. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases, as well as aerosols, cause air pollution. Metal particulates, toxic, radioactive, and carcinogenic chemicals cause water pollution, as well as nutrients and heat. Light and noise pollution are problems too. There are now many ways that individuals can reduce their own impact on pollution eg. driving less, limiting air travel and using less aerosols to name a few. However, more must be done relating to government and national-level change.
  • Absorbing waste: the ability of our planet to absorb waste is essential in achieving environmental stability. Deforestation reduces the ability of the Earth to absorb waste in the form of carbon dioxide.
  • Sustainable agriculture: dated agricultural methods can release greenhouse gases and cause water pollution. Sustainable agriculture aims to reduce dependence on agrochemicals, reduce waste, and maintain biodiversity.
  • Recycling: the reuse and reworking of materials help reduce waste and conserve resources.
  • Technological enhancements: improving the machinery and methods so they release less waste and use up less finite resources is important in building a sustainable future.

Government management strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by industrial companies and agrochemicals by farmers have been implemented in many countries to prevent pollution.

Basic Issues of Sustainable Development

Achieving sustainable development is important, but there are many issues that make it difficult.

Natural Resource Management

One of the largest issues concerning sustainable development is the management of natural resources. Currently, biologically productive land such as forests and coastal habitats (seagrass, mangroves, coral reefs) are exploited because of their abundance. Deforestation completely devastates arboreal areas while coral mining reduces the structural integrity of these reefs. These destructive practices reduce the ability of biologically productive land to replenish. Therefore, initiatives and regulations to control the exploitation of natural resources need to be implemented, so they can continue to function and restore themselves.

Arboreal areas are locations containing substantial tree populations. These areas are highly productive and provide an invaluable source of materials for human populations.

Population Growth

The fundamental issue behind sustainable development is the ever-increasing global population. Larger populations require more resources, space, and food. These necessities cannot always be provided by environmentally friendly methods and are normally supplied in the quickest and cheapest way possible. Consumerism is a problem in developed countries, which use up much more food and resources than they actually need. Larger populations will produce much more waste too, which needs proper disposal.

Human populations have grown from 1 billion in 1800 to almost 8 billion in 2020!

Consumerism is an economic concept that regards the consumer as the driver of economic growth.

Examples of consumerism are materialism (when consumers purchase items for materialistic desires), conspicuous consumption (when consumers purchase to improve their social status), and competition between consumers.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from human activity is causing a sustainable future to become less achievable. The combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, inappropriate agriculture, and industry has led to enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane being released into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect. This has caused global temperatures to rise to unprecedented levels and cause sea levels to rise, precipitation to increase, and ice sheets to melt. This has affected the functioning of biogeochemical cycles which has resulted in the loss of freshwater, agriculture becoming more difficult, and damage to ecosystems (that provide countless services for humans). The release of CFCs in the 1900s has depleted the ozone layer, which protects the Earth from dangerous UV radiation, and has altered ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles further.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are industrial chemicals that were used as refrigerants, solvents, and in air conditioners. These molecules can be extremely dangerous in the atmosphere because they are broken down by ultraviolet radiation into reactive halogen free radicals (such as chlorine). These free radicals will react with ozone molecules (O3) and remove an oxygen atom forming oxygen and chlorine monoxide (which is also a dangerous free radical!). Ozone absorbs UV radiation, so more will reach the Earth. UV can cause cancer and eye defects, and slows growth in producer populations.

A free radical is a highly reactive molecule (because of its free electron) which can be harmful in the atmosphere and the human body.

Ecosystem Biodiversity

As a result of climate change and resource exploitation ecosystems are being damaged all over the world. Exploitation destroys habitats and climate change can change conditions so much that organisms can either no longer survive or are forced to migrate and disturb other ecosystems. The functioning of these ecosystems is essential in maintaining the biologically productive land that we depend on for natural resources. When under stress, or after degradation, these ecosystems will not be able to produce as many natural resources or provide as many ecosystem services.

Examples of ecosystem services include the absorption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen by producers, the circulation of nutrients by microorganisms in soils, materials, food, and pollination.

Sustainable Development Goals

Here are the goals that sustainable development aims for:

Transport

Vehicles require lots of energy and this is often gained from the combustion of fossil fuels. Reducing vehicle use is a very achievable goal because unnecessary or inappropriate use of vehicles is prevalent all over the world. Campaigns and initiatives have been implemented over the past few decades to get people walking and cycling, but if they do not bring about a marked change in vehicle use soon regulations and laws will have to be put in place. The switch to electric cars needs to happen, but eco-friendly batteries need to be produced. Aviation is the biggest cause of vehicle emissions, but global tourism and trading are increasing every year. Therefore, sustainable goals need to account for the increase in travel overseas in the future.

Some large cities have charges for driving in particularly busy periods. There are also fines for driving older, energy-inefficient cars that release more emissions.

Energy

Energy is essential for industry, transport, heating, mass production, and agriculture. On a global scale, we must aim to reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions from energy-producing processes, such as the release of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and nitrous oxide from power plants. Renewable energy sources such as solar power, tidal power, and geothermal energy must be used and improved to reduce the reliance we have on fossil fuels. The distribution of energy must be improved as well so that less developed countries can build their economy and infrastructure. On a regional scale, energy expenditure from heating, electricity, and large facilities must be reduced and carbon footprints must be limited.

Agriculture

Intensive agricultural practices are causing agriculture to become unsustainable and detrimental to the environment. Fossil fuels are burnt for heavy machinery and transporting goods, ruminants release methane, and the overuse of agrochemicals can result in pollution of nearby waters. Therefore, sustainable and regenerative agriculture must be implemented. Methods like intercropping, crop rotation, and cover cropping will reduce the reliance on fertilisers and improve soil quality. Limited tillage and physical disturbance of soils will also improve fertility. Maintenance of wet patches and hedgerows within agricultural land will improve the agroecosystem and further reduce the need for chemicals. Regulations for intensive agriculture need to be put in place to reduce methane emissions, but they should consider food security.

Intercropping involves planting rows of non-agricultural crops in between rows of agricultural crops, crop rotation involves planting different crops in the same area each year/season, and cover cropping involves covering fields of crops to protect them from pests and harsh weather.

Waste

We have talked about reducing greenhouse gas emissions but limiting water pollution is vital in achieving environmental sustainability as well. Urban, industrial, and agricultural discharge release vast quantities of pollutants into nearby streams if not appropriately managed. These include hydrocarbons, nutrients, acids, alkalis, nutrients, and metal compounds. Improper sewage treatment can result in fluxes of bacteria and nutrients into water sources too. In less developed countries infrastructure for waste disposal is limited so huge amounts of waste can be released into lakes, rivers, and oceans. For a sustainable future, large-scale waste management needs to be implemented in these countries and also improved in areas with high agricultural and industrial activity.

Sustainability - Key takeaways

  • Sustainability is the continued success of a system over time without becoming devalued or degraded.
  • Environmental stability is essential in building a sustainable future. Becoming more energy-efficient, absorbing more waste, releasing less pollutants, improving agricultural methods, and limiting the use of finite resources are all important in making the planet more environmentally sustainable.
  • Economic sustainability refers to maintaining financial growth of a business or population while still accounting for environmental trade-offs.
  • Social sustainability aims to promote an even distribution of resources around the world and between groups and involves tackling poverty and food security.
  • Issues involved with creating a sustainable future include the climate change that has already occurred, exploited resources, population growth, and a reduction in ecosystem biodiversity and the services they provide.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sustainability

Sustainability is the security that a system or process will continue to function over time without degrading or becoming devalued.

Environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

Human development must not have a negative effect on the environment. Therefore, all waste must be absorbed and exploitation must be eradicated.

To ensure a future for the human population of our planet by maintaining the biologically productive land we depend on.

Equality, employment, and access to nutrition.

Final Sustainability Quiz

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What is sustainability?

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The ability of a system to continue functioning without being devalued, degraded, or deformed.

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What are finite resources?

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Resources that are of a limited number and do not replenish.

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What are the three types of fossil fuels?

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Coal, gas, and oil.

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What is environmental sustainability?

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Development that ensures that they do not negatively affect the environment.

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What are examples of parts of the environment that we depend on?

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Ecosystems, soil, the atmosphere.

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What is economic sustainability?

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The continued financial growth of businesses and populations while still accounting for environmental trade-offs.

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What is social sustainability?

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It aims to distribute resources evenly between populations and fight poverty and hunger. 

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What are some types of environmental sustainability?

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Reduced waste, sustainable agriculture, recycling, and technological advancements to improve energy efficiency.

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What are the issues surrounding natural resource management?

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The exploitation of biologically productive land such as forest ecosystems has led to these areas being unable to grow back as quickly or being removed altogether.

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Why does climate change cause providing a sustainable future to be more difficult?

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Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and increased precipitation have negatively impacted many biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems that we depend on.

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Why is population growth an issue for sustainability?

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Because larger populations require more resources, especially in developed countries where consumption is high.

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What are some examples of ecosystem services?

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Producers absorb carbon dioxide, microorganisms circulate nutrients in soils, materials, food, and pollination.

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How does transport need to be changed for a sustainable future?

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Less vehicles need to be used and more energy-efficient vehicles (that burn less fossil fuels) must be developed.

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What changes need to be made in terms of energy use on a global scale?

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Companies need to switch from non-renewable to renewable energy sources.

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What are some examples of renewable energy sources?

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Tidal power, solar power, geothermal energy.

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