We are living at a point in time where environmental issues are increasing, severe and high on the agenda. They are reaching such a level that they will not only affect us all but also shape the future and directions of humanity. Since the industrial revolution human related activities have put such amounts of pressures on our environment that we are now entering an era of consequences.
Throughout the 21st Century, we will have to face not one but a range of environmental crises. Of all the environmental issues the four main global concerns of the century are Global Climate Change; Global Biodiversity Losses; Global depletion of fresh water resources and Global pollution. Many other major issues are related to these including poverty, food security, social stability and world peace. Experts have warned that unless significant actions and drastic changes are taken today, all the above will inevitably lead to global financial and social instabilities.
Since the industrial revolution, human activities have kept on adding tremendous pressures on Earth ecosystems. While Earth ecosystems have certain abilities to buffer these pressures (e.g. capacity of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide), these ecosystems have been slowly taking on the accumulating pressures and are now reaching saturation. When ecosystems are no longer able to take on the pressures, they become unstable and collapse. The consequences will be increasingly frequent and severe environmental catastrophes. Despite the fact that all these challenges differ in their impacts, they are all interrelated and all come from the same source. The main environmental challenges that humankind will have to face this century mostly arise (concurrently with globalization and the industrial revolution) from human over-population, which is significantly increasing pressures on natural systems much beyond their adaptation capabilities.
In order to achieve our goals of sustainability both global demography control and reductions of environmental pressures through sustainable development will have to be achieved.
The source of all problems and our greatest challenge is obvious: In 1950 there were 2.5 billion people on Earth. There are currently near 7 billion, and by 2050 experts predict that the world population will exceed 9 billion! While during the 20th century the high impacts resulting from the population and the industrial revolution were buffered by the environment, in a world of 10 billion people or so this will no longer be the case: most ecosystems and natural systems on the planet are reaching saturation and are already on the verge of collapse. Two important points must be taken into consideration:
First point: Unless we significantly shift our development models to a truly sustainable one and nations come to control population growth, environmental catastrophes will become increasingly frequent and dramatic.
Second point: We only have one planet and the fact is that it simply cannot sustain a 10 billion person population without major sacrifices to our current environment and way of life.
Population growth is a major step-back in terms of making any significant progress in reducing global environmental impacts. While most nations agree that something needs to be done, most models do not seem to include the human growth factor in the picture. Let’s say that average world environmental footprint (energy use, waste generation, food consumption…) reduces by 30% (very ambitious) by 2050 through advances in technology innovations. By that time the world population would have grown by at least 2 billion. The environmental pressures and energy demand as a direct result of this 2 billion person increase will most likely far exceed the impacts saved through this improvement. At the end of the day despite significant improvement in reducing our current impacts (based on current population), and unless some nations set targets for controlling population growth, the overall human footprint will continue increasing very significantly as a sole consequence of global population growth.
We must not forget that while the global world population is rapidly increasing, globalisation is also taking its toll. With growing middle classes and millions of people coming out of poverty (which is a good thing from a social point of view) the demand for resources and energy is growing exponentially. However, concurrently the supplies are dwindling. Furthermore to complicate things, global overpopulation is not a uniform problem. While some countries (mostly developed nations) are facing population decrease, others (mostly developing nations) are overwhelmed by overpopulation. It is also a fact that most overpopulation occurs in countries that are least able to cope with managing such pressures and which will be most vulnerable to social risks. Overall, the world population is rapidly increasing to alarming numbers. The United Nations is becoming increasingly concerned about this trend and world security issues that it implies. It is a fact we cannot ignore that a global rise in world population throughout the century will significantly worsen the already high pressures put on our environment.
In order to be sustained, we have no choice but to change our practices and development models. The only way to peacefully control global population growth is through more effective international and nation-wide family planning. However, it also appears most nations would rather avoid demography issues, which are considered taboo because the solution has become another inconvenient truth.
Sustainable development, still a long way to go
The concept of sustainable development was first suggested during the Brundtland Commission. This concept is largely misunderstood and wrongly used around the world. What it states is that any development activity should take equally into consideration environmental, social and economic attributes and that current development should not deprive future generations. However, in most instances, the environmental aspects of such development model are neglected. Sadly but true, current development is economically driven and is sometimes also equitable, but is rarely sustainable.
We still have a long way to go for development models to become truly sustainable. However, we tend to forget that any development model that does not include significant environmental considerations is not sustainable. Still too often the concept of sustainable development is used without really understanding its meaning and implications.
For instance a lot of efforts have been made in the construction sector to try to reduce the environmental load within this sector. However, when we analyse the situation, most of the emphasis has been put on reducing buildings’ energy use (post construction) while the construction materials and the overall impacts of buildings throughout their life cycles, including the resources required to make them, are most often taken out of the picture or very softly considered. In the end most construction projects going on today still have a very significant impact on the environment not only through the resources used in the construction process and retrofitting, but also in the very long term through the daily operations of the buildings (electricity, water, waste…).
A new wave of buildings referred to as “living buildings” have only just started to surface. The concept is to produce buildings that give more back to the environment in terms of ecosystem services then they actually take (e.g. buildings that clean and filter rainwater, produce more energy than they need…and redistribute these services to the grid). These are really development models that are getting closer to the real concept of sustainability and that we should implement and spread on a large scale now in working towards a more sustainable society.
The role of businesses in reducing environmental pressures
There are many steps that corporations must adopt to achieve a sustainable business model:
Educate their staff on environmental issues: The culture of achieving environmental change within a business entity cannot be confined to the head management level. On the contrary, it must become part of the corporate culture and sustainable practices be implemented at all levels of operations.
Outreach to society through CSR environmental initiatives: Corporates have a responsibility towards society. Significant changes can be achieved by driving best environmental practices outside of the corporate circle and supporting initiatives which intend to reduce environmental impacts or educate on these issues.
Provide sustainable products and services: In a changing economy, the future will rely on sustainable products and services. Companies who ignore this shift will end up being left behind.
Support, invest or donate in environmental projects and initiatives: Even if a corporation does not provide sustainable products and services yet, they can still play a significant role by supporting other organisations that are doing so. A good example is the Census of Marine Life which for the past 10 years has been monitoring life in the oceans in order to improve our knowledge. This initiative of global proportion was entirely privately funded.
Choose environmentally responsible business partners and influence the supply chains: One business that adopts sustainable development practices can have very significant impacts by influencing other businesses throughout the supply chain. For instance more and more leading businesses impose environmental regulatory requirements on their business partners (e.g. ISO 14001 certification).
Reduce their environmental footprint (Energy/water/waste management): Being an environmentally responsible and sustainable company does not simply mean to reduce energy consumption, but to look at how environmental impacts can be reduced at all levels of operations and across all sectors.
Corporations must keep in mind that there is a business case of adopting sustainable practices. Not only will this help to reduce our global environmental footprint but it makes increasingly good business sense to go this way in terms of savings that can be achieved (energy, water, emissions…). It appears clear that the only way governments will be able to have some element of control on corporate impacts and to meet their national targets will be to increasingly control and monitor these impacts through a taxation system. Businesses that start to adapt now will benefit and put themselves in a leading position in the years to come.
A case for thought
While we are increasingly faced with these four main environmental concerns (Climate change, biodiversity losses, depletion of fresh water resources and pollution), perhaps we should take a look back in time and learn from the experience. In the 1970’s human kind was already faced with a major environmental issue of global proportion: The depletion of the ozone layer. However, through international collaboration we have managed to identify and slow down the trend to acceptable levels by regulating and banning the use of certain chemicals. We must learn from this experience and apply the same principle to the new threats before it is too late.
However we must not omit demography issues from the picture. Otherwise in the end our efforts in developing a more sustainable society will not result in overall environmental pressures reduction.
At the end of the day we must not forget that preserving the environment is not about saving the Earth but is all about saving ourselves. The planet will still be there for a very long time, and its environment will recover (to some extent) in our absence over time. It is all about not wanting ourselves and our children to live in an unhealthy and unpleasant environment that has greatly suffered from the impacts of our presence.
Sylvain Richer de Forges is head of sustainability at Siloso Beach Resort.
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