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Thinking Point

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Thinking Point

Thinking Point

Thinking Point

Understanding ‘Sustainability’

 Laxmi Goparaju & Sudhanshu Kumar

Vindhyan Ecology and Natural History Foundation, Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, India

The present day is witnessing the havoc of global warming and climate change. Hot summers, irregular rainfall, melting of arctic ice etc reflect the changing scenario. The factors responsible for this are rapid industrialization, urbanization, forest degradation, depletion of natural resources and many more unsustainable practices. In pursuit of sustainability and sustainable development, the policies, rules and regulations are leading us towards a more unsustainable and devastating world. The concept or issue of sustainability has been less understood, though it has been recognized as early as 1980's. A thorough knowledge and clear understanding of this theme is necessary for a positive approach towards saving the Earth and avoiding environmental catastrophes.

Sustainability: What does it mean?

In 1972, there was a United Nations Conference on the human environment, which changed the thinking of industrialized and developing countries from simply taking mitigation measures to stop destruction of natural resources to integration of environmental concerns with economic growth and development. Developing nations are striving hard to improve their standard of living by promoting economic activity. Further, in 1987 the concept of sustainable development was taken to the forefront and it received international attention through its endorsement in the report by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Thus, the concept of sustainable development has become a major challenge of the present times. WCED has defined ‘sustainable development’ as development that meets the needs of the present without limiting the potential to meet the needs of future generations'. It addresses two major points: Awareness of needs - particularly giving utmost priority to the needs of the World's poor. The realization: meeting needs are limited by the state of technology and social organizations.

Who are the teachers of sustainability or guide us to live a sustainable life? They are the village people, local people and tribal. People inhabiting in villages near the forests mostly tribal of various cultures, race and kind depend totally on natural resources like forest for their livelihood. They practice agriculture, grazing and collection of minor forest produce. Forest produce is sufficient to meet their requirements and they look upon it as their provider. Thus the basic idea of leading a sustainable life can be learned from them. They teach us not to destroy the existing natural resource and at the same time utilize its produce for a living.

Sustainability and sustainable development: How do these terms differ?

There is a marked difference between the two. ‘Sustainability’ implies an impractical, vague goal which fails to achieve what it wishes to, thus directly conflicts with human efforts to improve their social and material status. Sustainability is inherently more subjective. ‘Sustainable development’ on the other hand emphasizes goals that favor social over economic capital, is a dynamic process of improvement of the relationship between mankind and nature by conserving the natural capital and enhancing developmental activities The issue of sustainability needs to be addressed at a larger scale when a society has approaches its limits either social or resource reason (Diamond, 2005). The present day unsustainable trends in the society like overconsumption and overpopulation have coerced the world to think over sustainable issues at global scale. All experiments which address sustainability should be carried out at small scales initially, further extrapolated to larger, global scale for good results.

Sustainable development of natural resource: implies maintaining a fragile balance between productivity practices and conservation approach through identification of problem areas and suggesting alternative approaches. Haines (1992) describes sustainable development as ‘achieving an acceptable balance between economic development and environment protection. Neither of them can be ignored in order to achieve sustainability’. Food and agriculture organization (1989) describes sustainable development as management and conservation of natural resource base and the orientation of technology and institutional changes in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for the present and future generations.

Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA)

There is a link between environment, business and sustainable development. There is a lesser known and discussed concept of sustainability impact assessment (SIA) which was introduced by the European community. The journey of SIA began as early as 1999, by the European commission, within Europe as well as other countries involved in trade agreements.

The SIA methodology identifies certain indicators which need to be evaluated in course of detail study. These are primarily:

Economic impacts: real income, fixed capital formation, employment.

Social impacts: poverty, health and education.

Environmental impacts: Biodiversity, environmental quality, natural resource stock.

Difference between environmental impact assessment (EIA) and Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) is: EIA is prepared after a proposal is conceptualized.  It analyzes social, environmental and economic aspects and compares it with baseline factors and then determines whether the impacts are acceptable or not. In its execution, it tries to minimize the negative impacts and reduce unsustainable practices. Its implications should be made transparent to both public and government. It fails to address sustainability as a societal goal. This is a recent theory, lacks practical applications and is still in budding stage. It takes up the issue whether a particular proposal or an initiative is sustainable or not? It can be analyzed for existing projects as well as those which are newly conceived. It lays emphasis on policy decisions, taken in due course of time are sustainable or not? EIA’s do not provide an overall view which would suggest a positive approach towards sustainability. At times, proposals have been given government clearances in spite of clear environment detriment. For example, in the jurisdiction of Western Australia, government did approve a mining project despite EIA stated threat to environment and rare flora (Wier, 2003b). In another case, the government gave green signal to an offshore gas processing plant, despite EIA concluded that environmental impacts are clearly negative (Environmental Protection Authority, 2003). Another example can be stated in the Indian context. This is about Vedanta Resources Plc, a UK based corporate group, which proposed to set up a bauxite mine in Niyamagiri, Odisha and its Aluminium refinery at Langigarh, Odisha. Amnesty International in its report submitted in February 2010 has described in detail the failure of EIA's. There were five EIA conducted during the time period from 2002-2008 carried out by TATA AIG risk management services ltd. (2002a,b) and Lanjigarh Niyamagiri refinery done by Vimta labs (2005a,b) and Lanjigarh refinery expansion EIA (2008) by global experts.

The EIA failed to address the following aspects: A detailed plan for management and monitoring practices, mitigation measures to minimize the identified impacts. There was a lack of understanding due to highly technical reports which were not made public. There exited a lacuna between the public and stakeholders and government. There should have been a transparent system and more awareness developed among the local tribes. Human rights were not respected. The survival of the indigenous people and local tribes was threatened. The companies involved in this project had breached the state and national regulatory framework. They also did not keep up with the international standards and principles in relation to the human rights impacts of business. In view of Global warming and in effort to reduce carbon emissions many programmes were initiated leading towards sustainability. In due course of time they failed to serve the purpose for which they were meant for, finally turning out to be ‘unsustainable’. A few cases are described below which I have termed them as sustainability hazards.

Sustainability Hazards: Most of the carbon mitigation programmes were intended to bring down the global carbon levels. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) which came into existence since Kyoto protocol, adopted by the third conference of the parties to the framework convention on climate change (December 11, 1997, under article 12). They failed to achieve for what they were meant for. The reason was priority being given for economic benefits rather than ecological benefits. Example: Industrial tree plantations in South African countries like Norway and Tanzania have gained importance in recent years promising to provide timber and raw material for the paper industry. They are monoculture plantations and do not resemble the real forests in any aspect.

Economic impact: More unemployment as locals are not trained to carry out industrial activities. Seldom does the common man get his share of profit. Economic instability leads to migration. Land use is threatened.

Social impacts: The sufferers are the local people, whose land has been taken from them forcibly. Rural communities displaced and have no rehabilitation. Their life sustaining activities like small scale farming and rearing cattle are threatened.

Environmental impact: They destroy the biodiversity of the area, including food and medicinal plants. Habitats for plants and animals are destroyed. Alien and invasive species outnumber the local or indigenous species posing a threat to the ecosystem. Ground water is polluted, and depleted because many monoculture species like Eucalyptus require plenty of water for their growth. Grasslands are wiped off to establish industrial plantations, which cannot provide a home to number of indigenous plant and animal species.

What made it to be low in sustainable development?

CDM and REDD had dual objectives to be fulfilled, firstly to cut down at carbon and green house gas emissions; secondly to encourage sustainable development in the host country. In due course of time, due to lack of poor international sustainable agenda and competitive market; the first objective was easy to accomplish that is cost effective reduction in green house gases. Sutter and Parreno (2007) had analyzed 16 projects registered under the CDM by August 2005.  Their results show that most of the projects fulfill either of the two objectives. Less than 1% contributed to sustainable development of the host country and no project was able to fulfill both the objectives of CDM. The moral of the story is economic benefits were given priority at the cost of environmental degradation.

Many companies like Walmart, McDonalds, Tesco, Carrefoure, Nestle and Unilever are committed to use sustainable palm oil for their products. Why so?

World Wide Fund (WWF) has provided an opportunity in this area to achieve sustainability and profit in business. All buyers of Palm oil can join a group called Roundtable on sustainable palm oil (RSPO). It is an internationally recognized trademark, which brings palm oil growers, oil processors, manufacturers, retailers and palm oil investors on one platform that have a single goal of promoting sustainable palm oil. The RSPO has set up strict rules and regulations like prohibition of conversion of tropical forests for the sake of plantation. Protection measures for the native flora and fauna. Ensure good environmental health, minimizing air and water pollution. No child labor involvement. An independent body to monitor and audit the mills, the plantations and all other chain processes linked with the industry. Such a step would ensure fruitful legal business, reduced environmental problems and enhanced social welfare.

Sustainability in Practice

London Olympics: A joint effort of all those involved, made it the most greenest and sustainable games ever. An example set by them shows how we can reduce carbon, recycle waste and utilize the amenities with good management. (ThinktoSustain, December, 2012).

Industries and Sustainability reports: Many industries have incorporated in their agenda the 'sustainability factor'. They are aiming at integrating sustainability practices into their business.

What does sustainability reporting mean?

A sustainability report incorporates all information about economic, social and environmental governance. From the perspective of companies and corporate, sustainability implies the capacity to endure and to maintain itself. The present times is seeing a trend of sustainability reporting, which provides a platform to identifying and communicating the negative and positive impacts. It is step taken towards long term survival with societal and environmental harmony.

Du Point: One of the first companies which has struggled to maintain itself at par with environmental goals. It has broadened its sustainability commitments and has marked the 20th year of reporting on sustainability goals. (ThinktoSustain, December, 2012). Swissotel Publishes its first sustainability report (ThinktoSustain, January, 2013): A group of Swiss hotels and restaurants have initiated a step towards sustainability. They have established a web based integrated sustainability management system to be followed at all hotels. Their achievements are reduction in carbon, water and energy consumption per guest.

The Global reporting Initiative (GRI): has decided to setup a new focal point in South Africa to facilitate sustainability reporting (ThinktoSustain , February, 2013).Its mission and vision is to make sustainability reporting a practice for the companies and organization in South Africa and its neighborhood.

The Sustainable Development Goals 2030

Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 SDGs was adopted to continue the efforts of Millennium Development Goals in a better way at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015 by all participating Nations. The 17 global agenda for 2030 are: No Poverty; Zero Hunger; Good Health and Well-being; Quality Education; Gender Equality; Clean Water and Sanitation; Affordable and Clean Energy; Decent Work and Economic Growth; Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; Reducing Inequality; Sustainable Cities and Communities; Responsible Consumption and Production; Climate Action; Life Below Water; Life On Land; Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

Partnerships for the Goals: These goals have been selected and arranged in such a fashion that initiation of a step towards one goal will seamlessly lead you to achieve the next goal. SDGs provide a common agenda for peace and prosperity identifying, ending poverty and other shortcomings must be tackled together while working on climate change mitigation and other concurrent issues of conserving and protecting the environment.

Indicators of Sustainable Development Goals

United Nations has adopted a global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in July 2017 (A/RES/71/313) for the purpose of follow up and reviewing. Earlier in 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) acknowledged the important role that indicators could play in helping countries make informed decisions regarding sustainable development. These indicators are prepared to detail for the inclusion of wider section by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location, or other characteristics, which can be rearranged for the purpose of self-assessment by the participating country.

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