The founding principles of sustainable development define its vision, mission, and values.
Humankind has made astounding progress over the past tens of thousands of years of recorded history. However, in the last three centuries, the rate of growth and the consumerism that it has espoused have been so high that matters have simply spiraled out of control for the planet.
As we know, this acceleration was particularly triggered by the industrial revolution, which has contributed to the development and evolution of cultures and nations as well in a significant way.
However, we have not been quick enough to see the flip side of economic growth, which came at a cost of socioenvironmental degradations. We have also been slow in replacing the unsustainable growth models with planet-friendly frameworks.
Spiraling cost of growth
The growth has come at an exorbitantly high price for the planet. The earth’s natural energy and material resources have depleted at an alarming rate and consequently the carbon emissions have skyrocketed to the extent of endangering the very existence of life on earth. Global warming has led to rapid climate change and the melting of glaciers in the arctic makes the threat of widespread deluge a reality.
The world’s pace of consumption has further multiplied in the last 50–60 years.
As per the Historic UK History Magazine, in 1800, the UK, as a key epicenter of industrial revolution, mined around 10 million tons of coal. By 1900, as per a Wikipedia page, it was mining more than 250 million tons of coal. Meanwhile, the USA, which had overtaken the UK as the hub of industrial growth, mined around 250 million tons of coal in 1900 and 1,074 million tons of coal in 2000. Coal mining in the USA peaked in 2008, at 1,172 million tons, after which the USA made a concerted effort to bring down the level.
By 2018, coal mining in the USA had been brought down to 755 million short tons. However, the overall production and consumption of fossil fuels in the country still remained high, with petroleum and natural gas having overtaken coal energy generation and consumption by as early as the 1950s.
Worldwide too, the scenario is no different. Despite much hoopla around renewable energy, its share in total energy generation remained a dismal 11% in 2018, as per International Energy Agency (IEA). By contrast, oil accounted for 34%, coal 27%, natural gas 24%, and nuclear 4% of the energy consumption in 2018.
Clearly, the cost of the growth has been too high for the planet, which has been becoming warmer at alarmingly high rates. As per a NASA estimate, the global temperature rose a total of 4 to 7 degrees Celsius over about 5,000 years. However, in the past century alone, the temperature has climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius, which is roughly ten times faster than the average rate (see article). According to an Climate Action Tracker update, with current policies and pledges, large gap remains for 1.5°C warming. Under current pledges, the world will warm by 2.8°C by the end of the century, close to twice the limit agreed in Paris.
This could lead to cataclysmic changes for the planet, to the extent that many coastal settlements could be inundated due to the rise in sea levels, thus causing severe socioeconomic impacts across the continents. At the same time, vast tracts of lands face the threat of deforestation and desertification, coupled with water crisis that could cripple not just industries and urban settlements but also even mass sustenance activities such as farming and fishing.
Linear economy has reached the limit
Much has been contemplated, debated, written, and said on the way forward. Global thinkers, experts, and leaders agree that the world must come together to develop sustainable models, processes, and solutions.
Brundtland Commission, which was created by the UN in 1983, defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
At the core of the sustainability concept lies the realization that the prevailing economic models, which are linear in nature, cannot keep meeting the ever growing demands of a consumeristic urban society. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Circular economy must take over
That, however, is easier said than done. After all, more than 36 years have passed since sustainable development was defined by the Brundtland Commission, and yet we are nowhere close to containing carbon emissions within acceptable limits.
There are multiple and obvious challenges in meeting the goals mutually agreed upon by the UN member countries. A foremost challenge is to recoup investments in the traditional fossil-fuel-based ecosystem of industries built over the past several decades. While sectors such as automobiles and aviation are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, those such as road transport and farming are also significantly dependent. A large number of thermal power generation units are also fired using coal as the fuel.
These industries and sectors cannot be shut down overnight, as the economies could get force-halted by such measures. Alternative solutions must be built and commissioned before the transition processes could be kickstarted.
Most importantly, the linear economy must give way to a circular economy.
The steps forward
Countries must set themselves ambitious and aggressive sustainability goals like there was no tomorrow. First and foremost, there should be a clear-cut roadmap for phasing out fossil fuel usage and filling the void with renewable energy sources.
It is rightly acknowledged that technology can be a great enabler and catalyst for building a better world, which is driven by circular economy frameworks instead of the now prevailing linear economy models.
A circular economy represents characteristics of development and evolution whereas a linear economy denotes consumption and growth.
That brings us to the Better World vision—one where a cohesive community of business, technology, and social leaders stands committed to using sustainable and value-driven models and practices.
The ultimate goal is to help the Better World community take the right business, social, and environmental decisions. These decisions should have a positive impact not just on their organizations’ profits but also on the people and the planet they interact with.
Yes, technology is positioned to play a pivotal role in enabling organizations take such decisions. Yet, we have to be thoughtful in the selection of the technologies that we put to use. Technologies that are developed grounds-up with sustainability goals in view are indeed to be preferred over carbon-positive technologies, which are to be phased out in a planned manner.
It goes without saying that this vision can only be pursued with values of mutual respect, lawful and ethical conducts, and sustainability-oriented actions.
Let’s join hands to lead the transformation to a better world.