Sustainability is an essential process that helps to maintain a balance in the environment. The constant exploitation of the environment and its resources has led to the breakdown of various ecological systems and is threatening the existence of many. Sustainability of the environment is possible only when there is a balance in the rate of exploitation, the investments and technological advancements with changes in the infrastructure and institutions to ensure that the future needs of the human civilizations are met in equal and enough manner.
To overcome the constantly degrading environment, sustainable developments are required which can counter the rate at which the natural resources are being used up or destroyed. The term Sustainable development was introduced in 1987 in the Brundtland report for the World Commission on Environment and development.
For the continued survival and sustenance of all the biological species on the Earth, healthy ecosystems and a supportive environment are necessary. For this, the impact of technological advancement and the exploitations of the environment by the ever-increasing population of the world must be reduced substantially. The negative impacts of technological advancements must be curbed by introducing newer methods that are environmentally friendly. Achieving sustainability is not possible at a go but would require a gradual and steady course of action that can effectively reduce the environmental degradation.
Three pillars of sustainability
The main contributing factors for sustainability are the environment, economic and social policies and activities. All these factors are interconnected impacting each other in various ways and are often regarded as the “three pillars of sustainability”. Apart from these, cultural and regional activities, technological advancements and political strategies and policies also have a lasting impact on the sustainability of the environment.
Of the three pillars even if a single pillar is weak or unstable then the sustainability of the environment is lost. To get effective sustainability it is important that all the pillars are given equal importance.
- Economic Pillar: The Economic pillar refers to the indefinite stability that is attained by an economy to support a level of production indefinitely. This may not be achieved easily as the population in a region is the major factor that affects the economic stability. Moreover, the production of crops is dependent on natural forces which many a time cannot be controlled or predicted.
- Social Pillar: Social pillar cannot be defined in strict terms as it is dependent on the social aspects of a region. Ideally, social sustainability can be achieved when the social system in a country is able to sustain at a defined level of well being. But the quality of life that defines the level of well being for a society may vary with the region and the cultural requisites.
- Environmental Pillar: The environmental pillar refers to the sustainability that can be achieved by a managing the rates at which renewable resources are harvested, waste is generated from various projects or activities and the depletion of non-renewable resources.
Though the Economic Pillar and Social Pillar are equally important there is a lot more effort that is required to be put into the Environmental Pillar. The Economic and Social Pillars though has an impact on the environmental pillar it is without doubt fast deteriorating and requires a lot more time to overcome the damage that has been caused to it.
We are dependent on the ecosystem for our basic livelihood. Be it the food or the raw materials for all the rest of the products that we require, all the organisms are directly dependent on the resources of the nature to provide these for them.
A proper approach is required to compensate or reduce the negative impact of development on the environment and increase its productivity. Two methods have been suggested to have a systematic approach to this issue; the first is environmental management and the second is the demand management.
The main aim of environmental management is to manage the oceans, freshwater sources, the atmosphere and the land. All these components of the environment are again interdependent and the quality of one determines the quality of the other factors. For example, the way the land is used or utilized in a region will influence the state or the quality of the atmosphere and the functioning of the biosphere and all the organisms within it. A change in the land use for urbanization or agriculture can have a lasting effect on the ecological cycles, water resources and air quality.
Management of the environment has become a major concern due to the cascading impact it can have on a global level by a single deteriorating component of the environment. Management of the environment involves assessment and identifying opportunities to overcome the negative impacts of human activity and its effective implementation on a global level.
Management of the atmosphere involves the assessment of the carbon cycle on a global level and find out ways to deter the climatic changes that have been brought about by human activities. This is a major field of scientific research and concern due to the visible climatic changes that is being experienced globally.
At the Copenhagen Climate Council (2009) it was agreed that abrupt or irreversible changes will occur in the climate if strong carbon reduction targets were not set and met on a global level.
The excessive air pollution caused in major cities due to the exhaust fumes and other toxic chemicals that is expelled because of fossil fuel combustion and various other industrial activities is a major threat to the atmosphere. The release of chlorofluorocarbons has resulted in the gradual and steady breakdown of the ozone layer that helps to protect the earth from the harmful ultraviolet radiation of the sun. The larger particulate airborne matters lead to the formation of photochemical smog and acid rain. Many cities have reported difficulty in breathing due to excessive pollution.
Management of the atmosphere from an environmental point of view is a difficult task, however many governments have implemented rules to govern and, in some ways, lower the production of harmful gases. A major focus has been given to scientific research to help address the climatic changes induced by human activities.
Oceans and Freshwater sources
The climate of Earth is greatly influenced by the ocean currents. There is a possibility of the alteration in the ocean currents due to global warming which can lead to drastic changes in the climate of various regions around the world.
The increasing temperatures of the ocean waters are leading to coral beaching which is in a great way impacting the marine ecosystem. Corals also help in the formation of shoreline with the coral reefs giving the structural strength to the shoreline.
Another major concern is ocean acidification which is altering the natural pH levels of the marine environment making it difficult for many species to thrive. The high level of dissolved carbon dioxide is the cause of the increasing acidification of ocean water.
Overfishing is yet another concern which is causing many species to deplete in their numbers as the rate at which they are removed is much higher than the rate at which the species can replenish. A sudden change in the species composition in a region can lead to shifts in the ecosystem
The dumping of industrial waste including that of the marine vehicles has led to the contamination of the ocean waters and has impacted marine life to a great extent. This also includes oil spills as well which has resulted in the deaths of many aquatic species including birds that depend on the ocean for its food.
Effective remedial steps are to be taken to ensure that the ecosystems in the ocean and those that depend on the oceans are able to sustain and flourish. Strict waste management laws are required to help deal with the rampant dumping of toxic materials into the oceans. The fishing industry must explore sustainable fishing options and adopt newer and safer methods of aquaculture and fish farming.
Various international conventions and treaties have been signed to frame stricter laws to guide the international community on pollution control and safeguarding the marine ecosystems. Some of the more prominent conventions were the London conventions (1954, 1962, 1969 and 1972) which laid the rules for the prevention of marine pollution by oil and dumping of waste and other matter. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) establishes the guidelines for businesses, the environment and its management for the sustenance of the natural resources.
Freshwater resources and its sustenance are of prime concern world over due to the rising scarcity of drinking water in many countries. The availability of drinking water is dependent primarily on the global water cycle powered by the solar radiation and the wind currents. Any variation to the water cycle can cause havoc in the level of drinking water brought about by rainfall. More than half of the world’s wetlands have been lost due to the increasing climatic changes.
Freshwater management is needed in its strictest applications due to the increasing water crisis that a major part of the urban settlements is facing. This has led to a steady decline in the freshwater ecosystems as water gets pumped out of the sources to supply the ever-increasing demand of the world’s population. Pollution is another major cause, of why freshwater supplies are dwindling in many areas. Industrial waste dumping and urbanization has rendered the water in many lakes and rivers unfit for consumption. Desalination is a newer method of converting sea water to drinkable water, but it involves higher costs and becomes a challenge when the need for is an entire nation.
Rainwater harvesting, improved irrigation methods, planting a greater number of trees, controlling freshwater pollution are some of the methods used for freshwater management. The Water convention held in Helsinki 1992 addressed the management of transboundary surface water and groundwater sources and improved measurements for its protection. The implementation committee set up by the convention ensures the facilitation, promotion and compliance with the treaties that were signed.
Land use and its management
Land resources not just include the soil and its quality but also include the vegetation cover and the biodiversity that it supports. Deforestation is one of the main reasons why there has been a shift in the soil quality and its environmental services. Over drafting of groundwater has led to a loss in the soil fertility and has in many regions resulted in desertification. The loss of habitat has in many ways contributed to the extinction of multiple species of plants and animals and while many are endangered and on the brink of extinction.
Change in the land use practice and policies are required to ensure sustainability of this essential natural resource. Steps need to be taken to 0promote methodical forestation and deforestation to ensure the ecological equilibrium is not lost. Cultivation of the land needs to be systematic such that maximum yield is achieved with least damage to the soil or the surrounding environment. Sustainable agriculture is the best way to farm with a proper understanding of the ecosystem and utilizing the relationship between organisms to get the best result. A very good example of sustainable agriculture is crop rotation which helps to retain the fertility of the soil. Other methods like precision farming, terrace cultivation etc are the proven methods to give the environment the care it needs to sustain in its natural state for a longer period of time.
There have been various treaties and conventions that have been signed internationally to help assess the damage and reverse the impact of human activities on natural resources. Some of the well-known treaties are; Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation (1940), Convention to Combat Desertification (1994), International Tropical Timber Agreement (1994), and the World Heritage Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972).
Environmental Management Systems
Like all management system various effective management tools and standards have been introduced to achieve environmental management. Sustainability is to a great way dependent on the successful implementation of these standards, systems, tools, and protocols.
The ISO 14000 is an environmental management standard that helps industries and organizations to minimize any negative impact on the environment and ensure adherence to regional and international environmental laws. The ISO 14000 is the most widely used Environmental Management System (EMS) that has helped to unify standardization in industries across the world. This has, in turn, made comparisons of environmental effects and their measurement much easier than it was before. There are other Environmental Management Systems as well which have been developed based on the principles of the ISO 14000 like the Green Dragon Environmental Standard and BS 8555.
The United Nations and the World Bank have suggested the use of Natural capital as a measuring standard that will help a nation to determine its stock of natural resources and adopt suitable management framework to restore it favorable levels.
According to the Natural Step, the root causes for unsustainability should be ascertained before structuring a framework to ensure sustainability. It helps to focus on the reduction of use of material and energy sources that are unsustainable.
There are various other strategies that have been designed to address and nullify or reduce the environmental impact. Many consumables have been designed solely from natural raw materials minimizing the impact on its consumption and when it is discarded. Ecological intelligent designs help to categorize products and services into unsaleable and durables or consumables.
Consumption or demand Management
Environmental Sustainability is of major concern now. We are experiencing changes in the climate and our living conditions. It is probably not a possibility where the environment can be returned to its original state of being anytime soon. But a steady move to eliminate the damaging factors can go a long way in ensuring the sustainability of our natural resources. One of the biggest challenges is to manage the demand for the products derived from Natural resources. The demand is not at par with the capacity of the Natural system that can provide the raw materials to a certain extent.
To reduce the impact of consumption or demand on the environment it is not just by reducing the demand but by ensuring that the full cycle of production of the goods starting from the production to the disposal is sustainable. Resource intensity and resource productivity are good methods to understand the impact of consumption and identify the areas of probable improvement.
The United Nations Environment Program hosted the International Resource Panel in 2010 that for the first time addressed the impacts of consumption and production on a global level. It identified the areas of concern for the developed and developing economies and prioritized the required actions to overcome the challenges. It identified that the household consumption of natural resources for mobility, food, and energy was the largest contributor of impacts.
The Economic and Social Pillars have equal importance and impact on the sustainability of the environment and should not be ignored. Although the major attention is being given to the environmental sustainability it needs to be clearly understood that the three pillars of sustainability are interdependent. Hence giving greater importance to environmental sustainability may not yield the desired result.
Considering the apparent changes in the climate the world over we do not have much time to contemplate the options we have. It is time that we start implementing the tools of management of sustainability to hopefully give us enough time to slow if not reverse the impact of pollution and rampant exhaustion of natural resources.
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