A popular idiom of the western world is “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”, usually this line is rolled out in response to someone’s desire to have all of the good thing in life without sacrificing something else to gain them. When it comes to a sustainable future though, can it be done?
Depending on a number of factors (Age, occupation, country of residence, political leanings, etc.), the topic and pursuit of a sustainable future conjures up all sorts of images and ideas. To some it is an attack on their very existence and way of life, a “resource heavy” life. To others, the sustainable future is a sort of fervent life mission. One where mankind should step back into a regressive, albeit idealistic, version of society where we live in harmony with the land and animals. Where we all live in communes eating various types of beans and tie-dying t-shirts to pass the time. To yet another group, and probably the largest group of all, are those caught in the middle of these two polar opposites. The sustainable future seems to be this constant argument that everyone is having, with thousands of “facts” and “counter-facts” flying around like missiles. These are the confused everyday citizens of the world who simply want to know, “Why can’t we have progress and growth without ruining the world in the process?”.
What is Sustainability into the Future?
A sustainable future can seem like some sort of insurmountable obstacle or a mountain peak that simply cannot be conquered, and to many its simply just a confusing or misunderstood concept. If you were looking for a dictionary style definition of sustainable development, the most common one comes from the Brundtland Report of 1987:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
When you see it written in plain English it seems a simple, and a rather logical concept. That we should strive to better our lives currently but not at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Is it really that simple though? Well the brief answer is no.
Depending on context, achieving sustainable development can mean different things to different people, places and industries. Sustainability in transportation will have an entirely different set of obstacles and opportunities to sustainability in the world of fashion for example. So, the best way to tackle this behemoth subject is to get specific.
The current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to United Nations (UN) report published in 2017. With roughly 83 million people being added to the world’s population every year.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) monitors and assists in the implementation of initiatives to track and prevent poverty worldwide and help to achieve food security. The UN currently has a 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) programme in place and according to the FAO interim report almost all key indicators show a regression in statistics in the last 4 years with poverty and food scarcity on the rise. This means there are approximately 830 million people experiencing hunger every day.
According to the FAO roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that feeding the world sustainably while reducing agricultural land use and GHG emissions by 2050 will mean the whole world:
- reducing demand by cutting food loss and waste, eating less beef and lamb, using crops for food and feed rather than biofuels, and reducing population growth by achieving replacement fertility levels;
- increasing crop and livestock productivity to higher than historical levels but on the same land area;
- stopping deforestation, restoring peatlands and degraded land, and linking yield gains to protection of natural landscapes;
- improving aquaculture and managing wild fisheries more effectively;
- using innovative technologies and farming methods that lower agricultural GHG emissions.
Global agriculture accounts for 25 percent of global emissions (12 Gt of CO2 per year). The figure could reach 15 Gt of CO2 by 2050. This is more than 70 percent of the global “carbon budget” set in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to less than 2°C. This would leave just 30 percent for other sectors that generate GHG emissions, such as transport.
Much of our energy today comes from three high-energy resources – oil, coal and gas. These resources took millions of years to form. Over the last couple of centuries, we’ve been avidly consuming them so it’s reasonable to suppose that one day they will all be gone. The experts differ on how long coal, oil and gas will last and estimates vary from decades to a few centuries.
Fossil fuels have the advantage of being a relatively inexpensive and stable source of energy, but stocks are finite. Sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind power are potentially limitless, but supply is inconsistent, and they require large amounts of capital investment to make them a viable source.
Also, not all so called renewable sources are themselves sustainable. For example, some biofuels such as ethanol made from food crops like corn are no longer considered sustainable because of the competing need for the land on which the feedstock grows. Secondly, some renewable sources such as wind and solar PV are too variable to meet our continuous power demands unless combined with conventional sources (fossil fuels and nuclear) to fill in the gaps. Others, like solar thermal with sufficient heat storage to produce continuous reliable power, are prohibitively expensive.
Major progress needs to be made to make sustainable options more cost effective across both production and storage of energy. Luckily there are many new technologies in development, some may only end up being conceptual projects, but others may power our homes and businesses someday soon. Some of these inventions include:
- Microgrids and AI – Microgrids are local energy grids that can operate either autonomously or while connected to a larger traditional grid. They provide energy independence, efficiency and protection during emergencies. Using the machine learning capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with microgrid controllers allows for continuous adaptation and improvement of operation.
- Energy Blockchain And IoT – Originally developed to record cryptocurrency transactions, blockchain technology is being adapted for use in the energy market. Blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger that conducts and records transactions through a peer-to-peer network. The lack of centralization in blockchain leaves it as ideal for eliminating the middlemen of electricity suppliers. It reduces energy inequality and inefficiency and empowers consumers to buy and sell energy from other consumers directly
- Kites Making Energy – Kitenergy involves a kite linked to the ground by two ropes. Using rotating mechanisms and generators on the ground, electricity is produced by converting the traction forces acting on the wing ropes into electrical power. At heights of about 800-1,000m, the kites are exposed to high-altitude winds that are stronger and more constant than those at turbine level. And the obvious pro of a kite a kilometre in the sky is that you can barely see it, which is great if you think wind turbines are an eyesore.
- Pavement Energy – Created by French civil engineering company Colas, Wattway is a pavement material that can enable a road to harvest solar energy, and all without having to tear up its surface. Applied directly to the existing road, 20m² of Wattway panels provides enough electricity to power a single home.
Source: National Geographic
In 2050 nearly 70 percent of the world’s population—6.7 billion people— is projected to live in urban areas. The United Nations Habitat report on climate change notes that cities are not investing adequately in tackling climate change, and unplanned urbanization has led to environmental degradation. Today, even as cities cover less than 2% of the Earth’s surface, they consume 78% of the world’s energy.
By greening cities around the world, we have the opportunity to make a positive impact on climate change. But how do green cities help in the effort against climate change? Eco-cities all share similar characteristics: They aim to reduce or eliminate fossil-fuel use, adopt sustainable building practices, promote “green space” and clean air quality, implement energy-efficient and widely available public transportation, create walkable city designs and develop well-organized mixed-use neighbourhoods that combine living, working and shopping.
There are a huge array of ideas and inventions that can benefit urban dwellers, everything from improved town planning to new tech. Here are some of the top ideas at the moment:
- Industrial Urban Farming – AeroFarms in Camden, New Jersey is offering one solution: vertical farming. The company is planning a 78,000 square foot vertical farm that would grow 12 stories of leafy goods, from kale to bok choy. Thanks to tech developments, keeping plants on a steady diet isn’t as time-consuming as it once was; systems can be created that release calculated amounts of nutrients and water into the soil, powered by hydroponic and aeroponic systems.
- Urban High-Rise Gardens – Italian architecture firm Stegano Boeri Architetti is planning to create a huge Foret Blanche in Paris – a 54-meter high vertical forest that’s planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers. The same firm is also working on a ‘Forest City’ in China, where everything from schools, to homes, to hospitals will be covered in greenery.
- Preferential Treatment – Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires chopped one of the city’s major 20-lane avenues in half, leaving 10 lanes for cars. The other half is used as a ‘surface subway’ – an express lane only for public transport, which gets passengers across the city in half the time. Other cities are trying to ban cars completely. Madrid has already started to take action by banning non-residents from driving in the city centre, and only allowing low-emission cars that belong to locals, delivery vehicles, and public transportation in downtown areas.
This $2 trillion industry is responsible for 10% of the global carbon footprint, negative environmental effects including water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and high levels of textile waste, and poor working conditions for millions of workers, primarily women.
In 2018, 235 million items of unwanted clothing were expected to be dumped into landfills in the United Kingdom last year and fast fashion giant H&M “incinerating over 60 tons of new, unworn apparel” at one a waste disposal facility in Denmark, alone, over the past several years. Consumer sentiment on the other hand is showing a shift, in 2015, Nielsen published a sustainability report that showed 66% of consumers will pay more for a sustainably made product. This trend has been on the rise and only growing, consumers have begun to invest in brands that are actively seeking sustainable alternatives such as Fairtrade cotton
So how do we encourage this sustainable movement into the future? Well here are two things that consumers can take advantage of and call for from the industry.
- Take Advantage of Technology – Technology is all-pervasive these days and it’s made life so much easier and more interesting in so many other aspects of our lives. Apps such as “Good On You” keep consumers informed about their favourite brands performance rating in terms of workers’ rights, environmental performance, etc. Along with other apps and online businesses like “letgo” and “depop” it’s easier and easier to sell second hand items and give pre-loved clothes a second life.
- Recycled Raw Materials – Outdoor clothing maker Patagonia is using recycled plastic bottles to make polyester fleece and adidas has been using some of the millions of pounds of plastic reclaimed from the ocean to craft three versions of its UltraBoost shoe, selling more than 1 million pairs in 2017, alone. Partnering with Parley for the Oceans for the project, adidas says that each pair of shoes reuses 11 plastic bottles, and by 2020, the German sportswear giant wants all of its sneakers to be made using recycled plastic.
The sustainable movement and the “Green Wave” have gone from strength to strength in Europe. In recent times we have seen new champions against the climate crisis such as Greta Thunberg the 16-year-old Swede leading the worlds school children on climate strikes worldwide. In the US a 2018 Gallup analysis found a “global warming age gap” in some beliefs, attitudes, and risk perceptions. For example, 70% of adults aged 18 to 34 say they worry about global warming compared to 56% of those aged 55 or older.
So, say what you like about technology, innovation and all the bells and whistles of progress. Progress is not possible without people power to drive it forward, and that mantle seems to be taken up by millennials (Gen Y) and Generation Z (or iGen).
Can we have a sustainable future? Can we have our cake and eat it too? I think we can, but it will involve a communal effort. Its not too late to turn things around. The future is not written in stone.