Sustainability Debate

Debates on sustainability is not only trendy today but also a serious agenda among folks from several segments of the society, not to mention the corporate sector. Unlike the narrowly focussed corporate social responsibility agenda during the last decade, sustainability touches several areas of our lives-from how and what we eat and drink to how we travel and live our lives. Whether the issue is about climate change and biodiversity or gender equality and preservation of cultural heritage, we end up debating and discussing sustainability.

With the release of Brundland Report in the mid-1980s, when the UN began to promote its sustainable development agenda with several ambitious goals, the focus was very much on ecological sustainability although social and economic themes were added later. We have come a long way and going back to the earlier days is not an option now. Today, we hear activists, although with their own agenda but directly or indirectly linked to the issues of sustainability, protest in every corner of the world. Even the democratically elected governments in West seem rather puzzled by the actions of the extremist rebels and activists. Excessive use of fossil fuel, including for electricity generation and transportation remains a serious concern which the government of the day find it difficult to tackle.

The sustainability issue is not simply about the exploitation of the planet and the depletion of natural resources but it extends further to include all forms of over-consumption, both goods or services. The UN claims that 3.5 billion tons of food or one-third of all produced globally goes waste annually on the name of consumption. Today, we have millions of cars on the road guzzling billions of gallons of gasoline every day.  Does every wage-earning individual need to drive an automobile? Do you need to bin your year-old car when it hits 30000 miles run and buy a new one? Or, do you really bin your last year’s smart phone when Apple or Samsung introduce a new model every year? This is what we mean by unsustainable consumption. Sustainable purchase and consumption do not mean simply buying a car or phone which are made with sustainable raw materials obtained from responsible sources. Or, just because the factory which made the car or phone has been rated zero-carbon emission. Corporate executives and the industry professionals continue to find new measures and models to show that they are complying with sustainability criteria. Adopting the ESG or Environmental, Social and Governance policy measures is high on the corporate agenda today.   

One of our biggest concerns today, therefore, is over production and consumption of goods and services triggered by the application of market economy principles supported by aggressive and sophisticated marketing campaigns. Market economy promotes competition among producers and suppliers which is said to deliver market efficiency. Excessive production and consumption are managed to control the supply and demand artificially which lead the marketers to differentiate their offerings with vague attributes to lure the consumer. In this respect, more than a third of the goods available in the market can be said as in excess. Therefore, this author wonders if we ever can achieve the sustainability goals when we don’t cut down our production and consumption because this would contradict with the principles of economic growth and development. Don’t ever expect our politicians to sincerely support such sustainable policy measures.

The second major issue is the obvious conundrum of population growth. The UN estimates global population to reach 9.5 billion in 2050. Although riddled with inequality and disparity in terms of consumption, recent economic and technological development worldwide have paved the way for increasing consumption and production of goods and services. Demand for essentials resources such as food, clean water, and utilities have skyrocketed during the last two to three decades. Access to clean water and hygiene remains a serious issue in many parts of the world. The UN claims that if the current rate of consumption continues, we would need the resources from three Earth-like planets to meet the demand of 9.5 billion population in 2050. When both the birth rate and the longevity increase, we will definitely face the challenges imposed by the growing population. The low-growth regions of the world are faced with elder population living longer while the high-growth regions find it difficult to feed the mass. Economic migration continues to remain another challenge to be faced by the world leaders. Population growth not only demands more production but also elevates the issues of economic and social sustainability.

The third major issue raises from economic mismanagement. The so-called economic prosperity of the West is an illusionary wealth based on debts and manipulation of numbers. The size of the global economy is nearly $90 trillion in terms of annual GDP where as the national or sovereign debt alone amounts to the same. When consumer debts and corporate debts are added, the total global debt comes to exceed $300 trillion. Irrational behaviour of the financial market, and the share market in particular, speaks in volume to testify how the market data are not only an illusion but also manipulated.  The true value of the US dollar in which more than half of the global assets are held is worth to nothing but we still love the greenback and protect it under the pillow.  The global economy as a whole is a castle built on debt which is akin to a sand castle. The global debt will continue to grow day by day and this remains a huge threat to the economic sustainability.

The fourth major threat to sustainability is the geophysical and climatic changes on which we have no control whatsoever. Although many would like to see climate change as outcome of unsustainable human activities, there are still several unresolved questions to be answered here. Obviously, over exploitation and consumption of natural resources remains one of the causes of climate change but the climate activists cannot blame these for volcanic activities and tsunamis that constantly shutter sustainability. Excessive warming of the Earth’ surface as well as the ocean can be due to a number of causes, including volcanic activities underneath as well as solar flare up and occasional solar storms along with emission of radiation from the Sun while increasing level of carbon dioxide emission from human activities can also further aggravate the situation.

Realising the sustainability goals, therefore, remains a huge challenge for all of us irrespective of where we live in the planet. There are no clear answers as to what we can do or how we can response to the already obvious issues such as the climate change. Although we have managed to gather a huge amount of data and scientific facts which would help us come up meaningful policy measures, there are a number of questions still clouding our minds.  The four major issues or rather threats that we have noted here need to be addressed sometimes sooner than later. The recent ICCP report which highlights some of the critical issues with scientific data to support the arguments is the work of hundreds of prominent scientists. This should remain an eye-opener for the world leaders who attended the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow. But most of us are still sceptical about if anything tangible could be achieved in the long-run. There are good reasons to be sceptical about the whole process. Consider, for example, the issues of over-consumption and production and the global debt burden or the population growth. Does anyone honestly believe that we can put a brake on the growth of national economy, population and the sovereign debt or consumer borrowing?    

The topics for sustainability debate therefore essentially rests with these issues or threats. While the issues of environmental degradation and climate change are being heeded to some extent, we still need to see sincere commitment and mechanism for policy implementation coming up sooner than later. However, addressing the impacts of geophysical changes that lead to calamities and natural disasters require a worldwide mechanism for adaptation and mitigation. There is a huge gap in this areas at global level and what we have seen are only some initiatives such as the disaster management agencies at national level.