This article aims to provide an overview as complete as possible on environmental sustainability.
In the environmental and economic sciences the term “sustainability” identifies a type of development that satisfies the needs of the present generation and favors subsequent generations in satisfying theirs.
The first definition of sustainability was born in a predominantly economic context and dates back to 1987, when the World Commission on Environment and Development declared in the so-called Brundtland Commission (named after the Norwegian premier Gro Harlem Brundtland, president of the Commission) that “Sustainable development […] is a process of change such that the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional changes are made consistent with future needs as well as with current ones ”.
To simplify, we can adopt the definition proposed by the WWF Living Planet Report: “sustainability is nothing more than “learning to live within the limits of a single planet”
What is environmental sustainability
The concept of sustainability, born in the economic field, has also established itself in the sectors of environmental sciences and ecology.
Environmental sustainability, in these contexts, derives from the study of ecosystems, whose relevant characteristics are:
- carrying capacity, that is the natural ability to produce stable resources that are necessary for the living species that populate the ecosystem;
- possibilities of self-regulation;
These characteristics guarantee the stability and balance of ecological systems and consequently their implicit sustainability.
The balance of ecosystems is mainly disturbed by relationships with other types of complex systems, such as the anthropic one.
When these relationships are particularly disturbed, non-linear reactions and irreversible alterations of ecosystems can occur. And environmental sustainability can be compromised.
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The dimensions of sustainability
Environmental sustainability is one of the three dimensions of sustainability. The concept is absolutely transversal to the areas:
The correlation and interpenetration among the different dimensions of sustainability was made very clear in September 2015, when the 193 UN member countries signed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an action program for people, planet and prosperity.
The Agenda sets 17 goals for sustainable development (the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) which all countries are committed to achieve by 2030 and which cover all dimensions of sustainability.
The definition of social sustainability means the ability to guarantee all human beings conditions of well-being equally distributed by class and by gender, such as:
- access to resources;
Social sustainability presupposes the right of every human being to live in a context where he can express his potential, to the point of intervening as a free citizen in decision-making processes.
Among other things, it also includes the possibility of protecting the traditions and rights of local communities towards their territory.
The concept of economic sustainability expresses the ability of an economic system to generate income and work to feed its populations. Of course, due to its characteristics it is closely related to social sustainability.
Considered at the local level, the economic dimension of sustainability represents the ability to effectively use the resources of a given territory, emphasizing the quality of its products and services, to produce and redistribute within the territory as much added value as possible. In this way it favors the well-being and prosperity of the territory and the communities that inhabit it.
The environmental dimension
The environmental dimension of sustainability provides for a responsible interaction with the environment, such as to maintain a high environmental quality in the long term.
Environmental sustainability requires full harmony among the use of natural resources, the orientation of technological development, the investment plan and institutional work.
Common goal: enhancing current resources to meet the needs and aspirations of humanity by ensuring the same resources and possibilities for future generations as well.
To ensure environmental sustainability it is necessary to act on several levels for the protection of different resources that are essential for all living beings, such as:
- fresh water and oceans;
- forests and soil.
Furthermore, particular attention must be given to the protection of biodiversity, which is the source and guarantee of life on our planet.
Protecting the composition of the atmosphere that makes life on earth possible, especially the life of human beings. Reducing atmospheric pollution and anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses to avoid global warming and mitigate the ongoing climate changes.
The earth is enveloped by the atmosphere: the balance of the gasses that compose it makes life on earth possible.
The main gasses among these are:
- carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide (CO2);
- methane (CH4);
- ozone (O3);
- dinitrogen oxide (N2O);
- together with water vapor (H2O).
They produce the greenhouse effect, which is essential for the atmosphere to absorb, maintain and release the humidity and heat of the sun’s rays, in order to make life on earth possible.
Unfortunately, anthropogenic activities (i.e. typical of us human beings) from the industrial revolution onwards, in particular the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels, have produced an excessive increase in these gasses. In this way, the “shield” (greenhouse effect) provided by the atmosphere is excessive.
This makes heat dispersion difficult and causes a general increase in terrestrial temperatures, starting with the oceans. And it causes global warming, which is at the origin of climate change.
To restore environmental sustainability at the atmospheric level, it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (in particular carbon dioxide) produced by our activities and especially by the use of fossil fuels.
Fresh water and oceans
Environmental sustainability also passes through blue gold, that is fresh water and oceans: probably the most precious and threatened resource on our planet.
97% of the water on earth is salty. The remaining 3% of fresh water includes glaciers and permanent snow, effectively reducing the amount accessible to humans to 1%. This percentage includes both surface water and water retained in the groundwater or dispersed in the atmosphere.
Furthermore, global warming is causing water shortages with a lethal impact on biodiversity. In fact, every year many animal and plant species disappear.
According to the World Economic Forum, almost 25% of the world population is already experiencing a water crisis. This percentage will rise to 60% before 2030.
Furthermore, our oceans are threatened by pollution and above all by the phenomenon of acidification. They absorb about a quarter of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities, which makes the water more acidic and inhospitable or harmful to many marine organisms.
Let’s explain: the oceans absorb almost a quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by human activities. CO2 makes the water more acidic, inhospitable and harmful to many marine organisms (eg. molluscs, crustaceans, corals and plankton). Since industrial development began 250 years ago, ocean acidity has increased by 30% and could even triple by the end of this century.
Inaccessible water and water shortages are not just an environmental sustainability problem. The repercussions also affect the social and economic dimensions: the World Bank estimates that by 2050, water scarcity could cost some nations up to 6% of their gross domestic product.
Land use destination
The land use destination is one of the factors that can compromise environmental sustainability and represent a serious risk to biodiversity.
The main source of threats to environmental sustainability is the transformation of ecosystems such as forests or wetlands into land destined for semi-natural use (e.g. pastures or crops), or even worse, totally artificial (e.g. construction, industry, infrastructures).
These types of transitions often cause permanent and irreversible damages, such as:
- loss of fertile soil;
- fragmentation of the territory;
- reduction of biodiversity;
- alterations of the hydrogeological cycle;
- repercussions on the microclimate.
The spread of urban areas and infrastructures also causes greater energy consumption and an increase in transport, which in turn cause air and noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, some parts of the territory undergo transformations (until they disappear) due to phenomena not directly connected to human activities. An example of this is the reduction of coastal and river areas due to sea level rise, in turn a consequence of the ongoing climate change.
According to economist Herman Daly, one of the leading ecological economists in the world, resource management from an environmental sustainability perspective requires compliance with three fundamental conditions:
- renewable resources must be exploited at a slower rate than they regenerate;
- the amount of waste and polluting particles released into the environment must not exceed its load capacity, i.e. its ability to assimilate and dispose of them;
- the exhaustion of resources that are not renewable must be compensated for through the adoption of replacement renewable resources.
Of the 17 sustainable goals identified by the 2030 Agenda, three specifically deal with environmental sustainability, with particular attention to the management of natural resources:
- SDG 13 (measures to combat climate change);
- SDG 14 (conservation of oceans and seas and care of marine resources);
- SDG 15 (sustainable use of the terrestrial ecosystem, from forest management to combating desertification and biodiversity loss).
Initiatives for environmental sustainability
Among the initiatives for environmental sustainability in our country, it is certainly worth mentioning the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), a document transmitted at the end of April 2021 by the Italian government to the European Commission.
The Plan describes the strategic goals and lines of action that Italy has adopted and will adopt to use the European funds which have been made available by the Next Generation EU program. In the transition, it points towards an economy that is increasingly oriented towards environmental sustainability.
Among the goals of the NRRP we include:
- increasing energy efficiency;
- greater use of renewable sources in energy production;
- sustainable local mobility;
- economic choices consistent with the goals introduced by the European Green Deal.
Thanks to the Next Generation EU Program, in the five-year period 2021-2026 our country will be able to access resources for over 200 billion euros.
Progress (and missteps) on the road to environmental sustainability are monitored by the Report on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) published by Istat every year.
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