In 2015, the United Nations published a comprehensive document outlining the goals to achieve sustainable development and fight inequalities of all kinds within 15 years. 5 years are gone now, how are we doing? Let’s find out, as always, together.
The expression “sustainable development” is thought to have been first used in 1980 at the World Conservation Strategy (WCS), when politicians from around the world decided to commit their resources and researches towards “sustainable development”. In 2015, the UN produced the last document of this kind, available here.
Long story short, the UN declares that in the next 15 years, national Governments will aim to end poverty around the world, produce and manage food resources sustainably, fight and end inequality of all kinds (gender, race and so on), and preserve and prevent biodiversity loss.
In today’s story, we’ll take a look and see after a third of the time, if we made any progress and the overall status of our achievements.
When talking about the Planet, the UN declares that they are “determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.” And more, when outlining the new agenda: “we commit to making fundamental changes in the way that our societies produce and consume goods and services. Governments, international organizations, the business sector and other non-state actors and individuals must contribute to changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns”, “We recognise that social and economic development depends on the sustainable management of our planet’s natural resources. We are therefore determined to conserve and sustainably use oceans and seas, freshwater resources, as well as forests, mountains and drylands and to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and wildlife.”
These were the introductions, things get serious when setting out the 17 goals and actions to take for each one of them. Reading goals 6,7,12,13,14,15, I believe the most used word is Resilience, referred to any ecosystem taken into consideration: oceans, food production, cities, energy and so on.
So, it is now time to take a look at some data and see if we are on track. I strongly recommend you to go over these points before checking out this data to have an overall and broader idea of what we are talking about.
The World Health Organization has data available about water sanitation, hygiene and drinkable water for urban and rural areas up to 2017, and they are available here.
In 2 years, the world population that relies on surface water has decreased by 10% in rural areas. Similarly, regarding sanitation, open defecation has seen a decline of 10%. On the other hand, the population of rural areas with no hygienic facilities increased by 2%. It could be due to natural disasters in some part of the planet which led to the depletion of existing facilities.
Accurate data provided by the World Bank are available up to 2015, so it is not easy to understand how we are doing now. However, in 2015 the total production of energy from oil, coal and non-renewable sources was 65.23% of the total, a decreasing trend comparing with the previous years. On the other hand, energy production from renewable sources is seeing a slight increase per year. We need to be cautious with the information: it is positive to see that we are reducing energy production from non-renewable sources, however, it is also true that due population growth and energy-intensive lifestyles, the demand for energy increases as well. When more official data will be available we could make a better estimate, for the time being, don’t waste energy. Data available here.
SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION PATTERNS
In this case, the UN offers plenty of good advice, but no data. A sustainable consumption I believe is referred to a model of society with limited waste, while good production patterns are the ones that do not deplete the natural environment.
Municipal solid waste is the solid waste produced by urban areas. High-income countries account for 33% of the global production, and the amount is expected to increase in every region of the world by 2050 (data available here). In case you were wondering, food waste accounts for 44%, paper and cardboard for 17%, and plastic for 12%. Even more, only 13.5% of the waste produced is actually recycled.
Thinking about production patterns, a good way to understand if our goods-production is sustainable is by comparing with the deforestation rate. Assuming that the world population is expected to grow, we will need to increase the production of anything you can think of. But how? Improving technologies? Increasing arable land by clearing down forests? Bio-engineered crops? More efficient fertilizers? Who knows, but this is how we are doing so far.
Overall, we are not doing well at all. Globalforestwatch.org offers interactive maps showing tree degradation and gain around the planet. By filtering the map to show Hotspots (places referred to as critical because of tree degradation) we can see that between 2002 and 2019 the amount of hotspots has increased notably, particularly in the Brazilian amazonian forests and in the tropical forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (data available here).
ACTIONS TO TACKLE CLIMATE CHANGE AND ITS IMPACT
For this topic, the World Bank has a dedicated section. Each one of them will show the same results: we are not heading in the right direction. Here’s a sample of a few. (Data available here).
The percentage of forest area in the world has constantly decreased from 1992: the decrease rate seems to be slowing down, but the trend has not been reverted yet.
Methane and CO2 emissions have been rising, while nitrous oxide emissions kept their fluctuating trend, and they are now rising.
CONSERVATION OF THE OCEANS HEALTH AND FAUNA
It is good to see that we increased the number of terrestrial and marine protected areas around the world, that in 2018 accounted for 14488 (data available here). However, the total fisheries production has increased sharply and by 6 billion metric tons in the last year of data available (2014-2015).
PROTECT, RESTORE AND PROMOTE SUSTAINABLE USE OF TERRESTRIAL ECOSYSTEMS
Data for ocean fauna, deforestation and greenhouse gases emissions mentioned for different point can all describe the status of this point.
In addition, I would like to show some results of biodiversity loss. Natural extinction of species occurs even without the human intervention, the problem is the rate of biodiversity loss has increased notably due to human actions. Even if we assume when looking at the data the most conservative scenario, species extinction happens at a much faster rate than in natural condition. For a more detailed explanation, I strongly advise you to read Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction (available here). I want to report an extract of the conclusion of the research, conducted by Gerardo Ceballos et al. in 2015: “Our analysis shows that current extinction rates vastly exceed natural average background rates, even when (i) the background rate is considered to be double previous estimates and when (ii) data on modern vertebrate extinctions are treated in the most conservative plausible way. We emphasize that our calculations very likely underestimate the severity of the extinction crisis because our aim was to place a realistic “lower bound” on humanity’s impact on biodiversity. Therefore, although biologists cannot say precisely how many species there are, or exactly how many have gone extinct in any time interval, we can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way—the sixth of its kind in Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history”.
In environmental science, I believe that huge claims are not useful, let’s leave them to the gossip industry.
I really believe that people around the world are trying to get things done for the best: the problem arises when we experience general boredom and indifference to the issue. Everyone is taken by a video of melting ice, or a bushfire, or a panda: unfortunately, these people will just keep scrolling down their feed, probably blaming oil company for polluting the world. What we have to understand is that everyone can play their part: it is our responsibility to analyze our impact on the Planet and then decide whether we care or not. We are not likely to see the severe effects of not meeting these points in 2030, everyone will leave this Planet knowing that they were part of it.
The question is: do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to stay Green!