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Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

19 Oct 2017

Sustainability at 30, How are we doing?

Posted by Michael Keating

Since the start of the industrial revolution, the world has become richer, and the majority of people better off. But we built this progress on the back of the environment, and that back, which supports our economies and lifestyles, is creaking and cracking with the strain. In 1987, the Brundtland report Our Common Future said we had to start redesigning the modern industrial world to live within nature’s limits. The report made a big ask: drastically cut pollution and stop using up the biosphere. It said we had to change many business practices and personal consumption patterns. We need to move to sustainable forms of energy, transportation, farming, forestry, fisheries, mining, smelting and chemical manufacture. It means lower consumption of most if not all raw materials, much more reuse and recycling, and a virtual end to throwaway products.

What has happened in the 30 years since the Brundtland report was published?

Global economic development has continued to raise hundreds of millions from poverty. More people than ever have safe drinking water, sanitation, enough food, some health care, better education, and more choices about how and where to live. However, much of the economic growth in both developed and developing countries is not environmentally sustainable. Some of it brings social costs in the form of ill health and displaced people. Most of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels. Tropical forests continue to shrink. Pollution levels are still dangerously high in many parts of the planet. Against the bad trends, there are important signs of change. The widespread acceptance of the sustainability concept gave impetus to many who were already working for such issues as pollution controls, recycling, cleaner energy, the reduction and elimination of toxic substances, less urban sprawl, organic food, clean transportation, and conservation of nature and natural resources. Renewable energy, such as wind and solar, account for only 1 per cent of global energy production, but their share is growing rapidly. This fall, the International Energy Agency reported, “renewables accounted for almost two-thirds of net new power capacity around the world in 2016… This was another record year, largely as a result of booming solar PV deployment in China and around the world, driven by sharp cost reductions and policy support.”


Wind turbines
Credit: Canadian Wind Energy Association


Raising the bar for a sustainable future

The concept of sustainable development, now more often called sustainability, was quickly adopted by a large number of government and business leaders around the world. The Brundtland report led directly to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, which included the Earth Summit, the largest meeting of world leaders in history. The conference, headed by Maurice Strong, released Agenda 21, a blueprint for making development socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. At Rio, many governments signed the new UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aims to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at levels that will not dangerously upset the global climate system. Many also signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which requires countries to conserve the variety of living species, and ensure that the benefits from using biological diversity are equitably shared. The conference launched the Rio Declaration, with its 27 principles that define the rights and responsibilities of nations as they pursue development. For a summary of what happened at the Rio conference, see The Earth Summit’s Agenda for Change.

The Rio conference kicked off a series of global meetings and agreements on how to advance sustainability. The United Nations created a sustainable development division. Eight Millennium Development Goals were established by the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. They included eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing illness and death, providing universal primary education, and ensuring environmental sustainability. In 2015, the United Nations, expanded the list to 17 sustainable development goals and 169 specific targets for the UN sustainable development agenda. It has a strong focus on ending poverty and hunger, ensuring equity, promoting sustainable consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base. The document, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, resulted from two years of negotiations that had unprecedented participation by civil society.

The most important single example of international cooperation is on climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change led to a series of meetings and agreements that are steadily raising the bar on commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The latest is the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which 196 countries agreed to work to control the rise in global temperature to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Brundtland helped focus attention on important ideas, such as the circular economy. The traditional industrial model has been described as one of “take, make and dispose.” In 1999, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins published Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, which proposed a transformation of commerce and societal institutions by redesigning industry along on biological models with their closed energy and materials loops, and zero waste. They called for reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of future prosperity. In 2015 the European Commission adopted a circular economy package, with proposals to reduce landfilling and increase recycling and reuse. In 2016, Ontario proclaimed the Circular Economy Act, with goals of zero waste and no greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector. The province seeks a “circular economy” system in which products are never discarded, but reused, recycled and reintroduced into new products.



Governments have been taking action on sustainability issues for decades, but they tend to do it piecemeal, rather than in an integrated manner. On the environmental side, they have banned many hazardous substances, and set limits on pollution and resource extraction and harvesting. A number are phasing out coal for energy generation, and giving incentives for electric cars and green energy generation. Some governments are promising to ban gasoline and diesel cars in coming decades. They have to do this against the sometimes fierce opposition of companies, such as fossil fuel giants, whose businesses will be disrupted. On the social side, governments have brought in health and employment programs. For jobs, they are constantly trying to work economic levers to foster development. But governments are struggling with how to get the big changes needed for real sustainability. Rather than integrating sectors, governments traditionally have balanced choices among economic, social and environmental policies, often to the detriment of the environment in favour of short-term economic development and jobs. Most have still failed to break down the walls separating government departments, and slowing their ability to think through economic, environmental and social policies in harmony. The challenge was summed up well by Wayne Christopher, interviewed after Hurricane Harvey devastated Port Arthur, Texas in August. The city depends economically on the polluting oil industry, but is also highly vulnerable to storms and rising sea levels linked to climate change. He said that a time of clearly growing climate risks citizens are too often still faced with the simplistic trade-off: “Do you want to build your economy, or do you want to save the world?”

One of the most interesting countries to watch is China, since it is the world’s most populous nation, and is heading to be the largest economy. In a few decades, it has moved from being poor and underdeveloped to having a high-tech sector than can put people into space. Its breakneck industrialization relied heavily on fossil fuels, especially coal to provide energy, making it the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Air pollution reaches critical levels in cities, shortening people’s lives. In recent years, China has promised hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy. It is investing heavily in wind, solar and energy storage, with a view to grabbing a large share of rapidly growing green energy export markets. In an interview while at a climate change meeting in Canada in September 2017, Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change, said “climate actions are not a burden to us, but the internal impetus for the sustainable development of our country.”

Many innovations are at the provincial, state or municipal level. Vancouver plans to require the majority of new buildings to have no operational greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and that all new buildings have no greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It also plans for the city to run on renewable energy by 2050. A large number of towns and villages in different parts of the world are running partially or wholly on renewable energy. The Bavarian village of Wildpoldsried has invested in photovoltaic, biogas, wind and hydro power so much that it produces 500 per cent more energy than it uses, and sells the surplus.



Government policies can encourage or discourage sustainable development, but it is companies that need to deliver sustainability to our doorsteps. They need to find ways to make products and services in ways that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. For many long-time observers of the environmental debates, the biggest surprise post-Brundtland was the willingness of many big companies to take sustainability seriously. Some of the early supporters were often the big polluters, who had been through the wars with environmentalists, governments and public opinion. They knew they had to change their polluting and resource destroying ways, and were ready to start cleaning up pollution and cut resource waste.

In Canada, some of the first companies to endorse sustainability were the mining and smelting company, Inco. Ltd., a major source of acid rain, and Dow Chemical Canada Ltd. which had been dumping chemicals into waterways. Both supported a move to more sustainable production, and invested heavily in cleaning up their pollution. The forest industry, long accused of over-harvesting and leaving clear-cuts in its wake, began a major shift to more sustainable forms of logging, and signed historic agreements with environmentalists and indigenous peoples over how forests would be used and protected. Chemical companies that had been secretive about their environmental impacts, began publishing their emission details, which led to significant cuts. Mining companies started acknowledging their environmental impacts, and sought to offset these with economic and social benefits for affected communities. The sustainability concept attracted companies not generally associated with the environment. Loblaws, a major supermarket chain, was an early promoter of greener products, including recycled materials and organic foods. Whole new industries blossomed, including wind and solar power companies. At one point, Apple Inc. was criticized for the use of hazardous materials. It has announced plans to make all of its products from recycled materials. In 2016, 96 per cent of its electricity came from renewable sources. Companies such as Tesla, produce innovative electric vehicles. This has helped push major traditional car makers to announce plans to move to electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles. “General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” said Mark Reuss, General Motors executive vice president of Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain in the fall of 2017.

Electric cars recharging

Thinkers in academe and the business world started promoting ideas such as Factor Four, which involves reducing resource consumption and increasing the wealth generated by their use. Organizations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development were created. The WBCSD describes itself as: “a global, CEO-led organization of over 200 leading businesses working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world.” It has projects in such fields as transportation, cement production, chemicals, forestry and agriculture. There is even a sustainable wine industry that uses more renewable energy, reduces pesticides and pays fair wages.



Moving to a sustainable future is fundamentally an individual decision. It will be driven by our values. It involves who we vote for and what we tell our politicians we want. It comes from where and how we work, including what people tell their employers they expect in terms of sustainability. Most importantly it is reflected in how we live: how much and what we consume, reuse and recycle. Many people embrace the idea of sustainability. More and more recycle, buy energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, and try to reduce their driving. But really cutting consumption of natural resources and fossil fuel energy can be very difficult. As one commentator observed, “people are trying to squeeze their blue box past their big, new SUV.”

Sustainable living requires changes in lifestyles and entrenched habits. It needs help from governments and business. Governments need to set regulations and incentives to steer people toward sustainability. Businesses need to provide greener goods and services, and people need to buy them. This has worked to a certain degree for choices like organic foods, but the choice is often made harder by the sometimes higher prices. One of the most dramatic examples of the clash between desire and reason is in the choice of cars. Whenever fuel prices are low, many people buy bigger cars, especially SUVs. Sales of hybrid and pure electric cars are still very small. Profit margins for manufacturers are higher on big gasoline-powered vehicles. However, car companies are increasing their electric and hybrid choices. Volvo announced that all models introduced in 2019 would be hybrid or electric.


A race against time and habits

In the 30 years since the Brundtland report there have been many sustainability gains. Manufacturing is more material and energy efficient, but so much more is being produced that overall pollution has risen in many cases. Cars are far cleaner than before, but there are millions more, so cities are still choking in smog. There are more parks and protected areas, but so much wilderness has been lost that species are still being threatened. In industrialized countries, forests are now much better managed, and in some countries are getting bigger. But these are mainly tree farms, not natural forests with their greater biodiversity. Meanwhile, the great tropical forests continue to shrink. Greenhouse gases are building to ever more dangerous levels in the atmosphere and the climate is changing. Many underground water resources are being drained faster than they are replaced. Thousands of chemicals with unknown health impacts are released into the environment. Our ecological footprint keeps growing.

We face twin pressures of more people and higher demand from a finite amount of natural resources. In 2016, Peter Timmerman, an associate professor in environmental studies at York University wrote in Alternatives Journal: “It isn’t the burgeoning global human population that is the main threat to planetary sustainability, but rather the escalating expectations of a global human population rapidly committing itself in ever-increasing waves to the current Western ‘mindset’.” In the article Timmerman said modern economics suggests that everyone can seek as much as they want “…thereby requiring an infinite bounty of resources to meet their infinite desires.”

Can we turn things around? One major test is our ability to head off serious climate change. With the 2015 Paris climate agreement, 197 countries promised to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Although global emissions appear to have stabilized in the past couple of years, they need to fall drastically to prevent a global temperature increase that will cause even more severe damage. Most of the emissions come from burning fossil fuels for energy. Historically, energy systems succeeded each other based on such factors as availability, cost, convenience and reliability. Now the world has to deliberately wean itself from fossil fuels, to move to renewable energy. This will require tens of trillions of dollars in investments, and a major rebuild of energy systems. Renewable energy is being installed at an ever-growing pace, but we still have to improve ability to store electricity from wind and solar sources for periods when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. We have decent electric cars, but need cost-effective and reliable power systems for aircraft, trains, ships and big trucks. At the present rate, it will take decades to make a shift to renewable energy, but the climate is changing rapidly, and the damage is increasing.

There are both technical and institutional barriers to a rapid move to sustainable energy systems and to sustainability in general. Humans are capable of rapid and dramatic change to face crises. This was demonstrated during the Second World War when industries were shifted from producing civilian to military goods in weeks and months. There was a flood of inventions, many of which went on to help build post-war economies. Millions of people were put to work on the war effort. We need a similar focussing of efforts to make the changes needed for sustainability, not just in energy, across the whole economy. Governments need to break out of the institutional boxes that separate environmental sustainability from economic policy making and overall governance. The changes need to be made in a way that is fair and equitable to the billions of people who will be affected.

Many people are open to the idea of change, but find themselves stuck in a traditional system with no easy way to make major changes. A lot of business leaders were moved by the sustainability message, and felt a need to change. But, even those ready for change face the harsh realities of the modern marketplace. aimed at quarterly profits, sometimes to the detriment of long-term sustainability. Politicians are caught in the time trap. They are elected for only a few years at a time, and seek to accomplish things quickly. They need short-term “deliverables” to boast about when they run for re-election. They are pushed to create jobs now, and that can mean supporting, even subsidizing industries that are polluting and using up natural resources. These pressures make it harder to plan for the benefit of future generations.

At a speech in Toronto in September 2017, former U.S. president Barack Obama said there is too much inclination to keep studying problems facing the world when many solutions are obvious. “The problem is our human institutions aren’t very good at implementing them.” Earlier in the year, three US professors of psychology and environmental studies wrote: “The term ‘environmental problem’ exposes a fundamental misconception: Disruptions of Earth’s ecosystems are at their root a human behavior problem.” In a Science Magazine article, Elise Amel, Christie Manning, Britain Scott and Susan Koger wrote that we are in a system that continues to “…encourage, support, and reinforce overly consumptive, wasteful, and polluting lifestyles, particularly in the industrialized world. At present, these systems make truly sustainable living unappealing and impractical, if not impossible, for most individuals living in them. Thus, despite widespread recognition of the dangerous course that we are on as a species, humanity has not yet begun the radical transformations that are clearly needed.”

How can people be motivated to reduce environmental pressures? In an article for The Sustainability Report on creating change for sustainability, Eric Hellman drew some lessons from the introduction of the blue box recycling program in Ontario more than 30 years ago. The team behind the program identified shared values, and developed a common vision that included the public, government and industry. It was practical, had government and business support, and was rapidly adopted as the right thing to do.



The Brundtland commission said that to change the course of human development, environment had to be integrated into all aspects of economic decision making from the household to the boardroom to every level of government. The integrated decision-making approach is probably the most difficult. People still see environmental protection decisions as trade-offs and losses of short-term economic gain. They fail to see environmental protection as a long-term investment that will support human health and enjoyment and the supply of natural resources into the future. Many of the changes will be hard, and there will be up-front costs and dislocation in many businesses.

We need many changes. We need an approach to business model that does not put short-term financial profits ahead of long-term social and environmental issues. We need a public that is ready to move to a more conservation minded approach to using natural resources. And we need consistent leadership over the long term. In the fall of 1987, a month before the formal release of the Brundtland report, Canada’s National Task Force on Environment and Economy said leadership must come from the top. “Governments act as the trustees of the resources we will pass on to future generations. Governments must therefore exercise comprehensive and far-sighted leadership in supporting and promoting sustainable development.”

Maurice Strong

After the Brundtland Report was released in 1987, I asked the executive vice-president of one of the world’s largest mining companies how to get people to adopt sustainability. He said to remind them of their children’s’ future. I asked Canadian businessman and Brundtland Commission member Maurice Strong if the world can move to sustainability in time. His answer is still valid: “It is going to be a race between our sense of survival and our more indulgent drives.”

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One Response to “Sustainability at 30, How are we doing?”

  1. So are you going to join me in becoming a vegetarian, and reducing the amount of agricultural land pressure utilizing fertilizer and pesticides. It is the first big step anybody can take, and yet is the most radical. At a very conservative estimate more than 50 percent of corn and soya grown in North America goes to raising livestock and chickens, a process which ends up in the slaughter houses for hamburger and Kentucky Fried. For precise figures abut the land degradation that accompanies this type of peudo-circular economy, read the David Suzuki Foundation blogs.


    Peter Harries-Jones