For the first time in history, multi-scalar (re)application of sustainable development (SD) and sustainability science to test personal, family, household, community, national, network, continental and global development changes; and across disciplines, institutions, services, faith as well as cultures is collapsing and enlivening trillions of scholarly theories and inspiring the momentum to improve human lives every minute.
Ever since the novel concept of Sustainable Development (SD) was first coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission and, subsequently, published by the Oxford University Press, it continued to gain widest pre-eminence in policy, practice and academics. The number of academic courses being initiated at world-class universities and associate higher learning institutions to propagate SD knowledge, service, and its auxiliary disciplines such as Sustainability Science, Sustainability Intelligence and Sustainability Leadership is sharply rising and attracting students, governors, leaders and professionals worldwide. Why? The reasons are countless and traceable. The obvious fact is that SD presents “a new concept for the world economy” and uniquely transverses beyond seeking income (Sachs, 2013). Out of the SD’s auxiliary disciplines, sustainability science is increasingly a predominating field of study and scientific research.
From the onset, several international organisations, government departments and ministries, civil societies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have all responded to the relevance of SD. Accordingly, a number of commissions, divisions, panels, units and independent state committees to expand SD agendas, goals, actions and interventions have been created. This is consistent with the view that ‘network of diverse actors have been formed, alliances have been built, institutions and organisations have been constituted, projects have been formulated, and money – in increasingly large amounts – has been spent in the name of sustainability.’ As this author notes, ‘there is nothing, it seems, that cannot be … hyphenated or paired with it’. So, one could have musical sustainability, sustainable musicology, sustainable organotivars or geosustainability. Global narratives involving industrialisation, HIV/AIDS, GMOs, urbanisation, migration and food all ignited the enlargement of sustainability messages. In front of many authors, sustainability is a popular concept that ‘has the ring of universal desirability about it, no one is prepared to fundamentally challenge its precepts, no matter how vague these are, simply because there is an almost holistic human wish for a viable future for this unique planet and its inhabitants’. Its spread has been electrified by international endorsement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Paris Agreement and the recent constructive talks of Anthropocence and global change. Global change is basically understood to encompass ‘not only environmental change (such as biodiversity loss and climate change) but economic, social and cultural change as well’. Another means by which sustainability practically overflows development boundaries is the varied methods of delivering and evaluating SDGs on the ground and real-life situations. For this, I can mention the BallagioSTAMP. The ultimate proposition is that the emergence of the SDGs to tackle global challenges has confirmed the assertion that sustainability is a ‘moral ideal, a universally acknowledged goal to strive for, a shared basis for diverting the creative and restorative energies that constitute life on Earth, and is notably resplendent in human conditions’. Since September 2015, more cultures, societies, groups and clubs have been reached with undiluted messages, interventions or broadcast of news about the sustainability benefits the global community is likely to derive if the SDGs are implemented all-inclusively and cooperatively.
Globally, SD has been defined differently in the context of time, location, resource, power and ‘loosely faith’ with the common denominator being ‘needs and lives’. Every institution defines, interprets, and approaches SD in diverse ways – from learning to policy action. The United Nations, World Bank and International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) all have raised valid questions to aid explicit understanding, discussion and redefinition of SD. The theoretical dichotomy of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability is brilliantly elaborated. Yet, the definition put forward by the Brundtland Commission still predominates as a global working definition: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, ‘sustainability is not just a word to define – it’s a word that defines’ the university. It is not enough to study, formulate policy, criticize or understand the concept of SD without putting its principles into practice. Many global leaders have realised this. Thus, practising the elements of SD is crucial for creating sustainable living conditions. In respect to the “UN and Sustainability”, the Immediate Past UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, remarked: “I would like to see our renovated Headquarters complex eventually become a globally acclaimed model of efficient use of energy and resources. Beyond New York, the initiative should include the other United headquarters and offices around the globe.”
Also, the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, spearheaded the implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and several other initiatives toward the achievement of a just and sustainable global society. In 2014, he delivered speech to eminent audience at the 14th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and called for “a fundamental shift to a more sustainable development pathway…”. The Microsoft Giant, Bill Gates, has mounted cluster of projects in and outside his home country through Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve health, income and food security because of desiring to witness a sustainable society in which all humans are happy, safe and secure.
The News Centre of the UNEP (UN Environment) eulogized the then global peace icon, Nelson Mandela, as “… champion of sustainable development…” because of his immeasurable influence in resolving explosive political tensions and civil conflicts to create freedom, dignity and liberty. I have been a fan of Mother Teresa whose work led to finding solutions for the inverse ingredients of sustainability – corruption, poverty, death penalty, human insecurity and war. The soft-solutions such as love, smile, and joy, which she cultivated, cannot be left out. Her contributions to society remain inspiration for some SD practitioners and social entrepreneurs. One of the lessons I learned from her is that sustainability is built over time and sustain over time. It will not just happen. People would have to lead change to bring about sustainability for which critical ‘skills set’ are needed, including ‘system intelligence’.
Some development organisations that contributed or are contributing to the seeding of global sustainability in the lives of people, institutions and countries are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, the World Bank, South Africa’s Department for Environmental Affairs, IISD, and The Commonwealth. There are several NGOs and other organisations making difference at considerable scale, though. For the past 30 years, thousands of future leaders, researchers, scientists, policy-makers and writers have been trained in SD-related disciplines at higher learning institutions. The universities which I have evidence to support are the University of Oxford (UK), United Nations University (Japan), Harvard University (USA), University of Cambridge (UK), Royal Holloway University of London (UK), Stockholm University (Sweden), Columbia University (USA), Central European University (Hungary) and University of Tokyo (Japan).
In the field of academics and research, peer-review journals are among the best channels through which people, industry and governments are reached with thematic issues pertaining to sustainability. Some scholarly journals that have been devoted to propagating sustainability are Global Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Sustainability Science, and Environment, Development and Sustainability.
Despite the rise of interest in sustainability, there is absolute shortage of trained sustainability scientists in the global South. Scientists are important players in development progress. Will global sustainability be achieved without sustainability scientists? The demand for the training of more such experts is economically effective. I learned that in developed countries such as Finland, it was only last year when the first ‘Professor in Sustainability Science’ was appointed. When I returned from studies in the United Kingdom a decade ago, my enthusiasm was watered by questions and arguments to explain the title of “my degree” and justify that it was not a “plot”. The resilience, adaptation and system thinking which SD training offers has been extremely beneficial and indescribable. So, I posted on my twitter account ‘A happy Day’ – I saw the then President of the Republic of Ghana, H.E John D. Mahama, appointed as a Co-Chair of the UN High Panel on the SDGs Advocacy. Now, the new President, H.E. Nana Addo D. Akufo-Addo has replaced the former president in the SDGs advocacy matters. What should I say? More than excited!!!
Yes, some good and measurable progresses have happened over the 30 years due to active participation of the public and global leaders in sustainability actions. From such actions, a picture is explicitly demonstrated that SD virally infests all aspects of life and the way people think, relate, act, lead and are governed. Thus, sustainability benefits cannot be colonnaded because they are mostly intertwined socially, environmentally and economically. The all-inclusive practising of SD gives hope to nations, organisations and persons. Sustainability is a soft word of the hearts and minds around which fellow feelings overshadow hate, envy and greed in homes, politics, governments, schools, markets and factories. It has helped to deflate territorial tensions, disputes and conflicts, which otherwise would have painfully caused destruction of human lives. The knowledge of sustainability does not only give power but also build up a person’s attributes of honesty, openness and fairness in dealing with issues of concern for sustainable human well-being. In all these, one of the things sustainability has done is to change public attitude to caring for nature – giving attention to carbon issues. The biggest challenge is how to appropriately communicate SD and sustainability science to the understanding of global non-sustainability scientist audience, including children. As much as ‘higher learning institutions’ remain key players in disseminating SD concepts and strategies, ‘especially in addressing emerging issues (climate change, disaster mitigation, post conflict countries, etc.) as well as creating new leaders’, the endogenous institutions such as hunter associations, artisanal e-waste collectors, association of earthworm economists, farmer-based groups (FBGs) and pastoralist networks are equally becoming significant actors in actualizing SD in practice.
Centuries ago, the philosophy of ‘Let no one enter here if he be ignorant of geometry’ was the hallmark of Plato’s academy. Today, sustainability is triumphing because it accommodates everyone even if you hate learning. There is space for everyone to learn sustainability at every level of life. As Clark indicates, sustainability is ‘a room of its own’. And, if the challenging needs of over 9 billion people are to be met in 2050 and beyond, then actors ought to begin treating sustainability as a human value.
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 See http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2756&ArticleID=10674. (Accessed on 25.04.2014).
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In a typical human settlement in the global South, the reports of the United Nations, World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change might not be necessary to establish scientific evidence of rising temperatures triggered by excessive greenhouse gases (GHGs). Human-induced climate threats are clear – collapse of ant colonies, visibly eroded coastscapes, biodiversity loss, and deficits of food, income and energy. The latest sign of ravaging climate troubles point to the view that decarbonisation is inevitable. High toxicity level of carbons in industrial production or consumption processes must be collectively worked on. One of the underrated but innovative approaches to do this is ecodesign. Can ecodesign tips minor pores of bigger global change solutions like the well-thought Carbon Law brilliantly being championed by some of the world’s finest Climate Scientists? Can’t ecodesign emit sustainability solutions to help the world’s rising temperatures? The ecodesign centres, comprising OVAM and Pole Eco-conception (Belgium), Effizienz-Agentur, NRW (Germany), EA (Switzerland), Ihobe (Spain) and Ecodesign Centre (UK) as well as the Auckland Council on Ecodesign and the EcoDesign Initiative in South Africa are all promoting greener ideals and actions through ecodesign.
When I first heard the term ‘ecodesign’ during a learning session in the Hungarian city of Budapest, my mind was that it might connote how land-use activities could be re-ordered to put ecosystem resources to good use. I sensed similar thought when I participated in another event on ‘Promoting eco-entrepreneurship in Africa’ under the SWITCH Africa Green programme jointly organised by EU (UNEP, UNDP and UNOPS) from 16-18, March 2017 in Kumasi. Although these were two distinct events, during each of them, I asked myself: ‘how could the 1.5oC or 2.0oC world benefit from ecodesign?’ I expected to hear fresh ideas and tools of how to geospatially virtualise and conically trim Mt Everest, watch videos of elephants in Ghana’s Mole Park, Kalahari Conservation Sites of Botswana and Namibia, retrofitted Amazon biosphere and, of course, aesthetically adorned City Hall of Stockholm. But, I was naïve. So wrong! The concept of ecodesign embraces a range of social issues and technical principles, including ‘durability’, using ‘non-toxic materials’, ‘recycling’ and ensuring product design is ‘fair and user-centered’. The later principle means that designing a product, whether in an industry or not, must be about people. This is the rationale why ecodesign often rewires social, economic and environmental dimensions of circular, linear, performance, green, sharing and sustainable economies far beyond land-use practices. In ecodesign interventions, “green walls” are not always enough because the understanding is that the real value of a product for public consumption is not seen in the virtual imagery of the product. Is it not that “the smell is good but the content may be toxic”? Decoupling the content of a product to be free of toxicity is required in the fight against climate change.
As Frank O’Connor would not completely disagree, designing ‘can influence the way people consume, use, behave … live’ in different living conditions. How solutions are expertly designed can have multiplier effects on the speed and scale at which climate troubles can be monitored and reduced through public consumption. Ecodesign is an ‘approach to designing products and services that aim to reduce environmental impacts over full life cycle, 80% of which are determined at the design state.’ Compare to conventional design, ecodesign places strong emphasis on strengthening socio-ecological systems, remanufacturing by-products and innovating renewable energy. Thus, ecodesign goes with eco-innovation to enhance eco-efficiency and resource sustainability, which are at the heart of green economy. In the manufacturing sector, ecodesign uses the right mix of ingredients to come out with consumable or material goods that are not harmful to humans and the environment and, at the same time, generate profits. How sure are we about the quality of the food we eat, sunglass, ear ring, football jersey, and phone handsets? Is the bed or kettle we use carbon-compensated? Is the footwear or e-waste toxic-free? Keeping down atmospheric temperature from escalating suggests that ecodesigning must lead to decoupling production systems or stopping CO2 emitted through consumerism not to interrupt the earth’s climate systems.
Many people tend to confuse ecodesign with geodesign. It is important to get this right. These two approaches are not the same in practice. Theoretically, both approaches recognise sustainability as a common purpose for benchmarking and monitoring the interactions of product, people and planet. That is why industrially ecodesigning a product for the arctic region varies from designing same for the deserts or savannas. Yet, in all regions, ecodesign aims to build resilience in whatever way possible to contribute to averting the earth’s climate systems from crossing “critical tipping point”. Accordingly, ecodesign needs to inform resource utilisation, manufacturing, lifestyles and services. This includes ensuring that ecodesigning a product is preceded by researching real needs of communities, groups and institutions to work out greener solutions that are not inimical to the very goal for which the solutions are formed. Children might be disadvantaged if those who design products for them do not consult them or their parents in the product design processes.
The meaning is that ecodesign is eco-inclusive and promotes sustainable consumption of both renewable and non-renewable resources to satisfy full needs of humans without damaging the natural environments. It is applicable in conserving biodiversity, aviation, mining, ecoparks, fishing/farming, railway, chemical industry and cement production. What about built environment, music and film industries? Ecodesign encourages greener labels and eco-certification of products from forest, sea, desert or solar origins – utilising less forest product equals less deforestation hence less climate risks. By this, ecodesign engages as many actors and customers as possible in the processes of production, distribution and consumption that allow the actors to minimise product impacts on ecosystem destruction. Instead of transporting 500,000 tonnes of food across three megacities, using 4.5 barrels of fossil fuels, ecopackaging the food can increase the total volume of the food in transit by 45%. Additional use of 2.25 barrels is avoided and CO2e is cut by 1.7% margin. In this case, the benefits of ecodesign are not only reflected in lowering GHGs but also minimizing material flows, saving energy, reducing cost and improving incomes.
Like industrial energy systems, ecodesign can be incorporated into planning, upgrading and rebuilding cities for the future – relevant approach to invest in. Urban population is not going to decline in years to come. Urban spaces will continue to be squeezed. More people will convert carbon-absorbing spaces and species to make living and, in the end, generate extra CO2. Urban waste in all its forms (solid, liquid, e-waste, etc.) will affect quality of urban lives and increase severity of climate risks like foods. What can ecodesign do in this situation? Ecodesign does not seek to provide every remedy in complex situations of city congestion, resource scarcity and climate change but to play a part in creating comfort, livability and sustainability. The critical need to stop climate troubles is a strong basis to influence climate knowledge, governance and policy of why climate-oriented ecodesign has to be financed and supported alongside more scientifically convincing and comprehensive solutions such as the Carbon Law. This is extremely important if sustainable decarbonisation is to be achieved.