Although the term “sustainability” may sound modern, it is striking to learn that its first use dates back to 1713, when the Saxon court mining administrator, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, used it in a paper to describe the principle that no more forest should be cut down than could be replanted. Today, sustainability, introduced in its current usage by the United Nations in the 1980s, has become the great challenge of humanity in the 21st century. The goal of the long-term survival of human beings and their home, the Earth’s biosphere, is much more than an environmental issue, as it also involves social and economic facets that OpenMind has reviewed over the past year, all in the light of science and against the backdrop of a severe climate emergency.
As an introduction to this series, we discuss how the challenge of sustainability is viewed today in science, economics and society, and which areas are at the centre of proposals and debates, from energy transition or consumption habits to the growing trends in an increasingly global and digitalised world.
Carbon neutrality or “net zero”, emitting no more carbon than we can sequester, has become a goal set by the United Nations and individual countries for the middle of this century. But the outlook is not promising; not only is this road not yet being travelled, but experts even doubt the real viability of carbon capture and storage technologies.
Beyond discussions on the feasibility of net zero, the overriding objective to be pursued remains the abandonment of fossil fuels, the transition to clean and renewable forms of energy, together with energy savings and efficiency. The emissions trading system was intended to be a tool to this end, but it has also been criticised by those who see it as greenwashing, with the burden being shifted to the consumer.
Among the proposals dominating the climate emergency debate, abandoning meat consumption has become one of the hottest and most controversial. Today, the impact of livestock farming on climate change cannot be denied. But not only have non-scientific motivations been introduced into the discussion, even the UN has warned that livestock is the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty.
Construction is also looking for new ways towards sustainability and climate neutrality, as concrete, the second most consumed material in the world after water, is one of the largest single sources of carbon emissions. Among the alternative materials, many experts point to stainless steel as one of the most sustainable, along with other options that combine tradition and innovation.
In the 1980s, the problem of climate change began to be popularised through predictions of rising sea levels. Science has shown that coastal flooding is not the only natural risk of global warming: droughts, hurricanes, torrential rains and extreme temperatures are now palpable effects, but volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are also no strangers to the disruption of the earth’s climatic balance.
One of the most classic and obvious effects of fossil fuel emissions is air pollution. However, it is only recently that the enormous mortality caused by what the United Nations considers to be “the most important environmental health risk of our time” has begun to be recognised. Climate targets are also a call for improved air quality that will benefit life expectancy and quality of life.
Meat consumption is only one aspect of the wider problem of sustainably feeding an ever-expanding human population. Agriculture is not exempt from climate impacts either, and food processing, transport, packaging, distribution, consumption and waste management are all involved. Both the food industry and consumers can contribute to reducing the footprint of our diet.
To conclude this series and offer food for thought, we highlight a selection of books that cover broad aspects of climate change, from its impact on civilisations when its causes were still natural, through the origin of the current emergency, its magnitude and its solutions, to climate fiction or cli-fi novels, even finding space for the denialist thesis with the requisite warning about its errors.