It’s Time to Hit the Sustainability Reset Button

The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the urgency for collaborations in tackling global challenges. The Green Institute recently held a virtual summit on sustainability to mark the World Environment Day. The meeting gathered over 25 renowned sustainability specialists across the globe to provide practical insights into how nations can sustainably overcome the unfolding crises.

Below are the key takeaways:

  • Teaching ecology beyond classroom to tackle climate change

Noah Martin, a senior program designer at Georgetown University advocated for a switch to transformative learning of ecology, which plays a significant role in sustainability. According to Martin, humanity needs to build sustainability-focused technology and tap into the power of effective storytelling in promoting sustainable development. 

A multidisciplinary approach towards ecology, for instance, can attract the younger generation to this mission, he said. At the same time, to be effective, governments should give teachers more space by refraining from too much oversight. As for the role that ecology has to play in government policies, Martin said: “The role of ecology in climate change should be front and center in policy decisions.”

  • Green schools for better learning experience

Ruba Hinnawifrom Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) shared the council’s successful case study of transitioning to ‘green schools’ in Qatar.

According to Hinnawi, the three main objectives of green schools are: to improve the health and well-being of its students, minimise its environmental impact, and use all of its physical features as a dynamic teaching tool. Such a school minimises its environmental impact as it gives great consideration to efficient use of energy and water, indoor environment quality, sight and surroundings, and transportation.

Generally, a green school features the following – efficient operation, sight and nature, sustainable building and transportation, comfort, responsible material and waste handling, and innovation.

  • Building resilient health structure to improve public health

Prof Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) proposed ways to combat novel diseases, using Covid-19 as a case study. According to Sachs, the One Health initiative is increasingly being put to the test by the ever-present risk of new diseases spreading from animals to humans. He highlighted the danger humanity faces when politicians refute scientific evidence about global pandemics.

“When politicians ignore signs as Trump does, people suffer and die,” he said.

Talking about his new book, The Age of Globalization, Prof Sachs recounted the human species’ relationship before civilization.

He said: “We have been interconnected as a species from the start over vast human distances. We have to learn how to cooperate on a global scale”.

Prof Sachs affirmed his belief in multilateral organisations as opposed to nationalistic views: “Extreme nationalists who are arrogant and chauvinistic like Trump don’t like the United Nations because it will have the United States obey international rules, not simply the president’s whims. This is why we need the United Nations. When we see such an unstable person in power, we need rules, not just the discretion of individuals with their armies under their command”.

Privatisation of healthcare in developed countries, precisely the US, has led to a high cost of medical services in the region, he noted. In contrast, unavailable health care services or untimely interventions in developing countries have led to the spread of infectious diseases. When asked for a solution to this dilemma, Prof Sachs recommended universal publicly-financed access to health care. Emphasising on developing countries, he said: “Development aid and tax reform are the two most important ways to help poor countries to close their budget deficit.”

The idea of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), according to Prof Sachs, is that everybody should be able to enjoy the benefits of modern technology and economic progress and live in an environmentally safe planet.

“Yet, the SDGs are goals; they are not yet our current reality. They should inspire actions,” he said.

Discussing SDG progress in Africa, Eve de la Mothe Karoubi, a senior manager at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), agreed that Africa’s track progress towards sustainable development has been overshadowed by inadequate data.

“Africa is not on track to achieve the SDGs,” said Karoubi, pointing out the need for African governments to revisit the drawing board and redesign workable policies to achieve sustainable development.

  • Redesigning waste management: integrated approach

Michael Waas from Terracycle shared that waste reduction, being viewed as one of the most unattractive economic industries in the state, is among the five principles of sustainability.

“The concept of building a circular economy and of promoting circular product streams seems like a new conversation, but what we found is that waste is a modern invention. Throughout the entire history of the natural world, there was no waste because it doesn’t exist in nature. The output of every system becomes the input for another”.

According to Waas, to combat the problem of rising waste, society has to rethink its design models to achieve the concept of a circular economy where no waste goes to waste.

  • Renewable energy has long-term advantage

Prof Marc Rosen, a professor of Engineering from Ontario Tech University suggested that governments should double down their efforts in stimulating renewable energy. Noting that conspiracies that exist within the renewable energy sector are not entirely factual, Prof Rosen stated: “In the long-term, renewable energy has an advantage that companies and governments overlook.”

  • Youth leadership for sustainability

Walid Machrouh, a youth activist for the United Nations program, affirmed the lack of sustainability knowledge amongst youths who are a big component of the society and highlighted the need for partnerships and leadership in sustainable development. In his words, he said: “As young people, we create opportunities. If we don’t collaborate or start by initiating small initiatives, we’re going to consume what’s happening in the world with no reflection and feedback”.

  • A new approach to agriculture

Samson Ogbole, a farmer and the lead trainer for Farm Lab, famous for using aeroponics in Nigeria, explained the crucial role of sustainable agriculture.

“Food production should not be seasonal because hunger is not seasonal,” he said.

Ogbole believes that farmers can come up with own solutions, without waiting for the government to solve all the problems.

“When we have tangible results, those in power by default will want to key into it,” he said.

According to him, the future of farming is urban farming in urban and peri-urban areas amid a population surge. He regrettably pointed out the negative attitude of individuals and governments towards farmers and farming in general, especially in developing countries like Nigeria. Unless such views are changed, he said, agriculture, which is one of the pillars of civilisation, won’t make much progress.

  • Impact investing, new business models and technology

Eva Andriyash, CEO of IxD Capital, highlighted that impact investing and impact entrepreneurship could help accelerate the global pace towards sustainable development. This is because such enterprises are primarily driven by the UN’s 17 SDGs. Investors and entrepreneurs, she said, should strive to – join forces to manage the challenges of Covid-19, strengthen innovations across sectors, implement the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, and maximise the positive impact of private capital.

Businesses and the environment could co-exist harmoniously when sustainability is applied and reinforced. To this end, business models should always strive to not only hit home runs but be designed in connection to environmental well-being and social inclusion.

“As people, we are getting connected daily due to the revolution of technology. We should leverage this technology to bridge the gaps in our differences. That is the only way to achieve true sustainability.”

Jonathan Reichental, CEO of Human Future,explained the crucial role of data in urban innovation.

 “Our world is now running on data as if it is a new type of natural resource like oil. It has enormous value in how we make decisions, in private organizations, and increasingly in governments. We create 2-half quintillion bytes of data every day,” said Reichental.

He stressed the usefulness of technologies like GPS in monitoring and regulation. “We can observe and understand what happens during a natural disaster such as flooding, mudslides, oil spills, seismic activity, etc. It is also used to manage indiscriminate logging going on in different parts of the world. GPS is used for understanding the migration of animals. We use GPS to understand the health of our planet vegetation”.

“We have to be deliberate about how we treat our environment – whether by cycling or planting a few trees. Because when we are gone from this planet, we will be leaving it in the hands of those who come after us. We want to leave them a planet that will be comfortable for them. We want to create environmental legacies that they will adopt and improve upon.”

  • Interdependence vs. Speciesism

According to Prof Damilola Olawuyi, a leading advocate in the extractive industry, humans need to take responsibility as custodians of the environment.

 “We are all part of a complex web or chain that is interdependent. Any attempt to place humans above any other component is speciesism, and the result is what we are witnessing,” said Olawuyi.

He emphasized that one doesn’t need to wait until they get rich or powerful to protect the environment, as we all have a part to play, however modest.

Elizabeth Mrema, acting executive secretary for the Convention on Biological Diversity, stressed that returning to the status quo, to the way society lived would lead to a recurrence of events. Humanity, therefore, needs to rebuild better resilient structures and avoid the destruction of biodiversity.

“It is time for urgent international sweeping cooperation to preserve nature, conserve biodiversity, and protect human health for generations to come,” said Mrema.

“We don’t often realise the commonalities, but spot the differences. To act together, to start any collective action, whether it is COVID-19, racism, environmental change, climate change, global warming, requires certain core beliefs and values at the initial stage so that differences can build on these commonalities,” said Dr Evren Tok, Assistant Dean for Information and Community Development at Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

Read also: Turning commitments into action: the business case for achieving SDGs

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