Note: A long, but informative read. Make a cup of tea!
We recently asked our community what they would like to know on the topic of sustainability, and responses hovered around the fundamentals. The field is broad in scope, and given the phases of political denial, social dismissal, and media inconsistencies, the topic has become more confusing than it needs to be. As described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability is based upon one simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations. At this point in time, we continue to veer further away from this harmonious place on Earth and the consequences are increasingly concerning.
The UCLA Sustainability Committee define sustainability as “the physical development and institutional operating practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, particularly with regard to use and waste of natural resources. Sustainable practices support ecological, human, and economic health and vitality. Sustainability presumes that resources are finite, and should be used conservatively and wisely with a view to long-term priorities and consequences of the ways in which resources are used.” In simplest terms, sustainability is about our children and our grandchildren, and the world we will leave them. There are four main areas of unsustainable human-activity that must transition simultaneously to combat climate change, including shifts in agriculture and farming, reforestation, renewable clean energy and more sustainable waste systems.
To stop the planet from getting substantially warmer, we need breakthroughs in how we make things, grow food, and move people and goods—not just how we power our homes and cars.Bill Gates
How Climate Change Works
First we need to understand the current the urgency of eliminating and removing greenhouse gas emissions that are trapped in the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm at record-high rates. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are three of the most prevalent greenhouse gas threats. The reason why statistics often solely reference carbon is because other gases are converted to carbon equivalents for simplicity, however, vary in their Global Warming Potential (PWP). Methane and nitrous oxide, common products of the animal agriculture industries, are roughly 30 to 300 times more powerful than carbon when considering their GWP, which means that they should be taken 30 to 300 times more seriously. To meet the necessary but audacious Paris Climate Agreement goal of containing global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees immediately to avoid irreversible effects, experts from the John Hopkins University report that it’s probably impossible to achieve if dairy and meat consumption do not reduce. As the planet warms, and the irreplaceable arctic ice – that is needed for climate regulation let alone cooling – sadly melts, warming rapidly exacerbates. Unfortunately, the ice is melting at a fast pace, and if it is not mitigated in a timely fashion, the damages will be irreversible. Climate change also results in rising sea levels, and catastrophic floods that pose danger to high risk areas, for example, southern Florida. As the effects in some locations are already being observed, communities at high-risk are preparing to migrate elsewhere and/or are implementing short-term infrastructure solutions into town planning. The International Organization for Migration have acknowledged the association between migration and climate change, which was referred to as a “national security” concern for the United States by former President Obama, who could seemingly foresee the complexity of this issue.
Unsustainable Animal Agriculture to Responsible Farming
We often discuss the unsustainability of animal agriculture, which has by far the largest environmental footprint compared to other agricultural practices. Many researchers who have measured the environmental footprint of the meat and dairy industries agree that transitioning to a primarily vegan or plant-based diet is the most powerful way to reduce an individuals impact on the environment. Not only do we use more than half of all land that is capable of growing crops to grow food for livestock, but this industry also consumes approximately one third of all fresh water supply. This is not to mention that estimates suggest that more than half of the antibiotics produced globally are used for livestock, leading to human antibiotic resistance posing a global health threat. The leading sources of methane and nitrous oxide emissions are omitted through livestock, cows in particular. Grass-fed beef may be better than grain-fed due to the water and land resources required to grow the grains, albeit this solution does not reduce the powerful greenhouse gas emissions associated. So yes, chicken and cheese may be less detrimental to the environment than beef, notwithstanding health implications, but plants trump all animal products.
As recently discussed on Plantd, some vegetables have a larger impact than others, such as the recent discussion of the land, water and transport required to produce enough avocados to meet demand. However, in comparison to the powerful greenhouse gases associated with animal agriculture industries, the environmental impact of avocados are modest. Given the most part of our land for food feeds cattle, our finite quality soil available should be used primarily to grow nutritious plant-based food for humans. Soil of which, we cannot afford to have continuously contaminated with toxic pesticides and chemicals that are not only known to be harmful for human health, further deplete our natural resources. Buying organic is therefore essential, and buying locally reduces transportation costs. A larger social issue that is rarely acknowledged is the importance of supporting responsible and sustainable farmers on every level, as they are the true silent hero’s of society. They receive little to no credit for their moral behind-the-scenes behaviours, and will continue to face increasingly challenging climate conditions that add to financial strain. These challenges are not to mention the well documented social isolation and mental health risks that the industry face. As well supporting policies that benefit farmers, we can individually support our local farmers through consciously consuming.
Deforestation to Reforestation
Deforestation simply refers to the permanent destruction of forests, in order to repurpose the land. Human-driven and natural loss of trees effect the wildlife, ecosystems, weather patterns, and of course – climate change, according to National Geographic. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report that an estimated 18 million acres of forest, roughly the size of Panama, are lost every year. Experts predict that approximately 17 percent of the Amazonian rainforest has been destroyed over the last 50 years alone, with more recent losses on the continual rise. Amid the seemingly complex science of climate change, the reason that we need trees is simple; to absorb the carbon dioxide that we need to breathe out, and most importantly, the carbon that is trapped in the atmosphere in excess – which essentially causes the earth to warm. In addition to absorbing carbon, trees have an essential role in regulating the climate through providing shade and transpiring water. One tree has been contrasted to the equivalent of running 2 central air conditioning units, which helps to cool the burden of unsustainable energy. Furthermore, it probably makes sense as to why deforestation has an inverse warming effect. The World Resources Institute reports that tropical forests have the potential to solve 23 percent of the cost-effective climate mitigation – almost a third – yet are incredibly underfunded and underresourced.
There have been some positive accounts of incredible communities coming together locally and online to reforest, such as in recent Ethiopian news where 350 million trees were planted in 12 hours, a campaign called “green legacy”. This effort brought a sense of hopefulness and inspiration to us, especially given those who are most disadvantaged often have a small environmental footprint, such as those who live on small islands and in Indian villages, who do not even have access to electricity. Yet, it is they who will feel the effects of climate change the most, as documented in films Before the Flood and Ice on Fire. Ceasing the dangers of continual mass-scale deforestation in Indonesian rainforests, for the production of products such as palm-oil, is only possible because of dedicated locals, police included, petitioning to make a stand against large, irresponsible companies. This has served as an incredibly important reminder to refuse palm-oil products, as the Rainforest Rescue indicate that 39 percent sneaks into food and commercial products (the other 61% is used for energy). Thankfully, there are incredible non-government organisations (NGOs) who are working in various places around the world to preserve and plant millions of trees, where very modest donations can result in tangible trees being planted. When you are considering supporting a reforestation organisation, first ensure that they are non-profit and end in .org instead of .com. Some organisations who we support are 1% for the planet (sign up, like we have!), Plant a Billion Trees, One Tree Planted, and Plant for the Planet, which was initiated by kids – reiterating our faith in the next incredible generation.
Fossil Fuels and Unsustainable Energy Sources to Renewable Energy
Energy in the form of electricity is often demonised, as it is responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, most of which come from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. The air and water pollution that is caused by these fossil fuels has also been associated with public health risks, making it clearly unsustainable for the planet and for human health. Renewable and green energy is collected from renewable and natural sources, such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, wave and geothermal heat and provides energy for electricity, air, water heating and cooling, transportation, and rural off-the-grid energy services. Protecting the environment with green energy, that is carbon-neutral, is also predicted to create a plethora of employment and career opportunities, boosting the economy. As legislation changes reflect the actual risks of climate change – which should have been done years ago – individuals who are working in the green economy will be well positioned to prosper in a thriving industry. It is inevitable that the renewable energy industry will have to take over the fossil fuel industry, thus those working in electrical and fossil-dependant industries, will hopefully be able to be transitioned to transfer their skills to the renewable energy field – as we will desperately need their expertise. It seems that we now need mass-scale transitions that are way beyond the individual level, including innovative and progressive technologies that ensure that the clean energy is available, consistently, and not entirely reliant upon particular weather conditions.
Transportation is almost entirely reliant upon fossil fuels, although there are electric and hybrid cars available, thanks to the legend Elon Musk, who released the patents on Tesler’s technology in 2014 for the benefit of the planet (what a human!). However, airplanes, trucks and ships that our economy entirely relies on every second of the day, is still very much unsustainable without clear solutions in sight. Whilst we have big hopes that people who are much smarter than we are, such as the Elon Musk’s and Bill Gates of the world, innovate to solve this problem, we feel that we can all make an effort to do our best in the meantime. Most people can’t get through one day without burning fossil fuels, so it is important that we do what we can. We feel that large businesses and corporations should take full responsibility for their carbon footprint by purchasing carbon credits that enable them to have carbon removed from the atmosphere through what is referred to as the drawdown method. This may not be a long-term solution, but it certainly helps to slow down the imminent warming potential of the planet, while other technologies are developed simultaneously. If a business like Coconut Bowls can do this, as well as partnering with 1% for the planet, then what excuse could large companies have not to embrace their social responsibility? Finally, as flying for business and pleasure is the way of modern world and is a part of our life too, please know that you can purchase carbon credits to offset your personal journey – which are surprisingly inexpensive. We use an amazing organisation called Cool Effect.
Ocean “Dead Zones” and Excessive Landfill to Zero-Waste
The plastic epidemic is the the epitome of how the culture of convenience is the problem with the lifecycle of waste. Instead of using eco-friendly materials that come from nature, and biodegrade in nature, we are using pollutions like plastic that cannot be effectively recycled even in commercial machinery. This results in massive amounts of landfill and microplastics that are everywhere to be found in sand belts lining our beaches, in the ocean, being eaten by marine life, and eventually making its way into the food that is consumed by humans. Plastic, and other eco un-friendly materials, are considered to be harmful for human health, the marine eco-system and ocean at large, as well as contributing to our excessive landfill problem. Unfortunately, when it comes to landfill, we feel that we have been a little misled; convinced that recycling was good enough. Well-intended Americans and Australians for example, have been recycling for years, likely with little awareness that a large proportion has been sent to asian countries, Hong Kong and China especially – up until recently. China have enforced new policies and are awakening to the fact that other countries are paying to further pollute their already dangerous pollution problem. Both the US and Australia have some serious innovation ahead of them in dealing with the excess landfill that we already are struggling to deal with, whilst new plastic continues to be manufactured in massive quantities – every single day. Whilst we don’t have the scope to explore the process of recycling in this article, we want to highlight that whilst recycling is better than not, but it is by no means a seductive and simple fix. Having zero-waste is better than having some, and some is better than what is unnecessary (think: plastic shopping bags, packaging, straws, cups, balloons, produce bags etc.).
So yes, a lot of the landfill leftovers from our culture of convenience sadly end up in the ocean – which is a very big problem – especially at a time when we happen to be facing the largest threat of climate change in human history. The ocean has an important role in regulating the climate, distributing heat, and absorbing carbon where the water meets air. If it continues to warm, faster than what it can effectively regulate; the plants, coral and marine life will die. This has already been observed in ocean “dead zones”, referring to areas that lack sufficient oxygen for eco-system survival. If the ocean continues to die, so does the planet. Overfishing, including the rubbish that is left behind from unsustainable fishing practices are large contributors to these issues. Not dissimilar to some of the challenges that produce farmers face, as such a large percentage of the human population heavily rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, sustainable fisherman should also be supported so that they align with best practice, with access to appropriate resources, funding and policies to support them. This will avoid the continuance of unsustainable fishing practices that heavily contribute to ocean dead zones. One solution may be to eat less or no fish, however, as it is likely unrealistic to anticipate that everyone will adopt an entire vegan plant-based diet, we still need to demand more sustainable practices. Oh, and did we mention that the chemicals that are used to grow non-organic food make their way into the ocean and contribute to the destruction?
We are pleased that you have taken the time to read this important piece. We know that sustainability can seem arbitrary and confusing, perhaps even a new buzzword. Together, we are in a position at this point in time to make a difference, and we have to, because the world as we know it is unsustainable. We hope that this has clarified some of the confusion, and answered your questions. Our mission is to provide quality information to our community, and to spark conversations about the environment – so please, keep us in the loop and share your sustainable efforts with us @plantd.co!
With love, gratitude and sustainable hope.