Can You Afford Not Being Sustainable? (Part II)

HAMBURG, GERMAY - DECEMBER 04: Exterior of an industrial plant on December 04, 2013, in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Thomas Tru
HAMBURG, GERMAY - DECEMBER 04: Exterior of an industrial plant on December 04, 2013, in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

Why sustainability is important? Let's take a look at the global trends regarding sustainability in 2014.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents several climate change scenarios based on carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent emissions and their influence on Earth's temperature levels in its latest report on climate change; the scenarios are based on the findings of deferent scientific groups. But who is IPCC and why should we care for their report?

The IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.

There are two main variables in the aforementioned report: the CO2-eq emission levels on Earth and the temperature rise from pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. According to the scientists, the maximum temperature limit rise that could cause irreversible and potentially catastrophic damage to human civilization is considered to be 2 °C (or 3.6 F), while the CO2-eq emissions level than could cause the above temperature effect is 450 ppm (page 10 of report). It is stated that any increase above the 2 °C level by 2100 will result in severe droughts, rising seas levels, acidic seas, severe storms and addition water and food challenges. The only scenario (p.23, table SPM1 of the report) with high confidence, based on the researchers, which the world will be able to limit the temperature increase to 2 °C is the one with 450 ppm CO2-eq emissions. In order to have a better understanding of the situation, here is a good point to present current CO2-eq emissions, in 2013 emissions were 478 ppm CO2-eq based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Which means according to the positive scenario, humanity should not only have to meet energy demand and support the growing population, but also to achieve it by maintaining or even reducing its CO2-eq emissions by 2100. United Nation's scientists point out that "negative emissions" will be needed globally by the second half of the century to prevent dangerous climate change. Despite the fact that the exact values of temperature raise limit (2°C) and CO2-eq level emissions (450 ppm) are a subject of debate, their catastrophic effects are not and this is something that doesn't pass unnoticed.

General concern regarding the environmental consequences from human activities led to the greatest climate march in history in New York City in September 2014 before the UN's climate summit. Approximately, 400,000 people from 162 countries demanded immediate action to mitigate the causes of climate change. It is worth mentioning the statement of the chief of U.S. Navy's command admiral Samuel Locklear, who stated that "climate change is our single greatest security threat," as a point to illustrate that environmental climate change problems are not a theoretical discussion among scientists.

An unexpected bilateral agreement between the U.S.A. and China regarding the CO2 emissions targets took place in Beijing in November 2014, only two months after the first UN's meeting regarding the environment and the people's march in New York. It was a symbolic and very important agreement at the same time. It was symbolic because the United States along with Europe and China represent more than half of world's annual CO2 emissions, and in addition because the agreement took place during a period where the global economy is still weak. It is important because it denotes that new economic development solutions should be considered within the limitations of CO2 emissions, which is taking into account the limits of our planet. The agreement involves from the U.S. part to reduce their CO2 emissions below 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025 and as far as China is concerned, there isn't any specific limit but the obligation to reach an emission peak by 2030 (to not exceed beyond this limit in the future). The aforementioned agreement is also a subject of controversy, where the supporters claim that the agreement is a positive sign towards the right direction, while others claim that it's a politically driven decision to improve the image of the government. In addition, a part of the supporters point out that the agreement it's not adequate and if we pass the limit of 450 ppm of CO2-eq emissions it will take 1,000 years to recover based on current CO2 absorption rates. For comparison purposes, the E.U has higher mitigation emissions goals, which is translated in 40 percent reduction of their CO2 emissions below 1990 levels by 2030.

While some scientists and politicians are laser-focused into the details of climate change and the precise CO2 maximum levels that will cause a temperature increase with subsequent irreversible environmental catastrophes, some industries and corporations have already embraced sustainable solutions into their development model. Corporate Knights announces each year the most sustainable companies based on several fundamental criteria (energy, water, waste productivity etc.) Corporate Knights started this sustainable award list, surprisingly, ten years ago and what is more surprising is the type of the corporations/industries that come first at least the last two years (this part will be further examined in my next post along with the presentation of the key evaluation factors and the top sustainable companies).

The year 2015 is going to be a benchmark regarding sustainable development at governmental level since the next UN's international conference regarding climate change will be held. The objective of the conference is to achieve a universal agreement on climate from all nations and to set the framework of sustainable development. There are many parameters that have to be clearly defined, such as what should be sustained, for how long it should be sustained, specific goals of CO2 emission levels and a framework that would explain how those goals are going to be achieved.

Being trained in engineering principles, I wanted tangible examples of successfully implemented sustainable development practices, in order to understand the feasibility in smaller or larger scale. For this reason, my next post will be focused in relevant examples to enlighten further the sustainable development concept.

I would like to thank Eleftheria Veneti for her contribution to this article.