Sustainable development is economic growth which meets the needs of the present without damaging the lives of future generations. In other words, it doesn’t cause so much damage that people in the future might not be able to live healthy lives. It also means that we don’t destroy so much of the natural world that other species will also not be able to live healthy lives.
Economic growth can have negative impacts on human health and the environment. When the focus is only on economic growth and we ignore the consequences to the environment and to human health, we are not living sustainably.
On a personal level, we understand that we can’t do certain things like pile up trash on our property and expect our lives to be healthy, because trash can decompose and give off odors and release chemicals that might be harmful to us. It also gives off odors and attracts insects and rodents we would not want around us, because they might carry diseases.
We also understand that we would not want to burn trash right next to where we live because the smoke could make us sick or even kill us. Dumping toxic chemicals on our own land would produce the same results.
However, on a large scale, economies are sometimes allowed to dump toxic waste and trash, spill toxic oil, burn coal, produce foul and poisonous emissions, and so forth, and clearly such practices are not sustainable.
Air pollution alone kills millions of people each year, according to the World Health Organization.
Climate change is disrupting weather patterns, altering wild animal behavior, causing seas to rise and islands to become partially covered with water. These impacts will most likely become more severe if the human species doesn’t reduce its carbon output.
Sustainable development recognizes that although humans can be productive and construct economic systems, we also can do a lot of damage. So, in order to survive while doing the least amount of damage, we have to develop economic systems that include environmental protections.
To some of us, that information might not be very convincing, so we might want some proof that sustainable development works. What country or countries have been successful in this manner?
Sustainable Development Nations
For one, Costa Rica actually has generated 100% of its electricity from clean, renewable sources for about 75 days in a row.
This Latin American country has about 4.4 million residents and in 2015 had well over 2 million visitors. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its military, so the money it was spending on that was channeled into other endeavors like education, culture, and security.
It’s worth mentioning that Costa Rica has so many visitors because they come for the natural beauty and these visitors contribute to the national economy. Protecting the environment is very important, so investing more in clean, renewable energy is good for nature there and better for the economy.
With about 80 million people, Germany is obviously much larger than Costa Rica, but it is moving towards a more sustainable society by transitioning aggressively towards a clean energy economy. For example, about 33% of its electricity came from renewables in 2015.
One small German town generates several times what it needs from clean energy sources, and makes about $5 million per year by selling the excess electricity.
An entire state in Germany is moving toward 100% renewable electricity as well, and as a whole, the nation of Germany wants to get to 100% renewable electricity by 2050.
Portugal has already achieved 70% renewable electricity. So, yes, there are examples of countries that have achieved a greater sustainability, and that are on track to expand their clean electricity production. There are two things that will help them: the affordability of solar and wind power, and the emergence of energy storage solutions such as battery systems. Critics of wind and solar power used to consistently point to the intermittency of these forms of clean electricity, which is to say the lack of electricity production, depending on weather patterns and the time of day. However, larger, more efficient, battery systems can store excess electricity to provide it at night and during periods when there is no wind or less sunshine.
Solving this problem will help solar and wind power expand even more as we move forward with better energy technology, as well as the information systems that manage energy production.
The US, with about 300 million people, is nowhere near Portugal or Germany in clean electricity production. However, a recent research study found that in just about 15 years, the US could greatly accelerate in this area. “Building a combination of 1,529GW of solar, wind, natural gas, nuclear and hydro would cover the power needs of the US while reducing CO2 emissions by 78% and keeping costs lower than current projections,” the study says.
The impacts of climate change are putting pressure on governments to reduce carbon emissions. These impacts could become much more severe than they currently are, so it is imperative that they do so. Sustainability is not only for separate nations, because carbon and air pollution travel across national boundaries.
Another consideration which is very important is that the human population is growing, and at some point there may very well be over 10 billion humans. Moving away from fossil fuels is something that must be done – just imagine what would happen to carbon emissions and air pollution if we continued burning coal and driving gas-powered vehicles with 10 billion people or more.
Carbon levels and air pollution would be much higher, and the impacts would probably be even more severe than they already are. In the World Health Organization reference cited above, the number of premature deaths in just one year (2012) was 7 million.
If there were 10 billion humans on this planet using fossil fuels, how much higher would that figure be? 10 million, or more?
That kind of an energy and economic system is obviously not sustainable, and that doesn’t take into account the climate change impacts in addition to the air pollution deaths and illnesses. We are also in a stage of extinction of species, which is alarming, to say the least, so we need to make the changes to not only help ourselves, but to save many other creatures on this planet. At this point in human history, sustainable development is not optional.
Image Credit: NASA/Apollo 17 crew; Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans/Public domain