As environmental protection becomes a greater topic of concern across all aspects of business, new initiatives and programs are being developed globally to institute measures guiding sustainable development.
The United Nations defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” with development referring to growth in many aspects of human civilization. Sustainable development, as the UN sees it, requires efforts toward building an inclusive and resilient future for all.
The organization also believes that sustainable development requires three specific elements to be considered: Economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. All three are both interconnected and of utmost importance, but it is in the particulars that international efforts have differed in both approach and result.
Setting the goals
Sustainability goals worldwide have been spurred on by the UN over the past several decades. Most recently, the organization adopted its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which exist as universal calls to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and generally improve the lives of humanity.
All 193 UN member states adopted these 17 goals in 2015 as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a 15-year plan to achieve global advancement on each goal. These include ending poverty and hunger, affording all people clean water and sanitation, and promoting well-being through health, education, equality, peace, responsible consumption / production, and climate action (among others).
The efforts are part of what the UN calls its Decade of Action, a time in which sustainable solutions must be accelerated to meet these myriad challenges. In September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that action must come from three worldwide levels: Global action including greater resources and solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals; local action through various governmental frameworks and authorities; and action through individuals, which includes the media, academia, private sectors, and more to push for change through movements.
Many countries have begun enacting similar versions of the UN’s plans, albeit with specified and varied targets. For example, Global Affairs Canada announced its 2020-2023 Departmental Sustainable Development Strategy, a means by which the country will work with various partners to work toward eliminating poverty and inequality.
As it relates to sustainability, this strategy outlines several goals to be met by at least 2030: To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from federal government facilities and fleets by 40 percent below 2005 levels, and 80 percent below 2005 targets by 2050 en route to carbon neutrality; to divert 75 percent (by weight) of both plastic and non-hazardous operation waste from landfills; to convert its administrative fleet to at least 80 percent zero-emission vehicles; and to reduce the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent.
As of 2022, several federal departments have developed measures to reduce climate change risks to assets, services, and operations, and plans are in place over the remaining eight years until 2030 to double federal government investments in clean energy and technology research, development, and demonstrations.
The SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) USA initiative, with support from various foundations, released its own briefing on its take on the UN’s goals titled “America’s Goals for 2030.” The vision is “designed to support citizens, businesses, policymakers, universities and politicians in meeting goals to promote sustainable development in the U.S.”
These goals adopt the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, with a particular focus on building a national understanding around the goals (especially on a political level), intended to be accomplished through partnership with individuals and organizations and promoting education and expertise through training, workshops, and more.
SDG USA has specific targets within the broader scope as well, such as encouraging employers to act ethically and provide at least $20 per hour take-home pay for all working people, as well as extending leave (i.e. sick, parental, vacation) to all. The organization believes that meeting needs like these will carry America forward into eradicating poverty.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is also hard at work encouraging American organizations to use renewable energy resources employing sustainability and health initiatives. These include the SunShot Initiative, which aims to make solar power more affordable, and the Better Buildings Challenge, which encourages businesses and organizations to reduce energy consumption.
America’s approach to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals involves a specificity that could bear fruit toward the more generalized objectives most countries have adopted. Elsewhere, the EU (European Union) Sustainable Development Strategy is meant to identify and develop actions to enable all countries in the union to achieve long-term improvement of quality of life through the creation of sustainable communities.
These communities will be able to tap into ecological and social innovation inherent in the EU economy through effective resource management and, as such, enable greater environmental protection and social cohesion. The strategy outlined seven key environmental challenges for a period ending in 2010, which included sustainable energy, transportation, consumption, production, and resource conservation and management.
In 2021, the Europe Sustainable Development Report showed that Europe’s biggest current hurdles are in the sustainability of food, as well as in climate and biodiversity.
Northern European countries like Finland, Sweden, and Denmark seem to be at the top of SDG goals as Europe itself leads these goals on a worldwide scale, but more work must be done for the EU and other countries in the area to accomplish their proposed landmarks from several years ago.
Other continents are continuing to enact differing interpretations of sustainable action. Asian governments are concerned about various aspects of sustainability as well, even around areas like currency and finance. Market-building efforts are underway to invest in ideas like green bonds (funds specifically to contribute to environmental protection) and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing, which evaluates financial spending opportunities based on how they contribute to sustainability.
Elsewhere, in Africa, leaders are asking the international communities to support the development of environmentally sound waste management. Many have also endorsed a 10-year program on sustainable consumption and production to enhance energy resource efficiency. Already, many African countries have committed to banning leaded gasoline, and some uranium deposits in the continent are moving toward safer management thanks to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Charting many courses
All these variations demonstrate that sustainability looks very different when one compares the preferred approaches of different countries and even continents.
So it follows, in a policy brief in the OECD Observer (a publication by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), that the organization outlines how individual countries should approach sustainable development: along varying paths, with no “one size fits all” approach to sustainable development.
“Each country must chart its own course, in line with its culture, history, social and economic priorities, and prevailing institutions and political structures. The environmental challenges faced by different countries, which reflect geographical, ecological and climatic factors, are also very diverse and translate into highly differentiated constraints, opportunities and priorities. This is why there are many interpretations of sustainable development.”
As helpful as edicts like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have been toward getting countries to take sustainability more seriously, it will take further renewal and recommitment to these individual approaches to see lasting change toward building a greener future, as the clock keeps ticking toward the UN’s vaunted year of 2030.