The sustainability agenda – what governments should focus on
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Governments across the world have been in a fire-fighting mode for a while now.
With health emergencies (the latest one being the COVID-19 pandemic), and geo-political tensions mushrooming the world over, matters will only complicate over time. To top that, the looming recessionary pressures, the increasing threat of climate change, and widespread social inequity and economic disparity, all put together are enough to give sleepless nights to governments the world over.
Over the last two decades, extreme weather events have increased alarmingly, chiefly driven by rising temperatures. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in the period between 2000 and 2019, there were 7,348 major natural disasters around the world, killing 1.23 million people and resulting in $2.97 trillion in economic losses. In spite of this, in the global climate summit – COP27, member countries failed to commit to a plan to phase out the use of fossil fuels – this shows how intractable the problem is. While most political leaders have committed to limiting the carbon footprint, factors such as geopolitics, national interests, electoral politics, technology, and finance often hinder concrete action and real progress.
Integrating sustainability solutions remains a challenge
Meaningful progress on the sustainability front has eluded governments globally.
This is mostly because sustainability is viewed as a trade-off between conflicting goals and interests. We list the four conundrums plaguing the sustainability agenda today:
Developed versus developing nations: The developing nations (often referred to as the global south) have always maintained that the developed countries need to take responsibility for historical emissions. Given that, the developing countries expect to be adequately compensated in terms of concessions in the reduction of targets for emissions and/or funding.
Present versus future: We need to be mindful of the extent to which the present generation needs to organize their lifestyle and curtail consumption to ensure the well-being of future generations.
Profit versus sustainability: Many corporates treat sustainability programs as a cost burden on their balance sheets and seek ways to evade action or do just enough to meet the regulatory requirements.
Industrial development versus environmental protection: In almost every country, there are fierce ideological and political battles on this issue of environmental and ecological protection being at loggerheads with development projects including coal, oil, highways, and heavy industries.
These challenges persist because the issues of climate change and environmental protection are viewed narrowly, without enough emphasis on their impact on human well-being. There is now sufficient momentum in the public discourse globally with extreme weather events, droughts, air pollution, and water contamination being experienced in nearly every country leading to citizens, especially the younger generation, demanding action and change. The public sector should seize this moment and take decisive action before it is too late. If the last decade belonged to digitalization, sustainability will be the dominant theme for the coming one. And we believe the onus of driving the sustainability agenda lies with the public sector, with active citizen involvement as in any other major public policy intervention.
Leading the charge
Governments worldwide will need to take a more proactive approach to sustainability.
Since governments are responsible for making new policies, amending existing regulations as necessary, and embarking on national programs cutting across sectors, it is upon them to take a holistic view across levers such as coal mining, forest protection, environmental clearances, financial incentives, and public health and safety to accelerate the journey toward a sustainable future.
While the adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation are universal, the poor and underprivileged are often impacted the most, especially in the short term. Fisherfolk, small farmers, indigenous tribal populations are already seeing their livelihoods severely impacted by climate change. It thus becomes the primary responsibility of the governments to first protect the interests of these vulnerable segments who might otherwise have little chance to represent their case.
There is a huge potential for employment and economic growth in driving the sustainability agenda. Governments can create new industries as well as cross-disciplinary fields of science and research, which will attract substantial investment, in the process. For example, plant-based meat and dairy is gaining significant interest in response to the global trend toward veganism owing to rising awareness around the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector.
With the rising awareness around environment and climate change among the Gen Z population, green cities and countries are becoming an attractive destination for talent and investment. A World Economic Forum study in 2019 reported that a significant improvement of air quality in a city like Shanghai may lead to up to a $1 billion increase in FDI inflows yearly. Governments, especially state and local governments, should leverage the sustainability agenda to generate employment and attract new investment.
Even with the dominance of the private sector, governments and public sector bodies still control a significant part of the economy and are also some of the largest employers in the world and naturally contribute to considerable emissions and carbon footprint. This means that the public sector is well-positioned to make a significant impact directly on emissions by leading the transition to renewable energy and other ecofriendly initiatives.
A dedicated ministry to drive outcomes
Sustainability programs are mostly spread across multiple ministries, departments, and agencies.
And each department, naturally, pursues the goals pertaining to its defined agenda. But, given that the world is almost at the tipping point, it calls for dedicated and empowered political leadership to drive the sustainability agenda. Only a dedicated ministry at the same level of importance as defense or finance will have the authority and accountability to conceive and implement the big-ticket transformation needed at all levels and to forge appropriate global partnerships. This ministry and its constituent departments will need to play a nodal role as the issues at hand cut across sectors – health, water, forests, agriculture, environment, and energy, to name a few.
The Ministry of Sustainability and Environment, Singapore, is a great model for other nations to study and adapt to their specific needs. Figure 1 represents how the sustainability agenda should percolate from the central to the local levels of government, ultimately reaching every citizen.
At the apex level, the sustainability agenda will recognize the global context with respect to international commitments, carbon trading across countries and regions, geopolitical factors, international trade, reporting on the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), and the funding from international institutions. The agenda will define the policy and core principles for the country toward sustainable development covering all the core sectors – agriculture, mining, energy, forests, and health.
It must also comprise strategies to incentivize industries to invest in new technologies and operating models to abide by the regulations on emissions and environmental pollutions. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed by the US Senate in August 2022 is a great example to demonstrate commitment to climate change. The IRA is expected to release $369 billion of subsidies and tax credits toward initiatives such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, carbon capture, and hydrogen hubs. The state-level policies will be chalked out on the basis of the broad policy direction at the national level, with due consideration to the nature of the state’s economy and its geography. For example, the sustainability strategy of a coastal state with a predominant share of revenue from fishing will differ from that of a heavily industrialized state.
With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas, city-level sustainability policies have become critical, especially with respect to air pollution, clean water, waste treatment, urban poverty, and so on. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a whopping seven million deaths annually are due to exposure to outdoor and household air pollution and residents of cities bear the brunt of this pollution. While cities and urban clusters are great magnets for jobs, investments, and education, local leaders need to design and implement policies and initiatives to ensure the quality of life does not suffer with rapid urbanization. The Smart Cities Mission by the Government of India under its Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is a good example in this regard. It covers 100 cities in the country with the vision to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life by harnessing technology.
The role of technology is integral
To successfully drive a sustainability program, technology is an imperative.
We outline the technology strategy to drive a comprehensive sustainability agenda:
Data and reporting: Monitoring the progress in sustainability involves integrating information from several sources, standardizing definitions, and creating mechanisms to share data across organizations. Today there are several global bodies publishing data on sustainability, such as Planet.com, the greenhouse gases interactive dashboard, and the environmental performance index (EIP).
While global reports are useful to benchmark performance against other countries, individual countries, especially the lower ranked ones, often question the methodology and criteria and rarely accept the findings. Therefore, each country needs to develop its own methodology and mechanisms to assess its performance on the sustainability agenda that reflects its unique circumstances, priorities, and development pathways. For example, for an island nation in the Pacific, rising sea levels may be the most critical threat and will need a set of KPIs aligned to its sustainability action plan. On the other hand, for a predominantly agriculture-based economy, investing in crops resilient to climate change will be the top-most priority.
Leveraging big data technologies will enable assembling, storing, managing, and analyzing the information for scenario-based planning and what-if analysis, in addition to providing dashboards and reports.
Artificial intelligence: Governments and public sector departments could leverage AI platforms for a range of areas such as:
Forecasting the supply of solar energy based on weather patterns to reduce the emissions from fossil fuel-based energy sources
Managing logistics through intelligent supply and demand management to reduce emissions resulting from the transportation of goods
Developing new materials and processes for reducing greenhouse gases
Improving the accuracy climate-related prediction and supporting the development of early warning systems to avert or minimize damage
Digital platforms and apps: Digital platforms are being leveraged to manage and monitor carbon footprint levels so that decision-makers can take appropriate action. Digital apps such as MyEarth, Adva and Klima, which allow individuals to measure their carbon footprint and take pledges, are becoming increasingly popular. Some organizations are deploying blockchain-enabled platforms to enable carbon trading and attract investors to invest in climate-friendly projects.
There is however a flip side to all this –
The ICT sector has a considerable carbon footprint of its own. Based on several studies, it is estimated that ICT’s current share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is between 1.8% and 2.8% of global GHG emissions, which, with the acceleration adoption of technology both by organizations and individuals will only grow rapidly. A technology strategy for sustainability should consider the approaches of green IT or green computing to minimize the carbon footprint from IT systems and equipment.
Another point that merits concern is that technology can also result in inequality in societies, leading to a digital divide. It is estimated that almost half the world’s population, around 3.7 billion people, is still offline. Governments should collaborate with the private sector and academia to implement programs for equitable access to technology.
Realizing net zero
Sustainability ought to become the way of life for all of us; not just a point goal to be achieved.
It should reflect in lifestyle choices, purchase and consumption patterns, preferences for transport, housing, clothing, and so on. This will require:
Governments to make policy decisions with climate and environment ab-initio rather than as an afterthought
Corporates to deeply embed sustainability into their core business strategy and have it percolate from the board room to the shop floor
Schools, colleges, and universities to include sustainability as a core subject in their curriculum
A strong commitment to research and innovation by governments and industries
Doing this will offer immense employment potential for youth in emerging sustainable technologies and help create a more equitable world with better access to health, education, and livelihoods.
In every century, there are defining moments that` transform the core character of the society at large. Today, every nation is presented with such an opportunity to define their moment in history but taking a concerted action toward sustainability. This will not only enhance the well-being of citizens but also ensure the survival of humanity in harmony with the environment for times to come.