We see the word sustainability everywhere, but what does it really mean? Are bamboo socks important? Will electric cars save the world?
Many are asking what is sustainability and what are sustainable energy solutions.
The late 20th century marked a paradigm shift in environmental practices. Instead of treating environmental considerations as unavoidable costs of development and modernization, companies, governments, and individuals began to rethink their environmental initiatives strategically. Today, there is a growing awareness that fundamental transitions within societal sectors such as energy, transport, water, and food are required to cope with sustainability challenges that are both global and urgent.
In our line of work, we often get asked to explain the differences between various expressions and buzzwords used today as our clients navigate their sustainability challenges.
In this post, we'll explain key terms that we find helpful to discern between "greenwashing" and genuine efforts to communicate good sustainability practices.
We'll start by answering two popular questions regarding the main terms:
- What does sustainability mean?
- What does ESG mean?
Let's dive in.
Sustainability means maintaining development over time. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as "meeting the present needs of society without compromising the needs of future generations." It is a paradigm — a way of thinking — about an ideal future in which environmental, societal, and economic considerations are balanced and work in the function of improving the quality of life.
ESG is an acronym that represents environmental, social, and governance efforts. Environmental criteria include greenhouse gas emission reduction, energy use, and waste generation; social criteria refer to labor practices, diversity, and human rights, whereas governance efforts stand for anti-corruption, bribery, and diversity in broader terms. ESG requirements vary based on the company nature and size (public/private/big/ small) and the industries they are in. Increasingly, the ESG approach is considered a more quantifiable approach to measuring growth and profitability.
The main challenge with sustainability is strongly correlated with the preservation of the environment for future generations and living within our environmental limits. However, sustainability is not only related to environmental issues. It also encompasses social equity and economic development.
Sustainable development entails meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It seeks to balance different and often competing needs against the backdrop of a growing awareness of the environmental, social, and economic limitations we face as a society. While sustainability is a long-term goal, sustainable development refers to processes and pathways to achieve it, e.g., sustainable agriculture and forestry, sustainable production and consumption, and so on. Three main pillars of sustainability are people, planet and profits, known as the “triple bottom line” (TBL), or the 3Ps - referring to societal, economic and environmental development.
Sustainable Energy: Key Terms and Expressions
Achieving carbon neutrality requires removing as much carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions as it is produced – a much more ambitious goal than climate neutrality! The United States set the ambitious 2050 target date for achieving Carbon Neutrality. As such, carbon neutrality cannot solve climate problems, as it does not encompass all greenhouse gases, although it includes CO₂, which makes up about 80% of all greenhouse gases.
This involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and offsetting for any remaining emissions to achieve a net-zero emissions balance. It refers to reducing emissions from all greenhouse gases, not only CO₂. Any climate-neutral source does not contribute to climate change or global warming.
The green economy is one that results in improved human well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, according to the United Nations.
This type of growth is a hypothetical path of economic growth that is environmentally sustainable. It means growing the economy in an environmentally sustainable way by promoting growth and development while reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing waste and inefficient use of natural resources, maintaining biodiversity, and strengthening energy security.
The green transition is a set of measures to implement positive change in the economy which is environmentally sustainable. It refers to the time between now - when we realize that our way of life is unsustainable in the long term - and an imaginary point in the future when our activity will not endanger the planet's health.
According to IRENA, or the International Renewable Energy Agency, energy transition is a pathway toward the transformation of the global energy sector from fossil-based to zero-carbon by the second half of this century.
Often referred to as clean energy, renewable energy comes from sources or processes that are constantly and naturally replenished. These sources are not limited in duration, but they are limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time. The major types of renewable energy include wind, geothermal, biomass, wood waste, solid waste, landfill gas and biogas, hydropower, geothermal and nuclear energy.
Interested in more sustainability content?
In our upcoming posts, we will dig deeper into some of these and introduce new issues and challenges, especially regarding the energy transition.