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Sustainable Development: Why should we care? – Prof. Maria Attard

2 Aug 2019 12:00 | Anonymous
The Accountant – Sustainability. Summer 2019 (MIA Publication)
The term sustainable development evokes thoughts of environmental protection: saving, somehow, the natural world. For many years this idea of sustainable development meant that only those working in the field of environment were responsible. The focus started shifting a little bit at the end of the last century towards economies and societies and how they contributed to (their) sustainability and how they could, in doing so, grow whilst limiting the impact on the one earth which we inhabit.
But still, many struggle to understand the basic principles of sustainability. What is it? Why is it important? And why is it necessary? We start with definitions. The most popular definition of sustainable development comes from the 1987 Brundtland Commission and the subsequent book entitled Our Common Future. The definition specifies how:
“Sustainable Development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The focus on needs comes primarily from the fact that sustainability is about the principle of equity. The needs of the current generation must be fulfilled equally for all (hence reducing poverty and ensuring fair access to resources), but what we enjoy today should also be available to those of the future. A simple example of this relates to some basic resources which we all use and enjoy, like air and water.


Air is a common good and a resource which we all share. However, due to unsustainable practices access to good air is not equal for all. Some are forced to live where the levels of air quality are low and their exposure to pollution related diseases are higher. Access to clean water is another example, with many in the developing world suffering because of unsustainable water management practices. Malta is a semi-arid country and as projections for a warmer earth increase, we could see the island moving towards arid and desert conditions. What provisions are being taken to meet today’s water needs and ensure a sustainable source of clean water for future island dwellers?
These examples are not only environmental challenges because of their “association” with the environment. They involve individuals’ behaviours, industry stakeholders’ behaviour and subsequently our economy, environment and society. It is, therefore, wrong to ignore the situation as if it were someone else’s problem. We need to think about the fact that we drive our cars without asking ourselves whether we need to take the trip or whether we can walk to our destination, or use precious water resources without any care for its protection or reuse. Companies have a responsibility to ensure their burden on such matters are lessened. Effective energy and water management within buildings, the reduction in waste generation and its efficient treatment, the efforts to reduce their burden on air and noise pollution through effective transport management of their business and staff: these are just a few of the goals which we all should share within our society.
Sustainability is not just rhetoric which is used by environmentalists and sometimes by politicians to look “green”. It is a principle which should drive all our decisions within our everyday lives, in our homes, at work, and in our businesses. It is a very simple principle of not wasting, reducing, managing effectively anything which has an impact. It might be difficult and complex to appreciate the impact of every single action that people and businesses have. We know that because Malta has been struggling with efforts of waste recycling, for example. Although simple in principle which, it has been difficult to implement in practice. Asking people to reduce their consumption is also not easy. Voluntary measures unfortunately hardly ever work because many times people do not fully understand the principle of sustainability and how far-reaching it is in our daily lives. Unfortunately, consumerism has made it too cheap and easy to use objects a single time and dispose of them afterwards. But at what cost? 
The world’s population is nearing 8 billion. This translates into 8 billion pieces of single use items every day, thrown out. The need to manage that is critical. The use of the private car for personal mobility is a similar case. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective, not everyone has the same level of access to motorized transport in the world. Those who have a higher level of access, pollute the most. And remember that Malta is one of those states!
All these impacts come at a cost. A cost to the economy that needs to manage waste, more expensive water provision through reverse osmosis (in our case), and the management of car traffic as demand increases among other things. Finally, the ultimate price is our health and well-being. Urban populations will be negatively affected by unsustainable practices, with those most disadvantaged carrying the heaviest burden since they cannot afford to buy the better products, have access to the best medical treatments, or move to cleaner living locations when pollution and waste become unbearable.
Local studies have already estimated the costs of unsustainable practices in some sectors. External costs related to air pollution, climate change adaptation, accidents, noise and congestion coming from the use of commercial and private vehicles were estimated at €274 million in 2012 . These were estimated to increase to €317 million by 2020 – a conservative estimate considering that the booming economy in the last few years has changed the patterns of consumption, which means that the costs are probably much higher than originally predicted. Other studies in health have estimated that 576 people die prematurely each year in Malta from pollution-related diseases . This environmental impact has further repercussions on the economy and on our society.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an excellent guiding framework to assess the way in which our society and economy are growing. We need to shift our mindset and think of well-being as a fairer and more equitable indicator of “growth” rather than a simple increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). If we use well-being as our yardstick, and we apply the SDGs to our everyday life decisions at home and at work, then each one can consider themselves as active contributors to sustainable development. Just like individual households, industry has a responsibility towards sustainability. This can range from simple individual measures to Corporate Social Responsibility obligations, but in the end all serve the same purpose: ensuring a more equitable and fair world for us and others, and those that will come after us.

Professor Maria Attard is the Director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta. She specialises in urban transport, planning and policy
               
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