July 16, 2019

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U.S. Sustainability Efforts: Modest Progress but an Increasingly Distant Goal

Business and government have made important strides, but the needs have so far outstripped accomplishments.


By John C. Dernbach

Imagine you’re driving to a city that is 200 miles away. After you have driven toward that city for several hours, you see a sign that should indicate you have less than 100 miles to go. Instead, it reveals your destination is 320 miles away.

However much this story line sounds like grist for a Twilight Zone episode, it captures two basic realities of the U.S. journey toward sustainability: 1) we’re making an effort, but 2) the destination keeps getting farther away. 

This conclusion is based on the evaluation of 52 experts in a variety of sustainability fields who contributed to a recent book, Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability. This is the third book in a project I lead that systematically evaluates U.S. sustainability efforts and makes recommendations for future actions. It is the only program of its kind for the United States. 

Environmental Laws: Basic Level of Protection

Let’s look first at the U.S. effort.

It begins with our environmental laws, which provide a basic level of protection for our environment and natural resources. The Clean Air Act focuses on six relatively common pollutants (such as sulfur Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Sustainabilitydioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides) that damage human health and the natural environment. 

Emissions of those pollutants declined 59 percent between 1995 and 2010, even as U.S. Gross Domestic Product grew 65 percent. While our environmental laws have been the subject of bitter partisan wrangling, they continue to improve public health and environmental quality while our economy grows.

Sustainability In The Built Environment And Transit

Another encouraging development is a shift toward sustainability in our built environment — homes, neighborhoods, and cities, as well as infrastructure such as transportation, water, and energy systems. Much of this activity is centered on two relatively new issues — green building [e.g., U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program] and brownfield redevelopment (cleaning up contaminated sites and constructing new buildings on them). 

In addition, mass transit use is growing and vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient. The smart growth movement has encouraged use of unoccupied parts of a municipality’s footprint, reducing the environmental impact of development and saving money that would otherwise be spent on new sewer and water systems as well as roads and highway construction.

Business, Government Improve Sustainability

More and more businesses are also pursuing sustainability.

In 2012, the MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Group surveyed nearly 3,000 business executives on sustainability. Nearly 70 percent of their companies report that sustainability is solidly and permanently on the management agenda, and 31 percent see increased profitability from the pursuit of sustainability.

In governance, more and more cities are improving quality of life for their residents by combining economic development, livable neighborhoods, and environmental quality. States have been increasing their use of renewable energy and energy efficiency through a variety of laws and policies. US Green Building CouncilAnd a 2009 directive from President Barack Obama means that federal agencies are all working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and energy use. 

At the international level, the U.S. has reduced the amount of aid it provides to developing countries for environmentally damaging projects such as clearcutting and highway building from $5 billion per year to $1 billion per year.  The U.S. has also entered a growing number of bilateral trade agreements that include environmental protections.

Sustainability Goal Still Elusive As Climate Heats Up

As encouraging as these improvements may be, almost none of them represent the norm.

Green building may be at the cutting edge, but it represents only a small fraction of new construction. Less than a third of businesses link their sustainability activities to profitability, which raises questions about how long and how serious these commitments will be. Direct U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 10.5 percent between 1990 and 2010, while those in the European Union declined. So our efforts, on balance, are modest at best. 

That leads to the second conclusion of the evaluation: After two decades of mostly unsustainable development, we are farther away from sustainability now than ever.  

This increasing distance to sustainability is perhaps most especially true of climate change. 

In the last two decades, the science has become much more certain. The first global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was issued in 1990, reported little observational evidence of human influence on climate. The fourth and most recent assessment, in 2007, said it is very likely (90-99 percent probability) that observed temperature increases are due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions

We are also experiencing the beginnings of significant climate change. Increased greenhouse gas climate changeconcentrations are almost certainly causing or contributing to melting glaciers, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, severe droughts, and severe storms. 

The U.S. has, at least in recent years, begun to address this issue seriously. More restrictive fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and trucks are one example of this increased effort. But comprehensive climate change legislation failed in 2009 and 2010, and the Republican controlled House of Representatives now contains a large number of members who deny the basic science of climate change.  

So as the reality and severity of climate change becomes clearer, we appear to be less politically capable of addressing this issue than ever. 

Sustainability Already Has Built Considerable Capacity

As daunting as this sounds, one reason to be hopeful is that much recent progress is in demonstrated capacity, know-how, and methods for sustainability. Over the next decade or longer, the deployment of these methods could accelerate very rapidly. If so, we will say in retrospect that the first two decades provided a foundation that, when finally completed, helped close the distance to a sustainable destination.

Another reason to be hopeful is that the U.S. has not yet been fully engaged in the sustainability effort, has not seen both public and private sectors working together intensively for sustainability, and has not had a broad movement of citizens working for sustainability in their own lives and communities and demanding more-sustainable goods, services, and governmental actions.

If we made a full-bore commitment of our considerable talents and resources to addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of sustainability, we could also say in retrospect that the work of the first two decades was only a sample of what would come later.   

To accelerate these efforts, though, we need to first understand why we have made any progress at all. What are the patterns on which we can build?

Part 1: As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating Progress Toward Sustainability

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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