How to Save the Planet: What are the challenges in making the planet more sustainable?

  • We’ve made a little progress on six environment-focused SDGs, including improving access to clean water and sanitation and protecting marine ecosystems.
  • Significant work remains to save the planet, especially on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, investing in renewable energy and reversing biodiversity loss.
  • The COVID-19 response must include solutions to clean up the environment and make cities and infrastructure more sustainable and resilient.

January 2020 seemed like the start of a critically important year and decade for action on climate change. The year prior had been the second warmest on record, and temperatures were “on track to rise as much as 3.2°C by the end of the century,” according to the UN SDG Progress Report 2020. The Australian bushfires – which burned more than 11 million hectares of land and killed or displaced as many as 3 billion animals – were the latest in a long line of climate-related disasters around the world, and a wake-up call on the need for change. During the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January, government, business and civil society committed to take action on climate change and many other environmental challenges: plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, rising oceans and melting ice, to name just a few.

Then, COVID-19 hit, ushering in an all-hands-on-deck approach to stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus and its devastating impact on health and the economy.

But the pandemic has reminded us that environmental health is inextricably linked to human and animal health. Three out of four emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they’re transmitted from animals to humans – and rapid, widespread deforestation and urbanization as well as the illicit wildlife trade have helped them along. Handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (and other bacterial and viral diseases) but billions of people still don’t have access to safely managed water or sanitation. Furthermore, we’re seeing evidence that air pollution heightens the risk of the worst symptoms and death from COVID-19.

Building back better must include building a better, healthier planet. Solving environmental challenges must be an essential element of rebuilding economies and societies – ensuring the resiliency and sustainability of our infrastructure and ecosystems in the long term, and, hopefully, preventing another deadly pandemic.

Sustainable Development Goals to save the planet

All 17 SDGs touch in some way on environmental health and the long-term and widespread impacts of climate change. But when it comes to saving the planet, we’re specifically talking about these six:

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, including ensuring access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation, improving water quality and water-use efficiency and protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems.

SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, including ensuring access to affordable, reliable and modern energy and increasing the use of renewable energy.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, which covers access to adequate, safe, affordable and sustainable housing, transportation and public green spaces; inclusive and sustainable urbanization; protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage; reducing deaths and economic losses due to natural disasters; and reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities.

SDG 13: Climate Action, an urgent call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen resilience to climate change and natural disasters and support the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

SDG 14: Life Below Water, which targets marine pollution, ocean acidification and overfishing, calls for more sustainable management, protection and conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems.

SDG 15: Life on Land, including protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests and halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss.

How much progress has been made?

When it comes to the environment-focused goals, the UN SDG Progress Report 2020 reveals we’ve made a little progress – but an alarming amount of work still needs to be done.

More people worldwide have access to safe drinking water (71% of the population in 2017, up from 61% in 2000), sanitation (45% in 2017, up from 28% in 2000) and clean cooking fuels (63% in 2018). However, 785 million people lack basic drinking water, and while international financing for renewable energy is up, only 12% goes to LDCs, “which are the farthest behind” clean energy targets.

In the ocean, marine protected areas have more than doubled since 2010 and more countries are implementing laws to combat illegal fishing. Still, work remains. Things aren’t going as swimmingly on land, where land degradation continues to increase, and five biodiversity targets maturing in 2020 are “unlikely to be met by the deadline.”

And when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, we’re “way off track,” continues the progress report: “Global greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries and economies in transition have declined by 6.5 percent over the period 2000–2018. Meanwhile, the emissions of developing countries are up by 43.2 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rise is largely attributable to increased industrialization and enhanced economic output measured in terms of GDP.”

COVID-19 makes all of these targets more urgent. In 2017, 3 billion people worldwide did not have the ability to wash their hands with water and soap at home ­– one of the most important methods of reducing the spread of the virus. Urban areas got more crowded between 1990-2015, but health and sanitation facilities did not necessarily improve in the same period. Reliable, affordable energy is essential to keep healthcare facilities running and allow people to work and go to school remotely. And we can’t forget the health impacts: studies have found links between air pollution and risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19.

What are the World Economic Forum and its partners doing to create a sustainable planet?

  • Driven by 13 of the largest players in the energy industry representing one-fifth of global oil and gas production, the Forum’s Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) is accelerating action on climate change. OGCI Climate Investments will invest $1 billion over the next decade on technologies to reduce emissions and develop public-private partnerships.
  • The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) brings together government, business and civil society to create action roadmaps to tackle plastic pollution, and match high-potential solutions with financial resources.
  • Forum initiatives like the Global Water Initiative and Alliance for Clean Air are bringing together stakeholders to share best practices and forge public-private partnerships to drive cleaner water and cleaner air, respectively.
  • Financing the Transition to a Net-Zero Future coordinates businesses and the financial sector to support carbon-neutral financing opportunities. Phase I commenced in April and will conclude 30 June 2021.

What can I do to save the planet?

  • Whenever possible, take action to minimize my impact on the environment: install water-saving devices or source renewable energy in my home or business; walk, cycle or take public transportation; recycle or re-sell unwanted items, and consider purchasing second-hand instead of new; choose locally or responsibly sourced food, especially fish.
  • Properly recycle or dispose of waste, especially hazardous chemicals or packaging.
  • Support businesses committed to the transparency of their product lifecycles.
  • Encourage my company to adopt environmental stewardship practices, both at the company level and by participating in applicable partnerships or coalitions.
  • Encourage my national and local officials to prioritize reducing emissions and cleaning up the land, sea and air.

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