Are sustainability and climate action the same thing?

12 Nov 2019

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Philip Smyth of Dublin's Science Gallery is an award winning scientist with over 15 years experience in designing, developing and delivering public engagement programs across Ireland. Here he asks what needs to be done immediately to safeguard the planet.

There isn't really a day that goes by where we don’t hear something mentioned about either how we can live more sustainably, how the climate is changing or that we need to do something about it.

The fact that we are bombarded with so much information tells us that these things are important, but the sheer volume of content can often leave us confused and unsure of what we should be doing. So is sustainable living the same as doing things to stop climate change?

To answer this we should start by understanding what sustainability is and what is climate action’s role in it.

The term sustainability was first introduced around 30 years ago in 1987 by the Brundtland Report to the United Nations. This said that "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

We have all seen signs in canteens that say "leave this place as you would expect to find it". The Brundtland definition of sustainability is basically saying just that. Anything that we do in terms of our development shouldn’t burden the following generations unnecessarily - ie don’t leave a mess behind you.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

The trouble is, people often only think of sustainability exclusively in an environmental capacity, whereas the report to UN was talking about development in all walks of life.

In truth, there are three areas of work that sustainable living depends on known as the 3 pillars of sustainability. They are environmental preservation, social equity and economic viability.

In other words we must protect our planet, treat people fairly and equally whilst allowing for the long-term production, trade and use of resources globally. Simple right? Well no, not really.

Sustainable lIving

Unfortunately, this planet, people and profit model for true sustainable development is at odds with how a lot of our world works.

National interests can tend to focus on one element in particular with only cursory nods to the others. To help countries do better the UN came up with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help make the world a better place.

These 17 goals contain 169 targets covering a broad range of sustainable development issues, including ending poverty, improving education and fighting climate change. Each one of these goals is a major challenge in itself and there are no easy solutions to any of them.

Climate action is number 13 on the list of SDGs so, even without knowing, we can guess that there is a definite link between sustainability and climate change.

By proxy, and because the two terms are often used interchangeably in the media, there is a common misunderstanding that they are either the same thing, or else that by working on solving one we are also working on solving the other.

"Reduce, recycle, reuse and refuse" is a mantra often quoted about how we can live more sustainably and do our bit for saving the planet.

However, generally we apply the 4 Rs to packaging and material items around the household or workplace. Whilst these actions are correct and collectively will make a difference, their impact on climate - and ultimately the fate of our planet - is small in comparison to the overall challenge of achieving sustainability.


Dr Eoin Flynn, Geraldine Carton and Taz Kelleher discuss sustainable fashion on 

It is now beyond doubt that the Earth’s ongoing heating is caused by greenhouse gases and the biggest sources of these are burning fossil fuels, increased livestock farming, fertilisers and fluorinated gases.

What is not obvious to individuals is what to do about it. For example, "refrigeration management" is possibly the most impactful thing we can collectively do immediately in terms of climate action. It is estimated that it could save us nearly 90 gigatons of CO2 by 2050.

Considering that according to the recent IPCC Special Report we likely have about 600 gigatonnes to play with to avoid breaching 1.5 degrees of warming, this is pretty significant.

It is closely followed by renewable energy options, more sustainable transport, more efficient home heating, reducing food waste and shifting to a plant based diet.

Based on this we need to look objectively and holistically at how we live and the products and options that we consume and think about what are the biggest impacts to climate change rather than just our waste footprint.

The reason for this is that climate action is the most pressing issue in terms of the UN SDGs. If we don’t solve number 13 Climate Action, then almost all of the other goals will prove to be unachievable.

The UN itself has stated that with the planet heating up fast, "worthy" development globals may not be the best focus of our effort. The pace at which climate change is happening means that we have to go after the big targets.

Saving the oceans from plastic is important but not as much as saving the islands and shorelines from rising sea levels. Consider that Indonesia is moving its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan due to sea level rise.

We must also think of how increasingly extreme weather events influenced by climate change will hamper and inhibit SDG actions and undermine our way of life.


Clodagh Daly and Dr Cara Augustenborg talk about Climate Case Ireland and Drivetime's John Cooke reports on environmental sustainability in rural Ireland.

While sustainability and climate change are not the same thing both are entwined with each other. As individuals, companies and nations we must approach how we live by primarily thinking about how it will affect climate change, but also how it will affect our environment, people and economy.

Climate action targeting the largest causes of greenhouse gas emissions is needed now and we may have to focus our limited resources on only climate-related efforts. If we don’t, the world future generations inherit will be increasingly hard to live in.

We must all actively change the way we consume and reuse everything in our lives from the smallest items to our biggest investments. In the same vein, we must also insist that as a nation we provide adequate means for our people to act. T

his means that we not only need to be correctly informed but also that we have the correct infrastructure in place. All positive actions are helping but a top to bottom approach is needed for this great challenge.

Source: RTE