Climate change and sustainable development are interconnected. Both of them impact society and the environment.
Climate change effects such as rising temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather events (droughts, flooding, storms) are becoming more frequent, resulting in significant losses, including loss of life.
Rapid urbanisation is also happening around the world. When this becomes uncontrolled and poorly planned, it leads to congestion, higher crime rates, pollution, increased levels of inequality and social exclusion.
The effects of climate change and urbanisation are intensifying calls for sustainability and sustainable systems. The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Today, when the term sustainability is used, it mostly means reducing the effects on the environment, but sustainability has a much wider application. An article by Michelle Farrell, Civil Contractors NZ Technical Manager, unpacks what sustainability means for the civil construction industry.
Farell defines sustainability as a system. “Sustainability can refer to anything: a business, a lifestyle block, a bank account, a country, or an industry. In other words, sustainability can have environmental, economic, social/human and cultural implications. We’re essentially talking about a system, and in this case, a sustainable system.”
In essence, Farrell defines the sustainability of the system based on the amount of its input versus its output and the resources used in the system (input) – whether it is sustainable or unsustainable, and this applies to any system, whether a bank account, a business, or even a country.
In the case of your bank account, it is sustainable when there is more good stuff left in the system or even increasing compared to what goes out, and it becomes unsustainable when the opposite happens – more goes out than what is coming in.
Another example is when the amount of input (resources) used generates the same or even more output, which means the system is sustainable. The opposite makes the system unsustainable – when the input increases but the yield is the same.
The type of energy the business uses also makes it sustainable or unsustainable. For instance, if a company uses coal, which is a depleting and non-renewable resource, the business can become unsustainable. But if it uses a renewable energy source such as wind or solar, it is a sustainable business.
Sustainability can also be applied to any country. A country has a sustainable system when it uses sustainable resources, either locally or internationally sourced, like fuel, immigrants, and money (borrowed) to keep the economy stable.
Disruptions like war, pandemics, or depletion of resources can make the system unsustainable because it could cut off supplies. When this happens, a country could gain back sustainability by reducing the amount of input (resources) to generate the same yield. Achieving this means that the country has to improve its efficiency by applying the concepts of reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Recycling is a way to make resources renewable. Farrell notes that implementing these concepts is “making sure all our eggs aren’t in one basket, so we have options if one resource becomes depleted or unavailable”.
Farrell also highlights the importance of having a sustainable workforce and skilled workers and professionals in the industry. If the industry loses more of them through emigration, retirement, and illness than it gains, it creates an unsustainable industry. “We need to make sure enough people are being trained up, and the work they’re doing is interesting and safe enough to keep them in the industry in order to sustain that industry.”
Governments also need to ensure the buildings are resilient and of good quality so they are not easily destroyed by hazards that need to be replaced too soon. When it comes to waste, we also need to reduce excessive waste that ends up in landfills, which is also an unsustainable practice.
The increasing impacts of climate change demand sustainable and resilient infrastructure. As economies grow, many residents also gain opportunities, prosperity, and well-being, but growth can have adverse effects such as pollution, environmental degradation and increased GHG emission, contributing to climate change.
According to the UN, urban areas contribute 70% of the global GHG emissions from poorly designed urban areas, lack of public transport, and massive energy consumption.
Sustainable infrastructure and cities are crucial to addressing the impacts of rapid urbanisation and population growth, as well as the increasing impacts of climate change.
Sustainable cities and infrastructure are what the UN envisioned under its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 9). Sustainable cities and infrastructure mean that all the processes, materials, financing, and systems used are sustainable and environmentally friendly from end to end.
As seen in rapidly growing cities, uncontrolled urbanisation can lead to congestion, higher crime rates, pollution, and increased levels of inequality and social exclusion.
Can old cities and infrastructure become sustainable?
In recognition of the rapid urbanisation globally, there has been an increased commitment to greening new building stock through design, technological innovation, incentives, accreditation, and regulation.
But how about those existing infrastructure and buildings that predate sustainability-focused changes in design and policies that most city dwellers rely on today? These can be retrofitted to become more sustainable and should go hand-in-hand with the need to construct better buildings and infrastructure.
The article “Building Sustainable Cities: Designing Urban Spaces for a Greener Tomorrow” explores how existing cities can become sustainable, and they can do this “by integrating green infrastructure, prioritising walkability and cycling, implementing smart energy management systems, embracing compact urban planning, enhancing public transportation, promoting green building practices, and engaging community participation.”
But retrofitting buildings alone won’t allow cities to meet their carbon reduction target by 2030 and aim to become carbon neutral by 2050, an MIT study says. The key to success is to decarbonise the surrounding grid.
For more reading, click the links in the “Sources” below.
Unpacking the buzzword – ‘sustainability’. (2023 July 1). Civil Contractors New Zealand. Retrieved from https://civilcontractors.co.nz/Unpacking-the-buzz-word–sustainability/10912-d13dc196-1035-4fb4-a758-fca2f06313fc/
CO2 emissions from buildings and construction hit new high, leaving sector off track to decarbonise by 2050: UN. (2022, November 9). UN Environment Programme. Retrieved from https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/co2-emissions-buildings-and-construction-hit-new-high-leaving-sector
Sustainable Infrastructure, a must in the fight against Climate Change. (2022, October 31). ESG Investing. Retrieved from https://esginvest.co/sustainable-infrastructure-a-must-in-the-fight-against-climate-change/
Trundle, A. (2021, June 15). Sustainable cities: greening the old alongside the new. SDG Action. Retrieved from https://sdg-action.org/sustainable-cities-greening-the-old-alongside-the-new/
Cyrus, B. (2023, May 17). Building Sustainable Cities: Designing Urban Spaces for a Greener Tomorrow. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/building-sustainable-cities-designing-urban-spaces-greener-bett-cyrus/