Interconnectivity and Complexity — widening the scope of sustainability

Nowadays, we hear about SUSTAINABILITY everywhere, everyday, on every news headline. But how do we define the scope of sustainability? After listening to the sustainability summit , I suggest that a crucial component of the definition would be ‘interconnectivity’.

In its essence, sustainability concerns the interaction between “us” and “the environment”, and the characteristics of ‘interconnectivity’ are embedded in both of them.

What defines the “the environment”?

When talking about sustainability and climate change, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Carbon Emission.

In recent years, elites around the globe have come to realize that climate change is an urgent issue that we need to address and take actions against it immediately. We have seen extensive effort in reducing carbon emission. For instance, earlier this year the UK became the first major economy to pass net zero emission law and to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2020, which means committing to reduce their net greenhouse gas emission by 80% of their 1990 levels.

Indeed, carbon emission is the most well known source of pollution that contributes to climate change, however, I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has also put spotlights on other issues that we have previously overlooked.

“The link between COVID-19 and man-made climate change was made plain by the UN chief, who noted that the continued encroachment of people and livestock into animal habitats, risks exposing us to more deadly diseases.”

We have to recognize the fact that animals, health, and the ecological environment are all connected. Thus when thinking about climate change and sustainability, each component of the environment should be taken into consideration.

What defines “us”?

Who are the parties responsible for promoting sustainability?

Regulators? NGOs? Businesses?

In fact, everyone ranging from policy makers, to academics, to individual households, all need to commit and participate in order to drive for a more sustainable future. Societal engagement and consensus needs to be reached, effort from a single party is insufficient to make concrete and long lasting changes. Think about government regulations putting higher carbon tax: If businesses don’t realize the underlying environmental risk to their business and doesn’t want to sacrifice their cost competitiveness, there’s hundreds and thousands of ways they could come up with to avoid these tax liabilities. From another perspective, if consumers are reluctant and resist to adopt a sustainable lifestyle or change their consumption pattern, businesses would not have the incentive to implement sustainable business practices.

So what we need is a paradigm shift, a mutually beneficial agreement between various parties in the society to push forward for a better, more sustainable future.

Biodiversity — A rising concern

One aspect that has attracted more attention recently is biodiversity, and it perfectly illustrated the fact that animals are an essential part of sustainability that we have to put more effort in preserving. Taking Hong Kong as a special case, the biggest challenge for its biodiversity commitment is illegal trading of vulnerable and endangered species. Smuggling of animals is prevalent and was done in an extremely cruel way. In January 2018, 658 turtles were seized by HK customs at HK airport, cruelly packed in traffickers’ check in luggage, with an estimated value of USD 64000. Being a gateway to mainland China, the level of legislation effort it needs is much more demanding, and unfortunately, Hong Kong government did not take an active and efficient approach. There is a lack of enforcement of current law due to volume of trade, lax licensing and low sentences. Illegal breeding is yet another problem that needs to be taken care of. The license for holding of endangered species is distributed based on the number of animals held. Thus there exist opportunities for illegally breeding them and trading them, while still being able to keep the number of holdings unchanged. The problem of wildlife crime is not only significant in Hong Kong, the WWF reported that Rhino poaching in South Africa increased from 13 to 1,004 between 2007 and 2013, by a staggering 7,700%. Indeed, governance is extremely important in combating such biodiversity threats. Nevertheless I do think we also have to take a step back and think back to ‘interconnectivity’. The motivation of smuggling of endangered species is financial reward, and if there is not enough awareness of the long term consequences and the deadly effect of loss in biodiversity on the ecosystem, wildlife crime is likely to remain as an extremely difficult issue for governments to tackle.

How can we invert the downward spiral? — lesson from Finland

Finland’s approach is a successful model: clear structure of governance and strong commitment from its whole society has helped it to become a leading country in promoting biodiversity, forest protection and much more. In 2014, Finland negotiated the Society’s Commitment to sustainable development in the multi-stakeholder National Commission on Sustainable Development. Its implementation allows any individual, businesses, to participate in progression towards the 2030 Agenda with concrete action.

In Finland’s Voluntary National Review 2020, it is stated that “Finland’s long tradition of participatory mechanisms and shared ownership has evolved over the years. The National Commission on Sustainable Development continues to provide a platform for the Government and a broad range of stakeholders to jointly advance sustainable development in the Finnish society.”

The engagement of youth was further promoted by increasing effort on the education aspect. Private sector contribution was also encouraged by various supporting measures. A special aspect of Finland’s journey towards sustainability is its forest conservation practices. The community in Finland has a strong personal relationship with forest. Everyone has some interest with forest preservation, and it is only through this ‘interconnectivity’ that have driven Finland to put extensive effort in balancing the sustainability and utilization of forests through certification, nature management of commercial forests and conservation. Strong government commitment is a crucial component, by taking the lead to engage and ensure communication between multiple stakeholders, its sustainability progress has accelerated beyond its initial objective. The Government is also preparing a long-term national roadmap for increasing Finland’s Official Development Aid to 0,7% of GNI.

What we can learn from Finland? Finland’s success have shown us that an active role taken by the government to constantly evaluate sustainability policies, and society wide commitments are determining factors for progression towards sustainable development.

Concluding Remark

COVID-19 has taught us a painful lesson, but despite all challenges we are facing, on the bright side, this has raised more public awareness of the interconnectivity between health, animals and the environment. By taking a more comprehensive and structured approach towards promoting sustainability, I believe that we will see greater synthesis between “us” and the “environment” in the foreseeable future.

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