What is a Sustainable Economy? Why Do We Need it?

Take a look at this definition by the WWF,

“A sustainable economy is resilient and provides a good quality of life for everybody. It stays within the limits of the planet and helps keep global warming within the well below 2°C thresholds.”

Those in bold are the keywords we must take into consideration when discussing sustainability. But the questions to ask here are, are we chasing that quality of life? And, do our demands lie within the limits of our planet? 

Considering the current state of our planet, the answers to the above questions can be disappointing. Since industrialization, we have followed the suit of what’s called the “Brown economy.” To put it simply – Linear economy.

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For too long, we have been living in a world where our GDP is mostly driven by an economy heavy on our planet. In the race to identify ourselves as “developed, ” we have unsustainably exploited our resources. And so, it is not surprising that we are well on our way to the 6th mass extinction. Eco-anxiety surely kicks in here. And after much contemplation, it’s hard not to wonder, “what can be done differently?”

While making our lifestyle eco-friendly is indispensable today, our world needs more than individual actions. And thus, striving for a Sustainable Economy can be the solution here. For this, the “business-as-usual” or the Linear economy approach has to be revoked.

The sooner we replace the Brown economy with the ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ ones, the sooner we will achieve a sustainable future. Let’s learn what these two sustainable economies are. 

A glossary to keep it simple:

1. The Green Economy

Coined in 1989, this model is the exact opposite of the brown economy. Here, economic, social, and environmental development is in harmony with one another.

“In a green economy, growth in employment and income is driven by public and private investment into such economic activities, infrastructure and assets that allow reduced carbon emissions and pollution, enhanced energy and resource efficiency, and prevention of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

In this approach, there is sustainable consumption and production. There is circularity. In place of fossils, it is the renewables that drive energy. Society is inclusive, fair, and no one is left behind. Solutions are based on science. It is a state where our natural resources not only survive but also thrive and provide.

There are 5 principles put forth by a synergy of noble organizations to achieve this. They are as follows:

The Well-being Principle

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Prioritizing human well-being, health, and development will be significant in a sustainable economy. This will require us to think beyond the monetary gains. It’ll be about ensuring health, happiness, education, and progress are shared on a communal level. 

The Justice Principle

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A green economy must build a resilient society that celebrates inclusivity, equity, equality, social justice, and human rights. Here, the issues of citizens, especially those marginalized/ minoritized, are not only heard but also resolved in a fair and just manner. It strengthens the rights of workers, indigenous people, meanwhile strengthening the right to sustainable development. No one is left behind. 

The Planetary Boundaries Principle

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The functional, cultural, and ecological values of our natural world are recognized and nurtured. A green economy encourages development while safeguarding the biodiversity of the planet. Sustainability efforts are made by innovations and investments in the restoration of our natural systems. 

The Efficiency and Sufficiency Principle

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A sustainable green economy promotes SCP so that global demands are well within planetary boundaries. Goods and services are low on carbon and based on circularity. It provides for the basic upkeeping of human well-being and also addresses overconsumption trends.

It aligns prices, subsidies, and incentives with true costs to society, through mechanisms where the ‘polluter pays’ and/or where benefits accrue to those who deliver inclusive green outcomes.”

The Good Governance Principle

the-good-governance-principle-green-economy-sustainable-economySustainable Development seeks a resilient, transparent, integrated, and accountable governing institution. Good governance calls for leadership that acknowledges public participation and consent. Decision-making serves societal interests and shared communal well-being. It builds an inclusive and diverse economy that is science-based and ecologically sound.

These interconnected principles provide a holistic vision for going about the green economy that ensures the prosperity of both lives on land and in the water.

2. The Blue Economy - an Extension of the Green Economy

Set in motion by but not limited to the SIDS, it is the economy powered by our oceans. The sustainable and ethical management of our oceanic resources underpins the Blue economy. It goes way beyond the perception of assuming the oceans as a free resource where there’s no reimbursement on exploitation. It is about acknowledging and not undervaluing the economic contribution of the oceans to humankind.

Source: The Blue Economy Concept Paper
The Blue economy includes the mindful procurement of seafood, safe marine transportation, coastal and off-shore tourism, biotechnology, sustainable extraction of oils and minerals, bio-prospecting, sustainable energy production, and overall ocean conservation. In this approach, socio-economic development does not come at the cost of our invaluable oceans. 

General Significance:

  • It is estimated that about 3 billion people are dependent on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5% of global GDP.
  • The islands and coastal communities rely largely on maritime activities for their economy. Ocean provides them with financial as well as direct and indirect food security. This is crucial to learn because about 87% of global fish stocks are now fully or overexploited! Overfishing is particularly bad in parts of the developing world, where many people already struggle to get enough nutritious food to eat.
  • In the least developed countries, almost 50% of the population depends on fisheries as their primary source of protein. Not to mention employment. This makes investing in sustainable aquaculture and marine science to predict ocean productivity critical. 
  • Tourism is another sector which unless there’s a pandemic, will only continue to grow. In less developed and small island countries, coastal and ocean-related tourism continues to be a vital part of the national economy.
  • On average, the tourism sector accounts for almost 30% of the GDP of the SIDS, according to WTTC data. This share is over 50% for the Maldives, Seychelles, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Grenada. 
  • Offering sustainable tourism/ ecotourism can promote environment conservation on land as well as in water. This helps generate employment opportunities for the locals and also in preserving their cultural heritage. 

Environmental and Ecological Significance:

  • The Blue Economy complies with the 14th SDG: Life Below Water, and rightly so. If we are to stand a chance against climate change, the oceans are our biggest ally. 
  • Oceans absorb more than 20% of annual CO2 emissions and 90% of excess heat. They are responsible for the global climate and weather patterns. For the air we breathe and much of the food the world feasts.
  • Unfortunately, anthropogenic emissions, climate change, and waste debris are messing with marine biodiversity. Causing ocean acidification, stratification, reduced nutrient mixing, marine heatwaves, etc., to accelerate altogether. 
  • ‘Blue carbon’ sinks like mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and other vegetated ocean habitats sequester carbon up to 5 times as effective as tropical forests.
  • More than 25% of all marine life find their homes in the coral reefs. These corals not only look after the marine species but also the species on land. The corals and the blue carbon ecosystems act as natural barriers against coastal erosion, strong ocean currents, storms, hurricanes, and other cyclones. 
  • Another “green” significance of an ocean is its ability to provide multiple sources of renewable energy. We can harness wind, wave, tidal, ocean current, salinity, etc., into reliable sources of energy production. Of course, mindful deployment of systems is a must here to ensure less to zero environmental distress. 
  • If done right, oceans can generate about 20,000 terawatts to 80,000 terawatts of electricity; this is 100 to 400% of the current energy demand globally. 

How we manage our ocean and its resources determines our future. Reshaping the ocean economy whilst taking care of marine health is going to be significant.

What we need is stringent ocean governance within and beyond areas of national jurisdiction. Regulations on waste, emissions, resource use, IUU fishery, and other maritime activities must be in place. 

Oceans have great potential in helping us meet the SDGs. However, it is only possible if we manage to restore them to a healthy state. This could be why the UN has declared 2021-2030 as a “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.” 

Finally, coming back to the main question,

How can we achieve a Sustainable Economy?

The solution to this question may look flawless on paper but its execution is going to be difficult. While we construct resilient sustainable economies, it is necessary to ensure that the transition happens in a just manner. This means addressing the pre-existing injustices as well as the injustices that might occur with the transition.

A just transition takes care of the workers who will be laid off once conventional systems change. Local communities will see the consequences of transition firsthand. Therefore, growth should be community-oriented where their concerns are heard and acknowledged.

Intersectional knowledge, education, participation of the public – mainly the youth has great potential in influencing policy-making.

Moreover, bringing about sustainability in both socio-economic and ecological fronts will require feminism. Closing the gender gap by including women every step of the way will potentially speed up development.

A sustainable economy recognizes poverty, social injustices, environmental crises, overconsumption, etc., and works to rise above these issues. A strong collaboration of institutions that guarantees planet and people over profit will play a definitive role.

Having said that, individual participation in influencing decision-making to push for a greater change remains pivotal. Everyone has a role to play. 

Achieving a sustainable economy will be difficult. However, it is not impossible. 

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