2022 is a historic milestone for environmental sustainability, as it marks 50 years since the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Seen as the first international meeting on the environment, we saw a host of new global agreements enacted to collectively protect our planet.
However, during this half a century of rapid industrialisation, our extraction of natural resources has grown to such a scale that we are now using the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to maintain our current way of life, and ecosystems cannot keep up with our demands.
As a result, our Earth is currently facing a triple planetary crisis: climate disruption, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), there is now a 50:50 chance we will temporarily exceed 1.5ºC above the pre-industrial era over the next five years.
This fact makes this World Environment Day especially poignant, calling us to reflect on how there is “Only One Earth”. To preserve our planet, we need to recognise that production and consumption are not only key aspects of human life and intimately linked to our economic activity, they also have major environmental impacts, calling for our collective attention and action.
Investing more towards using less
Today, we are unfortunately already witnessing climate disruption and a large biodiversity loss, a result from our staggering consumption of natural resources.
And yet, with the global population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, global consumption will only continue to increase if we do not rethink our approach and learn to live with less. By reconfiguring our key systems – water, energy, and food – we can drastically prevent and even reverse the worst impact of Earth’s environmental decline.
One way for us to achieve this is by implementing sustainable solutions that are resource efficient at every level. While this is not something new to the sustainability movement, its momentum is very much lacking. The gap between what needs to be spent to adapt and what we are actually spending is widening. Estimated costs of adaptation continue to rise and could reach US$280-500 billion per year by 2050 for developing countries alone.
It is important for us – governments, businesses, and individuals – to think long-term and invest in the global transition to a more sustainable future, by committing our resources to replace solutions that power our everyday lives with sustainable ones.
Water needs to be at the forefront of saving emissions
Notably, water has been called the most crucial link in climate action, and also the most ignored. I recently spoke at a panel at this year’s World Economic Forum, where I was able to highlight how water plays an important, interconnected role across key economic, social, and environmental agendas.
Water is everywhere, playing an important role in the functioning of our industries, municipalities, and buildings. If we overlook and omit water in our strategies, we risk derailing our efforts on climate and decarbonisation of industry sectors. For example, with the e-mobility sector, the extraction of rare earth minerals – lithium – requires many litres of water and are often placed in water scarce areas such as China or Peru. Additionally, the sheer volume of water being moved and treated every day leads to greater energy consumption, consequently contributing to climate change.
There are ways to address this. For example, new technology featuring data analytics and sensors enables water systems to be intuitively adjusted based on current demand, reducing unnecessary energy use and reducing risks of water being wasted. Utilities globally are already doing this, by working closely with water solutions providers to explore different ways to integrate intelligence into their systems, such as cloud-based platforms into existing water technology.
And this doesn’t have to stop at the municipal level – our renewed relationship with water can start right at home. As homeowners we can adapt our consumption rate for the better through digitalisation and data, keeping an eye on our water usage and responding with ‘water-wise’ behaviour, such as employing smart water meters, rainfall shutoff devices, and low-flow showers.
Striving for circularity
Beyond addressing our carbon footprint by being a water steward, tackling our vast use of resources is equally important. As manufacturers, we have all the responsibility to strive for circularity and promote reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling, notably through recycling and reuse initiatives and implementing takeback programmes. It is also crucial that industries ensure wastewater is effectively treated to a quality that makes it possible to feed back into our water cycles.
However, to establish best practices and compliance towards a sustainable supply chain, industry collaboration is key. Notably, as demand for rare earth metals is projected to reach 315,000 tonnes by 2030, the global Rare Earth Industry Association (REIA) launched a three-year project with organisations including Grundfos, with the aim of using blockchain to help companies improve transparency and sustainability of their supply chains when it comes to critical and rare earth materials.
By combining expertise and knowledge across industries and academia, we can accomplish much more in advancing our supply chains towards our sustainable ambitions.
Planning for the next 50 years
So, what’s to come in the next 50 years and beyond? Without major action to mitigate climate change, a third of the world’s population could live in a climate similar to the Sahara in just 50 years.
Fifty years ago, the world’s first environmental movement was sparked in the form of the Stockholm Conference, and we have seen the power of what we can achieve through collective action. By working towards a common goal, we can achieve monumental change, and we have seen sustainability as a movement gain tremendous traction. However, we need to do more, and at a faster rate.
This World Environment Day, let us continue to march together, and with each conscious step towards our sustainability goals let us remember we only have one chance, and only one Earth.
 UNEP. Becoming #GenerationRestoration: Ecosystem Restoration for People, Nature and Climate.
 The State of the Global Climate 2021.
 UNEP (2021). Adaptation Gap Report 2021.
 The Conversation (2021). Demand for rare-earth metals is skyrocketing, so we’re creating a safer, cleaner way to recover them from old phones and laptops.
 Natural Resources Defense Council (2020). By 2070, More Than 3 billion People May Live Outside the “Human Climate Niche”.