Environmental Sustainability Research Paper Starter

Environmental Sustainability

(Research Starters)

Environmental sustainability is a concept that is growing, in part because of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) which established building criteria for environmentally sustainable development. Through USGBC, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) offers certification levels for green construction. Many schools and businesses are turning to LEED® for project specifications as the added costs of using recycled materials and adhering to LEED® specifications is returned within only a few years of operation. The United Nations signed an agreement in 2005 to reduce the use of greenhouse gases by the year 2012. Many countries already have reduction efforts in place. In most instances, environmental sustainability is the reduction of carbon footprints.

Environmental sustainability is an issue that is not restricted to researchers and conservationists. Urban development is as common to see in the United States as the sun rising each morning. Yet, as one more house is built and one more mall is constructed, animals and vegetation are pushed from their native habitats. It is possible that soon there will be nowhere left for them to go. And, while some companies are creating products in recycled containers and public buildings are finding ways to utilize the sun rather than electric lighting, so much more can be done to conserve the world's resources. Putting conservation into perspective is a difficult task because people view the concept differently. To some, conservation means to recycle; to others, it means to drive a hybrid vehicle. Others, still, live in simple homes without power or running water.

Dr. Ken Adams, professor in the Center for Earth and Environmental Science department at Plattsburgh State University, defines environmental sustainability from the perspective of someone who has devoted decades to studying the steady and irreversible loss of the environment:

Many new buildings are created using sustainable practices. However, buildings still consume much of America's resources. According to the nonprofit United States Green Building Council (USGBC), almost three-quarters of the electricity used in America travels through buildings. Buildings were also using 39% of the country's energy and carbon dioxide by 2008 as well as sending 136 million tons of waste (per year) out their doors. In addition, buildings were using 40% of the raw materials and 12% of the potable water available to the entire country (USGBC, 2008a). According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2012, the United States consumed nearly 40% of the total US energy consumption in residential and commercial buildings (EIA, 2013). The substantial utilization of resources by buildings (their construction, function, and maintenance) led USGBC to create the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®), which comprises a construction rating system to "guide and distinguish high-performance commercial and institutional projects" in environmentally sustainable ways (LEED® for New Construction). One way LEED® has made an impact is through its building certification process.

Stability of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems depends on the ecological interactions between large numbers of plant and animal species. Early in the twenty-first century, however, most of our planet's ecological productivity is used to support human populations. Consumption of the world's biological support systems by one species threatens the health and integrity of all species, including humans … Renewable resources are not infinite; they are replenished at some finite rate. Sustainable development, then, means that a society's usage of energy and materials must not exceed nature's production rate of these renewable resources … The success of new initiatives for the sustainable use of natural resources requires that management plans are ecologically possible, economically feasible, and socially acceptable (Adams, personal communication, October 4, 2008).

The Carbon Footprint

One of the ways to determine whether or not sustainability is an issue in a household, business, school, or corporation is to determine the carbon footprints people within the buildings are leaving based on their daily activities. In the simplest terms, a carbon footprint is a measurement of human activity on the environment: "It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation, etc. … [And] is made up of the sum of two parts, the primary footprint (shown by the green slices of the pie chart [below]) and the secondary footprint (shown as the yellow slices)" (What is a Carbon Footprint?, 2008)

A primary footprint is that over which people have direct control. For example, people turn on thermostats and drive cars. On the other hand, secondary footprints are those created indirectly by people: the house built on undeveloped land, the favorite food that requires packaging, the cars that need to be manufactured. Each footprint impacts the environment because every resource that is used today could be left unused for future generations. Carbon footprints typically result from what people do, but the term can also be used to describe the results of natural events. For example, although it may be argued that rising temperatures as a result of (human-caused) global warming have led to an increase in wildfires worldwide, these wildfires are not directly started by humans -- and they can release as much carbon dioxide into the air in a matter of weeks as cars do in a year (Thompson, 2007).

In 2008, National Geographic aired a documentary entitled Human Footprint, which personalizes the effect human beings have on the world around them. For example, in an average person's lifetime, National Geographic estimated that the individual will eat 2½ tons of beef -- the equivalent of 5 bulls. In addition, this same person will eat 1.7 tons of pork, 2.3 tons of chicken, 1.3 tons of eggs, and approximately 4 tons of potatoes, that is, 6 pigs, 1,423 chickens, 19,826 eggs, and 20,000 potatoes. To fully consider the issue of a footprint, though, one has to consider the cycle of food. Bulls, pigs, and chickens require space, food, shelter -- all of which require resources: food needs to be stored, and living and grazing space needs to be safe and passable. In addition, these animals produce waste products that require attention. Much of it can be reused as fertilizer, but not without the energy it takes to move it from the barnyard to the garden.

What also requires consideration is what happens from the time the animals leave the barnyard to the time they end up on the table. Many energy-consuming processes (laboring, storing, packaging, refrigerating) must be completed before they become dinner. Furthermore, it is common for food to travel hundreds of miles before landing in the grocery store. Eggs also require similar processing steps, and they require healthy...

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