One day we’ll all be flying electric cars and living in solar-powered homes, but we’re not quite there yet. In fact, only half of the world’s urban population even has convenient access to public transit, much less a flying or self-driving car. And in recent years, air pollution causes at least 4.2 million premature deaths. So what’s the deal? We’re in 2021--where’s the solar power? The wind turbines? SDG 11 asks this question and many more, striving to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, according to the UN there is a “growing number of slum dwellers, inadequate and overburdened infrastructure and services (such as waste collection and water and sanitation systems, roads and transport).” Although cities only occupy 3 percent of the Earth’s land, they account for most of the world’s energy consumption and carbon emissions! Sustainable and thoughtful urban planning is crucial for a better tomorrow. As we move forward, we must press for functional public transport networks, increased recreational spaces that improve overall health and wellbeing, and inclusive, sustainable housing.
Throughout COVID-19, faulty urban planning was readily apparent. With many people often confined to very small spaces, transmission of the disease was rampant. Proper urban planning is a large driver of pandemic prevention and resilient communities. With access to clear water, improved sanitation, durable housing and sufficient living space, all people would have improved health and wellbeing. Again, we see that SDG 11, like all other SDGs, is interconnected with so many other issues. With better cities, we have cleaner water, better health, greater inclusivity and equality, transportation to employment opportunities, the list goes on and on…
As we rebuild our cities, let us focus on “proven holistic and people-centered approaches to slum upgrading and community empowerment”, “training program[s] for local, regional and nation government officials” of disaster preparation and resilience, “inclusive and gender-responsive governance”, and increased “urban-level data collection” as instructed by the United Nations and various sustainable organizations from around the world. We might not be flying our solar powered cars any time soon, but taking the initiative to improve our urban planning is a good place to start.
“I need this,” an often-heard phrase in the United States by those passing storefront windows discussing items one most likely does not ‘need’ at all. SDG 12 seeks to address this statement by asking us ‘what do we really “need.’” The real answer is not much, despite what our consumerist culture often dictates.
Let’s take a look at the example of food and food waste:
This is the unfortunate pattern in the United States. Other developed nations have a similar problem although not at the level of the US figure of 40% food waste. And it occurs while an estimated 800 million people live in chronic hunger around the world. Consumerism is the culprit, and it must be addressed. It is often accompanied by other wasteful behaviors causing significant negative environmental and social effects in different areas. According to the UN, electronic waste has grown from 2010 to 2019 by 38% with less than 20% of materials recycled. The textile industry is the second largest polluter of clean water and often exploitative to textile workers.
SDG 12 asks us to focus on responsible consumption. Our demand directs the supplier. With proper research to change our habits, we can create a sustainable tomorrow. It is also important to be innovative and focus on feasible solutions.
Although the United States wastes 40% of their food, the French, for example, waste 1.8% of their food. After a study on Parisian and New York college students’ attitudes towards food and waste, St. John’s student researcher Chloé Bergeron—currently the Congregation of the Mission’s UN intern-- created a comprehensive Instagram food waste reduction campaign and yearly pledge entitled @foodjusticeSJU using links, graphics and challenges that highlighted food waste research and student survey responses. Emphasizing portion planning, redistribution potential, individual waste reduction opportunities, French cultural education, ways to get involved institutionally, and how to advocate for the issue on the governmental level, the campaign garnered extremely positive feedback.
Nearly 100% of post-campaign survey respondents committed to be more involved in eliminating food waste either personally, in their school/work communities and/or on a governmental level. The results of the campaign proved that increased awareness of wasteful behaviors and waste reduction tactics increases solution-based activism and decreases waste.
As consumers, we must make changes. As we become more aware of our wasteful behaviors, potential solutions, and ethical responsibilities, we can begin to make a positive difference on our global communities and pressure businesses to adopt sustainable practices. Let’s go to the grocery story. Let’s buy all the food we need, but with awareness of portion control, redistribution opportunities, cultural waste reduction practices, and a genuine understanding of the value of our food. Now, let’s eat all of it. This is the world we can create. Easier said than done, of course, so let’s get to work.
Jim Claffey, UN representative of the CM, with Chloé Bergeron