Data science

Sustainability data reveals surprises that challenge the status quo

Data has evolved to be present in every part of our lives. When buying a product, we search for a consumer rating or an expert giving us a statistic on how effective the product is. We collect data from our experiences and use it to guide future actions. A similar method can be used to understand and make decisions about the environment through sustainability data.

There is a wealth of information about the environment that is available, even if some sustainability data is still hard to gather. Yet, we do not often use data-based insights when we make decisions about the environment.

For example, the onus is put on consumers to make lifestyle changes to save the planet. We are frequently told to avoid plastic straws, carry cloth bags instead of using single-use plastic bags at the supermarket or sort our waste and recycle.

However, when we look at the problem using data, we see that in many cases, the majority of our global environmental issues are being caused by major corporations, not individuals. Even if every human on the planet lived as sustainably as possible, the numbers show that we would only solve a small percentage of the problem.

Surprising statistics about the environment

Aluminum is a material that may be recycled multiple times. Recycling one 300ml aluminum saves enough energy to power a TV for over 3 hours. Scale this up a bit, and imagine how much energy you can save by recycling all the cans you buy.

91% of the world’s plastic waste is not recycled, and 10% of this goes into our oceans. There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the sea. That number is nearly beyond comprehension. What makes it easier to understand – but perhaps harder to accept – is that plastic waste thrown into the ocean kills as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year. 

Electric vehicles are commonly seen as the answer to a greener future, helping to reduce the polluting emissions released by fuel-powered vehicles. This is not yet a reality, as we only produce just over a quarter of our electricity sustainably. We make most of our electricity from the combustion of fossil fuels. In other words, it could be said that Tesla manufactures mostly coal-powered vehicles, not electric ones.

The insights found in sustainability data can be used to paint a bigger picture. Globally 28% of electricity comes from renewable sources. We are still reliant on fossil fuels for most of our electricity and energy needs. In a world where we are trying to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly, energy is increasingly expensive. Recycling materials we use and plastics we create is the need of the hour. This would save energy, save animals and help our environment.

Climate change awareness is the next step

Awareness is the first step in a long list of things that need to happen to slow and someday reverse climate change. There is so much to learn about our environment and what is happening. We have caused the planet to heat up faster than it should; we are the reason the sea levels are rising. To fix the problems we face, we need to be aware. Some organizations and websites devote their resources to giving people the information they need to know about the world that they live in and the problems that we face. “The World Counts” is one such website. 

Focussing on global challenges, consumer economy, and world population, the World Counts collects data from several reliable sources and presents the information in an easy-to-understand and impactful format. Using point estimates and projections gives us a “real-time” counter of the data. 

The World Counts tries to balance the negative and positive information on its site. It does this to ensure that sustainability data leaves a significant impression in the viewers’ minds and hopefully motivates a change in their consumer behavior. This organization understands that the first step is awareness and that it is not always easy to find what you want to know. It hopes to be the site that collects, organizes and presents the information we need to know about the environment and the global population.

Sustainability data can hold policymakers accountable 

In the global economy that we live in, the consumers are the first part of a much larger chain. Consumer behavior needs to shift away from use and throw consumption, and we need to practice sustainable living. These efforts are necessary for producers to shift to sustainable production, as public demand will influence what is created and how.

But this will not be enough to stop climate change or effectively make global changes. Developed countries contribute more emissions and do more damage to the environment than developing countries. Sustainability data tells us that around 100 companies alone are responsible for 70% of historical greenhouse gas emissions. To make large-scale, long-term, and effective programs to address climate change, the government needs to step in. Innovative government policy is the key to effective solutions for the global challenges that we face. 

The UK government has been working on its plastic recycling policy and implementation. Standardizing the production of plastic in the country, improving the labeling of plastic products, so consumers know how to dispose of their waste, and reducing the usage of single-use plastics are some of the steps that the policy encouraged. However, recent news describes how the UK cannot recycle all the plastic waste that it collects, and most of that is exported to Turkey. 

In Turkey, the waste is either dumped or incinerated. Essentially, Turkey bears the burden of air pollution and diseases resulting from plastic incineration and waste dumping. At the beginning of July, Turkey banned nearly all imports of plastic. The UK now needs to figure out how to handle its plastic waste domestically. While efforts are being made to improve recycling capacity in the UK, the country will struggle to take all the plastic waste collected in the short term.

Data is proving to be our most valuable tool for recognizing, addressing, and solving climate change. Scientists use data to keep track of global temperatures and emissions. The same information is then repackaged and presented in a digestible format for the global population. The very same data will then be used to formulate government policy. As consumers, readers, and humans on this planet, we need data to stay informed and be conscious of our actions.

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