Getting serious about sustainability

The past few years have seen mixed progress for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The time has come to leverage International Standards for actionable success.

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By Rick Gould
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Aerial view of wind turbine with shadow on agricultural field.

The year 2022 will be decisive as to whether the world can meet its sustainable development target by 2030. A recently published United Nations (UN) progress report for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) describes mixed progress, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic, and then geopolitical instability, have diverted attention away from the SDGs. This means that society has to get back on track. “The Sustainable Development Goals are more important now than ever. Now is the time to secure the well-being of people, economies, societies and our planet,” remarked António Guterres, the UN’s Secretary-General.

Indices are a valuable tool for monitoring, and monitoring is essential for tracking progress. In June, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) launched a Quality Infrastructure for Sustainable Development (QI4SD) Index, designed to measure the contribution of a national quality infrastructure towards meeting the SDGs.

The indicators within QI4SD are classed under the headings of prosperity, people and planet, collectively known as “the three Ps”, to support economic growth, society and the environment. UNIDO calls the QI4SD a reboot for quality infrastructure, to align it with the rapidly evolving needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and, more importantly, to boost the role that quality infrastructure has in meeting the UN SDGs. ISO was a key partner in developing the QI4SD, because ISO and its members add value to national quality infrastructures by developing standards and having conformity assessment mechanisms.

ISO’s climate action 

One of the most pressing global issues is climate change. Last September 2021, ISO cemented its pledge and contribution through the London Declaration to combat climate change by 2050 using International Standards.

Support amongst ISO’s member bodies has been unanimous. “The Standards Council of Canada (SCC) proudly supports the London Declaration as we build a sustainable future through standardization,” affirmed Chantal Guay of SCC, ISO’s member for Canada, in her endorsement.

“The situation is very serious,” added David Fatscher, Head of Sector (Environment, Social & Governance) at the British Standards Institution (BSI), another ISO member. “But it’s also crucial to avoid fatalism. Governments, organizations and businesses of all sizes still have the power to halt and reverse climate change and the London Declaration has been created to help them do just that. This is a big step in the right direction.”

Although these might seem like grandiose claims, ISO standards have already made significant contributions to net zero. While the media often reports how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased globally, in some parts of the world they have been falling. ISO plays an important part in these reductions, advancing the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy with the help of standards for clean energy and climate change mitigation. Regarding the latter, emissions trading is one such success story made possible by ISO standards.

Emissions trading – a success story for SDG 17 

The concept behind emissions trading is simple: regulated industries have a quota of emissions allowances at the start of a given year and can only emit GHGs if they have sufficient allowances. Industries can buy, sell or bank emissions allowances depending on whether they have too few or too many in any trading year, while the total pool of allowances shrinks from year to year. This, in turn, drives down emissions over time and is known as a cap-and-trade (CAT) scheme.

ISO standards have already made significant contributions to net zero.

About 20 years ago, Denmark and the UK tested pilot CAT schemes for carbon dioxide emissions, which were then superseded by a scheme in the EU in 2005. All these schemes were triggered by provisions in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. 

The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) operates in phases and applies to thousands of energy-intensive industries and aviation. This CAT scheme covers 45 % of the EU’s GHG emissions. There are targets for each phase, with a 2020 target of 21 % using a 2005 baseline of emissions. Phase IV, which runs from 2021 to 2030, initially aimed to lower GHG emissions by 43 %, whilst the EU has now increased this target to 55 % to realign with targets for 2030 and beyond, and ensure net zero by 2050.

The EU ETS has performed well, surpassing the 2020 target and making a significant contribution to the EU’s reductions in GHG emissions. For example, researchers reported in 2020 that the EU ETS lowered carbon dioxide emissions by over one billion tonnes from 2008 to 2016, equivalent to 3.8 % of total EU-wide GHG emissions. Over a longer term, GHG emissions in the EU fell by 31 % from 1990 to 2020, beating the EU’s 2020 target by 11 %. 

Paving the way 

ISO standards play a crucial role in driving these reductions. For example, standards ensure the quality and consistency of monitoring, reporting and verification for GHG emissions, and are specified in EU regulations for these activities. Additionally, the EU ETS requirements for accreditation and verification of GHG emissions specify ISO standards for verifying reported emissions of GHGs, and accreditation of verifiers, whilst recommending standards for management systems.

Countries around the world are noting success in the use of ISO standards and emissions trading to drive down GHG emissions, and are following suit. In 2020, for example, the International Energy Agency reported that there were 23 emissions trading schemes worldwide, representing 9 % of the world’s GHG emissions. Related to this, the International Carbon Action Partnership, in its Emissions Trading Worldwide – Status Report 2020, makes numerous references to ISO standards, both explicitly and implicitly, all of which have enabled cuts in GHG emissions.

ISO’s climate action will accelerate and enhance the synergies between climate initiatives and International Standards. “The London Declaration is a critical international commitment that will enable businesses and organizations across the global economy to accelerate their climate action by using trusted standards aligned with robust net-zero targets,” concludes Nigel Topping, the UN’s High Level Climate Action Champion.

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