Why Aren’t We Sustainable Yet?

windmills, rainbow, fields

By: Ella

In June 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 179 countries and their political leaders, scientists, media representatives, and non-governmental organizations participated in this global conference to focus on the impacts of human activities on the environment. The conference carefully examined how different social, economic, and environmental factors are interdependent and connected to each other, and how each sector’s success leads to actions in other sectors. Moreover, the primary objective of the Rio Earth Summit was to make an agenda and a new blueprint for international action on environmental and sustainable development issues that would protect biological diversity, prevent dangerous interference, and guide international cooperation and development policy in the 21st century. 


Nonetheless, about 30 years later, the environment continues to be degraded and we are not sustainable yet, despite continuous environmental efforts. Ok, international agreements, national policies, state laws, and local plans are all imposed. But why? For who? Lives are still in danger, not protected.


Environmental protection involves other policy concerns such as economic growth and rights of businesses and individuals. In general, major factors of failure include: economic, political, and communication.

  • Very often, environmentally harmful activities are financially awarded. For instance, countries that transform into a market-based economy benefit from forests, which worth more money after the cut down. 
  • If governments are not able to or cannot implement environmentally sustainable policies, political failures occur. Because large industries such as mining do not agree since they have a lot to lose, governments cannot take risks of enforcing policies. 
  • Communication problems happen when poor consultation or involvement of the community result during the policy process. If the severity or dangers of the issue are not well known, proper actions are difficult to take place. 

What are different environmental policies in the US, Canada, Denmark, and Iceland?

United States

The US has environmental policies that involve federal, state, and local levels to protect the environment and conserve natural resources. Common policies are laws addressing water and air pollution, drinking water quality, chemical and oil use, smog, land conservation and management, and wildlife protection. 


Federal agencies

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970, and is responsible for the protection of human health, as well as environment. EPA provides technical assistance to support recovery planning of public health and infrastructure, long-term cleanup to minimize public health threats, and environmental surveillance. 

The United States Department of the Interior (DOI) was founded in 1849, conserving and managing the nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people. They also provide scientific and other information about natural resources and natural hazards to address societal challenges and create opportunities for the American people.

The United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was formed in 1946 and manages public lands for a variety of uses such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting while ensuring natural, cultural, and historic resources are maintained for present and future use.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was established in 1940 to work with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.


Federal legislation

There are several federal laws that seek to protect the environment in various areas. Major policies include:

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. The range of actions covered is broad, making decisions on permit applications, adopting federal land management actions, and constructing highways and other publicly-owned facilities.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 (CAA) regulates emission of pollutants that endanger public health and welfare. EPA estimates that the Act prevented over 230000 deaths by 2020, and that frequency of respiratory diseases were significantly reduced. Moreover, the concentration of harmful pollutants in the air dropped and the environmental benefits include decreased warming, healthier soil, freshwater, and vegetation. 

The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Although the investment exceeded $1.9 trillion since 1960, analyzes conclude that the Act’s benefits are lower than the total costs. However, evidence is limited and therefore, it is difficult to evaluate the exact impacts.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects biodiversity and prevents the extinction of the most at-risk plants and animals by increasing their numbers and effecting their full recovery, until the  removal from the endangered list. It is estimated that the value of ecosystem services is at about $1.6 trillion every year, and that approximately  99% of endangered species were saved since the Act’s establishment. Currently, more than 1600 species are protected under the law. 

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) controls hazardous waste through generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of the waste. The management of non-hazardous solid wastes is also included.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and responds directly to releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. Over five years, $1.6 billion was collected and the tax went to a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. 

Specific policies and explanations can be found here. The reports are here. Donald Trump, the 45th president of the US finalized rules and advanced policy changes in 2020 to reshape environmental regulation. Details: https://eelp.law.harvard.edu/2020/02/state-of-the-environment-2020/


Federal agency

The Environment and Climate Change Canada is the department of the Government of Canada created in 1971 under the Department of the Environmental Act. They are responsible for coordinating environmental policies and programs, as well as protecting and enhancing the natural, sustainable environment and renewable resources for future generations. 

Other provincial/territorial environmental authorities: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/provincial-territorial-international-contacts.html


Federal legislation

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) is a legislation that aims to prevent pollution and to protect the environment and human health. It contributes to sustainable development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability to future generations. The policy has 4 environmental plans: 


Ranked 11th in the Environmental Performance Index 2020 (EPI) which quantifies the environmental performance of a country’s policies, Iceland is one of the best environmentally friendly countries and has been leading the most efficient policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prevent climate change. Specific details of each score and ranking can be found here. The Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources is responsible for most affairs concerning environmental protection and nature conservation in Iceland. However, inter-ministerial coordination often happens between various ministries since environmental issues lead to co-occurring problems.


  • Iceland hopes to achieve complete carbon neutrality by 2040 and to cut greenhouse gas emission by 40% by 2030 under Paris Agreement. The country’s Climate Action Plan was updated in 2020, with 48 actions and main policies to reach the goal.
  • Before anything else, the Environmental Impact Assessment Act in Iceland evaluates and provides information on the probable effects of specific undertakings on the environment. 

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