Sustainability: A Pressing Priority for Sustainable Development Goal-13

R. Revanth ( is a research scholar at the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. V. Kavitha Rani ( is a Research Scholar at the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. N. Shanmugavadivu ( teaches at the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Dr.F.X.Lovelina Little Flower ( heads the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu,
26 December 2023

The Earth is a place where humans interact with living and non-living entities to live peacefully. If it is compromised in order to satisfy our own demands, the ecosystem may become unbalanced, which would put an end to human existence. Everyone is aware of the existence of climate change, but climate action policies need to view the problem from the lenses of both the affluent and the poor. According to one viewpoint, persons who rely on luxury goods may choose to deplete the ecosystem. But those who rely on it for basic needs are left with little to no choice. The unsettling fact is that only a small portion of the population benefits from society's overall prosperity, leaving the majority in poverty. Therefore, achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 requires a comprehensive strategy, especially in light of the fact that it is organically linked to other SDGs and cannot be done in isolation.

Environmental challenges are viewed as a significant danger to humanity on a global scale. Since Earth is a planet with life other than humans, humans should ideally interact and coexist peacefully with others in the ecosystem. If the environment in which we live is permanently damaged or depleted to satisfy human wants, it would lead to an imbalance in the ecosystem and our extinction. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (2009), environmental degradations is “the reduction of the capacity of the environment to meet the social and ecological objectives and needs.” It is a process in which the nature is compromised in some way, reducing biological diversity and the health of the environment. This process of depletion can be of natural cause or man-made. Since the 1800s, anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been the main cause of the world's current rapid climate change. Thus, environmental depletion and climate change are interrelated. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specify climate action as goal 13; for achieving this goal, it is important to eradicate poverty as it is invariably related to climate change and environmental degradation. Although developed nations are mostly to blame for global warming, developing nations will bear the brunt of its effects as they are in lower altitudes, which include decreased agricultural productivity, deteriorating health, and an increase in the frequency of natural disasters (Das Gupta 2014). The population expansion in developing and underdeveloped countries is worsening the situation more, as they are in need to meet the demands of all (UN Climate change Annual Report 2018). Unfortunately, the climate change effects will impact the poverty reduction programmes too in those countries (Hallegatte et al 2014; Das Gupta 2014; Demetriades and Esplen 2008). The problem of climate change has to be viewed from the point of developed and developing countries, and actions to prevent climate change and environment degradation should be planned in such a way where it should address the needs of the poor too (Hallegatte et al 2014). The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific specifies that poverty and environment are closely related. In a year when societies struggled to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, the Planet Labs as a part of the World Economic Forum's “Global Risks Report 2021” listed climate action failure as the most significant and second most likely long-term risk confronting the world (World Economic Forum 2021). This article reviews the need for achieving climate action and its linkage with poverty and insists the importance of ethical anthropocentrism in policies. At last, it also specifies the importance of social work discipline as a profession that could deal with both social and environmental justice.


Global Actions for Climate Change:

International and national organisations have been taking number of initiatives to focus on the challenges and provide larger actions or targets to limit the release of GHGs globally. Pioneer of climate action was the founding of the "Club of Rome" in 1968, an international think tank comprised of scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, and previous world leaders comprising 30 individuals from 10 countries. It is an informal organisation formed to foster understanding of the varied but interdependent components—economic, political, natural, and social—that make up the global system in which we all live (Donella et al 1972). As part of their work, “The Limits to Growth” report was released in 1972, which was prepared by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and commissioned by the Club of Rome; this report emphasised the possible outcomes of ongoing exponential economic and population growth on a limited world. It emphasised the finite nature of the Earth's resources and warned that if consumption, population growth, and economic output continue to increase exponentially, they will exceed its capacity. It also highlighted the negative effects of uncontrolled expansion on the environment, including pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. It also incorporated computer simulations to illustrate the operation of interconnected systems, such as the economy, environment, population, resources, and the reciprocal influence they exert on one another.


The statistics indicated that without significant alterations in laws and practices, the Earth's capacity to support life would be exceeded, potentially leading to societal disruptions. The subject sparked discussions concerning sustainable development, the allocation of resources, and the necessity of adopting a proactive approach in policy- and decision-making processes (Donella et al 1972). From there, the biggest international action the Brundtland Report, which was published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WECD) and insisted on a “global agenda for change.” It contained multilateralism objectives that gave rise to ideas like “ecological footprints,” “capacity building,” and other ideas that came together to become the Earth Summit. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, was established to foster international cooperation for a sustainable future. It discovered the alternatives to fossil fuels, reduce harmful substances manufacturing, and boost the use of public transportation. This conference paved way to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Around 154 countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere that caused ozone depletion, pollution, global warming, and other problems. The world's nations are currently concentrating on fulfilling the sustainable development objectives that outline milestones to be attained before 2030. Countries should prioritise eco-centric policies instead of anthropocentric ones in order to meet those goals (Laitos 2012).


Values are Discovered Not Given—Ethical Anthropocentrism


Anthropocentrism lays on the philosophical belief that humans alone possess intrinsic value; the nonhuman world is considered to have instrumental value, with their ability to meet human needs. All ethics are considered to be anthropocentric from one sense as humans alone possess the cognitive ability to formulate and recognise moral value (Palmer 2002). There are three types of anthropocentrism that environmental philosophers write about: ontological, epistemological, and ethical anthropocentrism (Dzwonkowska 2018). The conception of a human-centred world in which humans are superior and considered as the pinnacle of creation is said to be ontological anthropocentrism (Minteer 2009). Epistemological anthropocentrism on the contrary says that all human values are the intrinsic values given by environmental philosophers to the nature (Epting 2021). Alternatively, ethical anthropocentrism takes the same stand as epistemological anthropocentrism limiting intrinsic value to human beings, thus attributing moral stands only to human beings. It emphasises that values of the nonhuman world are not created by humans, but they are discovered. It is not a necessary feature of ethical theorising or philosophy like epistemological anthropocentrism. As moral agents, we can value nonhuman entities and choose which ones to regard (Dzwonkowska 2018). The ethical perspective allows the humans to acknowledge the moral standing of the nonhuman world and adopt a non-anthropocentric point of view, making ethical anthropocentrism the most pertinent to the ethical discussion (Dzwonkowska 2018). The nonhuman universe has value, and we as moral agents can decide which beings to include in our moral consideration. Modern field of environmental ethics emerged as a distinct field of philosophy during the 1970s. It is based on the belief that natural environment or nonhuman beings have intrinsic value (Palmer, McShane and Sandler 2014) rather than instrumental. The intrinsic point of view sees natural environment has its own value built in itself, whereas instrumental point of view is more of an anthropocentric, in which values of the nonhuman beings depend as derivatives from human interest (Gray 2011; Dzwonkowska 2018). Ethics could help humans debate whether some actions or right or wrong (Light and Rolston 2003). Somehow, the major concern here is how inclusive the moral considerations of that is to be. Thus, ethical anthropocentrism is always focused by environmental ethics. It unpacks our natural world valuation in an effort to determine how we live in relation to that system. What do we value in nature? Why do we value it? How are these valuations manifested? In this context, environmental ethics helps us to discuss in framing an environmental policy and decision-making, whether motivated by ethical anthropocentrism or by some more inclusive theory (Goralnik and Nelson 2012).




Figure 1: Types of Anthropocentrism.

A Pressing Priority:

The years 1983 to 2012 were the warmest in the last 1,400 years in the northern hemisphere, and the years 2014 to 2018 were the hottest on record worldwide (Pachauri and Meyer 2014). The average temperature of the Earth has increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1.0 degrees Celsius) since preindustrial times, with the last few decades accounting for two-thirds of that warming. Human-centred environmental policies, without considering the environmental values, lead to enormous depletion of natural resources for satisfying human needs by destroying the ecosystem; this increased consumption of natural resources is mainly due to capitalism and its consumerist foundation (Coates 2000; Park 2015; Pollock 2020). The blame, however, cannot only be put partially on rich or capitalistic population; people living in poverty also contribute to the exploitation of natural resources like usage of fossil fuels, water and air pollution, waste generation, and furthermore. Population explosion is also a major reason for environmental depletion since developing countries do not disseminate adequate knowledge on birth control (Sinding 2009; Dodson et al 2020). Also, increased human activities like mining, deforestation, emission of GHGs have interfered with the way sun interacts with the earth, resulting in global environmental issues. These issues affect the health, economic, and social well-being of human population. Several researchers from various discipline have proved the interdependence between human and natural world, showing the interaction or cooperation between the global environmental and social crises (Kempf 2008). Climate change can be controlled by taking actions and steps by focusing on limiting the over exploitation of wealthy people or developed countries; on the contrary, it should also address the needs of poor people or developing countries. A single-handed policy or framework cannot achieve the status of zero GHG emission, unless it views the problem from both the lenses as mentioned.

Figure 2: Impact and reason of poverty and capitalism on climate change and environment.


Sustainability: A Combination of Social and Environmental Justice


Poverty is inextricably linked with environmental degradation and social suffering. Let us look at a cancer village in China as an example; the term “cancer villages” refers to specific regions in China that exhibit abnormally high incidences of cancer, which are suspected to be associated with environmental contamination, possibly due to their exposure to dangerous chemicals and pollution frequently originating from neighbouring industrial operations, without following safety standards of emission (BBC 2013). Shangba, a small hamlet in southern China, was reported as one such cancer village where high levels of poisonous heavy metals were found in the water, and the reason showed a direct connection with mining in the area (BBC 2013). Social conditions of the poor would be lost if the society itself lost its clean air, water, and land. Social injustice will increase if environmental injustice prevails. The synergy between environmental and social issue clearly defines the linkage between environmental and social justice. In both the scenarios, at one point of time, entire human population will be confronted with a common difficulty that would result in the end to mankind (Pollock 2020).



Social Work: A Profession for Environment and Social justice


Social work is a practice-oriented field that plays a significant part in the sustainable advancement of the society. Initially, developed as a need-based profession to assess the requirements of people seeking assistance. Later, included various techniques and approaches according to the increasing need of the modernized society, raised on liberal humanistic value, considering humans have intrinsic value. It has a year-long experience and achievement in promoting social justice through closely working with individuals, community, government, and decision makers. If social work has to honour the fundamental rights of human, they must also systematically develop and implement approaches to resolve environmental issues as they are interrelated. They should walk in a fine line between enlightened self-interest, which could save nature so humans could survive. Social workers take part in environment movement by broadening the person-in-environment theory that has been largely associated with social environment. Though this approach is influenced by anthropocentrism, social work is finding way to overcome its embeddedness in the approach by opting for ethical anthropocentrism. Thus, social workers can address environmental degradation by viewing environmental justice as a core component of social justice. For example, on the social workers role in climate action, Dorn (2019) in his article has emphasised the importance of social workers in climate action by encouraging clients by building their knowledge on the environmental factors that contribute to their health issues and indirectly influence them towards pro-environmental behaviour that benefits both the environment and the health of the individuals, which is a win-win situation (Dorn 2019). Social workers not only stop with educating their clients but also help them in connecting with resources to protect their environment through advocacy efforts. Dominelli (2011) showcases case studies that demonstrate the efficacy of social work in tackling climate change. These studies feature community-led programmes that effectively promote sustainable habits and mitigate GHG emissions. The initial case study takes place in Misa Rumi, Bolivia, a region located in the global south. In this context, social workers collaborated with community members to create a sustainable energy initiative that utilises solar panels for electricity generation. This project not only mitigated GHG emissions but also yielded economic advantages to the community through job creation and energy cost reduction. In the second case, located in Gilesgate, the United Kingdom, social workers collaborated with local residents to create a housing project that is environmentally friendly and use green technologies to minimise energy usage and the release of GHGs (Dominelli 2011). In all scenarios, social workers are engaged in community mobilisation, policy advocacy, and the promotion of sustainable behaviours. Based on the aforementioned examples, it is clear that social workers are impacted by anthropocentrism, but they have employed their principles to transform it into ethical anthropocentrism. Therefore, the social work profession, utilising its moral understanding, has employed its values to tackle human issues while also promoting environmental conservation through the implementation of the person-in-environment strategy.



Humans and nature have an intimate relationship that must be understood (Seymour 2016). The effects of environmental problems are already too late for poor and pro-poor people in both developing and industrialised countries. The others do not have much of a chance before they are exposed (IPCC Working Group II 2022). New policies should be framed based on the lenses to implement the actions and save the population of the world. Everyone has to work together for confronting the issues related to environment. A human tragedy like COVID-19 has affected the economic, social, cultural, and political well-being of the humans. But it has also created an opportunity for us to build a more equal and sustainable world to live along with the environment. Taxes collected to fund government operations and favourable tax regulations can foster environmental friendliness, moreover research would support the creation and adoption of innovative sustainable technology and business practices throughout the world (Kouam and Asongu 2022). The social innovation programme can improve the status of both the individual and the community (Bird and Zolt 2008). As Ban Ki-Moon (former Secretary- General, UN) in the 66th General Assembly said, “we must connect the dots between various problems. In that way a solution to one problem must be a solution to all other.” On that belief, bringing a solution to SDG 13 can address all other SDGs.

R. Revanth ( is a research scholar at the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. V. Kavitha Rani ( is a Research Scholar at the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. N. Shanmugavadivu ( teaches at the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Dr.F.X.Lovelina Little Flower ( heads the Department of Social Work, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu,
26 December 2023