No matter how “artificial” we can try to make our world, we are still entirely dependent on our natural environment. Humans have found ways to exploit almost every material available, but at what cost? Progress has too often come at the expense of our world, leading to obscene amounts of pollution and potentially catastrophic global warming, deforestation, and mass extinctions. But now that we are more fully understanding our impact on the Earth, leading governments have stepped up to address it through sustainability efforts. The EPA defines sustainability as “creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

The sustainability efforts of a country are based around the challenges they face. The EPA was born in the United States all the way back in 1970 to consolidate the work being done by different governmental agencies that were focused on monitoring how companies were polluting.

South Africa’s history and location put it in a unique position. It shares continental land burdens with its neighbors. It serves as the transit point between Asia, Africa, and Western Europe. Comparing the sustainability efforts between the United States and South Africa reveals just how different the two countries are, how diverse the problems are that they face, yet also reveals the greater, global problems that we all face together. One is focused towards global trends, the other towards localized emergencies.

Sustainability Efforts of the US

Due to its status as a highly-developed nation that has reaped the benefit of centuries of industrialization and vast resources, the United States’s sustainability efforts focus on the much larger-scale problems that have come from industrialization. Despite often opposition, the EPA has been able to make giant strides towards a healthier planet.

One of the primary sustainability efforts of the EPA is to advance research into how climate and environment issues impact the world. Understanding just what negative impact industrialization is having gives us insight into which problems need to be solved fastest. This prioritization is key to coming up with successful sustainability strategies.

The EPA’s research has identified climate change as a primary threat. Therefore, the EPA has adopted new regulatory initiatives for greenhouse gasses. The goal is to cut emissions from vehicles and manufacturing by changing laws, but the EPA is also partnering with the private sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints voluntarily, with programs like ENERGYSTAR and the Center for Corporate Climate Change Leadership.

Since so much pollution has already taken place – with carbon dioxide levels being higher than any other time on record – the United States has started projects to separate and capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with new solutions. The Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) was founded with 21 other countries, South Africa being one of them, plus the Euro Commission.

Sustainability Efforts in South Africa

These initiatives reflect the reality of life in the United States, and the scope of its impact and problems. A quick look at South Africa’s sustainability efforts shows the different focus and scope of problems.

Take, for example, South Africa’s clean water initiative. Already a scarce resource, serious water problems can be expected by 2030 if nothing changes, according to Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. One of the primary goals is to eliminate the “bucket system” whereby villages raise water from a well in a bucket. Another is to use grey water or no-water toilets, so as to not flush clean drinking water with human waste.

Biodiversity is one of South Africa’s most important resources, whether it be large animals like lions and elephants or even tiny sea snails. South Africa’s location and history of colonization have meant that poachers from around the world have come to exploit it. The result over time has been a decimation of species to the point of near extinction. Recent anti-poaching initiatives were put in place between the “Big 4” of Mozambique, South Africa, Vietnam, and China to limit the illegal trade in ivory. The goal of these initiatives is to cut the demand for ivory in Asian markets which is still causing hunters to risk eliminating species like elephants and rhinoceroses.

South Africa has always been a cultural and economic leader in Africa. It is often the only African nation to be involved in major international sustainability efforts, like the CSLF. This makes South Africa the continent’s point of reference for how to deal with major environmental issues. As South Africa continues to develop and solve its unique challenges, and climate change begins to be felt in more ways, deeper partnerships with other international sustainability efforts should be expected. All of our futures depend on it.