Visual representations of sustainability and its three dimensions: Left, sustainability as three intersecting circles. Right top, a nested approach. Right bottom, literal 'pillars'.[1] The schematic with the nested ellipses emphasizes a hierarchy of the dimensions, putting "environment" as the foundation for the other two.

Sustainability is a societal goal that broadly relates to the ability of people to safely co-exist on Earth over a long time. Specific definitions of sustainability are difficult to agree on and have varied in the literature and over time.[2][1] The concept of sustainability can be used to guide decisions at the global, national and individual level (e.g. sustainable living).[3] Sustainability is commonly described as having three dimensions (also called pillars): environmental, economic, and social.[1] Many publications state that the environmental dimension (also referred to as "planetary integrity" or "ecological integrity") is the most important,[4][5] and, in everyday usage of the term, "sustainability" is often focused on environmental aspects. The most dominant environmental issues since around 2000 have been climate change, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem services, land degradation, and air and water pollution.[6] Humanity is now exceeding several "planetary boundaries".[7]

A closely related concept is that of sustainable development. The terms are often used synonymously.[8] UNESCO distinguishes the two thus: "Sustainability is often thought of as a long-term goal (i.e. a more sustainable world), while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it."[9]

The concept of sustainability has been criticized for various reasons. One such criticism is that the concept is vague and merely a buzzword.[1] Another is that sustainability as a goal might be impossible to reach;[10] it has been pointed out that "no country is delivering what its citizens need without transgressing the biophysical planetary boundaries".[11]: 11 

How the economic dimension of sustainability should be addressed is controversial.[1] Scholars have discussed this aspect under the concept of "weak and strong sustainability". For example, there will always be tension between the ideas of "welfare and prosperity for all" and environmental conservation.[12][1] Therefore, trade-offs are required. Approaches that decouple economic growth from environmental deterioration would be desirable but are difficult to implement.[13][14]

There are many barriers to achieving sustainability[3][15] that must be addressed for a "sustainability transition" to become possible.[3]: 34  Some sustainability barriers arise from nature and its complexity. Other barriers are "extrinsic" to the concept of sustainability. A number of extrinsic sustainability barriers are related to the dominant institutional frameworks where market mechanisms often fail to create public goods. Some approaches humanity can take to transition to environmental sustainability include: maintaining nature's ecosystem services, reducing food waste, promoting dietary shifts towards plant-based foods, further reducing fertility rates and thus population growth, promoting new green technologies, and adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels.[16] Global issues are difficult to tackle as they require global solutions. However, existing global organizations (such as the UN and WTO) are inefficient in enforcing current global regulations, for example due to the lack of suitable sanctioning mechanisms.[3]: 135–145 

Definitions

Current usage

Sustainability is regarded as a "normative concept".[3][17][18][2] This can be illustrated as follows: "The quest for sustainability involves connecting what is known through scientific study to applications in pursuit of what people want for the future".[18]

Modern use of the term "sustainability" was strongly influenced by the 1983 UN Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission. In the commission's 1987 report, titled Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."[19][20] The report helped bring "sustainability" into the mainstream of policy discourse and popularize the concept of "sustainable development".[1]

Key concepts to illustrate the meaning of sustainability include: choices matter (in other words: "it is not possible to sustain everything, everywhere, forever"); sustainability is a normative concept (connected to "what we see as desirable"); sustainability can be positively thought of as a fuzzy concept (where the goals are more important than the approaches or means applied); scale matters, in both space and time; place matters; systems thinking is an organizing concept; limits exist (see planetary boundaries); sustainability is interconnected with other essential concepts (namely resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability); and change is an essential consideration and challenge for sustainability.[18]

In everyday usage, "sustainability" is often focused mostly on the environmental aspects, as can be seen in publications by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).[21]

Specific definitions

Scholars have pointed out that a single specific definition of sustainability may never be possible but that the concept is still useful.[2][18] Attempts have been made to define sustainability broadly or in more specific terms, for example:

  • "Sustainability can be defined as the capacity to maintain or improve the state and availability of desirable materials or conditions over the long term".[18]
  • "Sustainability [is] the long-term viability of a community, set of social institutions, or societal practice. In general, sustainability is understood as a form of intergenerational ethics in which the environmental and economic actions taken by present persons do not diminish the opportunities of future persons to enjoy similar levels of wealth, utility, or welfare."[8]
  • "Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In addition to natural resources, we also need social and economic resources. Sustainability is not just environmentalism. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability we also find concerns for social equity and economic development."[22]

Some definitions refer mainly to the environmental dimension. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of English defines sustainability as: "the property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources".[23]

Historical usage

The term sustainability is derived from the Latin word sustinere (tenere, to hold; sub, under). "To sustain" can mean to maintain, support, uphold, or endure.[24][25] It is therefore the ability to continue over a long period of time.

Historically, sustainability referred to environmental sustainability and simply meant using natural resources in a way so that people in the future ("future generations") could continue to rely on their yields in the long term.[26][27] The concept of sustainability, or Nachhaltigkeit in German, can be traced back to Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714), and was applied to forestry (now sustainable forest management).[28] He used this term in the sense of long-term responsible use of a natural resource in 1713 in his work Silvicultura oeconomica.[29]  

The idea itself goes back to times immemorial, as communities have always worried about the capacity of their environment to sustain them in the long term. Many ancient cultures, traditional societies, and indigenous peoples had or still have practices restricting the use of natural resources by human groups.[30]

Comparison to sustainable development

The terms "sustainability" and "sustainable development" are closely related and are often used synonymously.[8] Both terms are intrinsically linked with the "three dimensions of sustainability" concept.[1] One distinction that can be made is that sustainability is a general concept, whereas sustainable development is a policy. Sustainability can be considered a broader concept than sustainable development because the latter focuses mainly on human well-being.[18]

Sustainable development is an organizing principle for meeting human development goals while also sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services on which the economy and society depend. The desired result is a state of society where living conditions and resources are used to continue to meet human needs without undermining the integrity and stability of the natural system. Sustainable development was defined in the 1987 Brundtland Report as "Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".[31][32] As the concept of sustainable development developed, it has shifted its focus more towards the economic development, social development and environmental protection for future generations.

Dimensions of sustainability

Sustainability Venn diagram, where sustainability is thought of as the area where the three dimensions overlap
A nested circles diagram indicating a hierarchy between the three dimensions of sustainability: both economy and society are constrained by environmental limits[33]

Development of three dimensions

A "Wedding cake" model for the sustainable development goals, which is similar to the nested circle diagram, where the environmental dimension or system is the basis for the other two dimensions[34]

Three different areas of sustainability are normally distinguished: the environmental, the social, and the economic. Several terms are in use for this concept in the literature: authors may speak of three "pillars", "dimensions", "components", "aspects",[35] "perspectives", "factors", or "goals", but all mean the same thing in this context.[1] The emergence of the three dimensions paradigm has few theoretical foundations but gradually emerged without a single point of origin.[1][36] Nevertheless, the distinction itself is rarely questioned, and the "three dimension" conception of sustainability is a dominant interpretation within the literature.[1]

The Brundtland Report from 1987 stated that the environment and development are inseparable when trying to achieve sustainability. It also stated that sustainable development is a global concept that links environmental and social issues and is equally important for developing countries and industrialized countries:

The 'environment' is where we all live; and 'development' is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable. [...] We came to see that a new development path was required, one that sustained human progress not just in a few pieces for a few years, but for the entire planet into the distant future. Thus 'sustainable development' becomes a goal not just for the 'developing' nations, but for industrial ones as well.

— Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report), [19]: Foreword and Section I.1.10 

Furthermore, Agenda 21 from 1992 explicitly talks about economic, social, and environmental dimensions as follows:[37]: 8.6 

Countries could develop systems for monitoring and evaluation of progress towards achieving sustainable development by adopting indicators that measure changes across economic, social and environmental dimensions.

Agenda 2030 conceived the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their 169 targets as balancing "the three dimensions of sustainable development, the economic, social and environmental".[38]

Discussion about hierarchy

There are scholarly discussions regarding a possible hierarchy of the three dimensions of sustainability: Many publications state that the environmental dimension (also referred to as planetary integrity or ecological integrity) should be viewed as the most important.[4][5] For example, an assessment of the political impacts of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2022 stated that the integrity of the earth's life-support systems must be maintained for long-term sustainability.[4]: 140  The authors criticized that the SDGs "fail to recognize that planetary, people and prosperity concerns are all part of one earth system, and that the protection of planetary integrity should not be a means to an end, but an end in itself".[4]: 147  The fact that the SDGs do not prioritize environmental protection is problematic as this could incentivize countries to further subordinate environmental priorities in their developmental plans.[4]: 144  The authors state that "sustainability on a planetary scale is only achievable under an overarching Planetary Integrity Goal that recognizes the biophysical limits of the planet".[4]: 161 

The protection of ecological integrity (or environmental sustainability) can be seen as the core of sustainability.[5] In pursuing the protection of ecological integrity, sustainability reflects the most basic concern of human existence, namely the desire to live, survive, and reproduce. Consequently, if the preservation of the Earth's ecological integrity is the prerequisite for development, it sets limits to both economic and social development.[5]

The nested ellipses diagram of the three dimensions of sustainability also gives the environmental dimension a special status: it implies a situation where society is embedded in the environment, and economic conditions are embedded in society. It therefore stresses a hierarchy. A similar depiction of the three dimensions or systems is the "SDG wedding cake" model by the Stockholm Environment Institute where the economy is a smaller subset of the societal system that in turn is a smaller subset of the biosphere system which all life depends on.[34]

Environmental sustainability

Increasing environmental pollution in the 1960s and 1970s led to growing environmental concerns, evidenced by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in 1962,[39] establishment of the Club of Rome in 1968, and establishment of Greenpeace in 1971. Awareness of pollution provided the basis for what was later discussed as sustainability and sustainable development. This process began with concern for environmental issues (natural ecosystems or natural resources and human environment) in the 1970s, and was later extended to all the systems that support life on Earth (including human society).[40]: 31  Reducing these negative impacts on the environment would improve environmental sustainability.[40]: 34 

While environmental pollution is not a new phenomenon, it remained a local or regional concern for most of human history. This changed in the 20th century, when awareness of global environmental issues increased.[40]: 5 [41] The harmful effects and global spread of pesticides like DDT were first discussed in the 1960s.[39] In the 1970s it was shown that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the ozone layer. This led to the de facto ban of CFCs with the Montreal Protocol in 1987.[3]: 146 

The effect of greenhouse gases on the global climate was discussed by Arrhenius in the early 20th century (see also history of climate change science).[42] Climate change as affected by human activities became an important topic in academic and political discourse several decades later, leading to the establishment of the IPCC in 1988 and the UNFCCC in 1992.

In 1972, the UN held its first conference on environmental issues. The UN Conference on the Human Environment stated the importance of the protection and improvement of the human environment,[43]: 3 and emphasized the need to protect wildlife and natural habitats:[43]: 4 

The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and [...] natural ecosystems must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate.

— UN Conference on the Human Environment, [43]: p.4., Principle 2 

In 2000, the UN launched eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be achieved by the global community by 2015. Goal 7 was to "ensure environmental sustainability", but did not mention the concepts of social or economic sustainability.[1]

Public discussion of the environmental dimension of sustainability often revolves around prevailing issues of the time. The most dominant environmental issues since about the year 2000 have been climate change, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem services, land degradation, and air and water pollution (including marine plastic pollution and ocean acidification).[6] The public is concerned about human impacts on the environment, such as impacts on the atmosphere, land, and water resources.[40]: 21 

Of all the environmental challenges that humanity is currently facing and failing to solve, many scientists have singled out the following as the most troubling: "potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption."[16]

The overall impact of humans' activities not only on the biosphere but even on the geological formation of the Earth led Paul Crutzen to speak of the current geological epoch as the Anthropocene.[44] The impact of human activity on local to global ecosystems can reach tipping points beyond which irreversible harmful developments will be triggered, such as to the climate.

Economic sustainability

To some, the economic dimension of sustainability is as controversial as the concept of sustainability itself.[1] If the term "development" in sustainable development is understood in economic terms ("economic development") or even identified with economic growth, the notion of a sustainable development can become a way of whitewashing an ecologically destructive economic system.[45][46][47] This is because of the inherent trade-offs between "welfare and prosperity for all" (in terms of material needs such as food, water, health, and shelter) and environmental conservation.[12]

On the other hand, especially for people in the least developed countries, a certain amount of economic development (e.g. to reduce hunger or energy poverty) is required. For that reason, the first target of Sustainable Development Goal 8 calls for economic growth, which is a driving force for societal progress and well-being. This target is to: "Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries".[48] Regardless of differences in the understanding of the concept of sustainability and sustainable development, it is clear that humanity will have to resolve the issue of how societal progress (potentially by economic development) can be reached without excess strain on the environment. Accordingly, in 2011 UNEP cited the big challenge to society to "expand economic activities" while at the same time reducing the use of natural resources and reducing the environmental impacts of economic activities.[49]: 8 

According to the Brundtland report, "poverty is a major cause and also effect of global environmental problems. It is therefore futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality."[19]: Section I.1.8  The report demands a new development path for sustained human progress and highlights that this is a goal for both the developing and the industrialized nations.[19]: Section I.1.10 

UNEP and UNDP launched the Poverty-Environment Initiative in 2005, which aims at the triple vision of having neither any extreme poverty, nor greenhouse gas emissions nor net natural asset loss, which is proposed to guide the structural reform that will enable poor groups and countries to achieve the SDGs at scale.[50][51]: 11  Such initiatives might be seen as a measure to mitigate the trade-off between a large ecological footprint and high status of economic development.[3]: 82 

Social sustainability

The social dimension of sustainability is the least well defined and least understood dimension of sustainability.[52][53][54] A possible definition is that a socially sustainable society should ensure that people are not hindered by structural obstacles in the areas of health, influence, competence, impartiality, and meaning-making.[55] Despite this anchoring of the social dimension of sustainability in the Brundtland report, social sustainability can be addressed in different ways.

Some scholars place social issues at the very center of sustainability discussions.[56] They suggest that all of the domains of sustainability are social: including ecological, economic, political, and cultural sustainability. These domains of social sustainability all depend on the relationship between the social and the natural, with the ecological domain defined as human embeddedness in the environment. In these terms, social sustainability encompasses all human activities.[57] It is not just relevant to the focused intersection of economics, the environment, and the social.[58]

Broad strategies for more sustainable social systems include improved education and the political empowerment of women, especially in developing countries; greater regard for social justice, notably equity between rich and poor both within and between countries; and, perhaps most of all, intergenerational equity.[59] One example to achieve social sustainability more effectively would be by providing more social safety nets to vulnerable populations globally.[60]: 11 

Social sustainability is thought to lead to livable communities which would be "equitable, diverse, connected and democratic and provide a good quality of life".[61]

Proposed additional dimensions

Some sustainability experts and practitioners have proposed more dimensions of sustainability, such as institutional, cultural, and technical dimensions.[1] Some consider resource use and financial sustainability as two additional dimensions of sustainability.[62] In infrastructure projects, for instance, one must ask whether sufficient financing capability for maintenance exists.[62]

Other frameworks bypass the compartmentalization of sustainability completely.[1]

Cultural sustainability

Some academics and institutions (such as Agenda 21 for culture and the United Cities and Local Governments) have pointed out that a fourth dimension should be added to the dimensions of sustainability since the triple-bottom-line dimensions of economic, environmental and social do not seem to be enough to reflect the complexity of contemporary society.[63] This discussion points to the relation between culture and sustainable development through developing a solid cultural policy and advocating a cultural dimension in all public policies. Another example of this four-dimensional view was the Circles of Sustainability approach, which included cultural sustainability.[64]

Interactions between dimensions

Environmental and economic dimensions

The relationship between the environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability is a debated topic. In the concept of a weak sustainability it is assumed that natural capital (or environmental resources) can be substituted with "capital made by humans".[65][66] An example is the technological progress that has solved many environmental problems, for example by using environmental technologies to reduce pollution.[67] The concept of strong sustainability, on the other hand, states that nature (or natural capital) provides functions that cannot be replaced by technology.[68] This "strong concept of sustainability" therefore acknowledges the need to preserve ecological integrity.[3]: 19  It emphasizes that many resources and ecosystem services cannot be recovered or repaired within a reasonable timescale once lost. Examples include loss of biodiversity, pollination, fertile soils, assimilation capacity, clean air, clean water, and climate regulation. In summary, the full range of ecosystem services cannot be fully substituted.

Robert Ayres, a physicist and economist, has pointed out that in practice, economic decisions are taken at very narrow social scales, namely for the interests of individuals, family groups, or firms and not with regards to future generations and planetary welfare.[66]

The economic dimension relies on the environmental dimension in many aspects. Accordingly, the "weak version of sustainability" has been criticized as "popular among governments, and business, but profoundly wrong and not even weak, as there is no alternative to preserving the earth's ecological integrity."[69] This statement underlines the central importance of the environmental dimension of sustainability.[5]

For example, a publication by the World Economic Forum in 2020 stated that: "Our research shows that $44 trillion of economic value generation – more than half of the world's total GDP – is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services and is therefore exposed to nature loss."[70]: 8  Three large economic sectors are highly dependent on nature: construction, agriculture, and food and beverages. Drivers of nature loss include: Land use change, sea use change, climate change, natural resource use and exploitation, pollution and invasive alien species.[70]: 11 

Trade-offs

The notion of trade-offs between different dimensions, for example between environmental management and economic growth, is frequently discussed in the literature.[1] Balance between the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability is difficult to achieve: environmental and social costs are not generally paid by the entity that creates them, and are not expressed in the market price. Usually, these costs are either not addressed or are left to be resolved by government policy.[71] Trade-offs between environmental management and economic growth leads to disagreement about the relative importance of each.[1] This may include discussions of the relative importance of the three dimensions or objectives. The language involved frequently invokes the need to integrate, balance, and reconcile the dimensions without necessarily articulating what this means in practice.[1]

The physical limits of Earth and its ecosystems mean that the "aspirations for universal human well-being embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals" cannot be supported under current trends.[11]: 41 

How the preservation of ecological integrity (i.e. environmental sustainability) relates to other (social, economic) demands creates a moral dilemma. This dilemma is inevitable and can only be resolved by way of prioritizing or compromising ecological integrity.[5]

Measurement tools

Urban sustainability analysis of the greater urban area of the city of São Paulo using the 'Circles of Sustainability' method of the UN and Metropolis Association.[72]
Sustainability measurement are tools and methods that attempt to measure the degree of sustainability of processes, products, services, businesses and so forth. Sustainability is difficult to quantify, perhaps even immeasurable.[73] The metrics used to try and measure sustainability involve the sustainability of environmental, social and economic domains, (both individually and in various combinations) and are still evolving. They include indicators, benchmarks, audits, sustainability standards and certification systems like Fairtrade and Organic, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal[74] and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.[75][73] Some of the widely used sustainability measures include corporate sustainability reporting, Triple Bottom Line accounting, World Sustainability Society, and estimates of the quality of sustainability governance for individual countries using the Environmental Sustainability Index and Environmental Performance Index. The UN Human Development Index and the ecological footprints are methods to monitor sustainable development over time.[76][77]

Environmental impacts of humans

The following ways have been suggested to measure or describe humans' impacts on the Earth: ecological footprint, ecological debt, carrying capacity, sustainable yield.

The concept of planetary boundaries emphasizes that there are absolute thresholds of the carrying capacity of the planet which must not be exceeded in order to prevent irreversible harmful changes to the Earth system.[7][78] Components with expected planetary boundaries include: climate change, biodiversity loss (changed in 2015 to "change in biosphere integrity"), biogeochemical (nitrogen and phosphorus), ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols, chemical pollution (changed in 2015 to "introduction of novel entities").[7][79]

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2005 measured 24 ecosystem services and concluded that only four have shown improvement over the last 50 years, while 15 are in serious decline and five are in a precarious condition.[80]: 6–19 

Economic costs

The doughnut model, with indicators to what extent the ecological ceilings are overshot and social foundations are not met yet

The field of environmental economics has proposed different methods for calculating the cost (or price) associated with the use of public natural resources. The damage to ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity have been calculated in the project The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) from 2007 to 2011.[81]

Sustainability economics means taking a long-term view of human welfare. One way of doing this is by considering the social discount rate. This is the rate by which future costs and benefits should be discounted when making decisions about the future. The more one is concerned about future generations, the lower the social discount rate should be.[82] Another method is to quantify the services that ecosystems provide to humankind and put an economic value on them, so that environmental damage may be assessed against perceived short-term welfare benefits. For example, it has been calculated that "for every dollar spent on ecosystem restoration, between three and 75 dollars of economic benefits from ecosystem goods and services can be expected".[83]

In recent years, the concept of doughnut economics has been developed by the British economist Kate Raworth to integrate social and environmental sustainability into economic thinking. The social dimension is here portrayed as a minimum standard to which a society should aspire, whereas an outer limit is imposed by the carrying capacity of the planet.[84]

Barriers

The political goal of sustainability, as formulated in the "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development" (the 17 Sustainable Development Goals), is very comprehensive and ambitious. The declaration stated that "In these Goals and targets, we are setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision" and have called the SDGs to be "of unprecedented scope and significance".[38]: 3/35  Due to the high complexity of this goal, there are many reasons to explain why sustainability is so difficult to achieve.[3][15] Such reasons are also called sustainability barriers. These barriers need to be analyzed and understood. Only then can they be addressed effectively so that a sustainability transition becomes possible.[3]: 34 

Some sustainability barriers have their origins in nature and its complexity ("everything is related").[18] Others are rooted in the human condition: the value-action gap, for instance, relates to the fact that we often do not act according to our convictions. These barriers have been called intrinsic to the concept of sustainability as such.[85]: 81 

Other barriers are extrinsic to the concept of sustainability. This means they could in principle be overcome, for example by putting a price tag on the consumption of public goods.[85]: 84  A number of extrinsic sustainability barriers are related to the dominant institutional frameworks where market mechanisms often fail for public goods. Also, legal frameworks rarely consider issues of intergenerational justice and future generations. Existing societies, economies and cultures incite consumption expansion. Therefore, the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies inhibits necessary societal change.[86]

Furthermore, there are several barriers related to the difficulties of implementing sustainability policies. There are trade-offs to be made between objectives of environmental policies (such as nature conservation) and those focused on economic development (such as poverty reduction).[15][3]: 65  There are also trade-offs between short-term profit and long-term viability. Political pressures generally favor the short term over the long term and thus constitute a barrier to actions oriented toward improving sustainability.[85]: 86 

Barriers working against sustainability can also be due to the Zeitgeist, such as consumerism and short-termism.[85]: 86 

Transitions

Components and characteristics

A sustainability transition is a structural and potentially radical transformation to a more sustainable society. The definition for "sustainability transition" as proposed by the European Environment Agency states: "A fundamental and wide-ranging transformation of a socio-technical system towards a transition more sustainable configuration that helps alleviate persistent problems such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss or resource scarcities."[87] The concept of sustainability transitions is a similar concept to energy transitions.[88]

A sustainability transition must be "supported by a new kind of culture, a new kind of collaboration, a new kind of leadership".[89] It requires substantial investment in "new and greener capital goods, while simultaneously shifting capital away from unsustainable systems".[11]: 107  It also requires actively demoting unsustainable options.[11]: 101 

To achieve a sustainability transition, societies would have to undergo changes in fundamental values and organizing principles.[40]: 15  These new values would emphasize "the quality of life and material sufficiency, human solidarity and global equity, and affinity with nature and environmental sustainability".[40]: 15  Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements.[86]

Scientists have pointed out that: "Sustainability transitions come about in diverse ways, and all require civil-society pressure and evidence-based advocacy, political leadership, and a solid understanding of policy instruments, markets, and other drivers."[16]

Four overlapping processes of transformation have been identified: they are either led by technology, markets, government or citizens.[17] They each have different political dynamics.

The IPAT formula, which was developed in the 1970s, states that the environmental impact of humans is proportional to human population, affluence and technology.[90] Therefore, to decrease environmental impact and to increase sustainability, routes such as human population control, reducing consumption and affluence[86] (e.g. reducing energy consumption), and developing innovative or green technologies (e.g. renewable energy) would all be beneficial. In other words, the broad aim would be to have fewer consumers and less environmental footprint per consumer or person.

Action principles

There are four types of action principles that people and decision-makers can follow to facilitate more sustainable societies:[3]: 206 

  • Nature-related principles: Decarbonize; reduce human environmental impact by efficiency, sufficiency and consistency; be net-positive – build up environmental and societal capital; prefer local, seasonal, plant-based and labor-intensive; polluter-pays principle; precautionary principle; and appreciate and celebrate the beauty of nature
  • Personal principles: practice contemplation, apply policies cautiously, celebrate frugality
  • Society-related principles: Grant the least privileged the greatest support; seek mutual understanding, trust and multiple wins; strengthen social cohesion and collaboration; engage the stakeholders; foster education – share knowledge and collaborate.
  • Systems-related principles: Apply systems thinking, foster diversity, increase the transparency of the publicly relevant, maintain or increase option diversity.

Example steps

Some example steps humanity can take in three areas to transition to (environmental) sustainability include (as per the update to the 1992 World Scientists' Warning to Humanity):[16] In the area of reduced consumption: reducing food waste, promoting dietary shifts towards mostly plant-based foods. In the area of reducing the number of consumers: further reducing fertility rates and thus population growth; and in the area of technology and nature conservation: maintaining nature's ecosystem services, promoting new green technologies and adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly announced in the Agenda 2030 for the Sustainable Development Goals: "We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path."[38] The 17 goals and targets lay out some of the transformative steps. For example, with regard to the future of the planet Earth, the UN's pledge is to "protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations."[38]

Options for overcoming barriers

Issues around economic growth

In order to resolve the dilemma of economic growth versus environmental conservation, the concept of eco-economic decoupling has been proposed. The idea would be to decouple environmental bads from economic goods as a path towards sustainability.[13] This would mean "using less resources per unit of economic output and reducing the environmental impact of any resources that are used or economic activities that are undertaken" [49]: 8  Pressure on the environment can be measured by the intensity of pollutants emitted. Decoupling can then be measured by following changes in the emission intensity associated with economic output.[49] Examples of absolute long-term decoupling are rare, but some industrialized countries have decoupled GDP growth from both production and, to a lesser extent, consumption-based CO2 emissions.[91] But even in this example decoupling alone is not sufficient and needs to be complemented by "sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets".[91] : 1 

In 2020, a meta-analysis of 180 scientific studies notes that there is "no evidence of the kind of decoupling needed for ecological sustainability" and that "in the absence of robust evidence, the goal of decoupling rests partly on faith".[13] The possibilities for decoupling and thus the feasibility of green growth have been questioned.[14] Decoupling on its own will not be sufficient to reduce environmental pressures to the required extent, but needs to go hand in hand with addressing the issue of economic growth.[14] Adequate decoupling is currently not taking place due to rising energy expenditure, rebound effects, problem shifting, the underestimated impact of services, the limited potential of recycling, insufficient and inappropriate technological change, and cost-shifting.[14]

The decoupling of economic growth from environmental deterioration is difficult because environmental and social costs are not generally paid by the entity that causes them, and are therefore not expressed in the market price.[71] In other words, the causal entities (businesses, etc.) tend to be free riders regarding environmental goods. For example, the cost of packaging is factored into the price of a product, but the cost of disposing of that packaging is not factored in. In economics, such factors are considered externalities, in this case a negative externality.[92] Companies do not have an incentive to reduce packaging or to choose recyclable materials because they are not required to pay for disposal. Usually, externalities are either not covered at all or left to be addressed by government action or by local governance.

The Sustainable Development Goals adopted some conservative and unambitious perspectives on the tensions between economic growth and environmental sustainability. This is evident, for example, in their emphasis on longstanding but dubious claims about decoupling and resource efficiency as technological solutions to the environmental crisis.[4]: 145 

Some examples of potential incorporation of environmental and social costs and benefits into economic activities include: taxing the activity (the polluter pays); subsidizing activities that have a positive environmental or social effect (rewarding stewardship); and outlawing particular levels of damaging practices (legal limits on pollution).[71]

Government action and local governance

Without government action, natural resources are often over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term. A textbook on natural resources and environmental economics stated in 2011: "Nobody who has seriously studied the issues believes that the economy's relationship to the natural environment can be left entirely to market forces."[93]: 15 

Related to this aspect, Elinor Ostrom (winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences) stated that the choice should not be limited to either the market or the national government, and that local governance (or self-governance) can in fact be a suitable third option.[94] Her empirical work involved field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources.[95] She showed that over time, communities using natural resources such as pastures, fishing waters, and forests can establish rules for use and maintenance that can lead to both economic and ecological sustainability.[94] An important requirement for the success of self-governance is to have groups in which participants are frequently communicating. In this case, groups can manage the usage of common goods without overexploitation.[3]: 117  Based on Ostrom's work, it has been pointed out that: "Common-pool resources today are overcultivated because the different agents do not know each other and cannot directly communicate with one another."[3]: 117 

Global governance

Questions of global concern are difficult to tackle because global issues would require global solutions. But the existing global organizations (UN, WTO and others) are not sufficiently equipped. They have hardly any sanctioning mechanisms to enforce existing global regulation. Furthermore, they are not always accepted by all nations (an example is the International Criminal Court), their agendas are not aligned (for example UNEP, UNDP and WTO), or they are being accused of nepotism and mismanagement.[3]: 135–145  There are also challenges that multilateral international agreements, treaties and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) face and which result in barriers to sustainability: There is a dependence on voluntary commitments (for example Nationally Determined Contributions for climate action), existing national or international regulation not being effectively enforced, and there are regulatory white spaces and control deficits for international actors (including multi-national enterprises). Lastly, many international public organizations (such as WTO, IMF, World Bank, UNFCCC, G7, G8, OECD) are lacking perceived legitimacy and democracy.[3]: 135 

Responses by non-government stakeholders

Businesses

Today, the public primarily associates sustainable production with special seals of quality (here the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) seal for wood products in a forest in Germany).

Sustainable business practices integrate ecological concerns with social and economic ones.[96][97] One accounting framework for this approach is called the triple bottom line which uses the phrase "people, planet, and profit". The circular economy is a related concept in sustainability with the ultimate goal of decoupling environmental pressure from economic growth.[98][99]

Growing attention towards sustainability has led to the formation of many organizations such as the Sustainability Consortium of the Society for Organizational Learning,[100] the Sustainable Business Institute,[101] and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.[102] Supply chain sustainability refers to companies' efforts to consider the environmental and human impact of their products' journey through the supply chain, from raw materials sourcing to production, storage, delivery and every transportation link in between.[103]

Religious communities

Religious leaders have stressed the importance of caring for nature and environmental sustainability. In 2015 over 150 leaders from various faiths issued a joint statement to the UN Climate Summit in Paris 2015.[104] They reiterated an earlier statement made in the Interfaith Summit in New York in 2014: "As representatives from different faith and religious traditions, we stand together to express deep concern for the consequences of climate change on the earth and its people, all entrusted, as our faiths reveal, to our common care. Climate change is indeed a threat to life, a precious gift we have received and that we need to care for."[105]

Individuals

Individuals can change their lifestyles and practice ethical consumerism and embrace frugality if they want to live more sustainably.[3]: 236  Sustainable living approaches can reduce environmental impacts by altering the built environment to make cities more sustainable.[106] Such approaches can include for example sustainable transport, sustainable architecture and zero emission housing. Research can identify the main issues to focus on primarily (flying, meat and dairy products, car driving, household sufficiency, etc.) and how cultures of sufficiency, care, solidarity and simplicity can be created.[86]

Young people are using a combination of activism, litigation and on-the-ground efforts to advancing sustainability, particularly in the area of climate action.[60]: 60 

Critique

Impossible to reach

The concepts of sustainability and sustainable development have been criticized from different angles. According to Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the first report to the Club of Rome, called "The Limits to Growth", many people deceive themselves by using the Brundtland definition of sustainability.[45] This is because the needs of the present generation are actually not met today, and the economic activities to meet present needs will substantially diminish the options of future generations.[107][3]: 27  Another criticism is that the paradigm of sustainability is no longer suitable as a guide (or road map) for transformation due to the fact that our societies are "socially and ecologically self-destructive consumer societies".[108]

Some scholars have even proclaimed the end of the concept of sustainability due to "the realities of the Anthropocene":[10] humans now have a significant impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems (for example causing unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss and climate change). It might become impossible to pursue a goal of sustainability when faced with these complex, radical and dynamic issues.[10] Others have called sustainability a utopian ideal: "we need to keep sustainability as an ideal; an ideal which we might never reach, which might be utopian, but still a necessary one".[3]: 5 

Vague and unclear

The term has been hijacked and lost its meaning: "Ask anyone what it means and they will give you a wide range of answers from saving the planet to recycling".[23] As sustainability is a concept that provides a normative structure (describing what human society regards as good or desirable), a specific definition may never be possible.[2]

On the other hand, whilst "sustainability" is vague and contested it is not meaningless.[2] Although lacking in a singular definition, a concept such as sustainability is still useful. Scholars have pointed out that its fuzziness can actually be liberating.[18] It means that "the basic goal of sustainability (maintaining or improving desirable conditions, and more broadly strengthening the capacity to do so) can be pursued with more flexibility".[18]

Confusion and greenwashing

Sustainability has a reputation as a buzzword.[1][109] Confusion and mistrust can result when special interest groups attempt to apply the terms sustainability and sustainable development in ways that are contradictory to more widely accepted conceptualizations.[18] Ambiguous use of the term is problematic. Therefore, a clear identification of how the term is being used in a particular situation would be beneficial.[18]

Greenwashing is the practice of deceptive marketing by a company or organization by providing misleading information about the sustainability of a product, policy or other environment-harming activity.[60]: 26  This makes products appear more sustainable (more environmentally friendly, natural, healthier, free of chemicals, recyclable, less wasteful of natural resources) than they actually are.[110] Investors are wary of this issue as it exposes them to risk.[111] The reliability of eco-label is also doubtful in some cases.[112] Ecolabelling is a voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labelling that is attached to food and consumer products. The most credible eco-labels are those that are developed with close participation from all relevant stakeholders.[113]

See also

References

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