Sustainable

Earth's Capacity Limits



Six out of nine planetary boundaries have now been exceeded...

Transformation means that we determine what we want to keep and what we want to part from...

The term Sustainability is in danger of meaning everything and nothing...


Planetary Boundaries

 © studiostoks | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2023

Human development has ushered in an era of converging crises: climate change, ecological destruction, disease, pollution, and socioeconomic inequality. […]

Propelled by imperialism, extractive capitalism, and a surging population, we are speeding past Earth's material limits, destroying critical ecosystems, and triggering irreversible changes in biophysical systems that underpin the Holocene *) climatic stability which fostered human civilization.

A critical paradigm shift must occur that replaces exploitative, wealth-oriented capitalism with an economic model that prioritizes sustainability, resilience, and justice. 
Charles Fletcher etal. Earth at risk: An urgent call to end the age of destruction and forge a just and sustainable future. PNAS Nexus, Volume 3, Issue 4, April 2024, page106
*) The Holocene is a period in the Earth's history that began around 12,000 years ago and continues to the current day. Global temperature fluctuations during this period averaged only around 1° C.

Our planet has capacity limits for air pollution, biodiversity, the extent of climate change, and other factors. These are boundaries that must be respected if we are to preserve the basis for human life.

How we observe planetary boundaries
Helmholtz Climate Initiative

We have already crossed six out of nine planetary boundaries. 

1 Biosphere Integrity
2 Climate Change
3 Land Use
4 Nutrient Flows
5 Novel Entities
6 Freshwater
7 Ocean Acidification
8 Ozone Layer
9 Atmospheric Aerosols
Source: Katherine Richardson etal. Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries. Science Advances. 2023 Vol 9, Issue 37

For example, we have warmed the atmosphere by around 1.5°C globally and are on our way to overstepping a variety of irreversible tipping points in the climate system.

Global wildlife populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have declined by an average of 69% since 1970. 
Source: Living Planet Report 2022 - Building a naturepositive society. Almond, R.E.A., Grooten, M., Juffe Bignoli, D. & Petersen, T. (Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. 

Livelihood

© Arthimedes | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018

For more than 6,000 years, the human race has learned to live within a relatively narrow band of environmental and climatic fluctuations. The mean annual temperature over that period has been around 13º C.

Climate change-related rapid temperature rise combined with population growth means that about 30% of the world's projected population could be living in places with an average temperature above 29°C in the next 50 years.

Less than 1% of the Earth's land surface - mostly in the hottest parts of the Sahara desert - currently experiences this climate. But by 2070, almost a fifth of the planet's land area could reach these temperatures.
According to: C
hi Xu etal. 2020. Future of the human climate niche. PNAS Vol. 117 | No. 21.

 Water

© Ulrich Brunner 2023. Wallpaper © Aleks14 | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2023

We pollute drinking water worldwide with serious consequences for millions of people. Around 2,000 million people currently have no access to clean drinking water. And even more people are repeatedly suffering from water shortages.

Land

© Ulrich Brunner 2023. Wallpaper © Arpitcoolboy | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2023
Source: UN - World Prospects: The 2015 Revision

Between 2015 and 2019, at least 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land were degraded every year by overuse and conversion, affecting food and water security globally. The loss is equivalent to twice the size of Greenland. 
Source: United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023.

Overall, the tropics lost 3.7 million hectares of primary forest *) in 2023, a rate stubbornly consistent with previous years and still leaving the world far off track from the global goal of ending deforestation by 2030. Around 25 % of this loss was fire-related. 
Source: "Tropical Forest Loss Drops Steeply in Brazil and Colombia, but High Rates Persist Overall." Global Forest Review, updated April 4, 2024. World Resources Institute.
*) Primary forests are some of the densest, wildest and most ecologically significant forests on Earth.

Farm animals

© Peter Hermes Furian | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018

Of all the mammals on Earth, 60% are livestock and 36% humans, only 4% are wild mammals.
Source: Yinon M. Bar-On etal. 2018. The biomass distribution on Earth. PNAS Vol. 115 | No. 25

The production of meat and dairy products already takes up 70 - 80 per cent of global agricultural land, although it only covers 18 per cent of humanity's calorie requirements and 37 per cent of its protein needs.
Source: Poore et al., Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987-992 (2018)


The 1972 report The Limits to Growth dealt with the future of the world economy and voiced the grim forecast according to which the absolute limit of growth on Earth will be reached within the next hundred years if the current increase in world population, industralisation, pollution, food production, and the exploitation of natural resources continue unabated.

The publication on the limits to growth made a significant contribution to sustainability and futurology. The report was a milestone in two respects, on the one hand for futurology through the first computer-aided extrapolations into a more distant future, and on the other hand for sustainability research in order to scientifically substantiate the scope of ecological overexploitation. 
Translated from: Eine nachhaltige Zukunft? postwachstum.de/eine-nachhaltige-zukunft-20240123


10 years to transform the future of humanity or destabilize the planet
Climate has reached a crisis point
Video | Johann Rockström



Transformation

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Transformation means that we determine what we want to keep and preserve - and at the same time what we want to part from.
Translated from: Stefan Brunnhuber. 2023. Die Kunst der Transformation – Wie wir uns anpassen und die Welt verändern.
The large-scale social change, as required by the transformation to a sustainable development, first is a «battle» for hearts and minds of the people, and only afterwards accepted in legislation and economic policies.
World in 2050 Initiative. 2018. Transformations to achieve the sustainable development goals.
We have to acknowledge the next decade will be disruptive. Without a safety net people will dig in their heels, voters will be more likely to turn toward populist leaders, and citizens will reject a transformation that may feel like another attempt to line the pockets of the elite.
Dixson-Declève S. et.al. 2022. Earth for All. A Survival Guide for Humanity. A Report to the Club of Rome.

The transformation towards a more sustainable development will inevitably be linked to a structural change that knows winners and at least temporarily also losers.

In this respect, in addition to the effectiveness and efficiency of environmental policies, the associated distribution effects must also be taken into account. Issues of justice are thus to be taken seriously as the third central measure of environmental policies in order to ensure their legitimacy and approval.
Translated from: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Nr. 310/August 2018: Verantwortliche Umweltpolitik - ökologisch wirksam und sozial gerecht. 

© Ulrich Brunner 2024. Wallpapers © Aleutie + © Anson0618 | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019/2024

World Climate Council [IPCC] and World Council for Biodiversity [IPBES] independently agree that, from both a climate and a biodiversity perspective, a profound and comprehensive societal transformation is needed to halt biodiversity loss and global warming.

This change has a sustainable development as its goal and affects all sectors, including energy [moving away from fossil fuels in favour of renewable energies], land use [especially more environmentally friendly agricultural production] and forestry [protection and sustainable use of forests]. 
Translated from: Forum Biodiversität Schweiz. Akademie der Naturwissenschaften. Hotspot 43/2021

Changes in per capita consumption, shift in diets, and progress towards sustainable exploitation of natural resources, including reduced post-harvest waste, could make substantial contributions to addressing the biodiversity crisis, climate change mitigation and adaptation.
IPBES-IPCC co-sponsored workshop report on biodiversity and climate change. 2021. 

Last but not least, our resource-intensive way of life, with its immense emissions of greenhouse gases, the destruction of natural habitats and increasing pollution of land and sea, has led to a planetary crisis. It threatens the natural life-support systems on Earth and thus the health of all people. 

Because the increasing environmental and health problems often have common roots, synergies can be found in approaches to solving them. We are at a crossroads.

Society, business and politics must assume responsibility and initiate a comprehensive transformation that leads to healthy human life on a healthy planet.
Planetary Health: What we need to talk about. WBGU German Advisory Council on Global Change. 2021.



Global Sustainable Development Goals

© Anastasia Samorodova | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019  

The year 2015 - a milestone?

  • June 2015 - Pontifical Enzyklika Laudato Sì
    Pope Francis proclaims his vision of the world. At the centre is the vulnerability of creation.
  • September 2015 - UN Agenda 2030
    169 countries sign 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide global policy towards sustainable development
  • December 2015 - The Paris Climate Agreement
    196 member states of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agree to limit man-made global warming to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Definition Sustainability

Sustainability is a development that satisfies the needs of the present without risking that future generations will not be able to meet their own needs.
Brundtland Report
- Our Common Future. World Commission on the Environment and Development, 1987
Sustainability [ecology] is a principle according to which no more can be consumed, than can respectively be regrown, regenerated, and provided again in the future.
Translated from: Duden German Dictionary
Sustainability means - concisely formulated - good life for about ten billion people within the ecological boundaries on our planet.
Translated from: Uwe Schneidewind. Die Grosse Transformation - Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels. 2018
Sustainability is a guiding concept to secure and foster humane living conditions for all people worldwide, in the present and future, and to facilitate restoring and preserving the environmental foundations to enable this.
Mark Lawrence. 2023. How can I live sustainably. RIFS Research Institute for Sustainability Potsdam.

As simple as these definitions are, it is difficult to achieve a unified, shared understanding of sustainability. 

Sustainability is on everyone's lips, in politics, business and in private life. Everyone has an idea of what the term means and sets different priorities. The term is therefore in danger of meaning «everything and nothing».
Translated from: Agentur für Forschung. 2019. Wahrnehmung von "Nachhaltigkeit" - Bericht zur qualitativen Studie. Mannheim, 05. September 2019

Without a common understanding of sustainability, however, the transformation to a sustainable society can hardly be accomplished. 

Agenda 2030

The Sustainable Development Goals intend to guide world politics towards a sustainable development. This means that all states are called upon to solve the world's pressing challenges together. 

The 2030 Agenda is not an instruction manual on how to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Rather, it is a compass.

People should have relevant information and awareness of sustainable development by 2030 - all across the world.

Overview and explanation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development charts a new path of balance for humanity and the planet. The 17 Goals are highly interconnected.

Recent studies on the interactions between the Sustainable Development Goals identify the conservation of biodiversity as one of the most potent levers to achieve sustainability.
Swiss Academy of Sciences. Achieving the SDGs with Biodiversity. 2021

The SDG Progress Report [2023 = Half-time] shows that just 12 percent of the Sustainable Development Goal targets are on track. Progress on 50 percent is weak and insufficient.

Worst of all, we have stalled or gone into reverse on more than 30 percent of the SDGs.
António Guterres. Secretary-General's remarks to launch the Special Edition of the Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report. 25 April 2023