4. What does sustainability mean?
Definition - Facts about non-sustainability - Provision and solidarity - Sustainable business practice - Sustainability worldwide
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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
As simple as these definitions are, it is difficult to achieve a unified, shared understanding of sustainability. Without such a common understanding of sustainability, however, the transformation to a sustainable society can hardly be accomplished.
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...ecologically effective and socially just.
So we have to move towards a sustainable life, even if there is no master plan on how to achieve the transformation of our present society - with its perpetual expansion - towards sustainable development.
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.
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
Sustainable development is hardly conceivable without  moving away from the predominantly linear economy towards a consistent circular economy,  simultaneously cutting back on overconsumption and  rapidly reducing CO2 emissions.
Facts on non-sustainability
Earth Overshoot Day
On this day, humanity has used up all the natural resources that the Earth can restore within one year and thus provide sustainably.
The example of Switzerland and its ecological footprint
On 11 May 2021, the Swiss population had already consumed more natural resources than it is entitled to for the whole year.
If all the people in the world lived like we do in Switzerland, then we would need three planets as big as our Earth.
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Every year, humankind consumes goods and
services equivalent to the annual regenerative capacity of 1.7 planets.
The 8-tonne society
For a truly sustainable lifestyle Germany, for example, should reduce its resource consumption by a factor of 4 from today's approximately 30 tonnes per capita and per year to around 8 tonnes in the longer term.
This can be achieved if, on the one hand, the economy moves from a still predominantly linear economy to a resource-efficient circular economy and, on the other hand, the population reduces over-consumption.
In order to curb climate change, greenhouse gas
emissions are also to be rapidly reduced in the coming years by a factor of 4
to 2 tonnes per person and year, from the current level of around 8 tonnes.
According to Uwe Schneidewind. 2018. Die Grosse Transformation - Eine Einführung in die Kunst gesellschaftlichen Wandels.
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The US population is 60% larger than it was in 1970, but consumer spending is up 400% - and other rich nations aren't much better.
According to Jamie Waters. Overconsumption and the environment: Should we all stop shopping? The Observer. 30.May.2021
Within the lifetime of one single generation...
world population, resource and energy consumption increased at an unprecedented rate:
Provision and solidarity
Among other things, for us people in the rich countries, sustainable living means,
1. Providing for the future humans on our earth.
2. Showing solidarity with other people in the world.
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Are we worried today?
When it comes to action, environmental and climate protection has not yet been taken on board by the majority of us.
Several sources: The figures indicate the order of magnitude, exact data are lacking.
And what about greenhouse gas emissions?
In fact, China is the single largest emitter of carbon. This is, however, largely due to goods produced in China but consumed elsewhere in the world.
If we attribute the emissions to where the consumption takes place, North Americans consume 22.5 tons of CO2e per year per person, Western Europeans 13.1, Chinese 6, and South Asia just 2.2.
Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. 2019. Good Economics for Hard Times - Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems.
The citizens of rich countries and, more generally, the rich worldwide, bear an overwhelming responsibility for any future climate change.
The facts are clear,
- today we are clearly living at the expense of future generations,
- our descendants probably will have to pay a big price for our overuse and pollution of planet Earth, and
- at most they will have to live with severe restrictions.
Sustainable business practice
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Think about what's coming in advance.
The circular economy is one of the expedient concepts of sustainable economic activity, but is still far too little implemented today.
In the circular economy, resource use, waste production, emissions and energy waste are minimised by closing energy and material cycles.
Products should be developed from the outset in such a way that, after use, the raw materials can be extracted and reused without any loss of quality, or fed back into the biological cycle without damaging human health or the environment.
«Only 9 % of the world economy is currently circular. Just 9 % of the 92.8 billion tonnes of material that enter the economy are re-used annually».
Turning away from a predominantly linear economy requires many political, economic and social decisions.
Circular Economy Action Plan - EU Commission 2020
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Perceive critical developments at an early stage.
The precautionary principle is probably one of the most effective ways of sustainably protecting our environment.
Critical developments are corrected early on, i.e. initial measures are taken at an early stage against potential critical developments.
The precautionary principle applies when scientific evidence is insufficient or uncertain and preliminary expert reports indicate potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human beings, animals, or plants.
The precautionary principle is becoming more and more important, since today, as far as the environment is concerned, we are likely to cause far more new problems than we are to solve existing problems.
The precautionary principle European Parliamentary Research Service 2015
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The year 2015
A milestone for global sustainability?
- UN Agenda 2030
169 countries sign 17 Sustainable Development Goals to guide global policy towards sustainable development.
United Nations - Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
- 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.
United Nations - Paris Agreement
- Pontifical Enzyklika Laudato Sì
Pope Francis proclaims his vision of the world. At the centre is the vulnerability of creation.
Laudato Si' by Pope Francis - On Care for Our Common Home.
Transformation of Our World
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals intend to guide world politics towards a sustainable development.
This means that all states are equally challenged to solve the urgent challenges of the world together.
People should have relevant information and awareness of sustainable development by 2030 - all across the world.
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2019
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
Unsustainable development is rapidly degrading Earth's capacity to sustain human well-being.
Making Peace with Nature. UN environment programme. 2021
It isn't the goal of transforming our society towards a sustainable development that is utopian, but rather the view that today's non-sustainable development can simply be maintained.