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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
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.
Without such a common understanding of sustainability, however, the transformation to a sustainable society can hardly be accomplished.
2. The Great Transformation
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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.
Source: World in 2050 Initiative. 2018. Transformations to achieve the sustainable development goals.
Sustainable development is hardly conceivable
- without moving away from the predominantly linear economy towards a consistent circular economy,
- without simultaneously cutting back on overconsumption and
- without rapidly reducing CO2 emissions.
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.
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.
3. Facts on Non-Sustainability
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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.
Source: Earth Overshoot Day
On 13 May 2022, the Swiss population had already consumed more natural resources than it was 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.
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% (adjusted for inflation) - 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
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Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018
Within the lifetime of one single generation...
... the world population, global CO2 emissions, resource and energy consumption increased at an unprecedented rate:
Source: Christian Berg. 2020. Online presentation of the new report to the Club of Rome – Sustainable Action. Overcoming the Barriers.
4. The Planetary Boundaries
The nine planetary boundaries
Stockholm Resilience Centre
If we exceed planetary boundaries, abrupt or irreversible environmental changes can occur.
If we do not exceed them, humanity will be able to evolve and thrive over generations.
We have already shot past 4 of the 9 planetary boundaries.
- Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)
- Climate change
- Land system change
- Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans [Nutrient cycles]
- Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
- Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
- Ocean acidification
- Stratospheric ozone depletion
- Atmospheric aerosol loading
According to a new study, chemical pollution has probably already exceeded the boundary.
Linn Persson et al. 2022. Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities. Journal of Environmental Science & Technology.
A reassessment of the planetary boundary for freshwater indicates that it has now been transgressed.
Stockholm Resilience Centre. Freshwater boundary exceeds safe limits. Published 2022.04.26
And ocean acidification is nearing the boundary.
We do not know,
- whether the loss of livelihoods on Earth caused by the pollution will continue to progress gradually, or
- when individual systems will suddenly and unexpectedly tip over.
Research concludes that the world is already in danger of passing 5 of the 16 climate tipping points with the current level of global warming:
- The melting of the Greenland ice sheets.
- The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheets.
- A widespread abrupt thawing of permafrost.
- A collapse of convection in the Labrador Sea.
- A massive die-off of tropical coral reefs.
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In just 200 years, the world's population has grown from 900 million to 8,000 million people. By the year 2100, according to the UNO an estimated 9,000 - 10,000 million people are to live on our Earth.
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.
Source: UN - World Prospects: The 2015 Revision
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In the past 150 years, almost half of the fertile soil on Earth has disappeared.
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We are changing the climate, with serious consequences for both us humans and nature.
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Globally, the proportion of livestock has increased to 65% and that of us humans to 32%. The proportion of all wild animals has dropped to 3%.
[Percentage of biomass of all vertebrates].
70 % of all birds on the planet are chickens and other farmed birds, 30 % are wild.
Damian Carrington. Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study. The Guardian 21 May 2018
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Every day, around 100 species of living beings become irreversibly extinct.
Through overuse and conversion, we are constantly losing fertile agricultural land and we are exhausting natural resources worldwide.
We are experiencing a gradual loss of our
5. Sustainability Worldwide
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The year 2015 - a milestone?
- 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.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals intend to guide world politics towards a sustainable development.
This means that all states are 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.
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
A sustainable development is the new
challenge with great opportunities for all of us, a learning process that demands all our creativity.
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