Sustainable Development


5 min Reading time

1. Definition

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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. 

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. 

2. The Great 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. 
Source: 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. 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. The Planetary Boundaries

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The Planetary Boundaries concept presents a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. 

If we exceed planetary boundaries, abrupt or irreversible environmental changes can occur.

How we observe planetary boundaries
Helmholtz Climate Initiative

Six of the nine planetary boundaries have now been exceeded (1 - 6). And ocean acidification is nearing the boundary. This shows that Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity.

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

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, if their stress limit is exceeded.


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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. 
Source: Chi Xu etal. 2020. Future of the human climate niche. PNAS Vol. 117 | No. 21.


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
Wallpaper © Arpitcoolboy | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2023

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, impacting the lives of 1.3 billion people.
United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023.

Farm animals

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Of all the mammals on Earth, 60 % are livestock and 36 % humans, only 4% are wild mammals. 
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 more than 70 per cent of global agricultural land, although it only covers 18 per cent of humanity's calorie needs.
Poore et al., Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360, 987-992 (2018)

4. Sustainability Worldwide

© Difught | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019 

The year 2015 - a milestone?

  • UN Agenda 2030
    September 2015
    169 countries sign 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide global policy towards sustainable development.
    United Nations - Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • The Paris Climate Agreement
    December 2015
    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
    June 2015
    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 2030 Agenda is not an instruction manual on how to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Rather, it is a normative compass.

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