Sustainable Development


6 min reading time

1. Definition

© Yeti studio | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021  

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

© Lucky Team Studio | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2021

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.

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. 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

© Feng Yu | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2023

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

Ecological footprint

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. 

© freesoulproduction | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018 

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.

© Aleutie | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018 

Growing consumption

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

© Ljupco Smokovski | 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

Stockholm Resilience Centre

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.

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.


© 24Novembers | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2023

Every day, around 100 species of living beings become irreversibly extinct.

We are exhausting natural resources worldwide.

We are experiencing a gradual loss of our livelihood.


© Arthimedes | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018

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

Through overuse and conversion, we are constantly losing fertile agricultural land. In the past 150 years, almost half of the fertile soil on Earth has disappeared.

Between 2015 and 2019, at least 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land were degraded every year, 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

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

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

5. Sustainability Worldwide

© Difught | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2019 

The year 2015 - a milestone?

  • UN Agenda 2030
    September 2015
    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
    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

© Photobank gallery © Ranglen © Scharfsinn | Shutterstock, Inc. [US] 2018/19