In order to make the progress we need on sustainability, we must understand key sustainability concepts, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, ecological footprints, and planetary boundaries. These are ways of understanding how we relate to the environment and society and our impact.
THE CASE FOR CHANGE
Our modern practices are unsustainable. We are depleting natural resources, polluting the air, water, and land that all species, including ourselves, depend on for survival. The consequences of our actions are becoming increasingly evident as rising global temperatures lead to natural disasters and the degradation of once-thriving habitats. We are producing large amounts of non-organic waste with no plan to manage or reduce what we produce or consume. We continue to base our global market economy on a model of infinite growth, despite a finite planet and resources.
Consider this: over the course of 4,600 billion years, evolution shaped life into the intricate and interconnected web we witness today. However, within a mere 300 years since the Industrial Revolution, we have been depleting and destroying natural resources at a rate that surpasses their creation.
This reality calls for a profound re-evaluation of our relationship with the environment, recognising our dependence on natural resources, and challenging the belief in infinite growth within a finite world.
Sustainability goes beyond adjusting daily practices — it requires a holistic approach. By understanding the interconnectedness of all life, we can mitigate climate change, conserve resources, protect biodiversity, and foster social equity.
The key sustainability concepts covered in this article provide a comprehensive foundation for individuals to engage with the complex challenges and opportunities of sustainability. This knowledge can enable us to make informed decisions, drive positive change, and contribute to a more sustainable and thriving world for all. At the end of the article you’ll find additional resources and a glossary of key sustainability terms.
To understand how sustainability has evolved over time, check out my article, The Evolution of Sustainability: Shaping Mindsets & Policies.
THE UNITED NATIONS SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals that most countries in the world have agreed to achieve by 2030. They are ‘the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.’ — United Nations
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
The SDGs are important because they:
- Provide a framework for considering the impacts of all human activity on the plane
- Set clear issues that we need to collectively address.
- Help governments, the private sector, civil society, and individuals align around core issues.
THE NEED FOR A PARADIGM SHIFT
The modern paradigms which drive and reward profits and power have led to enormous destruction and unsustainable practices. These dominant paradigms have largely shaped our perception of the world, our idea of success, and much more. To shift our lifestyles and transform our institutions, we will need to shift our paradigm, or mental model.
Humans, along with all other forms of life, need food, water, space, and stable conditions to survive. Rather than viewing humans as separate or superior to other life, we require a shift in perspective to recognising that humans are part of the natural world. By recognising the common needs we share with all organisms, we can begin to shift our perspective from a view of humans as separate and superior, to viewing humans as members of the natural world in relationship with all living things. From there, we can begin to empathise with other life forms and act accordingly.
The paradigm shift required is nicely captured as a move from ego-system to ecosystem.
According to Otto Scharmer, founder of U-school for Transformation, ‘Meeting the challenges of this century requires updating our operating system from an obsolete “ego-system” focused entirely on the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that emphasizes the well-being of the whole.’ (U-School)
There are several different ways of measuring the impact of our actions on the planet. One well-respected methodology is the Ecological Footprint Methodology. This looks at the amount of “biologically productive area it takes to provide for all the competing demands of people,” mapping the global impacts that individuals and countries have, based on everyday lifestyle choices.
The Global Footprint Network, in collaboration with WWF, publishes a bi-annual Living Planet Report, which looks at the state of global biodiversity impacts based on the ecological footprint methodology. Key findings in the 2022 report include:
- We are living through two linked emergencies: climate and biodiversity.
- Land use change is the most important driver of biodiversity loss.
- There has been an average 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018.
- Transformational changes are essential in how we produce and consume, the technology we use, and our economic and financial systems.
Each year, the Global Footprint Network calculates the Earth Overshoot Day, which indicates the calendar date by which we will have collectively used up more ecological resources and services than the Earth can replenish. In 2023, August 2 was Earth Overshoot Day.
Measure your ecological footprint and personal overshoot day at the Global Footprint Network. Once you have calculated your footprint, try redoing it to see what changes you could make to reduce your footrprint.
The Planetary Boundaries concept was introduced in 2009 by a group of 28 internationally acclaimed scientists, and aimed to define and quantify the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate. The original concept presents a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive. However, crossing these boundaries could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes with catastrophic consequences (Stockholm Resilience Center).
In 2015, several of the scientists in the original group published an update with new co-authors. According to this update, four of the boundaries have been crossed: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen) (Steffen, 2015). In 2022, novel entities was added as the fifth transgressed planetary boundary (Persson, 2022). In the image below, orange sections indicate overshoot of boundaries, and green sections indicate a safe state within the boundaries.
Stockholm Resilience Centre (2022)
Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, envisions a world in which people and planet can thrive in balance by living within social and planetary boundaries. The Doughnut’s social foundation is derived from the social priorities in the SDGs and sets out the minimum standard of living to which every human being has a claim. The Doughnut’s ecological ceiling comprises the nine planetary boundaries explored above. Between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling lies a doughnut-shaped space in which it is possible to meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet — an ecologically safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.
Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics
Millions of people currently lead lives that fall far short of the social foundation’s internationally agreed minimum standards, ranging from nutrition and health care to housing, income, and energy. Improving humanity’s wellbeing depends on eliminating both social shortfalls and ecological overshoots.
CLIMATE CHANGE & GLOBAL WARMING
Sustainability is the overarching framework that climate change action fits within.
Climate change, also referred to as global warming, is the ongoing increase in global average temperature, and its effects on Earth’s climate system. Climate change also includes previous long-term changes to Earth’s climate. The current rise in global average temperature is more rapid than previous changes and is primarily caused by humans burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuel use, deforestation, and some agricultural and industrial practices increase greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases absorb some of the heat that the Earth radiates after it warms from sunlight. Larger amounts of these gases trap more heat in Earth’s lower atmosphere, causing global warming.
Climate change has broad and far-reaching impacts on:
- Humans: food, health, and livelihoods.
- The environment: oceans, ice, and weather.
- Nature and wildlife: it is expected that climate change will lead to the extinction of many species.
The Paris Agreement
In 2015, a global agreement known as the Paris Agreement was signed. Its overarching goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
However, in recent years, world leaders have stressed the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century. That’s because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that crossing the 1.5°C threshold risks unleashing far more severe climate change impacts, including more frequent and severe droughts, heatwaves, and rainfall. To limit global warming to 1.5°C, greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43% by 2030.
Carbon represents 60% of humanity’s overall Ecological Footprint and is its most rapidly growing component. Reducing humanity’s carbon footprint is the most essential step we can take to end overshoot and live within the means of our planet. (Global Footprint Network).
Our World in Data has calculated that global average temperatures have increased by more than 1°C since pre-industrial times.
Our World in Data
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2023 Report concluded, “Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming … Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred. Human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. …. Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected. … [It is] likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C.”
The WEF Global Risks Report 2023 identified the top three global risks over the next 10 years as failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate-change adaption, and natural disasters and extreme weather events.
You can work out your carbon footprint by using the Global Footprint Network Carbon Calculator.
Climate Change Mitigation
Limiting warming, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing them from the atmosphere, is known as climate change mitigation.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that countries need to triple their pledges under the Paris Agreement within the next decade to limit global warming to 2°C. An even greater level of reduction is required to meet the 1.5°C goal.
Carbon accounting is when an organisation audits its carbon emissions against three categorised scopes, and then takes actions to reduce or mitigate them. There are three scopes of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions to support measurement and reporting.
- Scope 1: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are from sources owned or controlled by the reporting entity.
- Scope 2: indirect GHG emissions associated with the production of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by the reporting entity.
- Scope 3 Emissions: all other indirect emissions, i.e., emissions associated with the extraction and production of purchased materials, fuels, and services, including transport in vehicles not owned or controlled by the reporting entity, outsourced activities, waste disposal, etc. (IPCC 2014 Annex)
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol is a set of standardised frameworks for measuring and managing GHG emissions generated by public and private sector operations and supply chains.
Climate Change Adaptation
Climate change adaptation is the process of adjusting to the effects of climate change. These can be both current and expected impacts. The IPCC defines climate change adaptation in this way:
- “In human systems, as the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate harm or take advantage of beneficial opportunities.”
- “In natural systems, adaptation is the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate this.”
The IPCC identifies four categories of adaptation responses:
- Infrastructural and technological adaptation (including engineering, built environment, and high-tech solutions).
- Institutional adaptation (economic organisations, laws and regulation, government policies and programmes).
- Behavioural and cultural (individual and household strategies as well as social and community approaches).
- Nature-based solutions (including ecosystem-based adaptation options).
Project Drawdown is “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming”. Project Drawdown identifies three connected calls to action:
- Reduce Sources — bringing emissions to zero.
- Support Sinks — uplifting nature’s carbon cycle.
- Improve Society — fostering equality for all.
Here is Project Drawdown’s framework for climate solutions:
We are Nature & Nature is Us
Nature is not just something beautiful for us to enjoy. It makes up the entire living organism that is the planet and provides the services that support all life on Earth. Without nature, no human or any other species of animal or plant would exist. We are all interconnected and dependent on nature for the things that keep us alive: oxygen, water, and food.
Humans make up only 0.01% of the world’s biomass. 83% of the world’s biomass is made up of plants. Despite this, our actions dominate all other aspects of the planet. Scientists say we have entered a new geological time called the Anthropocene (the time in which the collective activities of human beings began to substantially alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans, and systems of nutrient cycling).
Biodiversity defines the variety and complexity of life on Earth. Biodiversity refers to every living thing, including plants, bacteria, animals, and humans that live in the biosphere (the zone of life between the depths of the ocean and a few kilometres into the atmosphere).
Biodiversity can be measured and is often defined by a classification of communities of similar life forms, or locations and interrelationships.
Ecosystem services are the benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment grouped ecosystem services into:
- Provisioning e.g., such as the production of food and water
- Regulating e.g., control of climate and disease
- Supporting e.g., nutrient cycles and oxygen production
- Cultural e.g., spiritual and recreational benefits
The global economic measuring system of gross domestic product (GDP) doesn’t account for ecosystem services. Natural capital is the world’s stock of natural resources, including geology, soils, air, water, and all living organisms. There is a movement to account for natural capital in economic measures.
The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in December 2022 reached a landmark agreement to guide global action through to 2030. The Global Biodiversity Framework (GDF) aims to address biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems and protect indigenous rights. The plan includes concrete measures to halt and reverse nature loss, including putting 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems under protection by 2030. It also contains proposals to increase finance to developing countries.
It has long been recognised that GDP is not an accurate measure of people’s wellbeing (OECD). Other measures of human wellbeing have been created.
The OECD Better Life Index considers:
- Material living conditions: income and wealth, jobs and earnings, and housing.
- Quality of life: health, work and life balance, education and skills, civic engagement and governance, social connections, environmental quality, personal security, and subjective wellbeing.
- Sustainability of wellbeing over time requires preserving natural, economic, human, and social capital.
The Happy Planet Index (HPI) measures human wellbeing and environmental impact and was introduced by the New Economics Foundation in 2006. The index is designed to challenge well established indices of countries’ development, such as gross domestic product (GDP) which measures the market value of goods and services produced within a country during a certain period. Each country’s HPI value is a function of four elements:
- Wellbeing: satisfaction with life overall.
- Life expectancy at birth.
- Inequality: the inequalities of people within a country.
- Ecological footprint: impact on the environment per capita.
In a world facing unprecedented challenges, understanding key sustainability concepts is crucial for creating a path towards a better future. The concepts explored in this article provide a solid foundation for individuals and communities to navigate the complex landscape of sustainability.
Everyone has the power to make a difference, whether through small changes in our daily habits or by advocating for systemic changes. It is through collective effort and collaboration that we can address the interconnected challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and social inequities.
Let this knowledge serve as a call to action — an invitation to embark on a journey of sustainability, armed with understanding, determination, and a shared commitment to building a better world for ourselves and future generations.
History of sustainability:
- David Christian, The History of our World in 18 Minutes
- Paul Gilding, The Earth is Full
- The Natural Step, The Sustainability Journey (2:41)
- How to make the world a better place by 2030 (Green)
- The World’s Largest Lesson Introduced by Malala Yousafzai (Saorín, 2015)
Happy Planet Index:
To keep exploring sustainability in theory and practice, check out these additional resources:
GLOSSARY OF KEY SUSTAINABILITY TERMS
This is an emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. (Wikipedia)
Carbon Offsets and Credits
A carbon offset is a reduction or removal of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases made to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. A carbon credit or offset credit is a transferable financial instrument certified by governments or independent certification bodies to represent an emission reduction that can then be bought or sold. Both offsets and credits are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. One carbon offset or credit represents the reduction or removal of one ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases. (Wikipedia)
A circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible. The three principles required for the transformation to a circular economy are: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. (Wikipedia)
Cleaner production is a preventative measure taken by companies to minimise waste and emissions and maximise productive output. (Wikipedia)
Closing the Loop
This is a concept promoted by some businesses as a solution to waste generation and in support of the circular economy. By closing the loop on the end-of-life impacts of a product during the design stage, the business can be redesigned to support end-to-end integrated systems.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
CSR is a form of business assessment and self-regulation that seeks to reduce the negative impacts of activities and contribute to positive goals of ethical conduct, philanthropic activity, environmental stewardship, and charitable actions. The goal is social and environmental accountability, whereby companies set their own targets and report annually on their progress.
Cradle to Cradle
Cradle-to-cradle design is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems that models human industry on nature’s processes, where materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms. (Wikipedia)
Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG)
ESG is an approach to investing that recommends taking environmental issues, social issues and governance issues into account when deciding which companies to invest in. (Wikipedia)
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
EPR is a strategy to add all the estimated environmental costs associated with a product throughout the product life cycle to the market price of that product. (Wikipedia)
In economics, an externality or external cost is an indirect cost or benefit to an uninvolved third party that arises as an effect of another party’s (or parties’) activity. Externalities can be considered as unpriced goods involved in either consumer or producer market transactions. Air pollution from motor vehicles is one example. The cost of air pollution to society is not paid by either the producers or users of motorised transport to the rest of society. (Wikipedia)
A green bond (also known as climate bond), is a financial tool used to fund projects that have positive environmental and / or climate benefits. (Wikipedia)
Green building (also known as green construction or sustainable building) refers to both a structure and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life cycle: from planning to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition. (Wikipedia)
A green economy is an economy that aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and that aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment (Wikipedia).
Industrial symbiosis describes how a network of diverse organisations can collaborate to ensure that resources are used efficiently, and value is cycled between them.
Life Cycle Thinking
Life cycle thinking is a framework that takes into consideration the whole of life environmental impacts of a product or service by looking at the impacts that actions in the economy have on natural systems by looking from the cradle to the grave.
A principle which is often applied to environmental law, this determines that the polluter should pay for the clean-up of the ecosystem that their actions have damaged.
A movement to make waste obsolete by designing solutions that move beyond waste as a socially acceptable concept.
Product stewardship acknowledges that those involved in producing, selling, using, and disposing of products have a shared responsibility to ensure that those products or materials are managed in a way that reduces their impact, throughout their lifecycle, on the environment and on human health and safety. (Wikipedia)
This is a whole systems approach to creating solutions which offer back more than is taken during their creation by exploring the way natural systems solve problems and creating things that are interconnected with them.
Also called eco-design, this is the concept of designing physical objects, the physical environment, and services to comply with the principles of ecological sustainability and aimed at improving the health and comfort of occupants in a building. (Wikipedia)
Sustainable procurement or green procurement is a process whereby organisations meet their needs for goods, services, works and utilities in a way that achieves value for money on a life-cycle basis while addressing equity principles for sustainable development, therefore benefiting societies and the environment across time and geographies. (Wikipedia)
Systems thinking is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. It has been used as a way of exploring and developing effective action in complex contexts, enabling systems change. (Wikipedia)
Triple Bottom Line (TBL)
TBL is an accounting framework with three parts: social, environmental, and economic. (Wikipedia)
Zero waste is a set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages redesigning resource life cycles so that all products are repurposed and/or reused. The goal is to avoid sending any waste to landfills, incinerators, oceans, or any other part of the environment.