Global Sustainability Pathways Unveiled in Expert Survey
University of Eastern Finland
The majority of sustainable development researchers believe that in affluent countries, it is necessary to look beyond economic growth to achieve sustainable development, a recent study from the University of Eastern Finland suggests. The study, published in the scientific journal Ecological Economics, investigated the preferred future paths for countries at different income levels among 461 sustainability scholars. The survey results shed light on the strategic choices necessary for achieving global sustainability. The study focused on green growth and post-growth economic strategies. The green growth strategy aims to enhance both societal and environmental well-being as the economy grows. On the other hand, post-growth paths question this approach and advocate for a shift beyond growth, focusing on environmental and societal well-being instead of economic growth.
“This research reveals that an overwhelming majority of sustainability scholars, over 75 percent, support post-growth pathways for affluent countries already this decade. For less affluent countries, the majority of scholars favoured either green growth or post-growth pathways,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Teemu Koskimäki from the University of Eastern Finland, who conducted the study.Different paths are needed in countries with different income levels.In the study, scholars were asked to choose which pathways should be pursued in different country income groups in the 2020s and 2030s in order to achieve sustainable development globally. A comparison of the responses revealed that support for post-growth paths increased over time, while support for green growth declined in all contexts. Koskimäki emphasizes that the research results challenge the prevailing green growth-focused approach.“Currently, global Sustainable Development Goals are based on green growth. However, researchers emphasize the urgent need to consider post-growth strategies, particularly in affluent countries.”Koskimäki stresses the critical importance of understanding the views of sustainability scholars on suitable paths for countries of different income levels.
“Policy-makers at various levels and sectors may rely on these experts as they implement the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
Although sustainability scholars favour post-growth paths, the study shows they are not as familiar with this approach as they are with green growth.
“In my study, I address the challenges that this gap in knowledge and skills can create for achieving global sustainability,” Koskimäki says.
GDP is an insufficient measure of societal well-being
The study also found that most sustainability scholars who responded to the survey consider Gross Domestic Product, GDP, to be an inadequate measure of societal well-being.
“This underscores the need for a broader discussion of progress indicators, especially for wealthier countries, where the costs of continued consumption growth exceed its benefits,” says Koskimäki.
Based on the study’s conclusions, research, education, and policymaking should pay attention to targeted transformative change, with a particular focus on facilitating post-growth strategies in the wealthiest countries.
The study offers critical perspectives on the equitable and efficient implementation of various sustainability strategies and underscores the need for targeted approaches that take economic disparities between countries into account. According to Koskimäki, this recognition could facilitate the equitable and efficient achievement of sustainability, both locally and globally.
“The study reveals a potential contradiction between those sustainability paths addressed in sustainability reports and by political decision-makers and those favored by scholars. A broader, more inclusive conversation is needed to ensure that we are targeting the right transformations and implementing them in a controlled manner,” Koskimäki concludes.
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Universities must take “heroic action” to address the sustainability crisis after helping to lay its foundations by failing to take action sooner, Arizona State University president Michael Crow has claimed.
He said the sustainability emergency – which the GSDC is meeting to discuss urgent solutions for – was caused by the relationship between the built environment and the natural systems on which we are dependent.
Professor Crow told delegates at the event in Saudi Arabia that sustainability was “critical to our success as a species”.
“We in academia have contributed mightily to the designed environment, and hold much of the responsibility for the lack of sustainability of that built environment and its increasing disruption of the natural environment,” he said.
Professor Crow warned that the world was entering an “unbelievably challenging moment where everything is accelerating”, and that there were many things higher education could have done already but had not.
The sector’s inability to be “more conscious of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it” helped lay the foundations for the sustainability crisis today, he said.
“A lot of groups have been responsible for our lack of sustainability, but at the heart of all of them has been the academy, [and] the universities,” he added.
“It’s time for universities to really step up for heroic action in the way that universities did around some other issues in the past.
“It’s time for new types of knowledge to be produced, new ways of thinking.”
He called for universities to broaden the way they organised themselves because working in isolation would “not get us there quickly enough”.
The summit, held in the Middle East for the first time, is aiming to challenge the usual thinking on what higher education, with the support of governments, businesses and society, must do to help society meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“It’s time for us to mount up, to begin working together, to begin aligning together, to begin working across institutions and across the world to take on this notion of global sustainable development,” added Professor Crow.
Also speaking at the summit, Tony Chan, president of KAUST, said the world was in a state of crisis that imperiled all of humanity, and universities across the globe should act with resolve.
“Our required response to the present crisis must be of a scale and sense of urgency akin to how we must respond to major world wars,” he said.
“Our universities must cease to be exemplars of unsustainable practices and we must become the transformative enablers of sustainability for others.”
Those outside higher education took their cue not just from what universities preached, but from what they practised, said Dr Chan.
“If academics are serious about tackling sustainability challenges, we can’t wait for the cavalry to show up,” he said. “We are the cavalry.”
Ensuring responsible consumption and production patterns – as outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 – requires minimizing environmental impacts, enhancing resource efficiency and reducing waste.
In this regard, experts point out that competition and consumer protection policies are uniquely placed to help.
“Competition and consumer protection policies are conducive to improving the efficiency and fairness of markets and are therefore well placed to serve public policy goals,” said Teresa Moreira, head of competition and consumer policies at UNCTAD, while opening a high-level session of the UN Trade Forum 2023 on 9 May.
The meeting gathered experts from academia, international organizations as well as government agencies from Austria, Cabo Verde, Greece, Kenya, Russia and South Africa.
Their conversations revolved around a new UNCTAD report, which examines connections among sustainability, consumer protection and competition policies.
They also discussed success stories and potential opportunities where such policies can enable markets to work better for sustainable development.
Addressing challenges to public-private partnerships
Long-term cooperation between governments and businesses, also known as public-private partnerships (PPPs), can help advance sustainability, as evidenced by Kenya’s experience.
Kenya, home to over 50 million people, generates about 22,000 metric tons of waste per day, around 60% of which is recyclable – according to Ninette K. Mwarania, who works on planning, policy and research for the country’s competition authority.
To bolster the circular economy, Kenya is drawing on PPPs to mobilize much-needed private funding for sustainable waste management, which is capital-intensive.
The country also uses PPPs to help connect remote villages to the power grid, expanding electricity coverage while reducing the use of CO2-emitting kerosene lamps.
But such partnerships pose competition challenges too, often foreclosing smaller businesses. Given the long-term nature and amount of investment required to participate in these agreements, only a few private-sector players are eligible.
“Competition regulators need to optimally interpret competition law and policy to accommodate such agreements,” Ms Mwarania said.
Competition guidance to keep up
When sustainability and competition conflict, experts call for clearer guidance on what is permitted under competition law.
Doing so entails identifying sustainability benefits that can lead to efficiency gains – for all citizens rather than individual consumers – to offset anticompetitive effects.
For example, in Austria, draft guidelines recognize biodiversity as an efficiency gain.
“As companies need certainty for their actions, we published guidelines for sustainability agreements in 2022,” said Natalie Harsdorf-Borsch, director-general of the Austrian federal competition authority.
“On this basis, companies can assess whether their cooperation is in line with Austrian competition law.”
Consumer education remains vital
According to UNCTAD’s world consumer protection map, consumer education initiatives related to sustainable consumption cover only 37 out of 104 countries where information is available.
For consumers to make sustainable choices, they need accurate and reliable information about what they buy from markets.
“By ensuring that consumers are well-informed on the impact of their choices and that their rights are protected, we can create a marketplace that incentivizes companies to prioritize sustainability, benefiting both consumers and our planet,” said Jorge Laguna-Celis, who leads the One Planet Network, hosted by the UN Environment Programme.
Policies to forge collective efforts
Fostering sustainable consumerism is a shared responsibility among all market actors, including governments, businesses, consumers and relevant civil society organizations.
They can enact sectoral policies concerning land use, transport, energy and housing, remove subsidies that contribute to unsustainable patterns and promote sector-specific best practices in environmental management.
Besides, governments should guide businesses in sustainably designing, producing and distributing goods and services.
Today living in the century of regeneration means valuing Ecosystem Function higher than material things is the paradigm shift that determines whether we understand the meaning of our lives and survive or whether we remain ignorant and selfish and destroy our own habitat trying to gain more wealth or more power.
Sustainability: short-term gains will destroy us all
If humans are to survive and thrive, organizations must learn to become regenerative–a shift that will be nothing short of a rebirth for many, argues Carlos Álvarez Pereira of the Club of Rome. Here he offers advice on how to begin the transformation.
For more than three decades, governments, companies, institutions, and other organizations of all sizes and hues have talked about sustainability. Many have adopted targets based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. A growing number have pledged ambitions to become carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner.
I am not alone in saying that none of this is enough to meet the challenges that confront us. If we wait for most organizations to recognize that we are on the wrong path, major emergencies will continue piling up and produce huge suffering, which the most vulnerable people are already enduring.
If organizations around the world are serious about creating equitable well-being and restoring the health of the biosphere, they need to become regenerative. That means going much deeper and further. It means reconnecting with humanity. And, of course, it means reconnecting with nature.
Becoming regenerative involves replacing the obsession with short-term market returns by the creation of long-term value for all parties, human and non-human. Companies have a pivotal role to play in this transformation. For most, it will require nothing short of their complete rebirth.
In both Limits and Beyond, and Earth for All – A Survival Guide for Humanity, the Club of Rome proposes antidotes to the current malaise and suggests pathways to a better future. Building on the foundations of the Club’s seminal 1972 work The Limits to Growth, which showed how the combined exhaustion of natural resources and massive pollution were pushing humanity towards a cliff edge, Earth for All demonstrates that options exist to save us from self-destruction and create the conditions of decent lives for all in a healthy planet. Limits and Beyond shows that this requires a shift in the way we think and feel, and hence a total transformation of today’s approach to business.
To understand why, it’s important to undertake a reality check of corporate sustainability efforts to date. ESG might sound good in principle, but all too often it ends up being a box-ticking exercise – a “nice to have” rather than a company-defining strategy.
More than a box ticking exercise
One problem is that much of companies’ sustainability efforts have gone in the direction of technicalities and particularly designing metrics. While not entirely useless, this focus on metrics has turned the sustainability imperative into yet another compliance issue. It is something that companies now have to do, not something they have established as a core strategy and an existential purpose.
A second problem is that when sustainability issues get translated into rigid rules and standards instead of nurturing a cultural shift, they become a constraining framework, easily leading companies to continue ticking boxes and remaining compliant for the sake of the tax authorities as well as their shareholders. All of this creates an additional layer of bureaucracy. And if bureaucracy is what’s driving the business, we are all in deep trouble.
“Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on. The gulf between the haves and have-nots is cleaving societies, countries, and our wider world. Epic geopolitical divisions are undermining global solidarity and trust. This path is a dead end. We need a course correction”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres in an address to the General Assembly
Half a century on since The Limits to Growth, humanity is still stumbling down the same path while the house burns. Global warming has accelerated to more than 0.3°C per decade, raising the specter that we will probably overshoot the 1.5°C warming limit that the world agreed to in Paris. Meanwhile, progress on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, now just seven years away from its deadline, remains woefully adrift.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the General Assembly this month: “Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on. The gulf between the haves and have-nots is cleaving societies, countries, and our wider world. Epic geopolitical divisions are undermining global solidarity and trust. This path is a dead end. We need a course correction”
Regenerative organizations offer that course correction. But what is it? And how do companies begin the transformation?
Here are some thoughts ‘On Urban Greening 2023 and the challenge of valuing nature at this stage; as the author put it, “Generations of capitalism, consumerism and environmental degradation will take much undoing to move humanity back to operating within our ecological limits.”
Generations of capitalism, consumerism and environmental degradation will take a lot of undoing to move humanity back to operating within our ecological limits.
All those involved in the built environment have their work cut out for them. First, it was operational and embodied carbon. Then it was biodiversity, and soon it will be embodied water.
The Fifth Estate’s Urban Greening 2023 event on Thursday highlights the top thinkers, researchers and practitioners of biophilic design and integrating nature back into our homes, workplaces and places of leisure.
And what better way to kick off the day with appreciation of earth-centred governance with a keynote from Earth Laws Alliance of Australia national convenor, Michelle Maloney?
The earth jurisprudence expert framed the discussion with research from Will Steffen on the “Great Acceleration” – a 2015 study which visualises how the acceleration of industrial system development since the 1950s impacted our socio-economic and planetary wealth in 24 economic and earth system trends.
As the graphs of earth system trends in the image below indicate, increased economic output and development occurs in tandem with stratospheric rises of all indicators, from population to GDP, CO2 to ocean acidification, and tropical forest loss to coastal nitrogen levels.
These trends describe planet Earth’s transition from the Holocene, where all beings live in harmony with each other, to the Anthropocene, where human survival dominates that of all other living things.
The result is that humanity has created an “over-extractivist way of being influenced everything we all do,” Maloney said.
“And not one of us can change it on our own. But there’s an entire body of work that’s out there that’s challenging these systems. And great acceleration…was entirely manmade, entirely reliant on fossil fuels. And something that is entirely capable of being changed into something much better.”
Before launching into what most would consider radical ideas for changing our mindsets and improving our stewardship of the planet, Maloney refers to her work with leading Indigenous thinker Mary Graham to emphasise the importance of working with Indigenous governance systems and the laws of Country to build better futures.
“And that’s why we call ourselves Future Dreaming. Because yes, we’re a little bit out there. But is it weird or unusual to think that we should try to live within ecological limits?”
In her search for what she terms “alternative governance models”, Maloney was enchanted by Graham’s construct of “sacralised ecological custodianship” which has driven much of her focus as an environmental lawyer on “nature personhood” where human rights are conferred on things like mountains, rivers and the like.
The threads of how to modify our governance, financial and economic systems to build a better world carried over into a fascinating discussion featuring panellists from EY, KPMG, NSW government and GHD.
As KPMG head of social and sustainable finance Carolin Leeshaa pointed out: “We tend to think of nature as free, but it’s really not.”
The World Economic Forum, she said, estimates that nature directly contributes $US125 trillion to the world economy every year, and around 50 per cent of global GDP is either moderately or highly dependent on nature.
On the flip side, we now realise that if we degrade nature through deforestation, water pollution and species loss, it carries significant material financial risks.
She pointed to a growing realisation among corporates that preserving nature needs to be part of investment and strategic decision-making. “We’re bounded by nature because we simply cannot grow beyond our planetary boundaries.”
The need to incorporate nature into economic language and terminology gives Rasika Mohan market lead for sustainability, resilience and ESG for GHD Advisory, “a twinge of discomfort because it seems like this is the only way we can preserve and protect nature.”
Her most depressing example of this is that in land valuation, a patch of land is worth more if it is cleared than if it is rich in natural diversity, because cleared land is thought to be economically productive, “whereas land that has wilderness on it is considered to be a poor return.”
Mohan pointed to GHD’s recent work on the Fishermans Bend redevelopment in Melbourne where the company studied ways to implement biodiversity sensitive urban design to revegetate and rehabilitate former industrial spaces, and a rehabilitation at the aptly named Boggy Creek in Victoria’s Otway Ranges, a former sand quarry and creek. Finding quality data is a recurring issue, she added, even in the face of advancements such as digital twins and LIDAR (light detection and ranging).
Amy Croucher spoke about NSW Treasury’s Sustainability Advantage program that works with businesses to undertake a Nature Health Check and an action plan to implement change.
The program developed a natural capital accounting framework for the Wollondilly Shire Council, a peri-urban development area to the south of Sydney, which [tp1] is home to critically endangered ecological communities, where the aim was to quantify the amount and type of native vegetation that might be impacted by development.
Emma Herd, partner with EY, likened the process of incorporating natural capital into existing economic and financial systems as a “translation exercise.. it’s about taking the large amorphous and turning it into things that business must and can be doing, and measurable impacts and outcomes from them.
“Getting business to do things is often giving them the language and the tools they need to make decisions and act as well. The challenge is, how do we do that in a way that doesn’t throw out all the new, by bringing it into the fold?”
Mohan said it wasn’t capitalism that felt uncomfortable, rather it was the fear of the unknown. “You can’t really predict the future, but you can only be resilient enough to be able to adapt to it and bounce back from it…so I think it’s a deeply uncomfortable space.”
We need to conserve 30 per cent of nature by 2030
Leeshaa described the signing of the Gulf Biodiversity Framework at COP 15 last year, which stipulates that 30 per cent of nature must be conserved by 2030, as a landmark development for the nature positive movement because it will translate into new national legislation, as is occurring with the federal government’s new Nature Repair Markets Bill.
Having the tools to assign a monetary value to nature is one thing, but it will all be for naught if consumers are unwilling to pay for it.
What the developers think
No one knows this more keenly than large-scale property developers. The Fifth Estate managing editor Tina Perinotto, moderated a panel that included Mulpha head of developments Tim Spencer, who observed a general flight to quality towards sustainable buildings but argued that to achieve better outcomes, it was necessary to push architects harder to allocate space for green infrastructure because they tended to want to maximise the amount of built form on a given site.
Melissa Schulz, general manager of sustainability at QIC described the fund manager’s master plan to develop green spaces around the Castle Towers shopping mall in Sydney’s northwest. “I think I’m speaking to the converted when I say that Western Sydney has a problem with the urban heat island effect. So [adding green infrastructure in that location is really, really important.” QIC is also pushing the green envelope at its office tower in Albert Street, Brisbane, one of the above-station developments as part of the Cross River Rail project.
Not to be outdone, Mirvac senior sustainability manager Andrew Scerri pointed to a master-planned community in Western Australia where the developer had managed to preserve 600 established trees. “And it’s actually a cost saving as well because transplanting them within the site was a lot cheaper than buying them.”
But the property developer‘s curse is that no matter how much you flex your green credentials and no matter how many trees you plant, someone will always point to flaws in your track record. Mirvac’s Scerri was painfully reminded of this when a Hornsby Shire councillor in the audience took the floor in a fiery exchange to ask how this could be reconciled with the company recently cutting down “hundreds of trees” at a recent project in her municipality.
With time running out before the Taskforce for Nature-Related Financial Disclosures releases its framework guidance in September, developers, fund managers and consultants alike are scrambling to find the data and tools they need to measure and manage the ecological footprint of their operations.
While it’s clear that some have a lot of catching up to do, it’s also apparent that even in the short space of a year since Urban Greening 2022, the industry’s approach to listening, understanding and working with nature has significantly evolved.
It feels like the “translation exercise” is well underway.
Originally posted on HUMAN WRONGS WATCH: Human Wrongs Watch (UN News)* — Disinformation, hate speech and deadly attacks against journalists are threatening freedom of the press worldwide, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday [2 May 2023], calling for greater solidarity with the people who bring us the news. UN Photo/Mark Garten | File photo…
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