Achieving human well-being and eradicating poverty for all of the Earth’s people is still possible, but only if there is a fundamental – and urgent – change in the relationship between people and nature, and a significant reduction in social and gender inequalities between and inside countries.
Creating economic growth just by increasing the consumption of material goods is no longer a viable option at the global level. The global use of materials is set to almost double by 2060 from 89 Gigatons to 167 Gigatons, which correspondingly increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions and other toxic effects such as those from mining and other pollution sources.
The present model of development has delivered prosperity to hundreds of people. However, it has also led to continuing poverty and other deprivations; unprecedented levels of inequality that undermine innovation, social cohesion, and sustainable economic growth; and it has brought the world close to tipping points with the global climate system and biodiversity loss. To change the narrative, the world must transform several key areas of human activities, including food, energy, consumption and production and cities.
These transformations can come about through coordinated action by governments, businesses, communities, civil society, and individuals. Science has a particularly vital role to play – a role that can be further strengthened by increasing investment in science for sustainability and in natural and social science institutions based in developing countries.
Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) fundamentally requires decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, while at the same time, reducing social and gender inequalities in wealth, income and access to opportunities.
As not all countries are starting from the same place, research says that higher levels of growth will continue to be needed in poorer countries, to ensure quality social services and infrastructure, at the same time stressing that growing first and cleaning up later is not an option.
The extensive transformation that is needed will not be easy. A deep scientific understanding is needed to anticipate and mitigate the tensions and tradeoffs inherent in widespread structural change. For instance, those losing jobs in the shift away from fossil fuels and other industries at odds with a sustainable future should be supported towards alternative livelihoods.
Strong political will and commitment are required to make the needed transformations, that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The interventions in developed countries will look very different from those in developing countries.
The food system must undergo widespread changes to the infrastructure, cultural and societal norms and policies that are supporting the current, unsustainable, status quo. At present, approximately 2 billion people suffer from food insecurity and 820 million people are undernourished. At the same time, overweight rates are growing in almost all regions of the world, with global members reaching 2 billion overweight adults and 40 million children under the age of five.
The energy system must also change to close the energy access gap. Close to 1 billion people are without access to electricity, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 3 billion people rely on polluting solid fuels for cooking, causing an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths each year. These gaps must be addressed, while at the same time increasing energy efficiency and phasing out of fossil-based power generation without carbon capture and storage, so that the world economy is decarbonized, in line with aspirations of the Paris Agreement.
Developing countries need to take advantage of science in advancing sustainable development. Universities, policymakers, and research funders must increase support to research guided by the 2030 Agenda. Simultaneously, researchers in sustainability science and other disciplines must work together to solve development problems and strengthen the science-policy-society interface, providing society and policy-makers information they can use to solve development problems.