Transformations towards sustainability

Photo: United Nations
Understanding transformation processes and options, assessing how these relate to human values, emerging technologies and economic development pathways. Evaluating strategies for governing and managing the global environment across sectors and scales

The Transformations towards Sustainability theme goes beyond assessing and implementing current responses to global change and meeting gaps in development needs. It will consider the more fundamental and innovative long-term transformations that are needed to move towards a sustainable future.

Future Earth will develop knowledge to understand, implement and evaluate these transformations. This might include significant shifts in political, economic and cultural values, changes in institutional structures and individual behaviours, large-scale systems changes and technological innovations that reduce the rate, scale and magnitude of global environmental change and its consequences.  

Understanding the many feedbacks from human responses and governance to earth system processes requires close collaboration between natural and social scientists. Projecting the impacts of energy policy or ecosystem management on biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity is one area where interdisciplinary work is essential. Another is understanding how policy and international agreements shape demands for on-going monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions. Identifying the social and cultural consequences of different response strategies is an important focus.  

Responding to global environmental change is not just a matter for national governments but also for local governments and international organizations, civil society, the private sector, and individuals. The Transformations towards Sustainability research theme requires partnerships that engage a wide range of stakeholders who are working on sustainable futures, including communities, businesses, humanitarian and conservation groups, and cultural leaders.

Research under the Transformations Towards Sustainability theme will advance understanding of the following questions, and many related ones:

  • How can governance and decision-making be aligned across different levels, issues, and places to manage global environmental change and promote sustainable development? What is known about the successes and failures of different actors in managing global environmental change, at different scales, and using different strategies?
  • Can technologies provide viable solutions to global environmental change and promote sustainable development? What are the opportunities, risks and perceptions associated with emerging technologies such as geo-engineering or synthetic biology? How can technology and infrastructure choices be combined with changes in institutions and behaviours to achieve low carbon transitions, food security and safe water?
  • How do values, beliefs and worldviews influence individual and collective behaviour to more sustainable and mindful lifestyles, patterns of trade, production and consumption? What triggers and facilitates deliberate transformations at the individual, organizational, and systems levels; what socio-political and ecological risks does it entail?
  • What do we know about past transformations of the Earth System, as well as in ideas, technology and economy and how can the knowledge and lessons learned guide future choices?
  • What are the longer-term pathways towards sustainable urban futures and landscapes, successful and sustainable ‘blue’ societies, and a green economy?
  • What are the implications of global environmental change for conservation of species and landscapes including the possibilities for restoration, reversal of degradation and relocation?
  • How can the Earth and social system adapt to environmental changes that could include warming of more than 4°C over the next century?
  • Can our present economic systems, ideas and development practices provide the necessary framework to achieve global sustainability and if not, what can be done to transform economic systems, measures, goals and development policies for global sustainability?
  • What are the implications of efforts to govern and manage the Earth system for sustainability for scientific observations, monitoring, indicators and analysis? What science is needed to evaluate and assess policies and facilitate and legitimise transformation?
  • How can the massive volume of new geophysical, biological, and social data, including local knowledge and social media be managed and analysed so as to provide new insights into the causes, nature and consequences of global environmental change and to facilitate the identification and diffusion of solutions?

Research Projects