How to Achieve Sustainability – The Transformative Approach

by | Jul 28, 2020


This blogpost was written by Jannik Schulz, an incoming MA student in International Relations: Global Political Economy at Leiden University. While interning for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in New York, he learned about the SDGs and the transformation of our economies. In this blogpost, he shares some of his insights into the transformative approach to achieving sustainability. 

This piece is part of our Student Contributions series. Find out how to contribute here. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.

Furthering an open and cross-disciplinary debate about building a more equitable and more sustainable future becomes ever more important in 2020. As the United Nations (UN) embarks on its ‘Decade of Action’ that “calls for accelerating sustainable solutions” in the last ten years of the 2030 Agenda, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions about a new future emerge. At this point in time, The Futures Project is tackling the crucial challenge of bringing people together to collaboratively work towards the futures we want guided by the UN’s 2030 Agenda.

This think piece is an introduction to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to a transformative approach to achieving sustainability. For this purpose, the economic transformation as proposed by the Stockholm Resilience Center Report to the Club of Rome as well as the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) will be outlined. These ideas stress the need to understand the challenge of sustainability holistically and push us to work across generations, across sectors, and across borders.


Sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Sustainability is commonly understood to incorporate three aspects: social sustainability, economic sustainability and ecological sustainability. Since humans and the environment are inherently linked in one social-ecological system, a multitude of complex interdependencies between each dimension exists. For this reason, it is necessary to address all three dimensions when speaking about sustainable development.

The challenge of sustainable development is commonly defined as the global task of allowing all people, without leaving anyone behind, to achieve prosperity and well-being without endangering the survival of our planet, thereby taking into account the safety and welfare of future generations (See for example Griggs 2013 or Emas 2015). This definition includes clearly the social and the economic dimension as well as the planetary boundaries. It becomes evident that sustainable development at its core includes concerns about climate change and the survival of our planet.

This objective was incorporated in the seventeen SDGs, which were adopted along with the UN  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a roadmap for sustainable development until 2030.

The SDGs can be visualized in this wedding cake diagram, which was illustrated by Azote for the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. As the diagram depicts, the SDGs are built on the basis of sustaining our planet and biosphere, which provide the foundation that our society and economy must respect. The societal goals, such as eradication of poverty and achieving full gender equality, constitute the second layer. The economic goals are visualized within the social goals to signal that the economy needs to serve the people.



A Transformative Approach to the 2030 Agenda

As good as the SDGs sound, it has become painfully clear that the world is not on track to achieve sustainability by 2030 as the UN Secretary General stated in September 2019 that “at the current pace, we will not reach our targets”. Sustainable development is far from being achieved; neither in developing countries nor in the richer, industrialized countries. If all people were to consume at the same rate as happens in Europe, it would require 2.8 earths. Production, consumption and waste at the levels of the U.S. would requires nearly 5 earths.  In contrast, there are still 821 million people, who are undernourished (every 9th person in the world), 785 million people lack basic drinking water service and around 840 million people have no access to electricity. This dichotomy between wasteful, exploitative overproduction and humans who are left behind and exploited, unable to meet their basic needs paints a painful picture, especially in times of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite a dark and grim outlook, ideas about transforming societies and economies exist. Unfortunately, ideas of such kind tend to be in the background as we follow debates about the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the face of ecological destruction and climate change achieving sustainability has become imperative and an effective way of pursuing the SDGs is urgently needed. Too often are we relying on narratives that put economic interest in conflict with social or ecological issues.

The transformative approach developed by the Stockholm Resilience Center proposes to embrace the interlinkages between the dimensions of sustainability and therefore, approach sustainable development holistically. The complex interlinkages between social issues, the environment, and how we run our economy create tradeoffs that can hamper success. The transformative approach focuses on the positive interlinkages, those which create synergies, and aims to change the socio-ecological system as a whole instead of fixing single issues.


Transformation is Feasible: The Smart Way

The SDGs answer the what – what is sustainable development? – and now the ideas behind transformation are trying to answer the how – how to achieve the SDGs and how to change our economies to become sustainable? The report prepared by the Stockholm Resilience Center, called Transformation is Feasible, presents a roadmap forward to transform our economies and to achieve the SDGs within the planetary boundaries.

The report models different futures for our socio-ecological system. After exploring the scenarios of business as usual, accelerating economic growth, and strengthening conventional efforts, the report presents the ‘Smart Way’ – transformational change as the only viable option of pursuing the SDGs within the planetary boundaries. It suggests initiating the transformation by investing our efforts into the following five areas:

  1. Accelerated renewable energy growth to halve carbon emissions every decade: The use of fossil fuels needs to be stopped and a “worldwide rapid electrification in power, transport, as well as heating and cooling” needs to take place.
  2. Accelerated sustainable food chain productivity: Food waste and pesticide overuse need to be reduced and technologies need to be harnessed to “produce more food without further land expansion”.
  3. Rolling out new development models in poor countries: Poorer countries need to be supported through investments and favorable trade agreements in creating their own development plan that is specific to their local context.
  4. Unprecedented action for inequality reduction: Both developing countries as well as richer countries need to redistribute wealth and income by supporting “fairer wages and more progressive taxation”.
  5. Achieving Gender Equality through education for all and health & family planning: Education, reproductive health, family planning and job opportunities need to be accessible to women and girls. Supporting women to take on greater leadership in the private and public sector.


The 2019 GSDR: Entry Points and Levers for Transformation

The Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) 2019, written by 15 independent scientists appointed by the UN Secretary General, echoed the need for a holistic and transformative approach to sustainable development. This approach is guiding more and more workgroups and processes of the UN. The GSDR 2019 came up with similar entry points as presented above but also included sustainable urban development due to cities’ relevance for global economic output and the growing global trend of urbanization.

The GSDR 2019 discusses the idea of four cross-cutting levers as tools for change. The identified levers are I) Governance, II) Economy and Finance, III) Individual and Collective Action, and IV) Science and Technology. The idea is that, depending on the specific context, collaborative efforts through each leaver can incite a transformation of our socio-economic system. 



The entry points may appear to only focus on single issues but what is important to understand is that behind each entry point lies a system of complex interlinkages, which impacts a wide range of issues. The entry points are chosen to have far-reaching impact to transform how our societies are organized, thereby addressing socio-economic and ecological goals at the same time.

Food production and consumption are drivers of biodiversity loss but also of undernutrition, as well as obesity. The agricultural and energy sectors account for almost 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the energy sector as largest contributor to air pollution. At the same time, access to reliable and affordable energy is also key to economic development and poverty reduction. And tackling poverty also requires addressing income & wealth inequalities within countries as well as inequalities between countries. Ensuring that no one is left behind demands gender equality as women’s work remains too often unrewarded. For example, Oxfam calculated that the annual amount of unpaid care work undertaken by women is worth $10.8 trillion (= three times the size of the world’s tech industry).

The mentioned examples highlight just a fraction of the interlinkages that are addressed through the entry points. Taking on the five entry points could put the world on a trajectory of improved human wellbeing within the planetary boundaries that proves sustainable well beyond 2030 or 2050.


What next?

Five years after the SDGs were presented, we have a roadmap for how to work towards sustainable development. But even with this roadmap for systematic change, it is no easy endeavor. Becoming truly sustainable requires drastic change on all levels but in practice powerful interests tend to overshadow such calls for change too easily.

The primacy of growth and profit must give way to values of inclusivity, equality, and sustainability. The economy needs to finance renewable energy and sustainable food systems, new technologies and digitization have to be human-centered and dedicated to decreasing our ecological footprint, and we need to use our individual and collective power to put pressure on our governments to ensure that this urgently needed transformation towards sustainability is sincerely pursued. For this transformation, we need to build upon alternative economic models such as circular economy or social enterprises and cooperatives.

It is no longer a matter of choice but a dire necessity that we change the path which our world and our societies are following. This needs to be the goal for each government, collective action, as well as our economy and technology development. In order to initiate a transformation of our economies, it is important that ideas and entry points for systemic change are widely known and discussed by politicians, civil servants, academics, and, most importantly, the public.


Figures from:

Pengue, Walter & Gemmill-Herren, Barbara & Balázs, Bálint & Ortega, Enrique & Viglizzo, Ernesto & Acevedo, Francisca & Díaz, Daniel & Díaz de Astarloa, Diego & Fernández, Rosa & Garibaldi, Lucas & Giampietro, Mario & Goldberg, A & Koshla, Ashok & Westhoek, Henk. (2018). Chapter III. Eco-Agri-Food Systems: today’s realities and tomorrow’s challenges. Accessed from researchgate.

Independent Group of Scientists appointed by the Secretary-General, Global Sustainable Development Report 2019: The Future is Now – Science for Achieving Sustainable Development, (United Nations, New York, 2019). Accessed from SDG Knowledge Platform.