13 March 2019

Radical transformation is required to meet sustainable development

An IIASA scientist has contributed to a new Global Environment Outlook report that details how societies can meet goals to support a healthy planet and growing population, provided they embrace integrated strategies.

© Volodymyr Melnyk | Dreamstime

© Volodymyr Melnyk | Dreamstime

By 2050, we will share our planet with an estimated 9 to 10 billion people. The choices we make now could shape whether that future population has access to fundamental resources such as food, water, and energy to support healthy lives.

Unless we undertake significant changes, we could be headed towards a crisis. That message is central to the sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO6), a report released on 12 March to coincide with this week’s United Nations Environment Assembly session in Nairobi, Kenya.

First published in 1997, the Outlook presents the current state of the science in order to better guide societies. This latest report, the first in five years, is novel in several ways. It is the most comprehensive Outlook to date and places a special emphasis on solutions. The GEO6 lays out steps that policymakers, businesses, and individuals can take in order to fulfill international promises, such as the Paris Agreement and reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“It gives quite a clear picture of where we stand and how we can tackle all of the issues from many different angles,” says IIASA Deputy Water Program Director Yoshihide Wada, who contributed to the report. The authors include some 250 scientists and scholars from across fields, hailing from more than 70 countries and multiple institutions.

Wada was a lead author on chapters 21 and 22, providing insights into current and future freshwater concerns. These chapters use multiple models to explore whether current trends looking across resource areas will lead societies to reach their environment-related SDGs by 2050 and what pathways exist to enable sustainable development.

In chapter 21, the authors conclude that we are not, globally speaking, on track to meet our sustainable targets. Although there have been some successes, for example, in reducing hunger and increasing access to safe drinking water, the rate of progress is moving too slowly to meet the world’s projected needs by the year 2050. Meanwhile, the chapter authors found, rapid environmental degradation is on the rise.

Chapter 22 of the report focuses on pathways by which SDGs could still be achieved. The authors write that correcting our course is possible but “large, transformative changes are needed”. Among the recommendations, the authors emphasize a need to study the intersection and interplay of various goals to better map out possible synergies and tradeoffs.

Wada’s area of expertise, for example, interacts with many other sustainable target areas. “Water is a cross-cutting issue,” he says. “Oceans, agriculture and land use all connect to freshwater. When energy demand goes up, it also affects water”. Water stewardship, then, whether it involves investment in desalination plants or greater storage facilities, needs to be understood in the context of other goals in a given location.

The best solutions, the authors conclude, will tackle multiple issues together, such as land use, food and energy, rather than one domain at a time. For the GEO6, the researchers created a matrix to identify how targeting one sustainable goal might relate to others. “That is actually a very important contribution from this report,” Wada adds.

This emphasis on how various targeted systems interlink requires further study and the authors call for more data and models to fill in gaps in this approach. Assuming that occurs, it could yield many more insights in the years to come.

The GEO6 also highlights the dangers to human health should we fail to successfully manage our natural resources. For example, ambient air pollution already contributes to millions of deaths, a trend likely to continue if action is not taken.

Finally, the report describes how change needs to occur at multiple levels of society. Not only do governments and companies need policies that support sustainable development, individual citizens need to rethink lifestyle choices. The GEO6 pinpoints a reduction in meat-eating, for instance, as an example of a single change with multiple benefits, which include slowing the use of land and freshwater for agriculture, reducing fertilizer use, and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.


United Nations Environment Program (2019). Global environment outlook GEO 6. United Nations Environment Program, Nairobi, Kenya.

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Yoshihide Wada

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