The stresses on the planet caused by human activity over the past century, and especially the past few decades, are felt in different ways but are evident worldwide. Accelerated threats to wildlife and plant species, soil, air, and water not only harm the natural world, but also affect current and future human livelihoods and well-being. Biodiversity loss, climate change, species’ migration patterns, and more are adversely impacting people in the United States and around the world—and disproportionately impacting people living in poverty or who are otherwise marginalized (IPCC, 2022; UNDP, 2020). The 1987 United Nations (UN) report Our Common Future, known as the Brundtland report, defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). The report emphasizes three components of sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth, and social equity.
When 193 national leaders unanimously adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 (Figure 1-1), they did so with the expressed hope of providing a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” The 17 goals and their 169 targets embrace economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. Interlinkages across these goals and targets generate not only multiple synergies but also tradeoffs (i.e., progress on one goal supports or could hinder progress toward other goals). With the SDGs already a challenge to achieve by the designated time target of 2030, the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened conflict worldwide have disrupted fragile progress and sharpened existing inequities.
Despite setbacks and stagnation, from small villages to mega-cities, people are joining together to operationalize sustainable development, that is, to identify and create solutions to advance the well-being of people and the planet, both within and between communities around the world. In addition to often overcoming technological and scientific obstacles, the successes reveal the imperative to change behaviors embedded in culture, norms, and values, as well as to link policies with on-the-ground actions. Many observers see a time horizon of a few years, or at most decades, to make meaningful change to avert what could become an ecological catastrophe. Governing bodies and the multilateral system wrestle with constraints that slow their response to urgent transnational challenges. Yet, a wide swath of society—including scientists, youth, indigenous communities, marginalized groups, artists, faith leaders, and others—are not waiting. They are taking action.
In April 2021, the Nobel Prize Summit Our Planet, Our Future captured these diverse voices and perspectives. Hosted by the Nobel Foundation and organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research, and Stockholm Resilience Centre, the 3-day summit featured Nobel Laureates interacting with scientists, artists, community activists, policy makers, and other stakeholders (NASEM, 2021a). Although not charged with issuing formal recommendations, the summit attendees created a powerful output: a Call to Action signed by 126 Nobel Laureates to present to leaders of the G-7 countries and the UN Secretary General, among others. The Call to Action states:
Global sustainability offers the only viable path to human safety, equity, health, and progress. Humanity is waking up late to the challenges and opportunities of active planetary stewardship. But we are waking up. Long-term, scientifically based decision-making is always at a disadvantage in the contest with the needs of the present. Politicians and scientists must work together to bridge the divide between expert evidence, short-term politics, and the survival of all life on this
planet in the Anthropocene epoch. The long-term potential of humanity depends upon our ability today to value our common future. Ultimately, this means valuing the resilience of societies and the resilience of Earth’s biosphere.1
FRAMEWORKS FOR ANALYSIS AND ACTION
The SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, “recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others and that development must balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability” (UNDP, 2022b). Since the adoption of the SDGs during the UN General Assembly in September 2015, many researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and the public have framed their efforts around the 17 goals and their 169 targets. The field of sustainability science has deepened over the past several decades, bringing together scientists, engineers, humanists, and others (NASEM, 2021b), and sustainability education is a growing multidisciplinary program of study in a growing number of colleges and universities (NASEM, 2020). During a July 2021 workshop, participants in a National Academies Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability suggested that increasing awareness of the SDGs, with a focus on youth, civil society, and local governments, can serve to align activities for greater effect. Despite the high degree of interest in the types of activities explicitly or implicitly included in the SDGs, awareness of the SDGs is low in the United States (Morning Consult and United Nations Foundation, 2021).
Although the SDGs are interrelated and mutually reinforcing, complementary frameworks, such as The World in 2050 (TWI2050, 2018) and Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017), help us to better understand their interdependencies and tradeoffs. In addition to the contributions of experts across disciplines, the interconnection between goals is best understood through the lived experience of individuals. As the Committee on Operationalizing Sustainability was reminded during its first meeting that culminated in this report, “People living in poverty are suffering disproportionately from the harmful effects of unsustainable development and climate change. It’s . . . exactly these people who have the solutions we need to be sitting down with and listening to, and implementing their visions” (Bourland, 2022). The committee also took note of indigenous knowledge and practices, especially those related to the natural world. The committee concurred with several comments made during its public workshops that, beyond sustainability, the goals should be to regenerate, not just sustain, and to thrive, not just to grow (Schueman, 2021). Similar to those who refute hopes for “getting back to normal” in the post-COVID-19 world with the observation that pre-pandemic normalcy had deep problems, many observers point out that “sustaining” the current situation is insufficient. A workshop participant shared a proverb from Hawai‘i that captures this concept: A beach should not be left in the condition in which a person finds it—it should be left in a better condition (Connors, 2022).
1 The full Call to Action can be read at https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2021/04/nobel-prize-laureates-and-other-experts-issue-urgent-call-for-action-after-our-planet-our-future-summit.
THE CURRENT STUDY
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Science and Technology for Sustainability (STS) Program serves as the institution’s focus to harness the power of science, engineering, and medicine to meet sustainability challenges from local to global scales. Through STS, the National Academies convened an expert committee to identify key research priorities and possible actionable steps needed to operationalize sustainable development at the global and local levels (see Box 1-1 for the Statement of Task and Appendix A for biographical sketches of the committee members).
As noted in the Statement of Task, the committee was charged with convening two public workshops on which to draw findings for its consensus report. It should be underscored that the charge was for a brief report, with key research priorities and possible actionable steps. In reviewing its charge, the committee agreed that it would draw on global case studies and papers, but its recommendations would be directed toward U.S. stakeholders. Intended audiences are local, state, and federal government policy makers and managers; higher education administrators and researchers; research funders in the public, private, and nonprofit spaces; and civil society institutions and the public. Agreeing with the need for urgency and practical application, the committee adopted an ambitious timeline of less than 6 months to address its task. As input, the committee organized a series of virtual workshops to gather information on case studies across sectors and levels. With an almost limitless array of possible topics, the committee found that several reports, such as The World in 2050 (TWI2050, 2018), Six Transformations (Sachs et al., 2019,
TABLE 1-1 List of Topics in Relevant Reports on Sustainable Development
|The World in 2050 (TWI2050, 2018)||Six Transformations (Sachs et al., 2019)||Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 (UN, 2019b)||The European Green Deal (EC, 2019)|
|Human capacity and health||Education, gender, and inequality||Human well-being and capabilities||A zero pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment|
|Consumption and production||Health, well-being, and demography||Sustainable and just economies||Preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity|
|Decarbonization and energy||Energy decarbonization and sustainable industry||Food systems and nutrition patterns||From “Farm to Fork:” a fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly food system|
|Food, biosphere, and water||Sustainable food, land, water and oceans||Energy decarbonization and universal access||Accelerating the shift to sustainable and smart mobility|
|Smart cities||Sustainable cities and communities||Urban and peri-urban development||Building and renovating in an energy- and resource-efficient way|
|Digital revolution||Digital revolution for sustainable development||Global environmental commons||Mobilizing industry for a clean and circular economy|
|Supplying clean, affordable, and secure energy|
|Increasing the EU’s climate ambition for 2030 and 2050|
Based on a review of these reports and a series of discussions, the committee identified eight themes for the public workshops convened in April and May 2022:2 (1) Education and Capacity Building; (2) Localization of the SDGs and Indigenous Knowledge Networks; (3) Food Systems; (4) Urbanization; (5) Decarbonization; (6) Science, Technology, and Innovation; (7) Science and Peace; and (8) Financing to Achieve the SDGs (Table 1-2). The committee
2 See agendas in Appendix B. Workshop videos and selected presentations are available at https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/operationalizing-sustainable-development.
TABLE 1-2 Eight Themes in This Report and Their Key Relevant SDGs
|Themes in This Report||Key Relevant SDGs|
|Education and Capacity Building||Goals 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 8 (decent work), and 17 (partnerships for the goals)|
|Localization of the SDGs and Indigenous Knowledge Networks||Goals 1 (no poverty), 10 (reduced inequalities), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and 17 (partnerships for the goals)|
|Food Systems||Goals 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), 6 (clean water), 10 (reduced inequalities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), and 15 (life on land)|
|Urbanization||Goals 3 (good health and well-being), 10 (reduced inequalities), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and 13 (climate action)|
|Decarbonization||Goals 3 (good health and well-being), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 13 (climate action), 15 (life on land), and 17 (partnerships for the goals)|
|Science, Technology, and Innovation||Goals 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), 12 (responsible consumption and production), and 17 (partnerships for the goals)|
|Science and Peace||Goals 5 (gender equality), 10 (reduced inequalities), 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), and 17 (partnerships for the goals)|
|Financing to Achieve the SDGs||Goals 5 (gender equality), 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), 10 (reduced inequalities), and 17 (partnerships for the goals)|
chose these themes for its information-gathering purposes due to their diverse characteristics in terms of varied sustainability challenges, such as environmental, economic, and social considerations. Although each theme affects almost all of the SDGs in important aspects, key relevant SDGs are listed for each.
The remainder of this report is organized by workshop theme (Chapters 2–9). Several caveats should be kept in mind, however. First, just as the SDGs are interrelated, the challenges and solutions discussed at each workshop overlap. For example, issues related to food systems emerged during discussions about financing; education was a factor in presentations about urbanization; and peace and conflict were identified as critical conditions to understanding food systems. Second, in keeping with the Statement of Task, the committee did not undertake a full consideration of every issue embedded in every SDG. The challenges and case studies in the following chapters—and in callout boxes—reflect those highlighted by the workshop presenters. The committee drew on the workshop discussions, previous National Academies reports and workshops, a bounded literature review, and committee members’ expertise to develop key research priorities and possible actionable steps related to each theme. The workshops were
the primary source of information from which the key research priorities and potential actionable steps were developed. The final chapter (Chapter 10) compiles and organizes the committee’s key research priorities and possible actionable steps by stakeholder. The committee believes that these recommendations are ambitious but realistic and, taken together, can make measurable progress toward a sustainable future for all.
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