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Conserving tropical forests has many benefits, from protecting biodiversity, sustaining indigenous and local communities, and safeguarding climate. To achieve the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement, forest protection is essential. Yet deforestation continues to diminish the world's forests. Halting this trend is the objective of the international framework for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+). While previous studies have demonstrated the contribution of tropical forests to mitigate climate change, here we show that tropical forest protection can ‘flatten the curve’ of the costs of transition to climate stability, estimating tens of trillions of dollars in policy cost savings.
Charting robust pathways towards more sustainable futures that ‘leave no one behind’ requires that diverse communities engage in collective foresight and intelligence exercises to better understand global systemic challenges, anticipate the emerging risks and opportunities that disruptions present, and share perspectives on how to respond and inform decision-making. We report on the recent use of an international rapid foresight survey to assess expected societal trends over the next 3 years following the COVID-19 crisis. The results illustrate the power of collective foresight approaches to provide timely, nuanced insights for decision-making across sectors and scales, particularly in times of uncertainty.
We present the findings of a rapid foresight survey launched in spring 2020 to draw on the collective intelligence of the global community on where the world is headed post-COVID-19. Respondents were asked to (i) assess five key societal trends in the coming 3 years, (ii) provide news headlines they both expect and hope to see, and (iii) assess the role of digital technologies during crises. Analysis of over 2000 responses from more than 90 countries revealed important regional differences in expected societal trends related to sustainability. More respondents in the Global South expected shifts towards less inequality while more respondents in the Global North expected shifts towards a smaller ecological footprint. Qualitative analysis of proposed news headlines revealed four broad themes of focus (environment, equity, health, and economy), and yielded insights into perspectives on critical drivers of change. Finally, the survey report found that the vast majority of respondents were not opposed to digital surveillance in crises. In presenting these results, we explore the value of collective foresight and intelligence exercises in providing pluralistic inputs to decision-making and in complementing more prevalent methods of forecasting.
Social media summary
Collective foresight exercises with diverse communities can help chart robust pathways to more sustainable futures.
Global income inequality and energy consumption inequality are related. High-income households consume more energy than low-income ones, and for different purposes. Here, we explore the global household energy consumption implications of global income redistribution. We show that global income inequality shapes not only inequalities of energy consumption but the quantity and composition of overall energy demand. Our results call for the inclusion of income distribution into energy system models, as well as into energy and climate policy.
Despite a rapidly growing number of studies on the relationship between inequality and energy, there is little research estimating the effect of income redistribution on energy demand. We contribute to this debate by proposing a simple but granular and data-driven model of the global income distribution and of global household energy consumption. We isolate the effect of income distribution on household energy consumption and move beyond the assumption of aggregate income–energy elasticities. First, we model expenditure as a function of income. Second, we determine budget shares of expenditure for a variety of products and services by employing product-granular income elasticities of demand. Subsequently, we apply consumption-based final energy intensities to product and services to obtain energy footprint accounts. Testing variants of the global income distribution, we find that the ‘energy costs’ of equity are small. Equitable and inequitable distributions of income, however, entail distinct structural change in energy system terms. In an equitable world, fewer people live in energy poverty and more energy is consumed for subsistence and necessities, instead of luxury and transport.
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Equality in global income shifts household energy footprints towards subsistence, while inequality shifts them towards transport and luxury.
We summarize some of the past year's most important findings within climate change-related research. New research has improved our understanding of Earth's sensitivity to carbon dioxide, finds that permafrost thaw could release more carbon emissions than expected and that the uptake of carbon in tropical ecosystems is weakening. Adverse impacts on human society include increasing water shortages and impacts on mental health. Options for solutions emerge from rethinking economic models, rights-based litigation, strengthened governance systems and a new social contract. The disruption caused by COVID-19 could be seized as an opportunity for positive change, directing economic stimulus towards sustainable investments.
A synthesis is made of ten fields within climate science where there have been significant advances since mid-2019, through an expert elicitation process with broad disciplinary scope. Findings include: (1) a better understanding of equilibrium climate sensitivity; (2) abrupt thaw as an accelerator of carbon release from permafrost; (3) changes to global and regional land carbon sinks; (4) impacts of climate change on water crises, including equity perspectives; (5) adverse effects on mental health from climate change; (6) immediate effects on climate of the COVID-19 pandemic and requirements for recovery packages to deliver on the Paris Agreement; (7) suggested long-term changes to governance and a social contract to address climate change, learning from the current pandemic, (8) updated positive cost–benefit ratio and new perspectives on the potential for green growth in the short- and long-term perspective; (9) urban electrification as a strategy to move towards low-carbon energy systems and (10) rights-based litigation as an increasingly important method to address climate change, with recent clarifications on the legal standing and representation of future generations.
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Stronger permafrost thaw, COVID-19 effects and growing mental health impacts among highlights of latest climate science.
In this paper, we focus on the disruption that the current pandemic has created within the US industrial food system. We suggest that the pandemic has provided an opening for small producers. Attending to small-scale responses to the pandemic can guide policy and public investments towards a more just and sustainable future for food.
Building on the IPES-Food Communique of April 2020, we examine the many ways in which the US industrial food system faltered during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Using Regime Theory as a guide, we suggest that such a catastrophic crisis may create significant opportunities for an emergent food regime. Drawing from our research and participant observation in the US Midwest, we examine changes in the food system occasioned by the pandemic that foreshadow a new food regime. We suggest several blockages and risks to this new regime and suggest policies that would make transition smoother to a more just and sustainable food system.
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What will food be like after the pandemic? This new study outlines an alternative food system emerging in the American Midwest.
Climate change threatens tropical forests, ecosystem services, and indigenous peoples. The effects of climate change will force the San Blas Island communities of the indigenous Guna people to relocate to one of the most extensive, intact forests in Panama. In this paper, we argue that the impacts of climate change, and the proposed resettlement, will synergistically affect the jaguar. As apex predators, jaguars are sensitive to landscape change and require intact forests with ample prey to survive. Proactively planning for the intrinsically related issues of climate change, human displacement, and jaguar conservation is a complex but essential management task.
Tropical rainforest, coastal, and island communities are on the front line of increasing temperatures and sea-level rise associated with climate change. Future impacts on the interconnectedness of biological and cultural diversity (biocultural heritage) remain unknown. We review the interplay between the impacts of climate change and the displacement of the indigenous Guna people from the San Blas Islands, the relocation back to their mainland territory, and the implications for jaguar persistence. We highlight one of the most significant challenges to using resettlement as an adaptive strategy to climate change, securing a location where the Guna livelihoods, traditions, and culture may continue without significant change while protecting ecosystem services (e.g. biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water). We posit that developing management plans that strive to meet social needs without sacrificing environmental principles will meet these objectives.
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A biocultural approach increases adaptive capacity for ecological and human social systems threatened by climate change.
To decrease the negative impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on human health, governments have implemented wide-ranging control measures. Moreover, they were urged to tackle a new challenge in energy policies to supply a new form of demand derived from new lifestyles of citizens and different energy consumption patterns. This article investigates the impacts of these changes on climate change and human health (due to air pollution) as a challenge for both citizens and governments in four countries: Colombia, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal.
The emergence of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has been associated with global challenges in both energy supply and demand. Numerous articles have discussed the potential benefits of COVID-19 for our planet to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollutants. By bringing the emissions from the energy production together with the air quality indicators, this article studies the impact on climate change and human health due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequent changes in energy policies of governments as well as lifestyles in different societies. This study shows that in spite of having a reduction, the GHG emissions might go back to previous or higher levels if governments do not see this pandemic as an opportunity to promote the use of renewable energies, which are becoming cheaper than non-renewables. Additionally, lower energy demand and less anthropogenic activities do not necessarily result in lower GHG emissions from energy production. Our results highlight the need for revising the policies and decisions of both governments and citizens, as temporary reductions in the levels of energy demand and air pollutants can easily be counterbalanced by adverse effects, known as the ‘rebound effect.’
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How did the changes in energy consumption and production due to COVID-19 affect climate change and human health in different countries?
The thesis of this paper is that the COVID-19 crisis creates opportunities for fundamental change towards a more sustainable economy, for two reasons: structural change in the economy and a change in public opinion. The paper identifies how the COVID-19 crisis accelerates six processes of change that can be leveraged in policy making. With a focus on the Netherlands, it argues for activist government policy because of the tipping-point nature of the economic system in the crisis.
Structural change in the economy and a change in public opinion during the COVID-19 crisis jointly imply that government choices regarding investments, regulation and taxes can now create stronger synergies of cleaner economic growth and employment creation with ecological, social and financial sustainability. The paper details this for six areas, with examples taken from The Netherlands. High levels of private and (in some countries) public debt may become so unsustainable that this prompts a restructuring of financing systems which are more productive and more in support of ecological goals. In value chains, ICT systems and urban transport systems, forced changes such as more work from home, more cycling lanes and more local production may, once in place, be used as proof of concepts for permanently different infrastructures and organizations. Aviation and energy became dependent on public support, which created financial leverage for enforcing change.
Social media summary
COVID-19 creates opportunities for change towards sustainability as it accelerates six processes of change.
2020 was to be a landmark year for setting targets to stop biodiversity loss and prevent dangerous climate change. However, COVID-19 has caused delays to the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the 26th COP of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Negotiations on the Global Biodiversity Framework and the second submission of Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement were due to take place at these COPs. There is uncertainty as to how the COVID-19 disruption will affect the negotiations, whether parties will pursue more ambitious actions or take a weaker stance on issues. Our policy analysis shows there are broad opportunities for climate and biodiversity frameworks to better respond to COVID-19, by viewing future pandemics, biodiversity loss, and climate change as interconnected problems. Importantly, there needs to be greater focus on agriculture and food systems in discussions, establishing safeguards for carbon markets, and implementing nature-based solutions in meeting the Paris Agreement goals. We can no longer delay action to address the biodiversity and climate emergencies, and accelerating sustainable recovery plans through virtual spaces may help keep discussions and momentum before the resumption of in-person negotiations.
High ambition needed at UN biodiversity and climate conferences to address pandemics, biodiversity, climate change, and health.
Urban density is erroneously regarded as the main factor in the spread of COVID-19 in cities. A review of extant literature and findings from our case study of Karachi, Pakistan indicate that inequalities in income, healthcare, and living conditions play a key role in the spread of contagions along with government responsiveness to the pandemic. Moving forward, urban policies need to address these inequalities through changes in housing policies and decentralized governance systems. Cities must adapt to sustainable modes of travel, reduce digital inequalities, and encourage people friendly urban planning to become resilient in the face of pandemics.
COVID-19 has changed how urban residents relate to their cities. Urban centers have become epicenters of disease, which has raised questions about the long-term sustainability of high-density settlements and public transport usage. However, the spread of COVID-19 in cities is incorrectly attributed to urban density.
Using the case study of Karachi, Pakistan, we find that inequality of income, healthcare, and living conditions is a major contributing factor to the spread of COVID-19. Data on positive COVID-19 cases, density, and socioeconomic status were obtained at the Union Council level from administrative districts of Karachi, Pakistan between March 2020, and July 2020. Despite low population densities, low-to-middle income neighborhoods in Karachi had a higher proportion of positive cases. Further, the experience of dense cities such as Hanoi in Vietnam and New York in the US differs regarding the spread of COVID-19. Hence, the government's response to the pandemic is also a major factor in containing the outbreak.
Our findings suggest that a crisis in a city is exacerbated by its inability to take advantage of its density, inequality in the distribution of resources, lack of inclusiveness, and centralized governance mechanisms that make it difficult to respond quickly to situations. Thus, urban planning scholarship and practice should take an interdisciplinary approach to make cities equitable, inclusive, and adaptive.
Social media summary
Cities in the developing world have an opportunity for more resilient renewal in the post-COVID world.
Investing in stricter biodiversity conservation and wildlife protection to reduce the number of emerging diseases and, consequently, the risk of pandemics such as coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19), must integrate a social-ecological perspective. Biodiversity conservation, in order to be effective as disease prevention, requires consideration of people's needs, knowledge and institutions within their locally specific contexts. To meet this goal, future biodiversity research and conservation policy should apply six social-ecological principles for shaping future practices of co-existence of societies and nature.
The COVID-19 pandemic, presumably originating in a spillover event from natural wildlife reservoirs into the human population, sets a new benchmark for the indirect cost of biodiversity exploitation. To reverse the trend of increasing pandemic risk, biodiversity conservation and wildlife protection must be strengthened globally. In this paper, we argue that such preventive measures explicitly need to employ a social-ecological approach. In particular, attention must be paid to the societal relations to nature to avoid falling for simplistic solutions that neglect regional and local particularities of both, biodiversity and local communities. We emphasize the importance of avoiding a Western-biased view and acknowledging the factors and causations of infectious disease emergence in industrialized countries. To reduce the emergence of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in their specific contexts, we propose applying a social-ecological systems approach by integrating plural local knowledge and values, established practices, formal and informal institutions, as well as technology. We further introduce six social-ecological principles for shaping transformations in the Anthropocene to maintain and build more resilient and sustainable communities. By operationalizing these inter- and transdisciplinary principles, biodiversity conservation can be effectively implemented as infectious disease prevention.
Social media summary
A social-ecological approach to biodiversity conservation can pave the way for an effective and socially just reduction of future pandemic risks.
The ‘last mile’ is a transportation planning term that describes the movement of people and goods from a transportation hub to a final destination; a local place such as a home or a shop. This is the final step of the logistics process that unites the product with its new owner. We present and explain challenges of science-guided adaptation at the local level, and how this is an equivalent ‘last mile’ challenge for climate adaptation.
The ‘last mile’ issue, a term used in transportation planning, describes the movement of people and goods from a transportation hub to a final destination, a local place such as a home or a shop. This is the critical final step of the logistics process that unites the product with its new owner, and the point of the value chain. This analogy aptly describes the last steps between presenting scientific evidence of climate change to decision-makers for use in local adaptation and planning. Climate change data (observational and model simulation data e.g. climate change projections and predictions) remain under-utilised, especially by local institutions and actors for which adaptation is a priority. The assumptions and assertions of the classical data–information–knowledge–wisdom are challenged, and a derivative form of the information hierarchy is proposed. Elements of the classical information hierarchy are offset by four balancing elements of access (to data); usability (of information); governance (of knowledge) and politics (of wisdom). These balancing elements and their relatedness coincide with newer models of innovation relating to the interaction between different stakeholders across the different levels of governance, the inclusion of stakeholder expectations, transparency and accountability.
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Climate data to wise decision-making in the ‘last mile’: a novel perspective on science-guided local adaptation.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an integrated and ambitious roadmap for sustainable development by 2030. National implementation will be crucial and there is an urgent need to understand the scale and pace of transformations to achieve the goals. There is also concern that achieving socio-economic objectives will undermine longer-term environmental sustainability. This study uses modelling to explore how different policy and investment settings can enable the necessary transformations, adopting Fiji as a use-case. Modest investment over the coming decade can deliver improved performance. However, far more ambitious actions are needed to accelerate progress while managing long-term trade-offs with environmental objectives.
This paper presents the results from a national scenario modelling study for Fiji with broader relevance for other countries seeking to achieve the SDGs. We develop and simulate a business-as-usual and six alternative future scenarios using the integrated (iSDG-Fiji) system dynamics model and evaluate their performance on the SDGs in 2030 and global planetary boundaries (PBs) and the ‘safe and just space’ (SJS) framework in 2050. Modest investment over the coming decade through a ‘sustainability transition’ scenario accelerates SDG progress from 40% to 70% by 2030 but fails to meet all SJS thresholds. Greatly scaling up investment and ambition through an SDG transformation scenario highlights possibilities for Fiji to accelerate progress to 83% by 2030 while improving SJS performance. The scale of investment is highly ambitious and could not be delivered without scaled-up international support, but despite this investment progress still falls short. The analysis highlights where key trade-offs remain as well as options to address these, however closing the gap to 100% achievement will prove very challenging. The approach and findings are relevant to other countries with similar characteristics to increase the understanding of the transformations needed to achieve the SDGs within PBs in different country contexts.
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How can countries accelerate progress on the SDGs by 2030 while ensuring longer-term coherence with climate and sustainability thresholds?
Global biodiversity is in dramatic decline. The general public appears to equate sustainable development with biodiversity conservation and environmental protection, whereas the international policy discourse treats sustainable development as little more than traditional economic development. This gap between public perception of what sustainable development entails and its translation into formal policy goals is an important barrier to mobilizing the public and critical financial support for meeting global biodiversity conservation objectives. This contribution argues that the goal of nature and biodiversity conservation must be much more clearly distinguished from the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) than is currently the case.
The term ‘sustainable development’ has become widely used since it was popularized through the 1992 Rio UN Conference on Environment and Development. The UN SDGs adopted in 2015 further reinforce the normative centrality of the concept. Yet, the extent to which sustainable development covers nature and biodiversity conservation depends on how it is defined. A better understanding of how the public in different countries assesses the value of local and global biodiversity is crucial for building support for financing the vision to live ‘in harmony with nature by 2050’ currently under negotiation in the Convention on Biodiversity. This review essay discusses four distinct definitions of sustainable development, and considers how these different conceptualizations are used by political actors to serve particular interests. It then describes how this discourse has unfolded in international agreements related to sustainable development and biodiversity. The analysis shows that the prevalent economic cost–benefit approach used to value ecosystem services to make a case for conservation cannot resolve trade-off decisions between short-term economic and long-term societal interests. What is needed is a broad discourse about the ethical and cultural dimensions of biodiversity as a global heritage at the highest political level.
Social media abstract
The goal of global biodiversity conservation must be more clearly distinguished from the 2015 SDGs economic objectives.
There has been a long history of conflicts, studies, and debate over how to both protect rivers and develop them sustainably. With a pause in new developments caused by the global pandemic, anticipated further implementation of the Paris Agreement and high-level global climate and biodiversity meetings in 2021, now is an opportune moment to consider the current trajectory of development and policy options for reconciling dams with freshwater system health.
We calculate potential loss of free-flowing rivers (FFRs) if proposed hydropower projects are built globally. Over 260,000 km of rivers, including Amazon, Congo, Irrawaddy, and Salween mainstem rivers, would lose free-flowing status if all dams were built. We propose a set of tested and proven solutions to navigate trade-offs associated with river conservation and dam development. These solution pathways are framed within the mitigation hierarchy and include (1) avoidance through either formal river protection or through exploration of alternative development options; (2) minimization of impacts through strategic or system-scale planning or re-regulation of downstream flows; (3) restoration of rivers through dam removal; and (4) mitigation of dam impacts through biodiversity offsets that include restoration and protection of FFRs. A series of examples illustrate how avoiding or reducing impacts on rivers is possible – particularly when implemented at a system scale – and can be achieved while maintaining or expanding benefits for climate resilience, water, food, and energy security.
Social media summary
Policy solutions and development pathways exist to navigate trade-offs to meet climate resilience, water, food, and energy security goals while safeguarding FFRs.
Scientists often argue that today's efforts towards sustainability in cities call for a strong exchange on knowledge with non-scientific actors. But do urban practitioners think the same way? Do they see the need for scientific support in their work? In our research, we directly asked these questions to urban practitioners. This article evolves around their answers and describes the activities we conducted in order to start the necessary discussion with them.
Given the challenges cities are facing in their efforts towards sustainability, we scrutinize if urban practitioners believe that scientific knowledge can support them in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and if, how. To find evidence, we conducted a ‘co-design’ approach in Future Earth in terms of knowledge production, targeting at German cities. In consequence, the aims of this article are twofold. First, we aim at describing the implementation of the co-design process itself as a potentially useful tool for the interaction with urban practitioners and the evaluation of their specific needs. Second, we present the main results of the co-design process and its contribution for SDG implementation in cities. Combining the two aims, we argue for novel research approaches that allow for more collaborative activities as well as for adequate funding opportunities in the light of urban sustainability transformations.
Co-design to support SDG implementation in cities towards sustainability transformations.
All of humanity is facing the increasingly urgent challenge of finding pathways to the emergence of new, more sustainable patterns of living that promotes the co-evolution of natural and cultural systems. We address this challenge by proposing changes in scientific and scholarly research communities and transformations in roles, resources, actors, and institutions of scholarship (i.e., natural and social sciences, humanities, and arts), which can contribute substantially and effectively to co-designing solutions for sustainable, just, and equitable human societies.
The critical challenge facing humanity is the increasingly urgent need to find and implement pathways that lead humankind into a new stage of dynamic equilibrium that promotes the co-evolution of natural and cultural systems. We address this challenge for scientific and scholarly research communities and the transformations in roles, resources, actors, and institutions of scholarship (encompassing natural and social sciences, humanities, and arts), which can contribute substantially and effectively to co-designing solutions for coping with unsustainable practices and systemic risks. Our perspective builds upon a series of four workshops to identify and address global sustainability challenges at a regional scale. It is anchored in the view that nature and society are inextricably interwoven, that planetary boundaries are fundamentally societal, rather than solely environmental issues, that viable solutions to the global challenges mentioned above can be developed and most effectively implemented at a regional to local scale in conjunction with substantive changes in the education systems at all levels, and that these considerations require a complex adaptive systems approach to seeking and implementing solutions. We call for rethinking, finding creative approaches, and acting to make scholarship more capable of effectively creating just and equitable sustainable futures in diverse cultures and contexts.
Social media summary
Transforming scholarship and education to enable co-design of societal transformations to sustainable futures.
By the end of 2020, 190 universities and colleges worldwide had publicly committed to divest partially or fully from fossil fuel holdings, to help mitigate global heating. We find a statistical correlation between the status of universities in the world rankings and decisions to divest endowments from fossil fuel. Further analysis suggests causation in both directions. Not only do the best divest, but divestors get better.
Previous studies have explored connections between environmental responsibility and the financial performance of business firms. Here, we explore connections between a particular form of environmental responsibility, divestment from fossil fuel, and the reputational status of a different form of organization, universities. We find a strong and robust link between world university rankings and commitments to divest endowments from the fossil fuel industry, with higher-ranked universities divesting at higher rates compared to lower-ranked universities. Rates of divestment also differ significantly between countries, and according to the political orientations of provinces and states. We do not find evidence for links between divestment treated as a binary variable and a university's number of students, size of endowment, or type of endowment. We use time lags to test whether the rank-divestment correlation may arise due to effects of rank on divestment and/or vice versa. These tests indicate influence in both directions. In light of these results, we predict universities that have not yet divested will face mounting peer pressure to do so.
Social media summary
Higher-ranked universities divest more frequently, and divesting universities improve more in the rankings.