Information & Computational Sciences

Sustainability Is Our Only Chance For Prosperity

By on 01/10/2023 in ICS

By Alessandro Gimona, ICS.

In her address to world leaders at COP 26, the late Queen remarked that true statesmanship lies in deploying one’s courage and vision to the benefit of future generations. This apparently simple proposition would require a radical transformation of our political system and societal structures.

For decades political short-termism has instead prevailed, underpinned by a type of economic thinking that encourages, or even demands, that we discount the future. This myopic perspective has brought us the intertwined climate change and biodiversity crises, that, if unchecked, threaten to unravel human prosperity, by spiralling out of control as we advance further into this century.

The limited execution of previous commitments has led to numerous interconnected consequences.

Land use and land management have continued to be major causes of biodiversity loss in countries whose economies are heavily tied to commodity chains. All global Aichi Targets were failed, and extinction rates have continued to increase, being now,  on average, 36 times the “background” rate for many taxa.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are off track, as reiterated by the recent high-level New York UN summit, and the majority of planetary boundaries have been crossed.

The recently published UNFCC report also shows that short-termism has been continuing, with insufficient ambition and insufficient implementation, which has led to a large emission reduction gap (see figure below). Any further delay will widen the gap and make it harder -physically and politically- to close it.

The gap between promised and needed cuts to stay within emission budgets for 1.5 and 2 C.
Source:: UNFCCC, Fig. 1

The last reports from the IPCC and IPBES, as well as a seminal paper synthesizing the IPBES Values Assessment by a panel of leading global scientists, echo the urgency of reimagining our relationship with our planet (the implications of the IPBES report, and related sources, have also been admirably adapted to Scotland by a team of Hutton scientists). These documents, summarising a monumental number of studies, emphasise important related messages: firstly, that emissions must be halved every ten years if we want to stay within a safe carbon budget. Secondly that nature is not merely a resource bank but also the source of our cultural, spiritual, and emotional well-being; thirdly, that genuinely valuing nature necessitates embracing a diversity of perspectives and values, which collectively can lead to transformative changes towards a more equitable and sustainable future. And, finally, that without a course correction that requires a societal transformation, we are in danger of destroying the very material and non-material basis of our prosperity.

Both the work of IPCC and IPBES are based of several thousands of studies, and the evidence is now overwhelming that the climate change and biodiversity crises are not isolated phenomena but are symptoms of dysfunction of a larger system that prioritises economic growth over environmental protection and social justice.

Twin solutions for twin crises

This system, driven by short-term gains, has unwittingly led to the degradation of our planet and the marginalization of vulnerable communities. Solutions are systemic, and therefore need to go well beyond climate or nature finance, monetary valuation, and technological “fixes.”

A very brief summary the findings of IEA , IPCC and IPBES, which all countries could translate into policies is below.

Emissions must be halved every ten years

There are increasing risks of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts associated with global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C. To limit global warming to 1.5°C, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) must decline by about 45% from 2019 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050. No new major fossil fuel projects should be authorised if we want to reach such goal in time.

Nature’s value is not only monetary

Beyond the tangible benefits like food and water, nature offers intrinsic values, such as its inherent worth, and relational values, which encompass cultural and spiritual relationships with the environment. However, the dominant economic systems often prioritise market-based instrumental values, sidelining the diverse ways in which nature matters to people, thus inducing a sort of selective blindness to the full picture that can endanger efforts to safeguard biodiversity.

Change is slowly happening for example, the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), a pivotal international agreement, which aims to safeguard biodiversity hinges on integrating diverse values of nature into its targets. The framework’s goals, such as conserving 30% of the Earth’s land and sea by 2030, can only be realised if they resonate with the multiple ways people value nature.

 Leveraging Nature’s Values for Transformative Change

While the importance of nature is universally acknowledged, its valuation in decision-making remains limited. Studies reveal that most valuation studies, especially those based on nature, lack stakeholder participation, especially of less powerful stakeholders. Moreover, despite the increasing call for integrating valuation in policymaking, a mere 5% of published studies document the uptake of such values into decisions.

For a more just and sustainable future, four value-centered leverage points can be identified.

  • Improving Valuation

Recognising and accounting for the diverse values of nature is crucial. This step broadens the scope of valuation: instead of just economic valuation, it includes cultural, spiritual, and emotional value. This is no longer an optional and can be done by incorporating Indigenous/local knowledge, local traditions, and community insights into valuation studies. 

  • Embedding Value Information

Even when nature’s diverse values are recognised, they often don’t translate into actionable policy decisions. To remedy this, we should design policies that specifically address the diverse values of nature. For instance, introduce green taxes that reflect environmental costs or offer incentives for sustainable agricultural practices, taking a holistic view, that goes behind any monetary return on investment. Incorporate biophysical indicators: use high spatial resolution ecosystem accounts to provide biophysical indicators, informing policy design at national levels, and, finally, ensure that policies prioritise environmental and social safeguards, such as land tenure rights and equitable access to land. 

  • Reconfiguring Societal Structures

Existing societal structures, from legal systems to economic institutions, often prioritise market-based values, sidelining other important issues. Both IPCC and IPBES findings suggest that going beyond markets is necessary and make reconfiguring societal structures a priority to reach the above goals.

IPCC is clear that, to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, especially limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, systemic transformations in energy, land use, cities, and infrastructure (including transport and buildings) are indispensable. This requires societal shifts, encompassing technological, socio-economic, and institutional dimensions.

Similarly, IPBES points out that profound transformations are needed. Some of the proposed solutions, which would address both crises while considering equity and justice, include changing the way we produce and consume food, energy, and materials, the way we govern our societies, and the way we value nature.

This requires legal reforms, such as the reform of property rights, and recognition of the rights of natural entities, such as rivers or forests, in legal systems. Economic Reforms, such as broadening indicators beyond just GDP to include indicators that encompass social and ecological well-being. Political Reforms, such as rules that prioritise long term vs over short-term political gain and protect future generation’s needs.

  • Modifying underlying social norms and goals

All this would go well beyond market-based approaches to the protection of Nature and would need to be underpinned by the modification of societal norms and a redefinition of concepts like “progress” in terms of our relationship with the environment. A combination of education, regulation and community initiatives would be needed.

Liquid li(v)es

 Scholars are therefore clear that the road to a sustainable future requires systemic change. However, this is only a starting point, as we are often vulnerable to misconceptions, misinformation, and self-delusions, leading us to think that we could just tinker around the edges instead.

While there is not only a scientific, but also a strong ethical argument, underpinned by the work of  philosophers like John Rawls, Derek Parfit, Steven Gardiner, and Aldo Leopold, that emphasises the importance of considering future generations and non-human nature in our decisions, there are also powerful economic interests at play that resist change, and often promote a narrative of “pragmatism.” This narrative, under the guise of practicality, suggests that significant changes are unrealistic or even detrimental, tapping into the fears of ordinary people that embracing such changes would mean compromising their current lifestyles. Without a proper strategy for a just transition, this can often be the case, and measures to avoid that the distribution of losses and wins is unfair are certainly possible and need to be implemented, as indicated, for example, by OECD and by the pioneering work of the Scottish Just Transition Commission. Lacking a credible just transition strategy is akin to lacking a Net Zero strategy; without the former, the latter becomes politically untenable, regardless of its urgency.

But it would be too simplistic to suggest that ordinary people would behave very differently if they were given the information produced by scholars, or that they are only responding to the narrative of fears of job losses, or of being left out of pocket.

We live in a globalised society characterised by what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “Liquid Modernity”, where societal structures, and identities, too, are liquid, i.e. in are in constant flux, and many search for identity in material consumption, which escalates beyond need satisfaction. The latest smartphone, the trendiest fashion, or the newest car, international holidays, become not just a purchase but a statement of who people are, an important part of a ‘liquid identity’ pursuing affirmation through consumption of ever-changing goods. And, of course, consumption-driven identities do not exist in a vacuum: they are partly influenced by larger societal forces, particularly powerful vested interests that try shape public preferences, opinion, and policy. The resulting cycle of consumption and disposal, partly fuelled by all types of media, which rely on advertising, provides us with only momentary contentment, and is inherently at odds with environmental sustainability.

In facing this predicament, the imperative of wresting the narrative about what constitutes progress from those who propagate a status-quo rooted in consumerism becomes apparent. If left unchallenged, public opposition to change is likely to dash hopes of participatory democracy as a way out of the crises.

Liquid modernity’s ambivalent freedom is not free of consequences but comes with severe challenges. Individuals in affluent countries are “liberated” and “free” to perpetually redefine themselves through their lifestyle consumption, often at the planet’s expense. Ironically, the costs of such freedom are asymmetric. Those who consume the most, will feel the repercussions of their actions later, shielded by their wealth and access to resources. Conversely, those who consume the least, typically marginalised populations, will endure environmental degradation sooner, even though their ecological footprint is minimal. But the consequences of the ‘freedom’ to live unsustainably, in terms of climate change and biodiversity loss, are likely to be profoundly serious, eventually, for everyone. Most people know it. Sixty thousand extra deaths in Europe this summer are a small reminder of what we might have to face.

This is where the fluidity of modern identity, the individual’s desire for a certain lifestyle intersects with the influence of powerful actors on media and politics. False narratives that appear to reconcile our unsustainable lifestyles with the ‘liquid’ desire to do good and be seen as environmentally conscious, are ‘sold’ by mainstream media and often bought by a distracted citizenry.   But often turn out to be ineffective because they do not address the root of the problem. 


One of the most controversial of these “green choices” is carbon offsets. On the surface, they seem like a perfect solution: we emit carbon by flying or driving, but then we “offset” that by paying for planting trees somewhere else. It is an attractive proposition, especially for those of us with a guilty conscience about our carbon footprint. It feels good, it is endorsed by celebrities, and it gives us a sense of doing our part.

However, beneath this glossy veneer lies a more complex reality. While the idea of carbon offsets is not inherently bad, it is the way they are marketed and sold that can be misleading. They are often presented as a straightforward trade-off: emit here, offset there. But ecosystems do not work in such neat equivalences. Trees planted today cannot instantly absorb the carbon emitted by your recent flight. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the trees will survive long enough to offset the promised amount of carbon, and there is evidence that often they do not.

Furthermore, by buying into the idea of carbon offsets, we might be allowing ourselves to avoid making more meaningful changes in our lifestyles. Instead of rethinking our consumption patterns, we might feel absolved of responsibility because we have “offset” our emissions. It is a form of self-deception, a way to feel good without addressing the deeper issues. I call this “greenwishing”. Businesses might also be tempted to buy tokenistic offsets, which can be good PR but are no substitute for real emissions reductions, and often fail to deliver. In other words the integrity of the voluntary carbon market is crucial, but relying on offsets would be unrealistic.

When governments adopt this attitude, it results in the formulation of policies that are not only unrealistic but also potentially harmful. To be sure, IPCC is advising that several gigatons per year of offsets are needed. Similarly, ecosystem restauration has the theoretical potential to contribute substantially to both mitigation and biodiversity protection. But we need to be mindful firstly that, in practice, offsets are much less effective than in theory, and, more importantly, that such extremely large offsets seem inconceivable without societal transformations, and would only work in conjunction with exponentially steep emissions reductions.

Thinking that offsets are a convenient alternative to change that could counteract the effect of over fifty-four billion tons of emission (CO2eq) per year, or over seven hundred million for the UK (counting also consumption-based emissions, as they affect the climate) would be another type of self-deception. Without halving emissions every ten years, relying heavily on offsets assumes that current technologies or nature-based solutions can handle the burden. However, as I have explained elsewhere, the reality is starkly different. The capacity of both technological and natural solutions to counteract the climate-forcing effect of GHGs is limited.

Net Zero is not the point

For instance, to offset global CO2 emissions using mostly nature-based solutions, like afforestation or reforestation, would require land areas so vast that they would compete with other critical land uses, such as food production, and conservation of biodiversity, and this could lead to other unintended consequences, like food shortages or species extinctions. Similarly, current carbon capture and storage technologies are not yet scalable to the levels required to offset global (or even national) emissions meaningfully. For these reasons, relying on offsets to reach Net Zero, while delaying robust emission cuts, would be a recipe for failure. Delaying emission cuts would mean reaching Net Zero through a high cumulative emissions pathway that would increase the chances of exceeding a safe carbon budget. Not exceeding such budget, not Net Zero per se, is the real crux of climate policy. Delaying would also mean having to make much bigger -and very probably unfeasible- cuts in the future, thus locking countries in the present high-emitting energy system for much longer.

Similar considerations apply to the use of biodiversity offsets. If used without strictly implementing the mitigation hierarchy, they could do more harm than good. 


Leaders who, instead of taking the decisive systemic actions advised by multiple scholars and scientific bodies now, are betting on future technological advancements or on land -based solutions to bail us out, and delay investments, are essentially passing the buck to future generations. Hardly an example of the “true statesmanship” the late Queen was talking about.

And the Queen was not alone. To quote Pope Francis in his recent apostolic exhortation (Laudate Deum ) “To the powerful, I can only repeat this question: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power, only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

To tackle the twin crises, statesmanship demands more than echoing convenient narratives; it demands to be at the forefront, dispelling myths of ‘pragmatism’ and perceived loss, and championing equitable and very rapid transformative action.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.




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