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International team of researchers suggests five principles for the sustainability transformation

  • Economy and society
  • Environment and natural resources

The impact of human activity on the Earth’s biosphere requires radical changes in economic, legal, political, and governance systems in order for people to still have a chance at a better, more equitable and sustainable future. Published in the first issue of the new npj Urban Sustainability this February, an international team of researchers proposes principles and actions for the sustainability transformation.

The lead authors of the article, Radical changes are needed for transformations to a good Anthropocene, are Associate Professor Timon McPherson from The New School in New York, and Professor Christopher M. Raymond from Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science, HELSUS. Professor of Environmental Law Niko Soininen from the University of Eastern Finland is also one of the authors.

The article takes an interdisciplinary perspective to the sustainability transformation and to the need for systemic changes in the Anthropocene era. Anthropocene refers to an era when human activity is one of the main drivers affecting and modifying the Earth’s biosphere. The global challenges include increasing greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly disappearing ice cover, and rising ocean temperatures, acidity and sea levels. Factors contributing to the accelerating change include population growth, rising standard of living, increased air traffic, and the use of fossil fuels.

Environmental problems and climate change are often painted as a dark, dystopian picture of the future, but the researchers now take a positive approach to the sustainability transformation.

“We already are in the Anthropocene, and environmental problems have become so exacerbated that their adverse effects cannot be avoided. We are starting to reach the planet’s ecological limits, and a sustainability transformation is needed. By rethinking the basic structures of liberal social and economic systems, we can make the Anthropocene as good as possible for humans,” Professor Soininen says.

The five principles of proposed by the researchers involve rethinking growth, efficiency, the state, the commons, and justice. Professor Soininen’s contribution to the article pertained to rethinking the state in particular.

“For example, in order to mitigate climate change, states must set binding and comprehensive environmental targets instead of trying to solve one problem here and another one there without a view to cumulative emissions and impacts. This requires cross-sectoral cooperation. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the complex environmental issues of our time cannot be solved by governmental action or legal obligations alone. It is vital to involve the private sector and civil society, and make them part of the solution,” Professor Soininen says.

Besides measuring economic growth, indicators of social well-being are needed for growth and efficiency. The sustainability objective should be integrated into companies’ core business activities and economic efficiency.

In addition to privately owned space, co-ownership that strengthens communality is needed. From the point of view of fairness, solutions to environmental problems should also be examined from a social perspective, as the impacts of climate change hit the most vulnerable and marginalised groups the hardest. The experience and voice of local actors must also be heard in governance processes.

Professor Soininen points out that social, ecological and technical links between the systems encompass all the principles.

“Systemic links and a systemic orientation are particularly important so that we do not suboptimize something while at the same creating other problems elsewhere. This applies not only to social decision-making but also to research.”

Research article: McPhearson, T., M. Raymond, C., Gulsrud, N. et al. Radical changes are needed for transformations to a good Anthropocene. npj Urban Sustain 1, 5 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42949-021-00017-x.

For further information, please contact:

Niko Soininen, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Eastern Finland, niko.soininen@uef.fi, tel. +358 50 437 6342

Christopher M. Raymond, Professor, Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science, christopher.raymond@helsinki.fi, tel. +358 50 556 0850