Research priorities for sustainability science

DKN position paper

DKN Positionspapier Titelseite

With this position paper the DKN highlights pertinent research gaps and suggests forthcoming fields of research. It combines insights from global environmental change research and the environmental social sciences and humanities. This programmatic framework will form the basis of the future work program of the committee itself. Furthermore, it is hoped that it will motivate other scientists to engage across disciplinary boundaries with the manifold epistemological, theoretical, and methodological challenges of sustainability science. This contribution addresses agents in science, science management, and science funding in a national and an international context.

An earlier version of this paper was discussed at the German Sustainability Science Summit 2021. Comments from these discussions are added as an appendix of this publication.

Download the DKN position paper here.

Watch the recording of the public presentation of the DKN position paper from 23 February 2022 here

The paper consists of the following six chapters, each followed by open research questions:

Approaches and goals of sustainability research

Sustainability implies a notion of the future as it ought to be. Its normativity is firmly based on environmental ethics, theories of intergenerational justice and future ethics. The slogan “the future we want” stipulates a global “we”. Of course, the existence of such a “we” is not a given, but rather an aspiration of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) process. We regard the assertion conveyed by “we” as an empathetic, caring and responsible shorthand for “humanity” and link this with norms and values that are foundational for sustainability research as an essential takeoff point of our work within DKN. The paper surmises that such a perspective presupposes certain moral standards and ideas of justice and responsibility that may not be shared across the globe. We strongly argue for a continued reflection and debate on the sustainability concept across cultural, social and economic divides.
We focus on three conceptual approaches to sustainability: 1) strong sustainability, 2) the economic concept of inclusive wealth, 3) the SDG approach.

Research questions

  • What is the relation between specific SDGs and theoretical concepts of sustainability? Can strong sustainability, inclusive wealth, and the SDG approach be synthesized and reconciled, or must one decide between competing paradigms?
  • How can the many conflicts between and synergies across SDGs and theoretical concepts of sustainability be identified and assessed? Which ethical theories of moral conflicts and dilemmas apply to this relationship? Do different cultures and levels of wealth allow for different priorities?
  • How can matters of distributive justice be integrated in the maintenance, restoration, and utilization of natural capitals? Should justice search for ideal solutions (“ideal global justice”), or solutions which are regarded as being “fair enough” by most participants?

How to attain sustainable development? Transformative change is key

Given the different conceptual approaches to sustainability it is not surprising that quite different trajectories regarding how to attain sustainable development are discussed. The SDG concept reflects the strong influence of the idea of transformative change towards sustainability. An important aspect is the vision of a new social contract with global dimensions and a new common identity of humankind. Part of this is the idea of a contract of generations that includes ecological sustainability as a key element. The ideas of degrowth and sufficiency belong to the transformative dimension. Further research on transformation or transformative research is urgently needed in the following five fields: 1. interactions between policies at the local, the regional and the global level; 2. driving forces, windows of opportunity and barriers of transformation processes; 3. valid ethical criteria for designing policies; 4. dealing with complexity and systemic approaches by coordination or division of labor; 5. distribution of the burdens of transformations.

Research questions

  • What are the social and economic opportunity costs associated with different approaches to sustainability policy and how are they distributed? What are criteria for distributing costs fairly (over time and space)?
  • What are the impacts of national sustainability policies on other countries, and globally? What requirements does globalization place on sustainability policies; to what degree is globalization compatible with sustainable patterns of production and consumption? What opportunities reside in reducing globalization?
  • Natural capitals are collective goods, but the collectives are mostly particular states and communities. Are persons morally entitled to enjoy collective natural goods of other political entities? Are there duties to share collective goods with the rest of humanity? Might this repeat the “tragedy of open access”?

Scales as challenges in climate change, adaptation, and sustainable development research

Sustainable development, extreme events, resilience building, transformation, climate justice and adaptation are directly and indirectly linked to challenges regarding spatial and temporal scales. Up to now, spatial, temporal and functional scales have been underrepresented as cross-cutting topics within the scientific discourses that deal with sustainable development, transformation and climate-change adaptation. If sustainability research aims to strengthen an integrated perspective linking societal and environmental perspectives, it is essential to explore scale dependencies in greater depth. For example, in climate change adaptation research, future risks and adaptation needs are often assessed by juxtaposing climatic information for the year 2050 or 2100 with vulnerability information relating to present day. These mismatches need more attention, since the underlying question is not only whether we have scientific tools to forecast and project future population and population structures for the year 2050 or 2100, but also which temporal scales different disciplines use and work with. Further research is needed on how to better connect different research methods and results at different temporal scales. In addition, spatial and temporal scales are also a relevant scientific topic when sustainability research explores the development of solution spaces to promote equal living conditions or higher levels of environmental justice.

Research questions

  • What are the differential consequences of climate and societal change at various spatial and temporal scales, and how can we approach cross-scale dynamics productively?
  • What is the role of spatial, temporal, and functional scales in terms of determining the feasibility and effectiveness of strategies?
  • How to methodologically address mismatches between scales in present model and assessment approaches that aim to inform adaptation and sustainable development? How can top-down approaches in research (global models) and bottom-up knowledge and methods about particular environments be synthesized and linked?
  • How to consider issues of justice in different approaches to deal with climate change and adaptation at (and across) different spatial and temporal scales?

Extreme events and resilience: relations to human health, well-being and social cohesion

Extreme events and shocks can render social-ecological systems more vulnerable and brittle and can even lead to their collapse; but extreme events can also spur transitions to a better-adapted, more just and sustainable future state. We hypothesize that social cohesion is an essential condition to provide resilience, in terms of being able to continue on a targeted path towards the SDGs after an extreme event. The resilience of communities inhabiting specific socio-ecological systems is at the same time deeply rooted in the materiality of non-human actors and geo-biophysical givens, in human social organization and cultural dispositions. The interlinkages, synergies and tradeoffs between extreme events, societal resilience, individual health and well-being, and social cohesion for designing pathways towards the SDGs are key topics for further research. This will include further conceptual clarification on the relationship between sustainability and resilience, and interdisciplinary research on the emergence and co-production of resilience.

Research questions

  • What impacts on social and individual well-being are expected to be caused by extreme climate events, including risks emerging from compound events and cascades of impacts and feedbacks across ecosystems, infrastructures, and society?
  • What are key challenges to resilience across different sectors and SDGs, while facing extreme events?
  • How are resilience and social cohesion mutually interlinked, and how does this change in the case of extreme events?
  • How to compare and measure degrees of social cohesion and resilience across countries?
  • Resilience mechanisms entail costs and benefits. Is it essential that such costs and benefits are distributed in a just manner to provide for social cohesion (“resilience justice”)?
  • How do extreme events, resilience and tipping points relate to each other? Can tipping points be identified for a complex compound concept such as social cohesion at all?

Food systems, biodiversity, and health

Food provision is fundamental for human health and well-being. At the same time food production is a key driver for the deterioration of biodiversity in ecosystems. The linkages between biodiversity, diet and health are little understood, and management of biodiversity conservation and food production are often studied as decoupled phenomena. It is evident that the global food system is in a crisis and transformation toward sustainability is urgently needed to maintain or restore both human health and productive, resilient and diverse ecosystems. The climate crisis, the crisis of biodiversity and the crisis of the global food system are strongly interlinked. Current land use is a main contributor to global biodiversity loss and to climate change. Sustainable management of land, soils and oceans and the transformation of land-use systems is key to sustainability. The main question is what kinds of transformations of land use, food production and food consumption are necessary in order to cope with the multiple crises and to maintain human health and ecosystems.

Research questions

  • What transformations of land-use systems will enable us to cope with the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and, linked to this, the crisis of the global food system?
  • How can transformation combine biodiversity conservation, restoration, and sustainable use and sustainable intensification of land use to maintain functioning ecosystems and sustainable food provision?
  • Since the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) is a main driver of land use in Europe: how can the CAP be adapted to the objective of making the EU a net-zero-emissions system in 2050, and what role can nature-based solutions play within such adaptation processes?
  • How can we design governance processes to guide the transformation such that land-use conflicts and socio-economic conflicts can be resolved to foster sustainable diets, biodiversity conservation, and climate-change mitigation and adaptation?

Dietary transformations towards sustainability

Fostering global human nutrition and associated food production across the globe plays a central role in reaching the SDGs. There are a number of aspects qualifying for a sustainable dietary approach, most importantly the move to a more plant-based diet. The planetary health diet describes a hypothesis-driven dietary pattern to serve as a healthy diet across the world which should also support sustainable land use. Further research is needed to investigate how change towards sustainable diets can be achieved and to identify sustainable diets for different specific target groups. The identification of key aspects suitable for change in dietary behavior as well as the identification of target population groups, along with the estimation of the influence of those changes on sustainability, could be targets towards dietary transformation. An approach centered on individual behavioral choices needs to be supplemented by more systemic approaches. Furthermore, little is known about the relevance of crises for risk awareness and their link to dietary patterns.

Research questions

  • What governance systems and policy, planning, and practical instruments can serve a sustainable food production, sustainable storage and transportation, sustainable food consumption patterns, and associated reduction in food waste?
  • What are the most effective starting points for transformation towards sustainable diets in different regions? How does a focus on individual behavior change compare in effectiveness to more systemic approaches at the population level?
  • How can sustainable diets be tailored for different target groups? Which population groups should be addressed and how can different groups be reached properly?
  • What are the potential synergies or trade-offs of sustainable diets and sustainable food production on other aspects of human health and well-being, such as quality of life in cities or social cohesion, as well as on biodiversity restoration and climate-change mitigation and adaption?
  • What are the visible starting points for sustainability transformation via nature-based solutions (e.g. urban gardening) and their effects on the triangle of diet, health, and biodiversity?
  • How can crises lead to a transformation in diet and health, e.g. via change in individual behavior or political restructuring?