Humanity is on a deeply unsustainable trajectory. We are exceeding planetary boundaries and unlikely to meet many international sustainable development goals and global environmental targets. At risk are up to a million species of plants and animals and many invaluable contributions of nature to people. Until recently there was no broadly accepted framework of interventions that could ignite the transformations needed to achieve these desired targets and goals—no roadmap for transformative change to sustainability.
As a component of the Global Assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), we conducted an iterative process of expert deliberation and peer review. This included an extensive literature review of scenarios and pathways to sustainability, including the broader literature on the social drivers of environmental degradation, social change and sustainability transformation. We asked, what are the most important elements of pathways to sustainability?
Applying a social-ecological systems lens, we identified eight priority points for intervention (leverage points) and five overarching strategic actions and priority interventions (levers), which appear to be key to societal transformation. The eight leverage points are as follows: (1) Visions of a good life, (2) Total consumption and waste, (3) Values of responsibility that are currently dormant, (4) Inequalities, (5) Justice and inclusion in conservation, (6) Externalities from trade and other distant effects of local actions, (7) Responsible technology, innovation and investment, and (8) Education and knowledge generation and sharing. The five intertwined governance levers can be applied across the eight leverage points and more broadly. These include the following: (A) Incentives and capacity building, (B) Coordination across sectors and jurisdictions, (C) Pre-emptive action, (D) Adaptive decision-making, and (E) Environmental law and implementation. The levers and leverage points are all non-substitutable, and each enables others, likely leading to synergistic benefits.
Transformative change towards sustainable pathways requires more than a simple scaling-up of sustainability initiatives—it entails addressing these levers and leverage points to change the fabric of legal, political, economic and other social systems. These levers and leverage points build upon those approved by 132 member nations within the Global Assessment’s Summary for Policymakers, with the aim of enabling diverse scholars and leaders in government, business, and civil society to spark transformative changes towards a happier, fairer and more sustainable world.