Clark, William, et al. Systems transitions research and sustainable development: Challenges, progress, and prospects,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 120, No. 47, Nov. 2023).

What’s the issue?

Making development sustainable is a central challenge of our age. The field of sustainability science tries to figure out how interactions of nature and society can support sustainable development. One key goal is figuring out how to restructure complex consumption-production systems. Examples of these systems are production and consumption of food, energy, and mobility. Scientists are studying how transitions in these production-consumption systems can bend development pathways toward sustainability.


What does the research say?

Writing in a special edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scholars Frank Geels of the University of Manchester, Florian Kern of the Institute for Ecological Economy Research in Berlin, and William C. Clark of Harvard Kennedy School bring together insights from experts on system transitions that shape sustainable development. This work weighs how potential solutions might fundamentally shift consumption-production systems. The authors note that radical innovations in small niches can lead to major transitions in large consumption-production systems. The three lead authors call on more than a dozen sustainable development scholars to examine specific innovations and obstacles to progress. These experts look at the drivers and barriers to sustainability in electricity, food, and mobility systems; they also consider larger cross-cutting systems issues. For example, one essay analyzes the British electricity system since World War Two, and the role that increasing concerns about climate change played in generating a more interventionist policy approach to shift electricity production and consumption. These systems changes led to an 86% reduction in emissions from 2006 to 2019. The authors note that political and economic struggles as well as technological advances drove this transition. Another paper analyzes how recent technology advances in energy storage, microgrids, and digitized systems in the United States have helped undermine long-time obstacles to small-scale solar energy development. Other essays look at the adoption of electric vehicles in Norway, the systems issues involved in car-sharing, agroecology in Nicaragua, and the shift to plant-based alternatives to meat production. 


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