About sustainability transitions

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Page Last modified 10 Mar 2017
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In its five-yearly flagship report, SOER 2015, the EEA concluded that, despite improvements in recent decades, Europe’s environmental outlook is worrying. The globalised and systemic character of the environmental challenges ahead implies that achieving the EU’s long-term sustainability goals will require fundamental change in core societal systems, in particular those related to food, energy, mobility and the built environment. Achieving such transitions will require much more than incremental efficiency improvements. It will instead demand long-term, profound changes in dominant practices, policies and ways of thinking, which will in turn demand new knowledge. It will mean overcoming the short-termism currently dominating political and economic thinking, and instead embracing long-term, integrated, global perspectives.

Calls for fundamental transformations in Europe’s societal systems reflect a recognition of both the scale of change needed to achieve long-term sustainability, and the systemic nature of the challenge. Global megatrends such as the spread of western consumption patterns and associated resource demands are imposing increasing burdens on ecosystems. Reconciling projected growth in the global economy with finite environmental boundaries can only be achieved through fundamental changes in core systems of production and consumption. Yet there are major obstacles to achieving these changes, since the systems that account for a large proportion of our environmental pressures are also linked in complex ways to benefits and interests such as jobs, investments, lifestyles and values. Interventions are therefore likely to produce complex and uncertain trade-offs, driving resistance from those bearing the costs.

Research in this area is expanding rapidly, addressing the global forces that call for transitions, the characteristics and functioning of core systems, and the processes and governance measures that could catalyse and steer systemic change. The relevant literature emphasises the importance not just of innovative technologies but also new practices and behaviours, underpinned by shifts in beliefs and values. The complexity and uncertainty of systemic change also points to the need for carefully designed policy mixes, as well as open and adaptive styles of governance. Recognising that much of the knowledge needed to tackle the complex challenges of 21st century is dispersed across society, governments will often need to engage with businesses and civil society as active partners.

EU policies on the topic

The EU’s Seventh Environment Action Programme includes the vision that

‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits’.

As elaborated there and in other EU policies, achieving that vision will require far-reaching changes in systems of production and consumption. For example, the Roadmap to a Low-Carbon Economy establishes a goal of cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by 80 % by 2050, while the Circular Economy Strategy  targets major improvements in waste reduction and management by 2030. At the global level, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provide a rich collection of targets that address both socio-economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability.  

EEA activities

The EEA is tackling the issue of sustainability transitions at a range of scales and using a mixture of analytical approaches. This work includes:

  • Analysing global megatrends and planetary boundaries, including their implications at the European, regional and national scales.
  • Analysing core European socio-technical and socio-ecological systems, such as food, energy, mobility and urban systems, and their implications for the environment and natural resources.
  • Assessing what sustainability transitions mean in theory and in practice, drawing on academic research and case study evidence from across Europe.
  • Developing knowledge on forward-looking and sustainability assessments, including by analysing  trends, drivers of change, systemic risks and emerging issues relevant for the environment and sustainability.
  • Capacity building and sharing of forward-looking information within the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet), and networking with European and international stakeholders and research networks.

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100