Transitioning to Sustainability

Transitioning to Sustainability

Revised 12 January 2020

We are slowly coming to terms with the implications of what transitioning to sustainability really means on a planet-wide basis.  The scope of changes that are required is enormous, and the timescale for making the changes to avoid drastic negative consequences is very short.  Following are some thoughts about what we need to do collectively.  This is a vast subject and this paper can do no more than scratch the surface of what needs to be considered.

A good reference for many of the ideas discussed here is provided by Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, Penguin Books, New York, 2017, ISBN 978-0-14-313044-4.

Energy production, storage, distribution, and utilization

The change that is currently getting extensive attention is the need to stop burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) to the greatest degree possible, in order to minimize the emissions of greenhouse gases causing global warming (primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and oxides of nitrogen).  This means transitioning to primary forms of energy production that generate electricity or non-carbon containing fuels (principally hydrogen).  The remaining use of carbon-containing fossil fuels needs to be reserved for the most critical systems requiring high energy density (such as aircraft).

We will need to build vast new renewable energy generation systems worldwide, particularly solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and wave energy systems.  Large-scale hydroelectric system sites are largely utilized already, and there is limited opportunity for expansion.  The jury is still out as to whether the benefits of fission energy generation systems outweigh the detriments over their entire system life cycle, and practical fusion energy generation systems have yet to be developed.  Most forms of biomass energy generation have been shown to provide low net energy return on investment (EROI) values.

Because most of the renewable energy generation systems have variable power generation (e.g., solar systems generate no energy at night, wind systems vary with the third power of the wind speed), we need to build energy storage systems in conjunction with the primary generation systems.  A number of concepts for utility-scale energy storage systems are being investigated.  Challenges include the cost per kilowatt-hour of energy stored and the fraction of energy lost in the conversion and storage processes.  Distributed local energy storage systems are needed to supplement centralized utility scale systems.

In addition to utility-scale energy storage, we must provide efficient transmission of energy from the locations it is produced by renewable, non-carbon emitting systems to the locations the energy is utilized.  High voltage direct current electric transmission lines and hydrogen pipelines are attractive approaches for energy transmission.  Micro grids need to be installed to distribute locally-generated electrical energy, e.g. from rooftop solar systems.

Producing energy from sustainable systems needs to be coupled with highly-efficient energy utilization systems.  We need to address every aspect of the wasteful use of energy (e.g., in heating, lighting, air conditioning, materials processing, manufacturing, construction, etc.) and find ways to drastically reduce the waste.  Materials and designs need to be chosen for each application that use as little energy in the process as possible.

Land-based transportation systems in particular need to be shifted to electric power wherever possible, with energy efficiency a foremost consideration.  In parallel, we need to consider how to minimize the need to transport people and material, particularly over long distances.  Local production and utilization of goods and services need to be prioritized over remote production.


We are going to need to modify current habitation practices significantly to support long-term sustainability.  For example, urban design should emphasize denser concentrations of housing and jobs so that transportation needs can be reduced.  Where practical, housing should facilitate movement by walking, bicycling, and other low-impact means.  Housing in general is expected to be much smaller than that in contemporary highly developed countries, and will need to use construction materials much more efficiently than at present.  Community-shared spaces are expected to meet many needs that are presently accommodated by individual private spaces.

Production processes

Every aspect of the modern economic system has to be examined to see where carbon emissions and energy waste can be drastically reduced or eliminated in production processes.  The production of chemicals and materials such as plastics need to be redesigned for the new conditions.  Agricultural practices need to be modified to drastically reduce energy use and carbon emissions at all stages of the agricultural chain.

Carbon sequestration

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, means to sequester carbon dioxide need to be pursued in parallel. Preventing further loss of forest cover is essential and reforestation needs to be conducted wherever practical, with suitable species for the future environmental conditions that will prevail in each location.  A wide range of techniques for carbon sequestration are being considered (see for a brief discussion).  Each method has pros and cons to be weighed, and a balance of techniques needs to be designed for each location.


In the current environment, a great deal is thrown away.  In a sustainable system, we can’t afford this.  Everything needs to be designed from the outset to maximize the ability to recycle valuable materials and their embedded resources (energy, metals, rare elements, etc.).  Note that in the natural world, there is no such thing as waste.  Material that one organism discards as waste is input for some other organism to use as nutrient, etc.

We need to think hard about how to handle all the existing non-sustainable systems that will have to be replaced.  A major effort will be required to recover as much of the non-renewable materials in these items as possible.  It is not acceptable to simply dump discarded items into landfill.  Note that substantial energy will be required in this process of dismantling and recycling as well, and that energy needs to be used efficiently.

Goods durability and longevity

In an economic system driven by the maximum possible production and consumption of goods, there are strong incentives to entice people to replace a functioning possession with something new and up-to-date (including so-called planned obsolescence).  This is incompatible with long-term sustainability.  In a sustainable economy, incentives need to favor items that are designed for durability and longevity, so they can be used as long as possible through careful maintenance, repair, updating, and refurbishment.  

Food and fiber

The entire set of systems involved with food and fiber need to be re-invented to achieve sustainability in the new conditions that will be present.  Due to factors such as global climate change (increased temperatures, drought, greater storm intensity, flooding, etc.) the land areas suitable for agriculture are going to be reduced from what is available currently.  So food is going to need to be produced more efficiently on the land that remains suitable.

Much of the Earth’s agricultural land has been seriously damaged by poor agricultural practices.  An extensive program of farmland restoration is going to be essential in order to achieve long-term sustainability.

Diets are going to have to change substantially.  Food that takes excessive amounts of limited resources (particularly growing meat animals) will have to largely give way to alternatives that are more efficient use of available resources. Techniques being pursued include plant-based meat substitutes and laboratory-grown meat (grow the steak, not the steer).  Currently these are expensive; research and development efforts to drastically reduce costs and allow massive scale-up are a very high priority.

The production of food and fiber is a major source of the release of greenhouse gases using current practices.  Techniques need to be developed that reduce this effect to the greatest degree practical.

Nutrient management is going to be very important in future sustainable agricultural practices.  Agricultural runoff is a major problem worldwide.  Current use of chemical fertilizers needs to be changed significantly for a sustainable system.

Another factor that needs to be pursued vigorously is the elimination of the wastage of food in all stages of the process, from primary production through distribution and final consumption.


Water sustainability in the future environment is a critical issue.  Large areas of the planet are becoming potable water stressed, as a result of many factors.  Some areas are facing prolonged severe drought, partially as a result of climate change.  Other areas are experiencing increased storms that overwhelm water storage capabilities.  Worldwide, underground aquifers are being drained and contaminated by pollutants of many kinds.  Rivers are being polluted severely.  Warming conditions are reducing glaciers that supply fresh water to many areas.  Humanity is going to have to take strong steps to manage its remaining supplies of fresh water to achieve long-term sustainability.  Water cannot continue to be used wastefully.


Sustainability requires drastic changes in the degree of pollution released and the types of pollutants.  For example, we are only now beginning to understand the extent of the release of plastic into the environment, with projections that the tonnage of plastic in the world’s oceans will soon exceed the tonnage of fish.  Clearly, this has to be radically curtailed.  There is a vast number of other types of pollutants entering the environment as a result of human carelessness.  We need to examine every human activity to see where pollution is occurring and determine the most effective ways to curtail pollution releases.

Harvesting of wild populations

The exploitation of natural wild populations of fish and animals worldwide today greatly exceeds sustainable levels and need to be brought back in line with natural reproductive rates.  The exploitation of wild plants is similarly in excess of sustainability.  Timbering is a particular example.  While some areas are being managed with a sustainable yield of timber, the norm is over-harvesting and damage to the viability of forest ecosystems.

Ecosystem restoration

Every ecosystem on Earth has been significantly affected by human activities, some to a limited degree and some extremely seriously.  Ecosystems do not occur in isolation, but interact with each other.  Everything is connected to everything else.  An unhealthy ecosystem will have negative effects on healthier ecosystems nearby.

In order to achieve long-term sustainability for our remaining tenure on Earth, the restoration of ecosystems to as close to their undamaged conditions as possible will be essential. This will involve many challenges, for example as a result of the extinction of many species from human actions, the introduction of many invasive species into environments where they did not evolve, and the impacts of human-caused effects such as global climate change.  This will be an effort spanning multiple centuries and will involve extensive work in virtually every location on Earth.  Much research will be required to guide ecosystem restoration as responsibly as possible.

2 thoughts on “Transitioning to Sustainability”

  1. Dennis:
    You’ve identified most of the major issues in a short space– good concise overview.
    Yet one that is not mentioned is population– a very charged subject. We still have traditions that repeat 2000 + year old injunctions to have large families. This may have been a requirement when infant mortality was high, but in the modern (sic) world, it seems fair to ask if this is still necessary.

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