Sustainability Trilemma: environmental externalities, welfare inequality and mismatched resources?

Dec. 27, 2022, 20:30 PM  (New York Time)
Dec 28, 2022 09:30 AM (Beijing Time)

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Professor Xiaoling Zhang is the ‘Top 1% Global Highly Cited Researchers 2022’ by Clarivate Analytics. She is a sustainability scientist who uses data analytic, theoretical and interdisciplinary approaches to identify, monitor, assess and simulate the commonalities, particularities, as well as interactions among ecology, economic & management, and social systems in shifting towards sustainability and resilience. She is currently the global associate editor of npj Urban Sustainability (Nature partner series). So far, she has published more than 100 papers including those in top journals (Nature Food, iScience, Nature comment, Applied Energy, Resources, recycling and conservation, etc), with a total of 16,014 Google Scholar citations and have accumulated a h-index “69”.

The accomplishment of sustainability, however, does not mean that the field in its current state has fully met its commitment. Challenges remain, including insufficient engagement with stakeholder groups across different scales, lack of robust communication and entrepreneurial skills between scientists and practitioners generally, the need for scientific quantification (structural and intellectual) within and beyond the academic community to attract and maintain committed ‘common public goods’ to the field, and enhanced qualitative and quantitative meta-studies to unravel universal law, mechanisms and evidence emerging from sustainability science research. All these challenges symptomize the persisting disconnect between a nascent science and complex societal changes. What bothers us most, however, is rather the mismatch between rhetoric and practice in sustainability science, the core of which being the notion of “science for sustainability trilemma.”

Sustainability science should be conceived as dynamic, relational and multi-dimensional, encompassing social, economic, ecological and governance spheres, and across scales, on which sustainability takes on variegated forms. I will draw upon the previous theories and practices to define ‘Sustainability Trilemma’ in order to quantify the trade-offs among scales, actors and spheres through unravelling the black box of ‘agglomeration resources economy, environmental externalities, and social inequality’. This will help dissolve the distinction among eco-centric, anthropocentric and complex ecosystem network approaches to sustainability. It is therefore urgent and necessary to raise the below theoretical as well as practical questions,

• Resource security: how to ensure reliable resources supply?
• Resource equity: how to ensure equitable and affordable resources to different income groups across global and local scales?
• Environmental externalities: how to prevent negative environmental impact or reduce environmental damage through market, policy and social solutions?
• How to strive for an optimal ‘trade off’ pathway by considering diversifying and targeting coping governance strategies that can address the Sustainability Trilemma in the post carbon era?