Using Australia as a case study confirms that it’s hard to have it all.
The idea of sustainability is pretty simple: Manage our resources such that they can continue to support us indefinitely. And, for an individual resource, sustainability is simple. Avoiding something like depleting our groundwater means that future generations have access to as much water as we do and don’t face the consequences of sinking soil.
But sustainability gets complicated when you start considering multiple, competing uses. Cutting back on water usage may influence things like agriculture, energy production, and more, making them less sustainable.
Just how complicated does all of this get?
Lei Gao and Brett Bryan of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) decided to use their home country as a test of sustainability goals, and the results are disheartening. While moving any aspect of land use into the “sustainable” column is possible, the more aspects you try to push into that column, the harder it gets.
To look into sustainability in a concrete manner, the authors started with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 of those, but Gao and Bryan focused on land use, which determined their priorities: sustainable food production, clean water, clean energy, limiting climate change, and maintaining biodiversity. The authors translated these into specific targets for 2030 and 2050 Australia at three levels of what they call “ambition.”
– The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets under Agenda 2030 of the United Nations1, 2 map a coherent global sustainability ambition at a level of detail general enough to garner consensus amongst nations3. However, achieving the global agenda will depend heavily on successful national-scale implementation4, which requires the development of effective science-driven targets3 tailored to specific national contexts1 and supported by strong national governance.
The authors have a computerized modeling system, called Land-use trade-offs (LUTO), that can project where things will be in response to a combination of economics, environmental constraints, and policy decisions. Given the constraints of policy and the environment, LUTO allocated land use based on what will provide the owners with the greatest return. Gao and Bryan also considered a variety of potential future scenarios, including different levels of climate change (and attempts to address it), as well as changes in Australia’s population growth.
All these scenarios and considerations led to a dizzying array of potential results. So the authors analyzed them in terms of pathways—if you prioritize food production and start down that pathway, does it preclude anything else?
The answer is yes. “Simultaneous achievement of multiple targets is rare,” the authors conclude, “owing to the complexity of sustainability target implementation and the pervasive trade-offs in resource-constrained land systems.” It’s possible to achieve more only by lowering your standards and accepting some of the weaker sustainability goals.
To give a sense of the trade-offs, we can start by looking at the scenarios in which addressing “climate change” is a “priority.” This leads to policies that promote reforestation, which can offset carbon emissions. New forests can also help with biodiversity, although complex ecologies takes a while to develop, so some of the benefits would be outside the time period being studied. Unfortunately, reforestation would also make water use less sustainable and, not surprisingly, displace agriculture. In fact, any serious attempts to address climate change involved reforestation and tipped water use into unsustainable territory.
Agriculture was also problematic in many pathways. To meet food production targets, there needed to be continued productivity improvements; without them, food started competing with other types of land-use priorities. Only eight percent of the pathways achieved biodiversity goals, typically when government policy prioritized it.
As a result of all these competing priorities, only a quarter of the pathways managed to hit two targets when the ambition was set to moderate. Ten percent hit three of them, and another 3.5 percent hit three. A full 18 percent of the pathways achieved none of the goals.
The easiest combo to hit together involved food, water, and biofuels. That’s in part because the unused portions of food crop plants can be shunted into biofuel productions, assuming government policies prioritize the creation of the facilities to process them. But you’d only be prioritizing biofuels if you cared about climate change, and these pathways don’t end up addressing that effectively.
None of this means that meeting goals is ultimately impossible. Solar and wind power prices have plunged so much that we have blown past a variety of goals that once seemed optimistic. But the CSIRO study (Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability) does highlight that real sustainability requires solving multiple problems at once while balancing competing priorities. It may be a wicked problem, and no two countries are likely to end up with the exact same solutions. But that doesn’t mean sustainability isn’t a problem worth tackling.
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Extended Data Figures:
- Extended Data Figure 1: Schematic structure and scenario specification summary of the LUTO model. (225 KB)
- This figure is reproduced, with permission, from figure 2 in ref. 6 (CSIRO). Marinoni et al. refers to ref. 38; GCM, global climate model; Mha, million hectares. The integration of the range of environmental and socio-economic data and models that combine to parameterize the LUTO integrated land systems model. ASRIS is the Australian Soil Resource Information System, ANUCLIM is a spatial climate modelling tool from the Australian National University, LCA is Life-Cycle Assessment, 3-PG2 is a forest stand growth model, APSIM is the Agricultural Production Systems Simulator crop model, and the Budyko framework enables the calculation of water use by trees. On the right are the various outputs possible from the model.
- Extended Data Figure 2: A detailed illustration of the M3 central pathway, a single, mid-range pathway for Australia’s agricultural land from 2013 to 2050. (214 KB)
- The central settings6 are detailed in the middle of the map. The map indicates potential land-use in 2050. The leftmost graphs show modelled trajectories for key LUTO model input variables including global carbon price; projected price multipliers for crops, livestock and oil; national electricity price projections; and mapped changes in temperature and rainfall. The rightmost charts show key LUTO model outputs including changes in the projected area of land-use and the six sustainability indicators used in this study over time. Weak (W), Moderate (M), and Ambitious (A) targets are also plotted for each indicator with the up- and down-arrowheads indicating whether target achievement occurs above or below the marker. Sustainability target achievement for 2030 and 2050 at all three levels of sustainability ambition is presented in the dot matrix in the middle of the map. Similar figures are available online for all 648 scenarios (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.4269650.v6).
- Extended Data Figure 3: Potential future land-use pathways for Australia’s agricultural land-use. (195 KB)
- Graphs show the area of land-use on an annual time step from 2013 to 2050 as calculated by the LUTO model under all 648 future pathways, broadly coloured by global outlook (L1, M3, M2, H3). The maps show the average frequency of occurrence of each land-use in each grid cell at 1.1-km2 spatial resolution, calculated as the number of years the land-use occurs in each grid cell across all 648 modelled future pathways, expressed as a percentage of the total number of modelled years and pathways (that is, 38 years × 648 pathways). Grey indicates that the land-use did not occur in the grid cell. The full dataset is available online12.
- Extended Data Figure 4: Number of future pathways for Australia’s agricultural land in which six national-scale sustainability targets were achieved by 2050. (173 KB)
- (Bioenergy is not shown.) Horizontal bars indicate the total number of pathways in which each individual target was achieved. Vertical bars indicate the total number of pathways in which each possible combination of the six targets were achieved. The matrix of coloured dots indicates specific target combinations, with achievement (at Weak, Moderate and Ambitious levels) increasing from 0 to 6 targets, left to right. Active (not grey) dots indicate targets achieved in the combination, while inactive (grey) dots indicate targets not achieved in the combination. A total of 648 pathways was modelled.
- Extended Data Figure 5: Parallel set plots of the option space for achieving Weak, Moderate and Ambitious targets by 2030 for the six sustainability indicators under future pathways for Australia’s land-sector. (823 KB)
- The sustainability indicators are economic returns to land, food production, water resource use, biofuels production, emissions abatement, and biodiversity services. For each target, the orange lines indicate specific combinations of global outlook, domestic land-use policy, and key uncertainties under which target achievement occurs. The percentage for each dimension (in parentheses) and the horizontal thickness of the orange lines represent the number of pathways under which the corresponding targets were achieved, expressed as a proportion of the total number (648) of pathways.
Extended Data Tables:
So that is all folks. We are putting tiny Bandaids on huge sucking chest wounds and decapitations.
Time to sit back and grab a beer and watch our species die. You tried but you were just too outnumbered.
So that is all folks. We are putting tiny Bandaids on huge sucking chest wounds and decapitations.
Time to sit back and grab a beer and watch our species die. You tried but you were just too outnumbered.
Or to put it differently:
One child was good enough for God. Why do you think you need more?