Navigating sustainability transitions
Australia has an abundance of natural resources and a longstanding tradition of scientific and technological expertise: two strengths that leave us well positioned to deal with the transition to a decarbonised society.
But how can we ensure that the transition takes place in a fair and just way?
What approaches will help us achieve a successful transition that accounts for social and environmental impacts as well as economic ones?
And how do we deal with the difficult trade-offs that will inevitably need to be made?
CSIRO’s new Navigating Sustainability Transitions project, one of seven linked projects in the Valuing Sustainability Future Science Platform (VS-FSP), has been established to help answer these questions and many more.
What is the Valuing Sustainability FSP?
Future Science Platforms are multi-year, multi-disciplinary initiatives that represent a significant investment in science and innovation.
They have the potential to create new industries and transform existing ones, while simultaneously growing the capability of a new generation of researchers.
The Valuing Sustainability FSP is working to develop cutting edge science that will lead to positive outcomes for land, water, biodiversity and people.
It consists of seven targeted and linked research projects which bring together CSIRO researchers with a diverse range of partners and stakeholders.
Within VS-FSP, the Navigating Sustainability Transitions project has a particular focus on developing tools and methods that will empower different sectors, regions, organisations and individuals across Australia to achieve sustainability goals in a socially equitable and environmentally friendly way.
“This is an exciting, ambitious and really quite radical project,” says CSIRO’s Dr Peat Leith, Director of the VS-FSP.
“We all understand the importance of technology, but Navigating Sustainability Transitions looks well beyond that."
"It’s about getting to the root of what a sustainable transition might look like and what the barriers and enablers of that might be."
"Innovation is as much about governance, societal and institutional change as it is about technology."
"We’re keen to see technological advancement for sustainability informed by a broader and more deliberate discussion, and this project has been designed to help facilitate that.”
Collaboration with partners to co-produce knowledge
There is increasing recognition, both in Australia and globally, that our current models of economic and social development are problematic.
Conventional patterns of growth and consumption are leading to dangerous climate change and often causing undesirable, inequitable impacts on human health and well-being.
“Reform is clearly needed,” says Dr Tira Foran, Senior Research Scientist with the Navigating Sustainability Transitions project.
“In some places, significant reform is already underway."
"We are focusing strongly on the mining and agricultural spaces, both of which are complex and subject to competing demands – but within those sectors there are already groups who are deeply engaged in innovation for sustainability.”
“Our objective as researchers is to help those innovators work more effectively,” continues Dr Foran.
“Is there a way we can facilitate timely, effective work on navigating sustainability transitions that will build the capacity of individuals and groups, but also of the system as a whole, and help achieve big gains in a matter of years rather than decades?”
Ambitious emissions reduction targets have already led to shifts in the resource sector both nationally and internationally.
For example, moving away from fossil fuels and towards the critical minerals that will be required to produce low-emissions technology.
That driver, combined with a strong emphasis on action-oriented research that engages with a diverse range of stakeholders, makes the mining and resources sector an ideal partner for CSIRO’s work.
“Mining was one of the first sectors to start thinking about social licence,” notes Dr Leith.
“Now we’re hoping we can work collaboratively to move beyond that and develop shared pathways to futures that benefit not just resource companies, but also the communities where those companies are embedded.
Critical minerals represent an enormous opportunity for the sector but there are so many questions around how to make the best of this moment.
There are both opportunities and risks, and we want to help the industry get it right.”
An honest conversation about large change and diverse values
Around the world, there have already been numerous transitions away from unsustainable mining practices.
One of the best known is the Ruhr region of western Germany which has moved over the last seventy years from an economy driven by coal mining to a successful and thriving knowledge and tourism-based economy.
While there are lessons and best practice approaches that can be drawn from such examples, the Navigating Sustainability Transitions team are keenly focused on working with partners to develop solutions that are tailored not just to the specific Australian context, but to individual regions and industries within Australia.
That means inviting all interested parties to be part of the conversation.
The research team are keen to address the challenge of navigating major change in an environment where there are high levels of uncertainty and diverse values.
Not just identifying the difficult decisions and compromises that will have to be made as society transitions, but also exploring who makes those decisions and how.
"It is tempting to seek to simplify complexity and reduce uncertainty, and that is what researchers are often asked to do,” says Navigating Sustainability Transitions project leader Dr Nicky Grigg.
“Our approach is different. Our research is about finding ways of working with a diverse range of people to engage with the reality that sustainability transformations involve large, complex change, high levels of uncertainty and multiple (often contested) values.”
“Furthermore, well-intended actions made in complex systems invariably have unintended consequences,” continues Dr Grigg.
"Efforts to transition to renewables involve critical minerals mining operations that bring their own environmental and cultural impacts, and anticipated gains sought through technological advances in resource use efficiency can be undone through complex and counter-intuitive rebound effects.”
Dr Leith agrees that these multifaceted issues require significant attention, and believes that there needs to be more open acknowledge of the trade-offs and uncertainties as we transition.
“We know technological and social gains may come at an environmental cost,” he says.
“But navigating a path through trade-offs and synergies will usually evolve over time as these outcomes emerge from interactions and are hard to predict."
"New collaborative science can help us manage these uncertainties and set up processes and governance innovation to keep doing so over time.”
“We’re excited to have the chance to work with partners in contexts where understandings of sustainability-related problems may be contested and agreed ways of solving problems are elusive,” says Dr Grigg.
“We have a great team of people who span an extraordinary breadth of experience across different disciplines."
"This ends up being a real strength because it requires us to work with different ways of seeing the world, and it gives us a richer array of practices and approaches we can draw on with partners in pursuit of equitable sustainability outcomes.”