The notion of “global change” embraces a range of change processes such as changes in climate, natural resources (particularly their depletion), the global economy (including inequalities between and within different regions of the globe), technology (including, but not limited to, digitalization, genetics or nanotechnology), as well as changes in societal structures and values.
While all these processes have their own driving forces, they are often interlinked. The most comprehensive, though still incomplete, account of the complex dynamics is given by the UN Agenda 2030, formulating a vision for sustainable development. The Agenda 2030 decomposes this vision into 17 goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), further specified by 169 targets, which in turn are underlined and, to the extent possible, quantified by more than 200 indicators.
The analysis of the progress of the indicators shows that while some are developing in a sustainable – or “safe” – direction (e.g. most indicators related to health), others are on an unsustainable – or “risky” – path (e.g. indicators related to the climate). The co-existence of “safe” and “risky” developments is an inherent feature of global change.
The concept of “risk”, developed during the past decades, has been successfully used not only for the analysis, but also for the management of a number of different processes across various sectors, be it in industry, health systems or the environmental sector. While the details of the risk approach vary between the different domains, its core principles are the same so that procedures can be compared and mapped onto each other. While there is no general blueprint for applying risk theory to sustainable development, in most cases the evolution of SDG indicators can be associated with an increase or decrease of a quantifiable risk.
Mostly, risks are still considered from sectorial perspectives, concentrating only on one indicator or a small group of related indicators. Such a “silo approach” is helpful to gain first insights and data, and may even provide solutions for several fields of applications. For instance, it has proven very successful in a first generation of environmental disaster risk management. However, many problems in the context of sustainable development, particularly at the global scale, require a more comprehensive and systemic approach. This is particularly the case when different sub-goals are at odds with each other, so-called trade-offs. Just to name a few:
- the mining of the minerals needed to produce batteries for e-mobility in Europe often takes place under disastrous human rights conditions;
- biofuel production may increasingly compete with food production for agricultural land; and
- sustainable consumption and production could lead to a significant transformation of the labor market resulting in a substantial loss of jobs in traditional production.
A generally applicable approach for the understanding and management of systemic risks is yet to be developed. This constitutes a promising area of future research as it will be inevitable to cope with the complex and trade-off laden questions of modern sustainable development.