Conference Outline and Themes

Conference outline

The four-day conference will follow this flow:

Day 1: State of the planet: the latest knowledge about the pressures on the planet
Day 2: Options and opportunities: exchanging knowledge about ways of reducing the pressures on the planet, promoting transformative changes for a sustainable future and adapting to changes in the global system
Day 3: Challenges to progress: clarifying what is preventing or slowing humanity from implementing potential solutions
Day 4: Ways ahead: a vision for 2050 and beyond, and exploring new partnerships and pathways towards global sustainability

Each day will include relevant aspects of the conference themes (details below).


  1. Meeting global needs: food, energy, water and other ecosystem services
  2. Transforming our way of living: development pathways under global environmental change
  3. Governing across scales: innovative stewardship of the Earth system

Multidisciplinary, multi-sectorial discussions about solutions will build up over the conference. These will culminate in discussion of the policy, investment and research environments – and interactions between them – needed for effective management of the planet’s increasingly scarce resources.

Theme detail

Key pressures on the planet arise from increasing globalization, urbanization and consumption in a changing climate. Global sustainability science, with its view of the Earth as a coupled socio-ecological system operating at many levels on linked scales, has insights to offer for the management of all these pressures. It cannot do this alone. It must do so in partnership with decision-makers in policy, development, business and the wider non-government sector.

Three broad themes will guide the conference:

A. Meeting global needs: food, energy, water and other ecosystem services

Demands on Earth’s terrestrial, marine, freshwater and atmospheric systems continue to rise, and society has failed to stem biodiversity loss. In addition, adequate nourishment and equitable access to clean water is still not assured for the world’s populations. We must meet humanity’s growing and interacting needs for food, energy and water, while also safeguarding the planet’s capacity to deliver a broad range of ecosystem services including carbon storage and climate regulation.

  • What is the state of the planet and what biophysical constraints and opportunities affect the pursuit of this integrated goal?
  • What is the future of the planet under different scenarios?
  • What roles do socioeconomic and political factors play in this context?
  • How can knowledge producers best interact with knowledge users so as to inform choices and help societies achieve the necessary behavioural, technological, institutional, political, economic, and cultural changes?

B. Transforming our way of living: development pathways under global environmental change

While material consumption rises in affluent societies, the fate of the planet’s poorest 1-2 billion remains bleak. We must find development pathways that can improve the quality of life for the world’s growing population in the face of the interacting pressures of globalization, urbanization, unsustainable production and consumption and large-scale environmental changes.

  • How will these environmental changes affect efforts to alleviate poverty?
  • What other metrics for assessing human well-being are needed beyond income and GDP?
  • What kinds of cultural, social, technological, economic and political changes have been successful in moving societies towards sustainability?
  • What are some new feasible strategies, and what constraints and opportunities will emerge from an active engagement between the global-change research community and stakeholders whose primary concern is improving human well-being?
  • How are the engineering and technology sectors responding to the global sustainability challenge?

C. Governing across scales: innovative stewardship of the Earth system

While global forces such as climate change and trade affect welfare at all levels, local actions are having global consequences. We need more effective systems for managing human activities that affect and are affected by Earth system processes.

  • How do human uses of natural resources and waste disposal practices affect the oceans, polar regions, freshwater, biodiversity, the atmosphere and other global commons?
  • How can we better manage urban development and devise effective systems to manage or govern resource use and ecosystem services from local to global levels, responding simultaneously to the globalization of problems and the growing pressure for local empowerment?

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