Sustainability on Earth

Seventeen goals to ensure the sustainable development of the planet have been identified by the world's political leaders, and they are ready to be adopted at a Summit in New York on 25 to 27 September. The challenges encompass environmental, economic and social aspects of one overarching aim: to allow humanity to thrive without depleting the Earth's resources. We present a collection of opinion pieces and primary research articles that illustrate the enormity and range of the tasks ahead.



Finite Earth


The world has agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals, to be adopted this week. This is great progress towards acknowledging that the planet's finite resources need to be managed carefully in the face of humanity's unlimited aspirations.



Sustainability rooted in science

Jane Lubchenco, Allison K. Barner, Elizabeth B. Cerny-Chipman & Jessica N. Reimer


The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals emphasize the importance of evidence-based decision-making. This is a clarion call for Earth scientists to contribute directly to the health, prosperity and well-being of all people.

Balancing green and grain trade

Yiping Chen, Kaibo Wang, Yishan Lin, Weiyu Shi, Yi Song & Xinhua He


Since 1999, China's Grain for Green project has greatly increased the vegetation cover on the Loess Plateau. Now that erosion levels have returned to historic values, vegetation should be maintained but not expanded further as planned.

Sustainable early-career networks

Florian Rauser, Vera Schemann & Sebastian Sonntag


A truly global science community for the next generation of researchers will be essential if we are to tackle Earth system sustainability. Top-down support from funders should meet bottom-up initiatives — at a pace fast enough to meet that of early-career progress.


News & Views

Land-use change: Deforestation by land grabbers

Tom Rudel


Leases of land concessions in Cambodia have accelerated in the last ten years. An analysis using high-resolution maps and official documents shows that deforestation rates in the land concessions are higher than in other areas.

Atmospheric chemistry: Breathing easier in the Amazon

Christine Wiedinmyer


Fires related to Amazonian deforestation are a large source of particulate matter emissions. Satellite measurements and models reveal that reductions in deforestation and fire emissions since 2001 have prevented hundreds of premature deaths each year.



Accelerated deforestation driven by large-scale land acquisitions in Cambodia  FREE

Kyle Frankel Davis, Kailiang Yu, Maria Cristina Rulli, Lonn Pichdara & Paolo D'Odorico


More than 2 million hectares of Cambodian land have been leased to investors since 2000. Combined satellite and local records show that deforestation on leased land is 29% to 105% higher than in comparable unleased areas.

Air quality and human health improvements from reductions in deforestation-related fire in Brazil  FREE

C. L. Reddington, E. W. Butt, D. A. Ridley, P. Artaxo, W. T. Morgan, H. Coe & D. V. Spracklen


Fires are used to clear tropical forests. Satellite measurements and simulations show that reductions in deforestation and associated fires in Brazil have reduced emissions of particulate matter, preventing between 400 and 1,700 deaths annually.

Rainfall consistently enhanced around the Gezira Scheme in East Africa due to irrigation  FREE

Ross E. Alter, Eun-Soon Im & Elfatih A. B. Eltahir


Land use changes can modify regional climate patterns. A comparison of climate simulations and observations show that a large-scale irrigation scheme in East Africa inhibits rainfall over the irrigation scheme, while enhancing it further away.



Coastal vulnerability across the Pacific dominated by El Niño/Southern Oscillation  FREE

Patrick L. Barnard et al.


The dynamic components of coastal water level can add metres to water levels during extreme events. A data synthesis reveals that Pacific regional wave and water level fluctuations are closely related to the El Niño/Southern Oscillation.


From the archives



Our planet and us


Humans have altered their environment ever since they first appeared. Updates on three frameworks of thinking about the scale of twenty-first-century human influence on the Earth are invigorating the global change debate.

Farm and bench


Climate change could compromise food security over the coming century. Scientists working towards mitigation and adaptation have to win over those who work on the land.



Nature Climate Change: Ensuring climate information guides long-term development

Lindsey Jones et al.


Ensuring climate science is produced, communicated and utilized in Sub-Saharan Africa is essential to achieving climate-resilient development.

To build capacity, build confidence

Bruce Hewitson


The history of attempts to spread scientific know-how beyond western centres of excellence is littered with failures. Capacity building needs long-term commitment, a critical mass of trainees, and a supportive home environment.

Wedge approach to water stress

Yoshihide Wada, Tom Gleeson & Laurent Esnault


Water availability and use are inherently regional concerns. However, a global-scale approach to evaluating strategies to reduce water stress can help maximize mitigation.

Metals for a low-carbon society

Olivier Vidal, Bruno Goffé & Nicholas Arndt


Renewable energy requires infrastructures built with metals whose extraction requires more and more energy. More mining is unavoidable, but increased recycling, substitution and careful design of new high-tech devices will help meet the growing demand.

Nature: Environment: Waste production must peak this century

Daniel Hoornweg, Perinaz Bhada-Tata & Chris Kennedy


Without drastic action, population growth and urbanization will outpace waste reduction.


News & Views

Nature: Environmental science: Scorecard for the seas

Derek P. Tittensor


An index assessing the health of the oceans gives a global score of 60 out of 100. But the idea that a single number can encompass both environmental status and the benefits that the oceans provide for humans may prove controversial.



Nature Climate Change: Livelihood resilience in the face of climate change

Thomas Tanner et al.


The concept of resilience requires greater attention to human livelihoods if it is to address the limits to adaptation strategies and the development needs of the planet's poorest and most vulnerable people.

Nature Climate Change: Strategies for improving adaptation practice in developing countries

Declan Conway & Johanna Mustelin


As adaptation moves from theory and international negotiation to implementation, a range of issues have the potential to hamper attempts at effective delivery and to increase the vulnerability of intended beneficiaries of the adaptation agenda.



Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets

P. Friedlingstein, R. M. Andrew, J. Rogelj, G. P. Peters, J. G. Canadell, R. Knutti, G. Luderer, M. R. Raupach, M. Schaeffer, D. P. van Vuuren, C. Le Quéré


In order to limit climate warming, CO2 emissions must remain below fixed quota. An evaluation of past emissions suggests that at 2014 emissions rates, the total quota will probably be exhausted within the next 30 years.

Regional strategies for the accelerating global problem of groundwater depletion

Werner Aeschbach-Hertig & Tom Gleeson


The world's largest freshwater resource is groundwater. A review of our understanding of groundwater depletion suggests that although the problem is global, solutions must be adapted to specific regional requirements at the aquifer scale.



Nature: The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C

Christophe McGlade & Paul Ekins


To limit global warming to a rise of 2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels, we cannot use all of our fossil fuel reserves; here an integrated assessment model shows that this temperature limit implies that we must leave unused a third of our oil reserves, half of our gas reserves and over 80 per cent of our coal reserves during the next 40 years, and indicates where these are geographically located.

Sand as a stable and sustainable resource for nourishing the Mississippi River delta

Jeffrey A. Nittrouer & Enrica Viparelli


Dams have starved the lower Mississippi River of sediment over recent decades, suggesting that the drowning of the delta is inevitable. Analysis of the rivers suspended sediment load and morphodynamic modelling suggest that the amount of sand essential for land building has not significantly decreased since dam construction, with sand remaining available for several centuries.

Nature Climate Change: Economic development and the carbon intensity of human well-being

Andrew K. Jorgenson


Strategies for effective sustainability efforts require reducing the carbon intensity of human well-being: the level of anthropogenic carbon emissions per unit of human well-being.

Nature: Signature of ocean warming in global fisheries catch

William W. L. Cheung, Reg Watson & Daniel Pauly


The mean temperature of the catch, an index designed to characterize the effect of climate change on global fisheries catch, increased at a rate of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade between 1970 and 2006, showing that ocean warming has already affected global fisheries.

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