Dealing with the spillovers along sustainability’s path

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Global environmental sustainability isn’t just a destination. It really is about the journey.

Today’s tightly connected world has energy, people, organisms, information, natural resources and goods flowing back and forth. Regularly, the impacts of the exchanges are documented – pollution, deforestation, shortages, excesses – a flood of wins and losses.

An international group of sustainability scholars in this week’s Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability show that these interactions routinely spill over into the spaces between. The benefits and heartaches that leave a mark on the way to and from a destination. The researchers note that a journey is ignored at the peril of sustainability

Think of the invasive zebra mussels, a classic, and literal, spillover effect from sea trade between the Black and Caspian Seas to the U.S. Great Lakes. Their environmental impact has been vast, but also something neither planned nor initially managed.

“The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals have provided a wonderful framework to work for a better world. But we also need a framework to understand achieving one goal can be at the cost of a goal elsewhere,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, lead author of the paper, “The integrated framework of telecoupling can help identify a key piece of the sustainability puzzle.”

The paper outlines the web of interactions – from enormous water transfer projects in China to biodiversity conservation efforts in South America to global banana trade. Telecoupling is a newly developed umbrella concept that encompasses a broad range of socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances, such as international trade, foreign investment, species invasion and migration.

Identifying how and why the journey to sustainability is as significant as the destination will be a crucial part of a successful trip. Scientists applying the telecoupling framework can identify the spillovers and propose they be governed to minimize the negative and maximize positive spillover effects using three general principles -- fairness, responsibility, and capability.

Besides Liu, “Spillover systems in a telecoupled Anthropocene: typology, methods, and governance for global sustainability” was written by Yue Dou, Mateus Batistella, Edward Challies, Thomas Connor, Cecilie Friis, James Millington, Esther Parish, Chelsie Romulo, Ramon Felipe Bicudo Silva, Heather Triezenberg, Hongbo Yang, Zhiqiang Zhao, Karl Zimmerer, Falk Huettmann, Michael Treglia, Zeenatul Basher, Min-Gon Chung, Anna Herzberger, Andrea Lenschow, Altaaf Mechiche-Alami, Jens Newig, James Roche and Jing Sun.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA-MSU Professional Enhancement Award Program and Michigan AgBioResearch.

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