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Global Sustainability Challenges: A Way Forward


The challenges of global sustainability are many and difficult to solve due to the geographical location of various parts of the world, policies, cultures, and other related aspects. However, globalization has enabled the unprecedented connection of distant places making the world one global village. The increasing global interconnectedness has created a platform through which some barriers to global sustainability could be overcome. For instance, institutions and research centers around the world are working to contribute to the much-needed knowledge to achieve some level of success in attaining global sustainability. Some of the areas of focus include seeking solutions for land degradation, climate change, water scarcity, sprawling urban slums, and collapsing ecosystems among other global problems that threaten the future wellbeing of humanity. This paper discusses some of the strategies that could be applied to address the challenges associated with global sustainability.

The Way Forward

One major problem with achieving global sustainability is the fragmentation of efforts based on geographical locations or cultural attributes. For instance, while academic institutions all over the world have well-intentioned initiatives to promote global sustainability, little success has been achieved. According to Irwin et al. (2018), the failure is partly due to a “fundamental mismatch between the legacy reward systems that continue to govern our academic enterprises and the new structures needed to further sustainability research” (p. 324). As such, faculties are being rewarded for their individual-level efforts and accomplishments. However, there is a need to change this approach and advance the collaboration of researchers from various fields around the globe. For instance, the issue of climate change cannot be addressed from one part of the globe; on the contrary, knowledge synthesis from different fields of study, such as social, natural, and physical sciences as a way of advancing the academic understanding of this issue. In other words, interdisciplinary research, drawn from all corners of the world, is essential in the synthesis and integration of academic knowledge in the quest to address the many challenges surrounding global sustainability.

This understanding has led researchers to come up with creative ways of ensuring that global sustainability efforts benefit from the interconnectedness of the world; hence, the emergence of the idea of telecoupling. According to Hull and Liu (2018), telecoupling refers to “socioeconomic and environmental interactions between distant coupled human and natural systems and has become more extensive and intensive in the globalized era” (p. 41). The underlying integrated framework of this idea looks at the flows of information, people, energy, organisms, and other aspects including the financial capital, goods, and services around the world. The focus shifts to the global sphere to highlight causes and effects based on how different agents engage with each other globally. This new idea of telecoupling addresses the problem of global sustainability from various perspectives.

First, telecoupling makes boundaries fluid and multidimensional. For instance, the traditional approach is designed in a way that research is boxed into rigid system boundaries whereby research questions are narrowly defined according to a dichotomy of local versus global. However, this new concept allows interactions to diffuse at multiple scales as dynamic networks that go beyond the traditional nested paradigms. As such, when starting a research project, boundaries are not defined in advance, which allows them to evolve as the research progresses (Eakin, Rueda, & Mahanti, 2017). This way, research being conducted in Asia could extend to cover occurrences in Africa from a global perspective to come up with sustainable solutions to shared problems around the world.

Second, telecoupling allows the evolution and interaction of agents around the globe. For instance, transnational companies operating in different countries stand a better chance of addressing sustainability from these regions and creating systems that could be applied across the board. As such, these companies contribute to the creation of what Zimmerer et al. (2018) call “hybrid institutions”. These institutions are formed with the collaboration of states, markets, and civil societies, and such a framework “provides a mechanism for understanding the behavior of these diffuse agents as they move and direct flows over distances” (Hull & Liu, 2018, p. 45). Therefore, global sustainability could be achieved by leveraging telecoupling whereby agents establish functional relationships to address any underlying issues. This assertion implies that sustainability efforts by a company based in Europe with operations in Asia and Africa are spread to these regions. In other words, sustainability ideas and strategies from one region of the world are easily transferred to another through agents, such as companies, which ultimately contributes significantly to the challenges associated with global sustainability.

Another way that could be used to bridge the gaps and address barriers to global sustainability is relooking at productivity and impact. Irwin et al. (2018) argue, “New metrics are needed that place value on deeply collaborative work, practice-oriented outputs and real-world impact” (p. 325). For instance, stakeholders should advocate for the publication of high-quality journals encompassing writers from different academic disciplines as a way of collaborative efforts to address varied problems. For instance, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has welcomed the idea to broaden its scope by allowing the publication of research outcomes that are not academic in nature, such as software and datasets (Irwin et al., 2018). As such, this approach facilitates trans-disciplinary research that ultimately leads to the co-creation of peer-reviewed sustainability information that could be applied in various areas around the world. This idea is related to the “think global act local” concept whereby global sustainability practices could be applied in local set-ups, and this goal is only possible with the availability of relevant information.

The problem of a broken funding mechanism for sustainable development should also be addressed if significant achievements are to be realized. The current funding mechanisms are fragmented, which cannot support the convergence of trans-disciplinary sustainable research and implementation of solutions. There is an urgent need to change the way various countries approach the issue of funding sustainable development. As Gornitzka (2019) posits, “Governments should move away from a “funding” approach, relying mainly on ODA and public flows, to a “financing” paradigm for development, allowing a holistic consideration and mobilization of all public, private, domestic and international financing sources.” This approach is transactional whereby private and public entities focus on financing what is deemed as “good” projects through risk mitigation processes without creating space for the achievement of sustainable development goals. As such, it is imperative for governments to focus on holistic financing plans through addressing both systemic and behavioral – regulatory frameworks and stakeholders’ capacity and skills, respectively.

Finally, effective communication and outreach programs would play a central role in the realization of global sustainability goals. Irwin et al. (2018) argue that effective communication “avenues and outreach that suit the needs of different stakeholder groups are required to enable the results of sustainability research to be usefully translated and applied” (p. 326). Without proper communication, even the best of solutions to global sustainability challenges would be useless because their implementation would be ineffective. For instance, in organizations seeking to promote sustainable practices, proper communication strategies and channels are needed to ensure that the information flows from decision-makers at the top to the implementers at the bottom. Similarly, external communication with customers and other stakeholders would also be needed to ensure that everyone is working towards a shared goal of sustainability. At the global level, the involved organizations, such as the United Nations should have clear communication strategies to ensure that all players around the globe are united in purpose in the quest to ensure global sustainability.


Global sustainability is a noble idea to ensure that humans meet their current needs without jeopardizing the well-being of future generations. However, several challenges have been encountered along the way and this paper has offered some of the solutions that could be adopted to address these problems. Researchers from different academic fields should come together to tackle these challenges from the same platform. The idea of telecoupling would be central to the achievement of global sustainability. Sustainability challenges being experienced in Europe could have solutions in Africa and thus creating a platform for shared information could be highly useful. Governments should relook at the way they finance sustainable development to bridge the current gaps standing in the way of meaningful progress. Additionally, effective communication is needed to ensure that information flows in real-time as players seek to have a shared responsibility of promoting global sustainability.


Eakin, H., Rueda, X., & Mahanti, A. (2017). Transforming governance in telecoupled food systems. Ecology and Society, 22(4), 32-51.

Gornitzka, C. P. (2019). Sustainable development funding is broken. Here’s how to fix it. World Economic Forum. Web. 

Hull, V., & J. Liu. 2018. Telecoupling: A new frontier for global sustainability. Ecology and Society, 23(4), 41-50.

Irwin, E. G., Culligan, P. J., Fischer-Kowalski, M., Law, K. L., Murtugudde, R., & Pfirman, S. (2018). Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability. Nature Sustainability, 1(7), 324-326.

Zimmerer, K. S., Lambin, E. F., & Vanek, S. J. (2018). Smallholder telecoupling and potential sustainability. Ecology and Society, 23(1), 30-47.

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