Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

What is the sustainability challenge?

In this video we explore what the global sustainability challenge is

So let’s dive in with the big issue! What is the global sustainability challenge? It is a big question to start with, so we are going to try and break it down into manageable chunks. It might seem a big doom and gloom at the start, but don’t worry! The next section is about the sustainability opportunities, which we hope will make you feel a bit more positive and like you are able to make a change.

First things first though, what even is sustainability? The most commonly used definition is that used in the Brundtland Report [1] which is ‘meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, which is the definition we are using in this course. It is important to note that sustainability does not just focus on environmental issues, but also social & economic concerns. In this section here we will be focusing on the climate challenge, but we will be directing our attention to the other areas in the following week (Concepts).

With that out of the way, let’s get back to our key question.

Climate Change is affecting our lives now. Increased frequency and severity of storm events, year on year temperature rises and habitat and species loss are no longer a threat in the distant future. These things that are impacting our lives and our urban environments now are driving the push for buildings and cities that both reduce the impact of climate change and are resilient to its effects.

Analysis by NASA [2] shows that the world has already warmed, by approximately 1 degree C since pre-industrial levels. While this degree of change has happened in the past as part of natural cycles, the speed of the change is unprecedented and does not allow ecosystems to adapt. It is also a global average and some parts of the world e.g. the Arctic, are warming much faster meaning the effects of warming unevenly distributed. It also increases the likelihood of extreme weather events that put people and ecosystems at further risk.

According to WWF, wildlife populations have plummeted by 60% since 1970 [3]. This figure does not account for the Amazon or Australian bush fires that both occurred in the ”Black Summer” of 2019-2020.

While this issue has historically been owned by the conservation world and scientific communities, the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020 [4] (released January 2020) highlighted that, for the first time, 5 of the top ten risks were environmental, with climate change being preeminent. So, climate change is increasingly being recognised as a financial risk as well.

In terms of future outlook, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report [5] outlining the difference in impact between climate change of 1.5°C and 2°C and urged governments to commit to limiting to 1.5’ change. It also stated we only have a short window to radically reduce emissions if we want to keep warming to 1.5° C. That window closes – more or less – around 2030. For that reason, at UKGBC we are calling this next decade the ‘decade of action’, where huge transformations need to take place.

Analysis by Carbon Brief [6] showed that global emissions need to fall by at least 7.6% every year this decade in order to limit warming to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures.

Despite the enormity of this challenge, great strides are already being taken around the globe, which is why we prefer to reframe this challenge as a ‘sustainability opportunity’. In the next step we will be exploring just that.


  1. Brundtland G, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427; 1987
  2. [page on the Internet], NASA: Global Temperature.
  3. [report page on the Internet], WWF: Living Planet Report; October 2018.
  4. [report page on the Internet], We Forum: The Global Risks Report 2020; January 2020.
  5. [report page on the Internet], IPCC: SR15.
  6. [page on the Internet], Carbon Brief: Analysis: Coronavirus temporarily reduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter; February 2020.
This article is from the free online

An Introduction to Sustainability in the Built Environment

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now