Digitalization and Sustainability

Acknowledging the transformational force of the new digital technologies, this project aims to maximize their benefits for science and for the achievement of the SDGs.

Digitalization can either drive the transformation to sustainability or thwart it. For humanity to grasp the opportunities, policymakers must act.

António Guterres, the UN secretary general, keeps reiterating that we need deep transformations to prevent climate disaster as well as to fight poverty, reduce inequalities and stem rampant nationalism. He did so, for example, at the 2019 UN summits on the climate crises and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in New York in September. 

The UN leader has ample reason to be worried. A mountain of scientific publications points out the danger we are in. Probably the most impressive and comprehensive reports have been produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scientific community has been making it absolutely clear that we need deep change if we are to achieve sustainability.

In retrospect, it is unfortunate that digitalization was not mentioned in the major international policy agreements that heads of state and governments adopted in 2015. It obviously will have a bearing on achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda, which includes the 17 SDGs, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, virtual realities and related developments add up to a technological revolution which cannot be ignored.

CODES: Global initiative to advance digital environmental sustainability

The International Science Council, UNEP, UNDP, the German Environment Agency, the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Future Earth, and Sustainability in the Digital Age launched a new flagship initiative, CODES (Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability) as co-champions on 31 March 2021.

CODES is an open stakeholder coalition established to firmly anchor environmental sustainability needs within the Digital Cooperation Roadmap. Through co-design and implementation of a common vision rooted in shared values, the initiative will work to accelerate a digital planet for sustainability that values thriving natural ecosystems, human wellbeing and community resilience. The co-champions will organize meetings, shape discussions, issue flagship reports and help forge collaborations towards an Acceleration Plan for Digitalizing Environmental Sustainability.

Join the conversation on the engagement platform SparkBlue.


Key milestones

✅ The initiative launched on 31 March 2021. Watch the recording.

✅ Hosting a first CODES roundtable to discuss the draft report and agenda for “A Digital Planet for Sustainability” on 7 May 2021.

✅ Delivering a global CODES conference for organizations that are actively contributing to building “A Digital Planet for Sustainability”. The conference worked towards defining an “Acceleration Plan on Digital Environmental Sustainability” and was held on 10 – 11 June 2021.

✅ Hosting a second CODES roundtable to discuss the draft Acceleration Plan on Digital Environmental Sustainability in July 2021.


Next steps

🟡 Co-creating and publishing an “Acceleration Plan on a Digital Planet for Sustainability”.

🟡 Establishing a CODES programme board to manage and monitor the commitment framework and provide strategic advice to the CODES initiative. 

Global Charter ‘Our Common Digital Future’

To address these issues, and in partnership with the German Federal Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), Future Earth and others, the ISC is developing a global charter on ‘Our Common Digital Future’.

The institutional framework for global sustainable development in the Digital Age needs a normative reference point in the form of an international charter for a sustainable Digital Age. The WBGU submits here a draft for such a charter. It ties in with the 2030 Agenda and the Declaration of Human Rights and, at the same time, goes beyond them. The charter is intended to serve as a system of principles, objectives and standards for the international community and to link digital change with the necessary global sustainability perspective. It formulates objectives and principles for the protection of human dignity, natural life-support systems, inclusion in and access to digital and digitalized infrastructures and technologies, as well as individual and collective freedom of development in the Digital Age. On this basis, the charter sets out concrete guidelines for action to be drawn up by the international community with a view to the challenges of the Digital Age. 

The charter contains three core elements: First, digitalization should be designed in line with the 2030 Agenda, and digital technology should be used to achieve the SDGs. Second, beyond the 2030 Agenda, systemic risks should be avoided, in particular by protecting civil and human rights, promoting the common good and ensuring decision-making sovereignty. Third, societies must prepare themselves procedurally for future challenges by agreeing, among other things, on ethical guidelines and ensuring future-oriented research and education

Partners include: Earth League, Future Earth, Global Development Network, International Science Council (ISC), The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS, India), Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), United Nations University, World in 2050.

Read the full chapter.


Key milestones

✅ A virtual expert group meeting on the topic “Digital Transformation for the Implementation of the 2030-Agenda” was convened on 22-23 June 2020. It was led by the German Environmental Agency (UBA) and German Federal Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU), in partnership with the ISC, UNDP, UNEP and Future Earth.

Heide Hackmann addresses ISC members discussing the digital charter in New York, 2019

“Without leveraging the power of digital change, we will not achieve the SDGs and the Paris Climate Goals. And without recognizing the impact of digital technologies, we risk deepening digital divides, potentially increasing inequalities and concentrating power in the hands of the technologically advanced, with knock-on consequences for sustainable development, for effective democracies and for civil rights.”

Blog: Our Common Digital Future

Next Steps

🟡 Our Common Digital Future partners agreed to collaborate on proposing to the UN the convening of a World Summit on ‘Sustainability in the Digital Age’, to be held in 2022, 30 years after the Rio Summit.


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