Operationalisation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in Absolute Sustainability Assessments of the Building Industry in Denmark

Mia Heide

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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In recent decades, global efforts to ensure universal coverage of basic needs have faltered, resulting in increasing inequality despite some localised improvements (United Nations, 2020). In response, the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 to guide global actions toward ending poverty and hunger and ensure all people may enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. Along this, humanity is grappling with environmental crises including climate change, biodiversity loss, and novel entities (e.g. chemical pollution) (Persson et al., 2022), which impact water scarcity and inhibit agriculture in certain regions, aswell as pose risks to human health (Misra, 2014). Despite these pressing challenges, various sustainability assessment methods at product level tend to adopt a narrow perspective on sustainability and fail to establish any linkages with the SDGs and the carrying capacity of Earth; such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (as set forth by ISO 14044), and Social LCA (S-LCA) (UNEP Setac Life Cycle Initiative, 2020) or the combination of both (Finkbeiner et al., 2010). Therefore, this PhD thesis explores methods and design tools to assess both social and environmental sustainability with the aim of achieving the SDGs, while complying with the biophysical limits of the Earth.

To develop advanced sustainability assessment methods we regarded a need for including both a full life cycle perspective and the carrying capacity of the planet through advancing absolute environmental sustainability assessments (AESAs) and taking a holistic approach set forth by the SDGs. The overarching goal of this research is to advance the understanding of absolute sustainability assessment methods, by establishing a link to the social dimension in AESAs and to create a methodology to consider absolute social sustainability, in order to promote equitable and truly sustainable product design.

To accomplish this an interdisciplinary approach was chosen combining research fields of human need theory, social sustainability assessments, absolute sustainability, and life cycle engineering with ethical aspects covering how to share a limited safe operating space for humanity. Our discourse delved into the ingrained and conventional principles within AESAs; ultimately, culminating in the creation of a novel sharing principle "Fulfilment of Human Needs" (FHN). The FHN principle is based on the ethical norm of sufficientarianism. By placing emphasis on the utility delivered to the end-user by the product in AESAs, the FHN principle assigns the largest shares of the safe operating space to the most important needs and effectively forges a crucial connection between the social and environmental dimensions.

The methods devised in this research project are universally applicable across industries and operate at a sectorial- as well as a product level. It is imperative to acknowledge that the social methodology employed must be tailored to suit the particular circumstances at hand. The Danish construction industry served as a testing ground for evaluating all the developed methods. The study encompassed the generation of a comprehensive suite of context-specific sub-goals, indicators, and measuring points aligned with the SDGs, incorporating absolute targets tailored to the Danish building sector. The established indicators evaluate the social aspects by identifying the threshold for when the social performance is good enough throughout the life cycle of a building, while simultaneously imposing guidelines for determining absolute limits on the environmental impacts. We suggest setting absolute environmental limits that vary according to the building type and are specified per functional unit (FU) rather than area.

In conclusion, we highlight that the FHN sharing principle’s strength lies in its weakness, as it is based on consumption patterns in the countries identified as most sustainable, assuming absolute sustainable societies without over-consumption. As a result, when using the FHN sharing principle in affluent nations we recommend utilising it in conjunction with another sharing principle that accounts for current consumption patterns. The FHN principle elucidates 1) which needs are most important and 2) the extent to which behaviour modification can engender change to attain a state of absolute sustainability within societies.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKgs. Lyngby
PublisherTechnical University of Denmark
Number of pages150
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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