The United Nations Brundtland Commission has defined sustainability as “the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable development involves the economic, social, and environmental dimensions since only economically viable policies, promoting social justice, and respecting the environment can lead to a sustainable world. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provide ambitious targets and indicators to incorporate into sustainability strategies from the individual, to the business, to the general policy levels.

Mathematics, being “the language with which God has written the universe,” as Galileo Galilei put it, certainly has a role in sustainability. Mathematics enables the creation of representations of real-world scenarios that can then be used to understand the phenomena better, make predictions, and simulate interventions. Through mathematical relations, it is possible to model how a set of inputs determines a set of outputs, even if uncertainty is involved. For example, some economic models relate the production of a company with its input factors, such as labor and capital; some social models analyze how individual behaviors can lead to segregation in society; some environmental models enable meteorologists to predict tomorrow’s weather based on current conditions. From our day-to-day experience with weather forecasts, we can infer that mathematical models are imperfect. In fact, they often rely on simplifying assumptions to make them tractable, that is, to make it possible to extract information from them using the available mathematical methods. However, even not capturing the full complexity of real-world phenomena, mathematical models are a powerful tool that can be used to study the interplay between the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Once a mathematical model is available, several methods may be instrumental in addressing sustainability issues. The most obvious are optimization techniques that allow the choice of the best alternative according to a given criterion and subject to a set of constraints. For example, one can find the strategy to transport a good from producers to consumers that minimizes transportation monetary and/or environmental costs. Or optimize energy production from different sources (e.g., wind, solar, hydraulic) given the weather conditions and the power demand. Statistical methods allow predicting and supporting decisions when uncertainty is involved. Earthquake risk analysis is an example of using statistical methods in environmental problems, unfortunately still with below desirable results, as the recent events in Turkey and Syria showed.

Mathematics can also provide a way to raise awareness about sustainability among students. Sustainability problems can be introduced to illustrate the use of mathematical methods, thus exposing students to sustainability topics. A positive externality would be that students’ interest in the mathematical topic may increase by seeing an immediate and real-world application of the abstract methods they are studying.

In conclusion, Mathematics can be a powerful ally of sustainability. Through its models and methods, it can help the understanding of the complex economic, social, and environmental phenomena underlying sustainable development. Through its objectivity, it may reduce the skepticism that still exists around sustainability issues.

Have a great and impactful week!

Pedro Encarnação
Senior Affiliate Professor
Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics

This article refers to edition #177 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter and covers SDG 9 and 16.
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