Sustainability demands more than “green” practices alone. The world population is growing by one person every 17 seconds and the United Nations says there will be 9.6 billion people in the world by 2050.

So far, the gloomiest scenarios of resource depletion – such as the Club of Rome’s 1972 predictions – have been disproved, largely due to technological progress. Economic growth, while lifting millions out of poverty and creating vast new middle classes, has imposed ever-greater demands on our planet.

Even if the population begins to decline after 2050, as predicted, demand for energy, water, food and other resources is widely expected to continue to increase. The default response to this whole challenge has been “sustainable growth” – usually signifying some combination of renewable energy, conservation, recycling, smarter farming, and innovation in materials and processes.

But at the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi, the term was used more broadly: Yes, true “sustainability” means a better use of our resources, but that will be highly unlikely to happen if there is no “ethical infrastructure” of just governance and equal opportunity.

The world’s transition to sustainability requires good governance, nationally and internationally, to reconcile the inevitable disputes among stakeholders. Where impartial, efficient and just administration is missing, societies and states can be ripped apart by change. Where good governance is present, they can instead evolve and even grow in response to challenges.

The most pressing challenge is climate change. Despite rapid growth in clean energy, the world is now on track for a temperature increase of 3.7°C or more by the year 2100. Because the problem is long term and intangible, inertia bolsters the status quo; almost every element of every society would have to pay for the needed changes.

World Bank President Jim Kim rightly calls climate change a big problem with small solutions, but large-scale approaches are obviously also needed.

Because a meaningful global grand bargain of all stakeholders seems unobtainable, the Abu Dhabi Summit was told, the Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos should begin to assemble a transnational coalition of the willing – national and subnational governments, businesses, academics, NGOs – to launch a formal agreement on basic principles and rules intended to mitigate climate change. This initiative would be presented to the United Nations, which could proceed with incentives and disincentives for national governments to join in.

Meanwhile, behavioural science and social media should be harnessed to the goal of supporting the initiative. This is necessary because much of the world still needs to be convinced that prompt effective action is needed to prevent intense warming by 2100.

But climate change is not the only obstacle to a sustainable global economy. As noted, real sustainability requires that social change come peacefully; the key to that is responsive, transparent government providing equality under the law and equality of opportunity.

Over and over again, Summit participants heard of the need for multistakeholder partnerships, in which different levels of government join with companies, NGOs, research institutions and individuals to meet particular needs, stimulating and managing innovation.

A prime example was labour mobility, efficient labour markets and vocational training, especially in cities. Indeed, high rates of employment – in sustainable occupations, to be sure – can build social solidarity. But when society and governance break down, nothing, not even public order, can be sustained; the results to date of the Arab Spring demonstrate the problem.

That insight led some Summit participants to speak of the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a key to a sustainable future, and not only for the poorest. “Environmental sustainability” is one of the MDGs, but all eight together are key ingredients in a recipe for sound, sustainable societies.

Progress on the MDGs since they were set in 2000 led some at the Summit in Abu Dhabi to suggest that the new versions for post-2015, now being assembled, should be written to include environmental components in each goal. This would be useful because MDGs, while not legally binding, serve to establish new normal behaviour, in official development aid and other state policies, and in corporate activity.

It’s not all about GDP. For all the emphasis on growth, many Summit participants also revealed a yearning for other measures of development. We can only rejoice that billions of people in the BRICs and elsewhere have moved out of dire poverty. But if they all start using disposable plastic water bottles …

A range of “development” and even “happiness” indices have emerged as initial efforts to measure societal “success” beyond mere GDP per capita. Bhutan’s official Gross National Happiness Commission measures nine variables in the population: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

Such niceties are of little use to the hungry; Berthold Brecht’s dictum, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” (usually translated “grub first, then ethics”) comes to mind.

But except in the poorest places, GDP alone does not really correlate closely with human well-being. The rule of law, open governance and equal opportunity are indispensable for true sustainable human development.

Sustaining a World of 9 Billion is one of four thematic pillars of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters. This is a summary of discussions from experts in the Network of Global Agenda Councils, led by Martina Gmür.

Image: Stalks of corn on a farm in Dixon, Illinois. REUTERS/Jim Young