Astronomy and Sustainable Development

We are very pleased to include this guest post from Dr. Hannah Dalgleish. Dr. Dalgleish is a researcher at Oxford University. She is working on a project using astronomy, tourism, and education to improve standards of living in Namibia.

Sustainable development is the idea that human societies must live and meet their current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. To help ensure this future, the United Nations adopted seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) in 2015. These SDGs provide a 'roadmap' for all countries to follow. So how can astronomy help us to achieve the SDGs?


We can group the SDGs into four main areas: economic, environmental, social, and cultural. Focusing first on economic sustainability, astronomy supports Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) and Goal 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure). Dark sky tourism provides jobs for people living in rural areas. One piece of research showed that astro-tourists visiting Colorado Plateau in the US will create over 10,000 additional jobs and increase wages. Building observatories and developing astronomical instruments pushes the boundaries of science, technology, and innovation. It has helped lead to advances in medicine as well as discoveries from Wi-Fi to GPS.


Dark sky tourism can benefit the environment by reducing light pollution (e.g. Goals 13 and 15; climate action and life on land). Artificial light at night makes it difficult for astronomers to observe space but can also damage all sorts of wildlife. Needless light can affect insects, birds, and mammals, even entire ecosystems. At the same time, light pollution represents a significant waste of money and carbon emissions. The International Dark Sky Association found that unneeded night-lighting in the US costs $3.3 billion. It also accounts for the annual release of 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. To offset all that carbon emitted, we’d have to plant 875 million trees each year.


In terms of social sustainability, astronomy contributes to Goal 3 (good health and wellbeing) and Goal 4 (quality education). Several research studies have shown that light pollution damages our health. New research is beginning to explore the benefits of being in a dark sky area. Spending an evening under the stars may be especially beneficial for our mental health. Astronomy is known to be a great way to generate excitement for science and attract young people to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths). Astronomy camps like the International Astronomical Youth Camp are a clear example of this.


Astronomy can support cultural Goal 16 (peaceful and inclusive societies) and Goal 17 (partnerships). Two projects in particular – Columba-Hypatia and Amanar – used astronomy to bring different cultures together. These projects promoted meaningful conversations and a culture of peace and non-violence. Astronomy is also important for science diplomacy. Organisations like the European Southern Observatory, and the newly established Square Kilometre Array Observatory bring together governments from across the world. Finally, dark sky tourism can help to preserve indigenous knowledge and empower rural communities.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Icons are used here for information purposes