Science is key to our sustainable future

Scientists must urgently take an active role in public debate if we are to achieve global sustainability.

'Future Earth', a major new initiative for coordinated research on sustainable development challenges, will be unveiled at Rio +20 [EPA]

Paris, France – Scientific evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s life support system is manifold. These changes threaten our sustainability and could bring forth a new global reality for people, nations, economies and our environment.

Science has sounded the alarm – notably through observations, modelling and predictions of unprecedented quality – and shown that the future wellbeing of humankind is at risk. We now need science to help identify whole system solutions – ones that look at the big picture and not just the parts – and for scientists to take a more pro-active role in informing the policy debate on these solutions.

Time is running out for us to meet the urgent challenge of global sustainability. We need to find solutions which de-couple our development from ever-increasing demands for non-renewable resources, forge a new era of equitable and sustainable balance between people and planet earth, and fully recognise that the Earth is a complex and interconnected system.

 Counting the Cost – The cost of sustainability

The transformation to sustainable development, which is likely to be equal in scale to the agrarian-industrial transition of the 18th and 19th centuries, will entail tough trade-offs. A dash to quick fix solutions to one problem without examining the impact of these decisions is a recipe for disaster. For example, just a few years ago, rising fuel prices sent policymakers searching for solutions. First generation biofuels were an easy fix and the subsidies rolled in. But this in turn fuelled rising global food prices, hitting some of the world’s poorest people hardest.

To address these trade-offs explicitly, we need integrated knowledge from natural, social and engineering sciences to inspire innovative, holistic solutions, as well as new ways of measuring wealth, growth and wellbeing.

To better inform decisions, we urgently need more scientists to take an active role in public debate. The hallmark of science is objectivity, and this principle must always be our foundation. But now that global environmental change is threatening the Earth’s carrying capacity, more scientists must take on a new role involving engagement with end-users of science. Scientists need to collaborate directly with people and business to ensure shared understanding of the new realities shaping our world, and help translate knowledge into action for sustainable development.

This will require nothing short of a new paradigm in the way that science engages with society.

This new, collaborative approach to research is already making an impact. In Kenya, the first ever community-based mangrove carbon credit project to win international accreditation has shown that the carbon storage potential of these forests can create wealth for local people. Elsewhere in Kenya, innovation for end-users has provided livestock insurance to farmers through satellite monitoring of rainfall in drought-prone rural areas. In Nicaragua, researchers are exploring how to implement “just ecosystem services” by involving locals in deciding who has access to forest services and who benefits.

Widespread societal engagement by scientists, leading to better public understanding of the scientific evidence and potential solutions will be an important factor in tackling the difficult decisions ahead. It will equally help shape future research agendas.

These topics will be on the table at the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development in Rio this June – co-organised by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in its role as the co-organiser of the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group in the Rio +20 negotiations.

The Forum will look at the greatest challenges facing our planet’s carrying capacity: how to secure food and water supplies for the global population, how to provide energy in a green economy, how to adapt to a world of greater risk from climate change and disaster, how to ensure urban wellbeing and sustainable livelihoods which are more equitable and how to rethink social and economic models.

As we wait for Rio +20 to mint a global consensus endorsing sustainable development… it is critical for science to play a central role.”

Responding to these challenges, Future Earth, a major new initiative for coordinated research on sustainable development challenges, will be unveiled at Rio +20. This ten-year research platform will bring together a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines – from chemists to climatologists, biologists to geographers and economists to anthropologists – to tackle the real-life challenges we face.

Future Earth will use a novel approach of co-designing research along with end-users, with an emphasis on shared commitment. The initiative will engage scientists and end-users from both developing countries, most exposed to global change problems like increased incidence of extreme weather events, and the rich, more resilient nations. The Earth system does not recognise the separation between “our problem” and “their problem”.

As we wait for Rio +20 to mint a global consensus endorsing sustainable development as the framework for transformational change in our economic, political and social systems, it is critical for science to play a central role. Rio +20 should emphasise the importance of science in providing knowledge to drive the innovation needed for change.

Rio +20 needs to be the beginning of the transformational change placing humanity on a sustainable track. More than ever before, we need science and scientists, through Future Earth and related initiatives to help us meet the greatest challenge facing our species.

Steven Wilson is Executive Director of the International Council for Science. Founded in 1931, ICSU is a non-governmental organization with a global membership of national scientific bodies (121 Members, representing 141 countries) and International Scientific Unions (30 Members). The Council is frequently called upon to speak on behalf of the global scientific community and to act as an advisor in matters ranging from the environment to conduct in science. ICSU’s activities focus on three areas: planning and coordinating research; science for policy; and strengthening the Universality of Science.