The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is being held in Rio de Janeiro this week with seven priority areas including jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.
To help establish the research, technology and policy agendas that will be needed after the UN conference, the International Council for Science (ICSU) held a major five-day event on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development in the days leading up to the event.
Marc Rands, representing the Royal Society of New Zealand, reported on how science is looking to help tackle these sustainable development challenges for the future.
Follow @ICSUnews for the latest news. The official Forum hashtag is #sciforum.
On this final day of the forum, the debate started with the concept of a ‘green economy’ which had become popular with international agencies such as the UNEP, World Bank and OECD, but which currently consisted of branding a range of adhoc initiatives such as renewable energy, waste management, water management without a common understanding of the vision underpinning the concept, in terms of where the priorities were.
There was a call for social science research to help get a better understanding of the relationship between the green economy and development, in terms of:
- where the jobs were created (up or downstream)
- where the pollution was located
- where the energy and natural resources needed were located
- where the profits were made
- whether it decreased income inequality
- how the benefits were distributed by race, gender, religion and age.
Some speakers believed the term was a form of greenwash, with little difference between the impact on developing countries from the currently branded green economy activities and conventional business.
Delegates from developing countries were also concerned that the ‘ecosystem services’ concept reduced the value of the ecosystem to simple monetary terms and didn’t reflect indigenous values, and that degradation could simply be offset by monetary compensation.
There was a call for new indicators of progress, beyond GDP, to measure the size of capital and liabilities, in order to identify instability in the economy. This needed to be inclusive of economic, social and environmental indicators.
In summing up at the end of the Forum there was recognition that scientific evidence had shown convincingly that the current way of development was undermining the resilience of the plant. However, what policy makers now needed was:
- information at relevant scales
- more certainty in available information
- an increase in policy relevant information.
Proposals were suggested for the establishment of a scientific advisor/advisory committee for the UN itself, but it was also recognised that to inform policy it was necessary to engage not only with high level politicians and business, but also with the wider public.
For the research community, calls were made for the co-design of research agendas with stakeholders; transdisciplinary approaches; actionable research that solved real world problems; and the importance of the involvement of social science in finding solutions.
The 5-day forum has been a stimulating event highlighting the range of challenges we now face. The Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development Conference that follows next week now has an opportunity for the Governments of the world to provide the vision and leadership to support the path of sustainability.
Signing off, Marc Rands
The morning’s session was chaired by the director of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Programme (IRDR).
Sustainable development planning could be seen to help mitigate risks on a spatial level through land-use planning and ecosystem management to address issues such as flooding and storm damage.
Increased population growth was increasing the number and spread of humans exposed to risks, and increasing development increased the value of damage that occurred.
Since the 1992 Earth Summit, 4.4 billion people had been affected by disasters from natural events (the greatest proportion from China); 1.3 million people had been killed (the highest numbers in Haiti); and $2 trillion of damage caused (with the highest costs incurred in the USA).
While geological disasters were relatively constant, the numbers due to atmospheric causes had been increasing. The extrapolated trend was therefore to see more intense weather related disasters in the future. In addition, there were growing losses from natural events that were not extreme.
The panel session highlighted that natural events only translated into disasters if there was inadequate social preparation. It was highlighted that 99% of international disaster funding was focused on disaster response, and only 1% on disaster risk reduction and this needed to change.
The session on energy in the afternoon highlighted the need to consider energy when thinking about sustainable development. Challenges included:
- universal access to affordable clean energy for cooking and electricity for the poor
- improved energy security of both dependency and resilience to shocks
- limiting air pollution and health impacts
- limiting impacts on climate change.
Speakers from different parts of the world highlighted a range of issues in Europe, Africa, India and South America. Increased energy efficiency in electrical appliances and in transport, resulted in rebound effects of increased consumption of appliances and increased travel.
In developing countries, agriculture required levels of energy for irrigation that were not easily provided by small scale renewable sources. However, innovations in mini-grids and smart metering were enabling local entrepreneurs there to develop businesses, such as using ice machines to help store food supplies.
Research challenges included the development of energy storage solutions, and establishing indicators of sustainability for energy technologies. There was also a recognition that renewable technologies, such as hydro-electricity, were particularly sensitive to climate conditions such as rainfall patterns, which were forecast to change in the future.
Note: Formal recommendations from the Forum to the Rio+20 conference can now be found on the ICSU website.
A revolution is coming: a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough. But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.
Robert F. Kennedy
Today we heard that half of the world’s population currently live in cities and this trend was increasing. In 1992 the Secretary General of the Rio UN conference on Environment and development commented: “The battle for sustainability will be won or lost in the cities of the world”. Presentations highlighted that urbanisation brought with it positives and negatives.
On the positive side urban incomes were higher than those in rural areas; there were more job opportunities; and better education and healthcare provision.
On the downside, in poor areas there were problems over access to safe water; rapid growth was causing air and industrial pollution; and urban lifestyles were increasing the rates of obesity. Urban food and water use had important implications for the wider food and water systems, and the global obesity epidemic was a sustainable development issue.
The representative for ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) highlighted a range of sustainable development issues facing cities around the world:
- resilience against natural disasters
- efficient resource use
- urban biodiversity
- sustainable public procurement
- smart urban infrastructure
- becoming low carbon
- how to improve urban health and happiness.
There was a discussion around the role of evidence in urban planning, versus ‘trial and error’ or political ‘do it whatever the cost’ and I was pleased to hear that local government felt they needed sound data to show to the public to justify the decisions they made.
A summary of biodiversity research was presented during the afternoon session, linking biodiversity to ecosystem services. Biodiversity loss was shown to reduce ecosystem’s biomass growth, decomposition rates, and nutrient recycling. It also reduced the systems stability making it more sensitive to disturbance.
The range of services provided by ecosystems included:
- sediment retention
- flood mitigation
- groundwater recharge
- water purification
- carbon storage
- coastal protection
- cultural values.
China was now identifying ecosystem services conservation areas, relating to a range of services including sand storm protection, flood mitigation and biodiversity protection.
However, attempts to halt global biodiversity loss had failed and the global abundance of vertebrates had dropped by 1/3 since 1970 and corals were rapidly moving towards extinction.
It was recognised that policy solutions needed to be more informed by social science, more user driven and with more community and business engagement.
At a research level there was a need for:
- more monitoring
- a greater understanding of ecosystem thresholds and tipping points
- the development of decision making tools to help build more resilient systems.
Professor Karen Strier (National Academy of Sciences, USA), who is looking to get the Brazilian Muriqaui monkey made the mascot for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, to help with its conservation.
This morning, delegates were presented with a wide range of data on the effects of human activities on the environment taking place in our geological period now known as the ‘Anthropocene’. Global biodiversity levels and nitrogen cycles were now well beyond natural boundaries, as were atmospheric levels of methane and carbon dioxide.
On the positive side, ozone hole expansion had halted and the global coverage of drinking water had increased to 87%. In the oceans, warming temperatures were combining with ocean acidification; over fishing; eutrophication; and pollution to affect primary productivity and biodiversity, particularly in the tropics.
In adapting to these changes, the research community was working in a range of areas including early warning services for weather and seasonal forecasts, and greater and more certain regional detail on weather extremes. However, the costs of infrastructure adaptation was likely to be in the order of billions of dollars per year. While some ecosystems were likely to be lost, others could form part of adaptation strategies, such as mangrove, forest and grassland management to protect areas.
A number of presenters called for sustainable development goals to be based on solid evidence and increased monitoring capacity, and it was good to see recognition that the Southern oceans needed more spatial and temporal information to be collected. Overall, the global research and knowledge communities (science, social science and engineering) need to work with decision makers to address sustainable development as a fourth pillar alongside economic, social and environmental needs.
It was recognised that agriculture was one of the biggest industries in the world:
- farmers represented 1/3 of the world’s population
- agriculture took up a large proportion of the earth surface (4.9 b ha)
- 70% of water extraction was used for agriculture
- 25% of global greenhouse gases were from agriculture and associated land use change.
However, as the global population increased, the amount of land per capita was falling, so agricultural land yields needed to increase without increasing greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental harm.
Recommendations for future sustainable development in agriculture highlighted the option of slowing the increase in agricultural land by choosing the right crops and closing the yield gaps on underperforming landscapes (75% of current gains in agricultural land via deforestation).
Win-win activities included:
- managing soils for production (fertility, reduced erosion, soil health)
- efficiency of resource use (precision farming, recycling, reduced waste pre and post harvest, ICT/forecasting/sensing)
- valuing ecosystem services (pollination, natural enemy services, water, carbon storage).
No science equals no sustainability
Luis Valdés (International Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO)
The scene was set for the five day forum by a series of presentations today stressing the urgency of the challenges being faced.
Natural earth processes in the oceans, atmosphere and biodiversity were being undermined by our current way of life, let alone meeting the food and energy needs of 9 billion people. Countries around the world were now profoundly interconnected which needed new perspectives of responsibility for global governance. Calls were made for new scientifically sound indicators of sustainable development and to spread the benefits of research, and opportunity to contribute, to more sectors of society around the world.
During this session, a consideration of population dynamics highlighted how there was a need to look beyond population size alone, as different sections of the population has different consumption trends. Migration was also influenced by a range of complicated factors, but disaster-induced migration was often smaller than expected and temporary in nature.
Economic growth would be needed to provide the health, education, food, water and energy needs for the future population, but this needed to be done in a way that minimised the inevitable environmental degradation.
Population growth could be addressed through human rights based programmes of family planning, and increasing urbanisation could be an opportunity to provide services more sustainably if this urbanisation was planned for.
The scale of population growth, and increasing standards of living worldwide, was resulting in increased consumption. This was also the case for the service sector.
The session heard that in India the rise in the number of mobile phones over the last 15 years had resulted in cell phone towers now becoming the second largest user of diesel, after the Indian railway.
Some general solutions were proposed through the trends of miniaturisation; increasing the shared use of items; and increasing the longevity and durability of products.