April 12, 2012
Scientists from around the world are seeking a new and closer contract with society to deal with the problems of a planet under so much pressure that radical changes in policy and governance have become necessary.
In the “State of the Planet declaration” they made on the final day of the March 26-29 Planet Under Pressure conference in London, around 3,000 natural and social scientists said, “Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilisation in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.”
The declaration, which the scientists hope will guide the Rio+20 UN summit on sustainable development this June, underlines that “society must not delay taking urgent and large-scale action”. Lidia Brito, director of science policy, natural sciences, UNESCO, and conference co-chair, said, “Time is the natural resource in shortest supply. We need to change course in some fundamental way this decade.”
Scientists can demonstrate what is going on and warn, but it is up to policymakers around the world to usher in the changes needed. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom told international leaders “there’s a challenge on their plates that’s never been so big”.
Mark Stafford Smith of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the other conference co-chair said, “We need to move away from GDP as the only measure of progress, and we need a new way of working internationally that is fit for the 21st century. This conference has provided new ideas and practical solutions for the way forward.”
Most of the delegates to the conference felt the need for greater connectivity between those generating new knowledge and the rest of society; and rethinking the roles of science, policy, industry and civil society.
Specifically for the Rio+20 summit, the conference proposed:
* Going beyond GDP by taking into account the value of natural capital when measuring progress.
* A new framework for developing a set of goals for global sustainability for all nations.
* Creating a UN Sustainable Development Council to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level.
* Launching a new international research programme, Future Earth, which will focus on solutions.
* Initiating regular global sustainability analyses.
To move towards a greener economy, the conference previewed the Inclusive Wealth Report developed by UN University’s International Human Dimensions Programme (UNU-IHDP) and the UN Environment Programme. Based on a new economic indicator that measures natural, human and produced capital, the tool goes beyond GDP and can provide guidance for economic development towards sustainability.
Anantha Duraiappah, executive director of UNU-IHDP, said, “Until the yardsticks which society uses to evaluate progress are changed to capture elements of long-term sustainability, the planet and its people will continue to suffer under the weight of short-term growth policies.”
The conference was organised by the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, Diversitas, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, World Climate Research Programme, Earth System Science Partnership and the International Council for Science. All of them aim to rapidly reorganise to focus on global sustainability solutions.
Elizabeth Thompson, executive coordinator of the Rio+20 summit, assured delegates that the words of the scientists would be taken seriously by policymakers. She later told The Third Pole that the summit would come up with a “compendium of commitments” by countries for sustainable development that would be “actionable, measurable and policeable”. She hoped that the policing would be done by citizens and in particular by NGOs.
The conference detailed how human activities risk pushing parts of the earth system – the sum of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, and biological processes including life and society – past so-called tipping points.
Tipping points include the disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic, permafrost in Arctic regions releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the drying out of the Amazon rainforest. If these tipping points are crossed they can increase the likelihood of going beyond other thresholds generating unacceptable and often irreversible environmental change on global and regional scales with serious consequences for human and all forms of life on the planet.
The declaration stated that existing international arrangements are failing to deal with long-term development challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss in an interconnected way, indicating that it would be a mistake to rely on single international agreements. Research indicated that comprehensive sustainability policies at local, sub-national, national, and regional levels should be encouraged to provide “essential safety nets should singular global policies fail.”
A more feisty declaration was made by the youth delegates to the conference, who sought “concrete action based on the scientific knowledge of global challenges”. Problems of environment, economics, equity and social justice are intrinsically linked, they pointed out. “Any action addressing one affects them all. Science (including social science) can help to identify solutions, but citizen engagement is vital for solutions to work. Where solutions exist that improve all of them, we ask you to implement them. If they have already been implemented, we ask you to enforce them. Where solutions exist that address one at the expense of the others, we ask you to rethink them.”
The young delegates, many of them scientists, committed that they would find better solutions “where solutions for environmental, economic, and societal problems conflict”. As a start, they proposed:
* Replace GDP with a metric that also incorporates environment and social equity
* Remove barriers for developing countries to have more voice and decision-making power in international dialogues
* Reform market mechanisms to allow participation in decision-making from stakeholders at all scales
* Offer financial incentives to young eco-social entrepreneurs and social and environmental researchers, especially in developing countries
* Regulate open access to knowledge in all arenas of business, policy, and science
* Transition from short-term projects to long-term programmes for education and sustainability-oriented decision-making
* Make the sustainable development activities of business and government more accountable to citizens
In their turn, the young delegates promised to
* Make science more accessible and translatable across sectors and interests so that it can be used for policy making and long term business decisions that will ultimately drive a sustainable society
* Expand trans-disciplinary research and engage with user communities in efforts to develop integrative solutions for sustainability
“These lists are incomplete, but they are a good place to start. You will have to take hard positions against vested interests standing in the way of such decisions. We, your constituents, support you in this. You the decision-makers and we the citizens must stand together to achieve a stable and sustainable future for our children and for future generations,” the youth delegates concluded.