27.06.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

UNESCO keeps momentum going for sustainability driven science after Rio+20

To achieve sustainable development, the Rio+20 Outcome Document clearly recognizes the important contribution of the scientific and technological community, the importance of technology transfer to close the technological gap between developed and developing countries, the need to strengthen the science policy interface, the need to strengthen national scientific and technological capacity and the need to foster international research collaboration on sustainable development.

If the outcome document does not explicitly spell out the role of science in achieving sustainable development, M. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, clearly recognized its primordial role when choosing to seek advice on the implementation of the recommendations of the report of his High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP). The report, entitled Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing, presents a vision for a sustainable future for the planet containing numerous recommendations aimed at putting sustainable development into practice.

The Secretary-General tasked UNESCO, the UN specialized agency with a mandate for science, to take the lead on following up on the science-related recommendations, the first step in their implementation. UNESCO assembled an ad hoc group of UN agencies with substantive science activities in their portfolios and leaders of major international scientific bodies to address the science-related recommendations of the report.

Based on the advice given to him by the ad hoc group, M. Ban Ki-moon has agreed to set up an international scientific advisory board to provide him with guidance on science-related issues, and enable him to provide advice to UN member states on such issues. The ad hoc group also recommended that the science-policy interface should be considerably strengthened by launching a major global initiative to bring multidisciplinary science into the sustainable development policy arena ranging from the basic sciences, engineering and technology to the environmental and agricultural sciences. The implementation of both of these recommendations is now taking shape…

Shaping a new approach to research

Over the past two years the scientific community, with UNESCO as a key partner, had been actively preparing for the Rio+20 conference and a sustainable future with a wide-ranging consultation process spanning all geographical regions of the globe: the ICSU-UNESCO regional workshops, a process which developed key recommendations in relation to the role of science in sustainable development.

The process culminated with the Planet under Pressure Conference in London in March 2012 where humanity’s impact on the Earth system was recognized as having become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Recognition was given to the fact that human activity had driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.

This situation requires a new approach to research that is integrated, international, solutions-oriented and policy relevant, combining social, environmental and economic factors, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems. Research must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector.

Leading international scientists and policy-makers then came together during the Forum on Science Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in July 2012 and put forward a set of recommendation to help establish such co-designed research, technology and policy agendas. The Future Earth initiative aims to further this goal, in line with the ad hoc group’s recommendation.

Future Earth: research for global sustainability
This bold new 10-year initiative on global environmental change research for sustainability was launched by an alliance of international partners from global science, research funding and UN bodies during the Forum. The initiative will coordinate scientific research which is designed and produced in partnership with governments, business and, more broadly, society.

International Scientific Advisory Board
Following the ad hoc group’s recommendation to set up a Scientific Advisory Board, the UN Secretary-General requested UNESCO to take the lead in setting it up, and in providing the secretariat. The board will bring together eminent specialists from the natural sciences, the social and human sciences, and engineering, representing diverse backgrounds and regions. Through this mechanism, the Secretary-General and UN agencies will be provided with comprehensive advice on all of the dimensions of science, technology and innovation for sustainable development, as well as on how to promote cooperation among various UN agencies and with the international scientific community. One of its key functions will be to promote cooperation on science-related issue between UN agencies, and with the international scientific community.

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