Sustainable development is founded on science
THE Covid-19 pandemic looms large over this month’s United Nations General Assembly meetings and others worldwide, most of them taking place virtually. Yet, the drive to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still commands the strong attention of political, government, business, academic and civil society leaders.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is a blueprint for shared prosperity in a world where all people can live productive, vibrant, and peaceful lives. In his recent Sustainable Development Report, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said some progress and favourable trends were evident in several critical areas.
For example, he reports, “extreme poverty has declined considerably, the under-five mortality rate fell by 49 per cent between 2000 and 2017, immunisations have saved millions of lives, and the vast majority of the world’s population now has access to electricity.
“Countries are taking concrete actions to protect our planet: marine protected areas have doubled since 2010; countries are working concertedly to address illegal fishing; 186 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, and almost all have communicated their first nationally determined contributions.”
Those along with several other accomplishments noted, Guterres’s report identifies many areas where urgent attention is needed, including the alarming rate of nature’s deterioration (citing the 2019 IPBES report finding that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction), rising sea levels, and accelerating ocean acidification. And, the past four years “have been the warmest on record”.
Guterres notes “we know what works” and focused his report on areas that can drive progress across all 17 SDGs. A board of scientists advising the then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon from 2013 to 2016 underlined the centrality of science to decision- making for sustainable development.
I was honoured to be among those scientists, who emphasised science, technology and innovation as the game changers in dealing with most of the most pressing global challenges, providing solutions to poverty, creating jobs, reducing inequalities, increasing incomes, and enhancing health and wellbeing.
Indeed, scientists have worked tirelessly to increase understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. Research communities have convened across disciplines of geoscience, engineering, and social science to address questions at a system level, building first the foundation for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
It is knowledge that will determine the future of the human race. Science and engineering have advanced the efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines, and the capacity and durability of batteries, much faster than many predicted, raising hope where there was once pessimism, that the world may soon reduce its dependence on fossil fuels before it is too late.
What IPCC is to the climate issue, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is to the issue of accelerating nature and species loss. Both IPCC and IPBES are independent intergovernmental bodies established to strengthen the communication between scientists and policymakers.
Instituted eight years ago, IPBES reports have made their mark — from its 2016 assessment of declining bee and other pollinator species vital to the world’s food supply, to its 2018 assessments of global land degradation, and of biodiversity and ecosystem services across four world regions, to its Global Assessment Report last year.
Informed in large part by the IPBES assessments, a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is under negotiation by 197 parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
The draft framework agreement includes a proposal to protect at least 30 per cent of the land and marine areas of the world by 2030. According to the Campaign for Nature, a major proponent of that proposal, 50 per cent may in fact be needed, but 30 per cent is a scientifically credible interim goal.
The impact of evidence-based knowledge assembled by bodies such as IPCC and IPBES should never be underestimated. I am immensely proud to note that IPBES is a contender for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If chosen, IPBES would join IPCC on the list of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the latter having shared the award with former US vice-president Al Gore in 2007.
Whatever choice the Nobel committee announces a few days from now, it is a great honour for the biodiversity and nature-science community to be accorded recognition in the form of a well-earned nomination.
The writer is ambassador and science adviser to the Campaign for Nature, founding chair of IPBES and a member of Ban Ki-moon’s Scientific Advisory Board
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