Eight challenges for science and society to shape a sustainable future

by Mark Stafford-Smith, Future Earth
Friday, 5 December 2014 17:46 GMT

A man holds paddy saplings in a paddy field at Sabak Bernam outside Kuala Lumpur August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Samsul Said

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How to shape a sustainable future

The constraints of the Earth’s finite resources are becoming more obvious day by day, as is humankind’s impact, yet we continue to plunder our planet much faster than it can recover. Already, one in nine people do not have enough food to eat, yet we expect a global population of 11 billion by 2100, in addition to severe climate change.

These challenges are complex and connected, and affect us all. They cross the traditional boundaries of disciplinary scientific research, and science can only address them by working in a more integrated way.

A newly launched global sustainability research programme, Future Earth, has undertaken an extensive year-long consultation to determine the critical development challenges for science in advancing global sustainability. This group of eight priorities was co-created with a number of non-scientist partners to ensure that they are ‘fit-for-purpose’ to address the needs of societies worldwide:

 1.     Deliver water, energy, and food for all.

What are the interactions between water, food and energy? And how do environmental, economic, social and political forces shape our ability to supply these fundamental resources we need? We need to understand the changes our world is already experiencing if we are to sustainably boost delivery.  

 2.     Decouple carbon emissions from economic growth.

Today’s economy is intimately linked to the use of fossil fuels. We must continue to look at where carbon emissions are highest, and what can be done to reduce future emissions and their effects both on us humans and the environment. This will require global policy and investment into viable forms of alternative energy. 

 3.     Safeguard land, freshwater and marine natural assets.

The health of the environment underpins our human well-being. To better protect these valuable assets we need to identify exactly what services they supply, threats posed against them, how they are changing and what this means for us. We must then assess and manage these environmental resources in balance with the need for space for our growing population.

 4.     Build healthy, resilient and productive cities.

In order to make cities more sustainable, new technology and policies must work to reduce our resource footprints. We should first identify what makes for better urban environments, and then use these insights and innovations to build the mega-cities of the future.

 5.     Promote sustainable rural futures.

Rural areas will be called upon to produce an increasing volume and quality of food. Meeting these demands without causing environmental degradation will require a change in how land is used and food produced.

 6.     Improve human health.

Global change, pollution, a growing population and changes in patterns of travel and trade mean that new diseases may be discovered and existing diseases may affect more people. Which areas will be most vulnerable, where will the new diseases likely come from and how can we be more resilient to these threats?  

 7.     Encourage equitable and sustainable consumption and production patterns.

What are the social and environmental impacts of consumption? We must understand what kind of trends will shape consumers’ future spending patterns and how these patterns can be made more sustainable. What new technologies can be incentivised?

 8.     Increase social resilience to future threats.

Climate change, rising sea levels, ecosystem destruction, growing populations, disease: what are the costs and benefits of attempts to counteract threats? How much can we save by preparing in advance? And who is given the power to govern over these changes and get us to work together?

However, science alone can only do so much without the input of donors, businesses, governments and civil society to both shape this research agenda together and ultimately use the knowledge which it creates to take meaningful action.