Time for a global sustainability assessment?

The world needs a regular, comprehensive State of the Planet Assessment. Can Rio+20 deliver?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has set a high standard for international assessments. Since its inception in 1988, it has undoubtedly strengthened the bond between climate science and policy at the international level. This success has led other sectors to look upon the IPCC with envy. In 2010, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was launched. Now there are strong reasons, and calls, for assessments on the oceans, nitrogen and other pressing global concerns.

But is assessment proliferation useful? It risks further fragmenting the science when many scientists argue for a science-policy approach that captures the interconnected nature of our global challenges. We will never solve climate change unless we solve poverty alleviation. We have little chance of solving this without dealing with food security. Food, water and energy security are inextricably linked. Biodiversity loss is a function of all of the above. Tackling pollution can affect climate and health. And so on.

Nowhere is the fragmentation problem more apparent than at the recent Durban climate talks. Countless special interest groups released endless reports vying with each other for the attention of  negotiators, each shouting that their area of concern was being ignored: food security, poverty, biodiversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen pollution, the list goes on. The reality is our global challenges are tightly interlinked. Interdependence is the norm not the exception. Rapid political progress — and transformation — may well hinge on a fundamental grasp of this fact.

With the United Nations Rio+20 Summit looming large on the horizon it is time to seriously consider joining the dots. There is a window of opportunity to think hard about a global sustainability assessment, that could take the form of an Intergovernmental Panel on Global Sustainability, but would need to be much broader, bringing in many more international institutions, for example WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. Such an assessment or review would not compete or negate existing assessments, and few would disagree with their value. On the contrary it would bind them together completing the picture.

If evidence supports the notion that sustainable development is a necessity rather than an ideal to aim towards, which it appears to, then a regular state of the planet assessment is a must.  At the core of such an assessment, which needs political legitimacy, should be policy-relevant information relating to systemic risk management at the planetary level. But recognising that systemic risk management needs to be undertaken at all levels, from towns and cities, through to national, regional and global levels.

Some may argue the science is not ready to take on this task, or that the charge is simply too difficult and must be broken down into components. This approach is unhelpful and incorrect.

If the motivation can be found for a new panel, then the timing is good. Indeed, we may see history repeat itself. In 1988, the Swedish academic Bert Bolin and colleagues set up IPCC to assess whether the climate was changing, and if so, what was the cause. It followed in the footsteps of two highly influential international research programmes initiated in the seventies and eighties by the far-sighted Bolin: the World Climate Research Programme and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Bolin argued a distinction between the science and the science-policy was essential. These programmes were set up to do the science; IPCC assessed it.

Now a consortium of leading international organizations* is pushing for a realignment of the four large international research programmes**. The consortium wants to steer these programmes towards a ten-year focus on Earth-system sustainability, entitled Future Earth. 2012 will see the launch of Future Earth. If this is to be as successful as its predecessors, it will need an international policy focus to bring together the new knowledge generated. Now is the time to start thinking seriously about the high-level policy outcome of this venture.

*The International Council for Science, International Social Science Council, UNESCO, UNEP, United Nations University, and a range of funding agencies.

**WCRP, IGBP, DIVERSITAS, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change

2 thoughts on “Time for a global sustainability assessment?”

  1. Regarding the comment on IPBES:
    It would not be right to think that IPBES is a sectoral approach, because it focuses on biodiversity. As its name indicates, IPBES focuses on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and uses the conceptual framework of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It therefore places biodiversity in the context of ecosystem services, and considers trade offs between multiple services such as provisioning services (eg food security), cultural services, supporting services (eg water cycling, primary production) and regulating services (eg climate regulation).

    1. The visionary IPBES is going farther than most to cross sectors. It must be seen as an essential component of any UN approach to create a new assessment or outlook that attempts to join the dots.

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