Sustainability Still Needs Scientists and Policy Makers to Work Together

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The Concept of sustainability

Sustainability is about balance in our natural systems. It is about how humanity can exist and thrive in harmony with their environment. However, as mankind as a whole has progressed in terms of economic well-being (through increased industrialization and technological development), we have continued to use more of these natural resources than can be replenished. E.g. it is estimated that every year, we use 40% more natural resources that can be replenished / put back. These natural resources include air, forests, land / soil, water (freshwater and saltwater), biodiversity (flora and fauna), etc.

This is not a sustainable way to live because these natural resources are finite. As such, our global sustainable development is under threat. Sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland Report, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. But the needs of our future generations cannot be met with the rate at which we are consuming these natural resources.

As nations, we have often discussed development solely in economic terms (e.g. profit, revenues, etc.). However, research is showing that in order to have this balance which is needed for sustainable development, there is need to expand the way we see development, not just in terms of economics/profit, but also in terms of the environment/planet and social /people.

The Role of Science

Science has been instrumental in revealing the state of our natural resources and how unsustainable our path to development has been since the industrial age. The idea of Greenhouse Gases trapping heat and warming the planet actually started about two centuries ago, but several milestones in climate science from the late 1800s to date have provided more and more evidence which has become increasingly hard to ignore by national decision makers.

Despite earlier skepticism about the science of climate change, by 2016, about 95% of active climate researchers were publishing climate papers showing overwhelming consensus on global warming. This has been hard for everyone, particularly national and state policy makers, to ignore. What’s more, it has been hard to ignore the recorded data (as well as personal experiences) which has shown that 2016 was the warmest year in record since recording started in 1880. This great debate on proving that this planetary boundary, climate change, is real is coming to a head, and forcing decision makers to make climate considerations.

The Planetary Boundaries is a concept about the Earth’s natural resources by a group of environmental scientists in the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University. This framework of planetary boundaries is used to visually illustrate how far mankind is pushing the earth’s system past its boundaries to replenish and still be available for future generations to meet their needs.

The nine planetary boundaries framework is a clear application of how science has been used to promote sustainability and sustainable development in the minds of both the public and the policy makers.

The presentation of scientific evidence on how we have pushed our planetary boundaries, have forced politicians and the legislature in many countries around the world to respond with policies and regulations that promote environmental sustainability. For example, the success of Ozone Depletion where many gases causing ozone depletion have been banned globally.

The Role of Policy

Scientific evidence provides policy makers with the justification and evidence to establish appropriate policies that promote sustainability and ultimately, sustainable development. This is a crucial part of the process towards sustainability as national governments set the tone for action by citizens and businesses operating within their national boundaries.

Policies can be used to either encourage or discourage certain behaviors. This is done through sanctions or incentives. Sanctions may take the form of increased taxes and levies, additional fees, import/export restrictions, etc., while incentives may take the form of tax breaks, carbon credits, technical assistance, subsidies, etc. Policies and regulations are also instrumental in ensuring that businesses conserve the environment within which they operate, and uphold the human rights and welfare of their neighboring communities.

Next Steps towards Sustainability

In conclusion, our sustainable development, both globally and as nations, depend on our progress within the planetary boundaries. Both science and policy have key roles to play within this process as discussed above.

The next steps would be to have 100% consensus about the science of climate change and other sustainability related concerns/issues. And translate this consensus to the legislature, to establish policies and regulations that foster behaviors which will ensure our sustainable development.

Images by Andrew Charney and Jake To