As hundreds of scientists, policy-makers and representatives of civil society gathered at the United Nations Environment Assembly Science-Policy Forum in Nairobi, New Zealand’s top scientist urged scientists and politicians to work closer together to find solutions for the planet’s most-pressing problems.
“Hubris is the enemy on both sides of this divide,” said Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to New Zealand’s Prime Minister. “There is a need to encourage more dialogue between the policy community and the science community; this forum is a needed and valuable starting point for that.”
“Better communication is critical, particularly in these really complex areas where no single dimension of science or policy can find solutions. The real challenge is interdisciplinary: how to get social scientists, natural scientists and environmental scientists to work together, and how to get different ministries, countries and UN agencies to work together. The problems we see are all interconnected and can’t be addressed in isolation.”
The Science-Policy forum, running ahead of the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in Nairobi, and UNEA-2 itself aim to do exactly that. Both events bring together those with the power to effect the change needed to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda – which operates on the concept that environmental, economic and social issues are intertwined and need to be addressed as a whole – and deliver a better, more-equitable future for the whole planet.
“What we are seeing here is the first swell of a sea change in how the world will work together,” said Jacqueline McGlade, head of UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment and acting Chief Scientist. “UNEP has put a great deal of effort into ensuring that policy-makers have the cutting-edge environmental and social science they need, but we also know that this science has not always translated into the action we have to see.”
Some of the science presented at the forum makes this point in stark detail. The Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO-6) regional assessments demonstrate how urbanization, economic growth, energy consumption, land-use changes and other factors continue to bring a wide range of environmental pressures – from climate change to land degradation to air pollution, which kills an estimated seven million people each year. However, as the GEO-6 makes clear, it isn’t too late to change this trajectory.
The forum looked at solutions to a host of pressing issues, including how to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, how to address the growing problem of marine litter and how to ensure natural resources can be harnessed in a sustainable manner. UNEP’s Frontiers report, also presented at the forum, looked at ten emerging issues, offering possible answers to the questions they pose.
“We all know we need to think and work harder, better and smarter to deliver a future of hope and prosperity, instead of one of uncertainty and struggle,” said. Ms. McGlade. “The 2030 Agenda has given us a clear set of goals and targets. It is now the responsibility of everyone in the scientific and policy community to work as one world and deliver on our promises.
“Today, I felt the passion and imagination necessary to chart a new course for humanity; I am sure we will see this amplified in the week ahead as UNEA-2 gets underway.”
Mr. Gluckman also feels that there is real hope that science and policy can become better bedfellows, and in so doing address the challenges with which we have increasingly wrestled since the onset of the industrial revolution.
“A lot of countries are looking to improve how their science-policy interface works,” he said. “There are more of those who work in this space talking to each other across countries and between academic disciplines. The discourse is growing.”
As to where UNEP belongs in this process, Executive Director Achim Steiner, who has led the organization for ten years and will leave in June, defined what he saw as the path to a stronger and more-effective UNEP.
“UNEP’s role is to sit at the centre of the space where science emerges and policy becomes actionable, and to ensure that countries, rich or poor, have the ability to draw on the knowledge they need to create policies that are truly equitable,” he said.