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  • Green economies need a new mechanism to harness science

Rio+20 should set up a scientific cooperation mechanism drawing on capabilities in both North and South, say Gisbert Glaser and Alice Abreu.

Twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the sustainable development agenda continues to focus too exclusively on the environment — driven by environment ministries, with woefully insufficient progress overall.

And over the past 20 years, development has moved us closer to the risk of exceeding "planetary boundaries" of our Earth system — from the climate to biodiversity, to land use. Yet while facing these challenges we must further enhance efforts towards bridging the development divide between the North and the South, as well as securing greater social equity and human wellbeing.

It is therefore essential to ensure that in the future, those dealing with our economies also commit to sustainable development and the 'greening' of our economic systems. This is why the Rio+20 world summit will focus on the green economy "in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication".

This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20

But there will be no green economy without clean technology, innovation and sound science. The outcome of Rio+20 must therefore include a mechanism to encourage more research and better access to knowledge in all scientific fields.

A sound science base

The Rio+20 preparatory process has now agreed that there is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' green economy. The elements of a green economy need to be country- or region-specific, with 'greening' of all economic sectors whether agriculture, information technology or the chemical industry.

Making the transition to a green economy will involve unprecedented efforts to harness science, technology and international cooperation. We need more comprehensive innovation systems based on coordinated policies and sound science that truly integrate the three pillars — environmental, social and economic — of sustainable development.

Understanding this interconnectedness of natural and socioeconomic systems is crucial for addressing global challenges. And it implies a clear role for new, more integrated interdisciplinary research across the natural and social sciences.

This means that recommendations by delegates at Rio+20 should aim to include measures to strengthen links between science and policy, and the science base within institutions.

Governments should agree to include in the Rio+20 outcome document a call for establishing a mechanism for coordinated research on sustainable development challenges, with a major focus on North–South and South–South cooperation.

Experience shows that international scientific cooperation — such as regional training schemes, institutional networks or centres of excellence among nations with weak scientific infrastructures — are effective strategies for building strength in science.

Strength in cooperation

The new mechanism would build on, and work in synergy with, existing cooperation bodies such as the International Council for Science (ICSU).

It should be governed by scientists from both the North and the South, and one of its functions would be to systematically collect and process existing knowledge on key sustainable development and green economy issues.

Working with the private sector, among others, it would promote and coordinate interdisciplinary research and innovation, as well as capacity building in science and technology, particularly in developing countries.

And it would actively collaborate with policymakers, funders and other stakeholders in designing, implementing and communicating research.

The mechanism would also mobilise and coordinate major funding at the international level to support capacity building, knowledge sharing and new research. New funders not traditionally engaged in global sustainability research will need to join in — development agencies, major philanthropic foundations and social science funders.  

Better alignment of research priorities, more leverage and avoidance of duplication in research should mean that more funds will become available for projects with shared objectives.

A 'sustainability revolution'

A new international research initiative, 'Future Earth – research for global sustainability', is a building block towards such a scientific cooperation mechanism. The initiative will be launched at Rio+20 this year by an alliance that includes ICSU, the International Social Science Council (ISSC), national research funders and several UN organisations.

Financial support by the global donor community will be important in making such a mechanism a success. But governments of developing countries with weak national scientific capacity must also commit to enhancing institutional science and technology capacity by substantially increasing the sums they allocate to higher education.

The private sector, a major funder of research and development (R&D), will have an important role to play and should reorient its priorities towards sustainability goals. Public–private partnerships on 'green R&D' should support the development of clean technologies, sustainable chemicals management, and energy and materials efficiency. 

Industry should also contribute to broader international scientific cooperation and research efforts. Done through a global mechanism, this will not be without return: new research initiatives such as Future Earth will provide a platform for 'transdisciplinary' knowledge that can be used by partners in business and industry, and will help take innovations out of the laboratory to transform them into useful 'green' products or services.

After the agricultural and the industrial revolutions, humanity needs a global sustainability revolution based on knowledge and innovation. But there will be no accelerated transition to a sustainable future unless Rio+20 supports a new way of doing science by launching a major globally coordinated initiative on science, technology and innovation.

Gisbert Glaser is senior advisor at the International Council for Science based in Paris, France. Alice Abreu is emeritus professor of sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.