Innovations in Science: Researching Our Way to a More Sustainable Future

On September 25 the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) convened in New York at a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly, to discuss and adopt the development agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the Earth's population now at 7 billion and rising, all the world's citizenry need to pay serious attention to the grand challenges we face. Even Pope Francis has weighed in with his latest encyclical about the earth that he refers to as "our common home."

Those of use who live in industrialized nations have long enjoyed the benefits of a modern society so it's hard to imagine there are still millions of people who don't have access to the most fundamental things we take for granted. Almost 10 percent of the world's population does not have enough food to promote overall good health. About the same number lacks access to safe water, adequate sanitation and basic hygiene which kills an estimated 842,000 people every year. And while great advances in medicine have done much to eradicate disease, according to the World Health Organization, in 2015 the under-five mortality rate in low-income countries is 76 deaths per 1,000 live births - about 11 times the average rate in high-income countries (7 deaths per 1,000 live births). However, sustainability challenges are not just limited to what the world's population does not have (e.g. food, water, medicine, etc.) but also to something the world has far too much of: waste. Figures from The World Counts estimates that humans discard more than two billion tons of waste a year with tremendous environmental implications.

It's easy to dismiss sustainability issues as those of countries in the developing world, but daily headlines from Europe about the thousands of refugees fleeing from poverty and war are a reminder of the interconnectedness of our global society. How will countries who may already be struggling with their own issues of sustainable development integrate the new arrivals effectively?

As with so many things, science can provide answers, but those answers are only as good as the policies available to enact them. Fortunately the dialogue surrounding sustainable development is now more prevalent than ever. The newly formed Scientific Advisory Board (SAB ) created by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is composed of 26 internationally recognized scientists. Their task is to provide counsel to the UN Secretary-General, as well as the executive leadership of UN organizations, on ways in which science can work with policy and society to create sustainable development.

The earliest reference to the term "sustainability science" was by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report, "Our Common Future". WCED defines sustainability science as "the ability to make development sustainable - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." While other sources have their own definitions of sustainability science, it is generally agreed that it is based on multiple disciplines addressing common themes in sustainable development, or coming together to support more sustainable production and consumption models. But who is doing that kind of research? Which are the countries and institutions that are leaders in their respective fields? Which research needs additional emphasis and attention? How can we determine where to invest funding?

A new report, "Sustainability Science in a Global Landscape" developed by Elsevier in collaboration with SciDev.Net and the global research community, provides some answers to these and other questions. Using the key research themes in sustainability science along with the UN Sustainable Development Goals covering social, economic and environmental sustainability, the report breaks down into six themes: Dignity, People, Prosperity, Planet, Justice and Partnership. The report, which was developed to provide an understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability research, contributes to the broad dialogue between science and society.

While sustainability science is still a relatively small field (it currently represents three percent of the global output), it is growing at a brisk rate. The largest research output comes from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Germany and Australia respectively which collectively produce more than 60 percent of the global output. Not surprisingly a key element of sustainability science is collaboration and many institutions are developing strong networks of researchers. This is especially the case with those research centers in developing economies in Africa where sustainability issues are often greatest. These centers are linking to colleagues in western industrialized nations. For example, one of the highest percentages of collaboration is between The Netherlands and Kenya. Sustainability science can also be linked to building diplomatic opportunities. A recent report on National Public Radio described a little-known arrangement between two adversaries, the U.S. and Iran, on water management.

Clearly, the will exists for the scientific community to find ways of working together to address the global challenges of the 21st century. But at the end of the day, much of the progress that needs to be made will depend on available funding and government policies that encourage regional and cross-geographic collaborations to develop solutions.

Clean air and water conservation laws enacted in one country don't help if bordering nations are not curbing their emissions or conserving their water as well. With 7 billion people on the planet and a rise in consumer-oriented societies, how will we dispose of all the millions of tons of rubbish generated daily? Recycling initiatives in many industrialized nations, while worthwhile, are not keeping pace with our "throw away" lifestyles. One possible solution identified by researchers in the Journal of Cleaner Production looked at a potential reverse energy supply chain e.g. a scenario where waste generated in one country produces energy in another via an emissions trading scheme.

The challenges that are before us are immense, make no mistake, but they are not insurmountable, and while progress has been made, there is still much to be done. If there was ever a time when humankind needed a global network to tap the collective brainpower and solutions from the world's most brilliant thinkers and researchers, it is now.