How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the urban poor?

By Benigna Boza-Kiss, Shonali Pachauri, and Caroline Zimm from the IIASA Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group

Benigna Boza-Kiss, Shonali Pachauri, and Caroline Zimm explain how COVID-19 has impacted the poor in cities and what can be done to increase the future resilience of vulnerable populations.

© Manoej Paateel | Dreamstime.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a halt to life as we knew it. We have been restrained in our activities and freedoms, forced to stay indoors at home, to cancel travel plans, and to transfer meetings to an online space, where most of us have also celebrated birthdays and other important life events that should have been in person with our loved ones. These changes have impacted many aspects of our comfort, our social wellbeing, as well as our financial situations, but it has also brought existing inequalities and poverty into the spotlight.

The risks of the pandemic and restrictions following containment measures have been felt most acutely by the poor, the vulnerable, those in the informal sector, and those without savings and safety nets. The suffering of women in the health sector, school children in households without electricity and internet, workers in the informal sector that don’t have the option to telework, crowds living in slums – to name just a few examples of vulnerable groups – have become glaringly visible to all. These people have had to adapt to new rules and conditions when they were living on the edge even before the pandemic.

In a new perspective piece published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, we explored how aspects related to access to shelter/housing, modern energy, and digital services in cities have influenced the poor and what can be done to increase the future resilience of vulnerable populations.

We described three ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic and related containment measures have exacerbated urban inequalities, and identified how subsequent recovery measures and policy responses could redress these.

First, lockdowns amplified urban energy poverty. Staying at home has meant increased energy use at home. For the poor, who already struggle with utility costs, and typically live in low energy quality buildings, these services have become even more unaffordable. These populations also shoulder a higher burden of poor health, for example, higher incidence of respiratory problems, with poor or inadequate ventilation and insulation increasing their risk of infection even more.

Second, preexisting digital divides have surfaced, even within well-connected cities. Multiple barriers limit digital inclusion: access to digital technologies due to high costs (for devices, internet access, and electricity connections), and unreliable services (again both for electricity and internet), as well as low digital literacy and support. This lack of adequate digital service access is contributing to these populations falling further behind during lockdowns as they miss out on education and income.

Third, slum dwellers in the world’s cities have been particularly hard hit, because of precarious and overcrowded housing conditions, lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, and a high concentration of the socioeconomically disadvantaged, resulting in even more negative consequences of lockdown measures. With many slum inhabitants working in the informal sector, many have been left either without jobs and income, or have been compelled to work in precarious and unsafe conditions to survive. The loss of income has also had knock-on effects, making payments of regular expenditures for rent, water, electricity, and other utility services difficult. Women within these settlements have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, as they are over represented in the informal economy, and more likely to be engaged in invisible work, such as home-based or domestic and care work.

Recovery measures need to ensure immediate relief, but also point towards long-term solutions that contribute to the redistribution of wealth and new urban development, while also increasing resilience to the current and future pandemics or other disasters. There are tested measures that should be reemphasized.

Urban green recovery plans that include large-scale home renovation programs could ensure warm, healthy homes, and affordable energy bills for all. In the shorter-term, alleviation of payment defaults on the rents and utility bills of the energy poor should continue. In parallel, urban digital preparedness, more equal access to the virtual delivery of essential services, and provision of opportunities for virtual working and education for all in the future, need attention.

COVID-19 can be a wake up call to increase efforts to close the digital divide and push for structural change. The crisis has increased the urgency to redesign and improve informal settlements and provide adequate and efficient services that address the diverse needs of poor urban residents. This requires partnerships between urban municipalities, planners, and stakeholders, as well as strengthening local communities for inclusive planning strategies. More immediately, it is necessary to provide direct support to slum and informal settlement populations in terms of income support, adequate nutrition, energy, water, and other basic infrastructure and services.

All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “test of societies, of governments, of communities, and of individuals”. Digital technologies, home renovation, and slum rehabilitation are the means, rather than the end to improve conditions for all, but if specifically targeted to the poor and most deprived, such measures can reduce inequalities and increase resilience.

Reference:

Boza-Kiss, B., Pachauri, S., & Zimm, C. (2021). Deprivations and Inequities in Cities Viewed Through a Pandemic Lens. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities 3 e645914. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17121]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Using the COVID-19 pandemic to transform the energy sector

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report identifies the negative and positive lessons learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in relation to energy consumption and demand, and recommends several immediate actions.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

As a result of the pandemic’s confinement and containment policies, energy demand and resulting energy-related carbon emissions declined by an estimated 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020 – a record drop according to researchers at Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project. However, the reduction is likely to be short-lived if structural changes do not occur.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused foreseeable positive and negative disruptions to the global energy sector. This has revealed opportunities that can be learnt from to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement pledges, with the positive disruptions showing us the possibility of a more sustainable and resilient future.

The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report recommends actions based on the opportunities and vulnerabilities in energy systems that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light.

“The pandemic is a threat, but also an opportunity, because it showed that the system we have spent a lot of money and resources on is not working the way it should, so the crisis should be used to draw up new budgets, take new actions, and rebuild society.”

– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA

The report highlights that solutions previously thought to be out of reach are far more possible than expected. One such positive outcome is the digitalization of physical activities, such as attending work, schools, conferences, and other gatherings online. This has resulted in short-term lifestyle changes — introducing and normalizing digital solutions for a mass audience — which the report recommends capitalizing on in a post-COVID society.

Some companies, like Spotify, a music streaming service, have announced that they will let their employees work remotely from anywhere after the pandemic. The report suggests that more companies and governments should do the same, as digitalization offers opportunities to use resources more efficiently, and so has the potential to make consumption more sustainable and to reduce carbon footprints.

Efforts to digitalize and reduce the population’s carbon footprint work hand-in-hand with the need to reinvent urban spaces to reach the SDGs and combat climate change.

Cities consume 60-80% of global energy and produce more than 70% of carbon emissions. What’s more, 70% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050.

The report proposes that cities should be redesigned into more sustainable ‘urban villages’ so that they are optimized for energy efficiency. One way to do this would be to redesign cities into compact neighborhoods where all amenities (shops, offices, schools, etc.) are within walking distance. Paris, France, for example, promotes self-sufficient neighborhoods, with all the essential amenities placed within a 15-minute radius. Several other cities like Melbourne, Australia, with its “20-minute neighborhoods” and the Nordhavn “5-minute neighborhood” in Copenhagen, Denmark, are promoting this new standard for the use of space and sustainable mobility.

Another key approach to reinventing urban spaces is prioritizing nature-based solutions by using parks, green roofs, green walls, and blue infrastructure to combat climate change and connect the population back to nature. This also means centering public spaces around people, by converting street spaces from car use to sidewalks and bike lanes, and enhancing the quality and safety of walking and biking infrastructures.

The report also recommends that cities be rebuilt to incorporate renewable energy. The costs for renewable technologies are declining quite fast, but Zakeri explained that the problem with moving to renewable energy is not the cost but a lack of understanding. Consumers, experts, and governments lack the knowledge to distribute, access and install these technologies. However, in recent times, scientists and other experts have brought more awareness to them and are helping the trend move forward.

The report states the importance of developing net zero-energy communities that have a holistic approach to energy-efficient building renovation and construction of new buildings. The net zero-energy design must consider the energy interactions between individual buildings and the broader energy system on a local level.

These recommended actions aren’t just about energy efficiency but about creating a more fulfilling life for all.

“Rebuilding cities to be more sustainable and resilient [to future crises] not only has the potential to reduce energy consumption but also create a more joyful lifestyle that improves the wellbeing and experience of people living in a city.”

– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA

For more information on rebuilding urban spaces, and addressing energy lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic read the IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report.

You can also watch the discussion on Rethinking Energy Solutions as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

 

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Restructuring the food system after COVID-19

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Resilient Food Systems report looks at the vulnerabilities in the food system and recommends changes to move forward through COVID-19 recovery plans that prioritize society’s least protected.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified and brought to the fore existing vulnerabilities and global interdependency in societal institutions, including the food system. The pandemic has exaggerated the scarcity in some areas’ food supplies and highlighted the divide between the haves and have-nots.

The number of people suffering from poverty had been on a steady decline, going from 2 billion people in 1990 to 740 million in 2015. However, for the first time in decades, the global poverty rate is once again increasing due to the pandemic. Early estimates suggest that an additional 88 million to 115 million people may suffer extreme poverty, with the total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021.

The socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic are further exacerbating inequalities within and between  countries, and intensifying the rise in food insecurity observed since 2014. It has been estimated that the effects of the pandemic could have longer-term repercussion for low-income countries, greatly undermining their development prospects, unless sufficient international support is provided.

In order to explore how the world can recover from the crisis sustainably, IIASA and the International Science Council (ISC) launched the Consultative Science Platform: Bouncing Forward Sustainably Post COVID-19. The two organizations have drawn on their combined strengths, expertise, and large scientific communities, to come up with a set of insights and recommendations based on a series of online consultations that have brought together over 200 experts from all regions of the world. The Resilient Food Systems report is a contribution to this effort.

Resilient Food Systems

Transformations within reach:
Pathways to a sustainable and resilient world

 

 

 


While the pandemic exerted supply and demand shocks across economic sectors, the report highlights that the food system was particularly affected by impacts on employment and income in relation. This is because international food supply has been strong, and the supply-demand ratios have remained stable throughout the pandemic. However, job and income losses, insufficient safety nets, and constraints on local access to food created conditions for food insecurity.

Lack of access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, and the prevalence of informal employment, have forced many people in low- and middle-income countries to make the impossible choice between following physical distancing measures or maintaining basic income and access to food. Before the pandemic, an estimated 3 billion people were unable to afford a healthy diet on a consistent basis.

Therefore, the report argues that the emphasis on efficiency – which has in large part been driving the evolution of food systems – must be balanced with an emphasis on concerns related to resilience and equity. With this, the food system can combat future crises while serving society’s most vulnerable. The recovery process should be harnessed to strengthen the preparedness of the food system to manage multiple risks.

As highlighted by the pandemic, this would entail expanding the scope and reach of social safety nets and protection schemes. Future food systems should be characterized by better pricing-in of environmental externalities. The sustainable management of natural resources should be seen as an integral part of strengthening the resilience of food systems, recognizing also the close linkage between human and planetary health concerns.

‘ In light of resilience and sustainability concerns the focus should be on using agricultural areas that we already have, rehabilitating degraded environments, and looking into the potential of diversification of practices and technologies.’

Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager, IIASA

The role of different agricultural practices in building resilience needs to be looked into. This includes high-tech solutions like biotechnology, as well as an increase in the trade of agricultural goods, a sustainable increase in crop yields, and using underutilized crops to their full potential.

This also means protecting biological diversity, minimizing the destruction of pristine natural environments and focusing on the regeneration of natural ecosystems.

The report also states that strong international institutions are necessary to coordinate policies and limit tensions between multiple social, economic, and environmental interests represented within food systems internationally. Further funding, integration, and emphasis on context-specific solutions can help make changes, and emerging action-oriented knowledge and funding platforms are being used to help transform the food systems.

‘It is very important that these reforms are characterized by global collaboration, keeping nutritional security at the forefront with society’s most vulnerable people in mind, so that no one gets left behind.’

Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager, IIASA

For more information on how COVID-19 is impacting the food system, and the lessons learned from the pandemic, read the IIASA-ISC Resilient Food Systems Report.


You can also watch the discussion on Strengthening Science Systems as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Enhancing science systems and bouncing forward sustainably from COVID-19

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Consultative Science platform has engaged transdisciplinary global thought leaders to produce four reports that focus on a more sustainable pathway to a post COVID-19 world. This blog post looks at the report on Strengthening Science Systems.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

Science has spoken reason to power and politics, expanded open science practices, and found a vaccine in record time during this pandemic, yet perceptions of how science has responded overall to the current crisis still vary. There is a broad consensus that there is considerable room for improvement in science systems in the general context of rapidly evolving global exogenous shocks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a cautionary tale about the importance and necessity of science: we will face crisis, we know that, and we will best address it through science, but science itself stumbles along and science needs to be more humble, be better educated and not only communicate their knowledge but also communicate the limitation of their knowledge so that science systems can move towards a better frontier.”

– David Kaplan, Senior Research Specialist, ISC 

In 2020, IIASA and the International Science Council (ISC) combined their strengths and expertise to define and design sustainability pathways that will help all levels of global governance be better prepared and more resilient in protecting from future systemic shocks.

In these testing times, policymakers and the general public have looked to science for insight, reliable solutions, and actionable advice. The Strengthening Science Systems report addresses how science systems can be better prepared when an inevitable crisis hits again.

The report puts forward a large number of recommendations, grouped under five interrelated major transformative changes:

Strengthen transdisciplinary research and networking on critical risks and systems resilience

As seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, risks can spread globally regardless of their origin. It is in the interests of all countries to work together and provide support to one another. Most notably, developed countries need to help further strengthen scientific capacities with financial support, technology support and technology transfer for developing countries.

On the other hand, while risks may be global, the manner in which they play out and particularly the way in which different societies respond, show considerable variation. Local scientific capacity has the ability to address the local context and develop effective strategies to address risk. This will allow local scientists to put knowledge on disaster risks at the core of disaster risk reduction policies.

Enhance communication of scientific knowledge, public understanding, and trust in science

Trust in science and in the recommendations emanating from scientists are key to the effectiveness of science-based policies. This is especially important as science denial and misinformation have increased during the pandemic. Communication, transparency, and broad public understanding of how science works are three foundations which will enhance trust in science.

Scientists themselves should therefore be incentivized to play a more active role in combating misinformation in their fields, as they are best equipped with the facts. Alongside that, easily accessible sources of scientific results that are simpler for a mass audience to understand should be created in a wider array of languages.

Enhance knowledge diffusion within the science system

Peer-review systems have been shown to be somewhat inadequate in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Peer-review systems need to be more agile, international, rigorous, and inclusive in terms of access and avoiding bias if science is to meet the challenges of future crises.

International organizations of science, including the ISC and UNESCO, can take a lead in devising a more effective system of peer review through dialogue with international disciplinary bodies, national academies, publishers, and national research councils.

Increase the capacity of the science system to respond rapidly to crises with high-quality research

Some countries lack adequate disaster research institutions. These institutes cannot be created in a short period of time and need prior infrastructural efforts, so there needs to be ample support and funding of smaller research institutions in advance of possible disasters. Collaborative efforts between big and small research institutes on a global and local scale are highly recommended. Governments also need researchers who can be on standby and they need to allocate funds that are easy to access during a crisis.

Improve the quality and efficacy of science-policy interfaces at national, regional, and global levels

Science advice has moved to center stage when dealing with policies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has challenged national science–policy systems. Lessons have been learned about how science can become a more effective input into policy. This involves further international scientific cooperation among institutions engaged in science-policy advice, to enhance the quality of science inputs to policy.

International collaboration allows for sharing of evidence and the emergence of a scientific consensus. This consensus can then be communicated to policymakers who, in turn, need to interact more with the wider academic community to systematically review their country’s policies.

These are some of the conclusions from the five lessons on interrelated transformative changes for the science system cited in the report. They show three axes of improvement that are required to ensure that science can react more efficiently to such exogenous shocks: increased agility, enhanced reliability, and a more effective science-policy-society interface. The main overarching objective is to simultaneously improve all three axes, thereby moving science systems to a new frontier.


Strengthening Science Systems

Read the full report

Read the one-page summary

 

You can also watch the discussion on Strengthening Science Systems as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

 

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Learning from COVID-19 and upgrading sustainable governance

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Enhancing Governance for Sustainability Report identifies the lessons learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in relation to upgrading risk governance.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

As some governments and their administrations, individuals, and science systems begin to adapt to COVID-19, the struggle still continues in many countries. With that, the world is slowly leveraging the insights this pandemic has offered, standing at the cusp of a new world, which faces multiple stressors and is in need of more resilient governance.

Globally, national governments were put under the microscope. Some, such as Singapore and South Korea, succeeded with evidence-based, swift national leadership coupled with clear crisis communication. This proved useful for containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus and with it brought necessary recovery initiatives. In other countries, such as the United States, tackling the crisis has been characterized by governance challenges, including crisis plans with layers of shared responsibility being ignored in favor of “management by panic” approaches.

The pandemic has highlighted the flaws of neoliberal governance that prioritizes economic growth, deregulation and a separation between people and nature ahead of policies centered around human and ecosystem health and wellbeing.

To this effect, the IIASA-ISC Enhancing Governance for Sustainability Report goes beyond just considering the roles and responsibilities of governments, and adopts a broader definition of governance as, “the totality of actors, rules, conventions, processes, and mechanisms concerned with how relevant…information is collected, analyzed and communicated, and how management decisions are taken”.

In a world confronted with future risks such as spiraling climate change, ecosystem collapse and dwindling resources, global governance needs to be reformed.

The report states that the global community needs to engage in multi-directional and more integrated learning, problem identification and decision making. This should enable the shift towards more sustainable and equitable development in an ever-riskier world.

A disease with no respect for borders requires a collective response, said Volkan Bozkir, President of the United Nations General Assembly, adding that, “COVID-19 is a practice test that exhibits our weaknesses; we must build resilience now for whatever comes tomorrow.”

The pandemic highlighted widespread global fragmentation, which was initially observed through uncoordinated and sometimes competing actions. The report explains that organizations and agencies with similar objectives fought over resources, when instead they should have been bridging their divides and working cooperatively to eliminate competition. In the meantime, as the divide is bridged, special crisis provisions should be established for activation in case urgent action is needed again.

The report also recommends strengthening science–policy interactions to enable evidence-based decision-making, in which science systems collaborate with governments at all governance levels. Global and regional collaboration is especially important given the uneven scientific capabilities across countries and the need to tackle the pandemic everywhere to achieve health outcomes for all.

Working effectively at the interface of science and policy has been a challenge for many countries, which warrants further investigation. However, scientists have tried to step up to the challenges in some unprecedented ways.

For example, online repositories started publishing COVID-19 studies as pre-prints so that their findings could be used by all scientists quickly. As a result, researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences, and several hundreds of clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.

Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, referred to international scientific collaboration in reference to COVID-19, as the “engine of global science” and said, “It is thus crucial that scientific responses are based on international collaboration that brings together the best minds and available data from different countries for the benefit of all”

Therefore, to reform global governance, evidence-sharing arrangements need to be centered on a global level with reliable evidence, which must be made available swiftly in times of crises. In order for this to happen, the report recommends the creation of specialized advisory bodies that offer consultations on a regular and on-demand basis. The report also suggests involving diverse stakeholder perspectives in these consultations.

Another key point to enhancing sustainable governance is risk reduction management, which should be a fundamental component of decision-making and a part of the investment in sustainable development. The report states that a global socio-ecological resilience and risk dialogue should be launched, engaging policymakers, civil society, the private sector, and the scientific community in mapping risks and their drivers at different scales and discussing their implications for risk governance, prevention and preparedness. Such an engagement process would increase the understanding and communication of the compound, systemic nature of risks driven by infectious diseases, climate change, and other socio-ecological stressors.

“A more holistic approach to risk that better takes into account the many intricate links between nature and people is sorely needed if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

– Anne-Sophie Stevance, ISC

Unifying fragmented global organizations and governance, forming scientific evidence-based policies with the help of science systems, and enhancing levers pertaining to risk management are only some of the recommendations in the report. For more information on upgrading risk governance read the IIASA-ISC Enhancing Governance for Sustainability Report.

You can also watch the discussion on Learning from COVID-19 and upgrading sustainable governance as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World initiative, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems, and Resilient Food Systems.

 

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The footprint of COVID-19 on carbon emissions and future work at IIASA

By Greg Davies-Jones, 2020 IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Greg Davies-Jones finds out how COVID-19 has lightened the carbon footprint of IIASA and uncovers how the institute plans to integrate climate protection and sustainability into everyday research activities.

The impact of COVID-19 has been profound and pervasive, infiltrating deeply into many spheres of society. IIASA has not escaped the clutches of the pandemic either: The phrase ‘unprecedented times’ has become just as commonplace here at the institute as it has across the globe. Despite the overt and all too evident adverse consequences of COVID-19, there is a significant, albeit only temporary, positive aspect of a lockdown existence, namely a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

At IIASA, the principal decline in CO2 emissions has been due to the drop-off in business travel. With individual mobility heavily restricted, travel arising out of research activities, meetings, and conferences has dropped to almost zero. To fill the void, the virtual world is rapidly becoming the everyday reality: Zoom calls, Skype meetings, audio hiccups, video glitches, and the occasional gallivanting toddler have fast become the norm in this new working world.

Schloss Laxenburg | ©IIASA

In the years to come, when the COVID-19 cobwebs are finally blown away (hopefully), might this new working world become more commonplace? A hybrid between the pre-COVID-19 and post COVID-19 worlds perhaps? One thing is certain: The continuation of business-as-usual will be catastrophic environmentally. A recent climate poll documented in The Guardian found despairingly that people are planning to drive and, in some cases, even fly more in the future than before the coronavirus pandemic. The dangerous inference that could be drawn from this is that, rather than merely a disconnect between individual actions and outcomes, there are conscious choices being made that are increasingly recognized as being highly inimical to the continued existence of most life forms on this planet.

Given the global shock to the economy, cost will also be a key factor influencing decisions in the post COVID-19 world. Virtual conferencing is pre-eminently a cheaper alternative. Although not a perfect substitute for in-person meetings – it does come with advantages (e.g., lower resource requirements and better accessibility) as well as disadvantages (e.g., lacking informal exchanges).

“Another aspect is inclusivity  ̶  virtual conferencing affords people the opportunity to engage with relative ease (provided they have a sound internet connection), irrespective of their geographical location,” explains IIASA researcher Caroline Zimm.

Fellow researcher, Benigna Boza-Kiss, continues: “The virtual working world can be fruitful and effective, but we must be more strategic in how it is organized. Structured meetings with specific objectives planned in advance will allow for ineffectual activity and call-times, which similarly generate emissions, to be reduced.”

Notwithstanding these positives of a virtual working environment, there are some apprehensions, particularly regarding the impossibility of virtual platforms to meaningfully replicate certain types of social interactions, including those that occur outside structured sessions at conferences. Conversations beside the coffee machine, chinwags in the corridor, or even the post-work evening revelry – all such serendipitous moments and gainful interaction are considered invaluable in providing the ‘complete’ conference experience. Yet, the virtual world can offer other distinct advantages.

“In video calls and online conferencing platforms, it is not as daunting to ‘raise a hand’ or contact someone more senior. I have found that some people actually speak up more (often using the chat function) than they would in a physical conference setting. This means a shift in the networking dynamic and perhaps even greater inclusivity,” says Zimm.

The lightening of the carbon footprint of IIASA research ventures will likely be short-lived unless we make fundamental changes over the long-term. As the time window in which we can effectively act on climate change inexorably closes, it is imperative that we do more to attain the universal climate goals written into the Paris Agreement.

In light of this challenge, and considering the work of IIASA as a leader in environmental and sustainability studies, it feels appropriate to ask: Should the prevailing ethos of environmental institutes and practitioners therein openly acknowledge and embrace the responsibility to act as role models in reducing negative environmental impact? Put bluntly, should it be incumbent upon them to ‘walk the talk’? Are people more likely to respond to organizations and researchers that practice what they preach?

Many environmental institutes and researchers, at least nominally, would agree, but this purported espousal must be underpinned by concrete action. In 2019, IIASA joined forces with Climate Alliance Austria – an organization focusing on awareness-raising projects and activities to promote knowledge on climate issues and sustainable development. The IIASA-Climate Alliance mandate is to integrate climate protection and sustainability into everyday research.

To advance this philosophy, IIASA has formed an internal Environment Committee that focuses on nurturing more environmentally friendly processes and activities at the institute. To this end, the committee has organized an evaluation and is elaborating a strategy that includes developing Green Event Guidelines, powering IIASA with certified green electricity, and encouraging individual action with a ‘Bike to Work’ scheme.

For the most part however, these are all fledgling initiatives that require cultivation, top level support and leadership to ensure success. Moreover, these initiatives necessitate additional targeted and hard-hitting emission-mitigation strategies to avoid frustratingly commonplace ‘greenwashing’ and ensure decisive, positive internal climate action. More stringent measures, such as the institute’s proposed stricter sustainable procurement and travel policies, will arguably make a powerful and lasting contribution to this over-arching aim of “reconfiguring” IIASA as an employer that is doing all it can to implement and facilitate sustainable working practices for its entire workforce.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.