Perspectives on transforming food and land use systems for sustainable development

By Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager (FABLE) in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Food and land use systems play a critical role in managing climate risks and bringing the world onto a sustainable development trajectory.

The UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September seeks to catalyze further momentum for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The transformation of the food and land use system will play a critical role in managing climate risks and bringing the world onto a sustainable development trajectory.

Today’s food and land use systems are confronted with a great variety of challenges. This includes delivering on universal food security and better diets by 2030. Over the last decades, great strides have been made towards achieving universal food security, but this progress recently grinded to a halt. The number of people suffering from chronic hunger has been rising again from below 800 million in 2015 to over 820 million people today [1]. Food security is however not only about a sufficient supply of calories per person. It is also about improving diets, addressing the worldwide increase in the prevalence of obesity, and how we use and value environmental goods and services.

© Paulus Rusyanto | Dreamstime.com

Agriculture, forestry and other land use currently account for around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities [2]. Land use changes are also a major driver behind the worldwide loss of biodiversity [3]. Clearly, in light of population growth and the increasingly visible fingerprints of a human-induced global climate crisis and other environmental changes, business as usual is not an option.

Systems thinking is key in shifting towards more sustainable practices. A new report released by the Food and Land-Use System (FOLU) Coalition showcases that there is much to be gained. There are massive hidden costs in our current food and land use systems. The report outlines ten critical transitions, which can substantially reduce these hidden costs, thereby generating an economic prize, while improving human and planetary health.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) contributed to the analytics underpinning the report [4], applying the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) [5]. A “better futures” scenario, which seeks to collectively address development and environmental objectives, was compared to a “current trends” scenario, which is basically a continuation of a business-as-usual scenario. The assessment illustrates that an integrated approach that acknowledges the interactions in the food and land use space, can help identify synergies and manage trade-offs across sectors. For example, shifting towards healthy diets not only improves human health, but also reduces pressure on land, thereby helping to improve the solution space for addressing climate change and halting biodiversity loss.

While understanding that the global picture is important, practical solutions require engagement with national and subnational governments. The challenge is to identify development pathways that address the development needs and aspirations of countries within global sustainability contexts. As part of FOLU, the Food, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Land and Energy (FABLE) Consortium was initiated to do exactly this. The FABLE Secretariat, jointly hosted by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and IIASA, is working with knowledge institutions from developed and developing countries, to explore the interactions between national and global level objectives and their implications for pathways towards sustainable food and land use systems. Preliminary results from inter-active scenario and development planning exercises, so-called Scenathons, were recently presented in the FABLE 2019 report.

These initiatives highlight that acknowledging and embracing complexity can help reconcile development and environmental interests. This also entails rethinking how we relate to and manage nature’s services and their role in providing the foundation for the welfare of current and future generations. This is underscored by the prominent role nature-based solutions are given at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit. We need to move from silo-based, sector specific, single objective approaches to a focus on multiple objective solutions. In the land use space, this means embedding agriculture in the broader land use context, which accounts for and values environmental services, and linking to the food system where dietary choices shape human health and the demand for land.

Doing so will help bridge the international policy objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrined in ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. This represents an opportunity to create a new value proposition for agriculture and other land use activities where environmental stewardship is rewarded.

References

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) et al. (2019). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns. Rome, FAO.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2019). Climate Change and Land. IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

[3] Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (2018). The IPBES assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Montanarella, L., Scholes, R., and Brainich, A. (eds.). Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany. 744 pages.

[4] Deppermann, A. et al. 2019. Towards sustainable food and land-use systems: Insights from integrated scenarios of the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM). Supplemental Paper to The 2019 Global Consultation Report of the Food and Land Use Coalition Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use. Laxenburg, IIASA.

[5] Havlik P, Valin H, Herrero M, Obersteiner M, Schmid E, Rufino MC, Mosnier A, Thornton PK, et al. (2014). Climate change mitigation through livestock system transitions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (10): 3709-3714. DOI: 1073/pnas.1308044111 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/10970].

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.

Facilitating sustainable energy transitions at the top of the world

By Pallav Purohit, researcher with the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program

More than 300 million people in Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries still lack basic access to electricity. Pallav Purohit writes about recent research that looked into how the issue of energy poverty in the region can be addressed.

The Hindu Kush Himalayas is one of the largest mountain systems in the world, covering 4.2 million km2 across eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The region is home to the world’s highest peaks, unique cultures, diverse flora and fauna, and a vast reserve of natural resources.

Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 – has however been especially elusive in this region, where energy poverty is shockingly high. About 80% of the population don’t have access to clean energy and depend on biomass – mostly fuelwood – for both cooking and heating. In fact, over 300 million people in Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries still lack basic access to electricity, while vast hydropower potentials remain largely untapped. Although a large percentage of these energy deprived populations live in rural mountain areas that fall far behind the national access rates, mountain-specific energy access data that reflects the realities of mountain energy poverty barely exists.

Source: Wester et al. (2019)

The big challenge in this regard is to simultaneously address the issues of energy poverty, energy security, and climate change while attaining multiple SDGs. The growing sectoral interdependencies in energy, climate, water, and food make it crucial for policymakers to understand cross-sectoral policy linkages and their effects at multiple scales. In our research, we critically examined the diverse aspects of the energy outlook of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, including demand-and-supply patterns; national policies, programmes, and institutions; emerging challenges and opportunities; and possible transformational pathways for sustainable energy.

Our recently published results show that the region can attain energy security by tapping into the full potential of hydropower and other renewables. Success, however, will critically depend on removing policy-, institutional-, financial-, and capacity barriers that now perpetuate energy poverty and vulnerability in mountain communities. Measures to enhance energy supply have had less than satisfactory results because of low prioritization and a failure to address the challenges of remoteness and fragility, while inadequate data and analyses are a major barrier to designing context specific interventions.

In the majority of Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries, existing national policy frameworks currently primarily focus on electrification for household lighting, with limited attention paid to energy for clean cooking and heating. A coherent mountain-specific policy framework therefore needs to be well integrated in national development strategies and translated into action. Quantitative targets and quality specifications of alternative energy options based on an explicit recognition of the full costs and benefits of each option, should be the basis for designing policies and prioritizing actions and investments. In this regard, a high-level, empowered, regional mechanism should be established to strengthen regional energy trade and cooperation, with a focus on prioritizing the use of locally available energy resources.

© Kriangkraiwut Boonlom | Dreamstime.com

Some countries in the region have scaled up off-grid initiatives that are globally recognized as successful. We however found that the special challenges faced by mountain communities – especially in terms of economies of scale, inaccessibility, fragility, marginality, access to infrastructure and resources, poverty levels, and capability gaps – thwart the large-scale replication of several best practice innovative business models and off-grid renewable energy solutions that are making inroads into some Hindu Kush Himalayan countries.

This further highlights an urgent need to establish supportive policy, legal, and institutional frameworks as well as innovations in mountain-specific technology and financing. In addition, enhanced multi-stakeholder capacity building at all levels will be needed for the upscaling of successful energy programs in off-grid mountain areas.

Finally, it is important to note that sustainable energy transition is a shared responsibility. To accelerate progress and make it meaningful, all key stakeholders must work together towards a sustainable energy transition. The world needs to engage with the Hindu Kush Himalayas to define an ambitious new energy vision: one that involves building an inclusive green society and economy, with mountain communities enjoying modern, affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy to improve their lives and the environment.

References:

[1] Dhakal S, Srivastava L, Sharma B, Palit D, Mainali B, Nepal R, Purohit P, Goswami A, et al. (2019). Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In: The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. pp. 167-207 Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-4 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15666]

[2] Wester P, Mishra A, Mukherji A, Shrestha AB (2019). The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-4.

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.

Science without policy is science, but policy without science is gambling

By Géza Tóth, Sustainability Manager Tropical Oils, SBU Ferrero and IIASA alumnus

This famous sentence providing the catchy title for my blog and inspiration throughout my professional career comes from David Grey, who was one of my great mentors at IIASA.

During my seven years at the institute, I had the opportunity to work with several research programs where I had to find my way in various disciplines. Even though I was not the typical modeler, I was fortunate to work with patient tutors and great leaders who were supporting my development and triggering constructive thoughts. I was eager to learn about the crosscutting nature of global challenges and transversal opportunities. As a natural consequence, I found myself migrating between many IIASA programs and roles, constantly on the lookout for new challenges.

I completed a multidisciplinary PhD alongside my regular work at IIASA and changed titles and topics several times. I was into regional development and sustainability dynamics of post-war geographies where you cannot omit any influencing factors, whether it be political, environmental, or socioeconomic in nature. As I look back, I believe my overall results would not be complete without the flexibility and inclusiveness that I had the privilege of experiencing at IIASA.

When I moved into the food industry, I realized that everything I had learnt at IIASA, especially the systems thinking, come in handy when tackling the complex sustainability problems the industry faces. I have always liked connecting dots and fostering collaboration. While it is difficult to pitch policy-relevant research results, I believe there is a clear business case in bringing science and industry closer together.

© Nolimit46 | Dreamstime.com

Our global food supply chains are increasingly untraceable and so we have to connect a multitude of dots. Yet, industry is a very complex animal, driven by powerful shareholder corporations with a clear business agenda. IIASA can predict futures of our declining resources, influencing social aspects, even costs and required investments of businesses. Nevertheless, transforming industry does not depend on scientific facts and publications alone. What we need is to be able to translate scientific findings into innovations that will break current business rules or even disrupt them.

I feel that one of the biggest challenges of industry is to hear and understand the voice of science. Trading is a straightforward business where sustainability can be managed by compliance. As part of my responsibility of managing palm oil supply chain sustainability at Ferrero, I learned that in consumer goods manufacturing, consumers are the main drivers for Corporate Social Responsibility actions and their behavior and consumption patterns are changing.

Severe environmental destruction and unethical labor issues heavily affect the palm oil sector. The production and trade of agricultural commodities follow the rapidly increasing demand for food but, ironically, the amount of food waste and number of hungry people is also tipping. While European policymakers send contradicting messages about whether to eat palm oil or burn it in car engines, the destruction of ancient forests has reached unprecedented levels. Time is of the essence and science must have its voice heard in the language of industry, politicians and consumers. We cannot afford to work in silos. It is time to collaborate and finally link science with people.

The IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) is a unique platform and I am convinced that the positive impact it creates is enormous. Although I was never officially part of the YSSP, I interacted with the participants every year and felt like one of them. Highly skilled young thinkers come together from all around the world, influence and learn from each other under IIASA mentorship and are bound to end up in various disciplines and roles out there. They will surely know how to translate applied science into the right language and channel.

As a family-owned global company, Ferrero is one of the few businesses that is able to make long-term systematic plans and has a successful history of working with a forward looking and constructive vision. Its potential to be a lighthouse model for the industry is enormous and thus its responsibility too. It should therefore come as no surprise that supporting the YSSP program was a natural first step in Ferrero’s collaboration with IIASA.

It is not easy to explain what IIASA does and how it is relevant for the industry. It is equally difficult to illustrate it with good examples. IIASA scientists have however been helping me a lot to identify appropriate channels. I hope there will be more outputs from IIASA in the future that translate science into the business case allowing us in the industry sector to connect more dots.

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.

Dance and science: A graceful partnership for change

By Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Co-Artistic Director of Boston Dance Theater

I recently had the privilege of artistically collaborating on Dancing with the Future, a project spearheaded by Gloria Benedikt and Piotr Magnuszewski of IIASA with Martin Nowak of Harvard University. The process involved five dancers joining two scientists to create an evening-length performance-debate that toured to Harvard University’s Farkas Hall and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University this fall. The essence of this interdisciplinary project was a product of Nowak’s published research on altruism and evolution. Nowak proposes: “Evolution is not only a fight. Not mere competition. Also cooperation, cooperation is the master architect of evolution. Now that we have reached the limits of our planet, can you cooperate with the future?”

The cast from left to right: Hannah Kickert, Gloria Benedikt, Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Mimmo Miccolis, Henoch Spinola © Daniel Kruganov

What can I do to contribute to a global effort to create sustainable practices that yield cooperation with the future? Why do I dance and what kind of impact does my dancing have on my environment and myself? As a co-artistic director, entrepreneur, choreographer, and performing artist of the young and fast-growing contemporary dance company Boston Dance Theater (BDT), I am turning to projects that are on the innovative cross-section between the arts, technology, and other disciplines because they have the most potential to have meaningful impact on the level of the creative team, the audience, and beyond. I too, am searching for practices and partnerships for BDT that yield pathways for collective problem solving, or ‘super-cooperation’. As Nowak notes, “[evolutionarily speaking] humans are super-cooperators.”

Overall, Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that scientists, dancers, and policymakers can successfully sit at the same table (or in the same theater or conference hall), tackle the same issues, and productively collaborate toward unearthing sustainable solutions.

We all had to be open to compromises — this is not an easy task in a room full of expert-leaders. I set a mantra for myself to remember that we were creating something completely new. Each time my choreographer-dancer brain sent up a red flag, I chose selectively when to share my opinion with the group. I elected to practice the Buddhist teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, captured poetically in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This choice opened others and myself up to creative and peaceful solutions that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

Conversely, I was able to offer constructive solutions at moments when working with the scientific material seemed to overwhelm the studio process, for example, dividing the existing text and music into segments and giving each of those segments a specific choreographic task that related to the content of the scientific text. This was a very simple concept that had to do with pacing and sculpting time. Once we counted out the music, it was easy for us to construct the movement score and see the overall arc of the piece.

Rehearsal with Martin Nowak © Daniel Kruganov

I learned not to be afraid of using my voice and also listening deeply. It was, at first, very intimidating to be seated across from experts in fields outside of my own. I learned that scientists and policymakers can understand, respect, and respond to the decisions I make through a process of peaceful negotiation, even when we speak different languages, were born on different continents, and may have varying political opinions. My fear was ultimately unnecessary because the very nature of this project appeals to the humanity in us all.

This form of cross-disciplinary collaboration allows participants to see our own work in a new light and to discover new languages that are exciting because we have co-authored them. For the work to be successful, the dance, science, and debate components must all have equal weight and value. Otherwise, the movement and its choreographic structure becomes the visual representation of the science rather than an equal partner. When that happens, the magic of innovative collaboration falls flat into familiar territory.

During the process, we often referred to this Chinese proverb: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Dancers understand this concept in a very concrete and visceral way. For scientists, policymakers, or the general audience to understand too, they must be involved as much as possible in the process of what we are doing. If we cannot for reasons of practicality, have them with us in the studio, then we must bring them into the process in another way. It is only by involving them as collaborators that we can generate large scale, super-cooperation.

Sometimes it feels like my dancer colleagues and I exist in a vacuum: we rehearse in the confines of the studio and historically perform on stages that make us appear as ‘other’ from the people we are performing for. Western concert dance has received criticism for being an inaccessible art form and according to the 2016 report from The Boston Foundation, is the most under-funded of Boston’s performing arts. Dancers aren’t typically trained to speak about their work, and often have a hard time receiving criticism. Contemporary dance in particular, can be challenging to general audience members because the language of the art and its conceptual frameworks are sometimes not evident in the work itself — many choreographers feel creatively stifled when asked to explain their work in language and wonder why the art work can’t speak for itself.

I have come to learn that these problems are not unique to dance. After our premiere of Dancing with the Future at Harvard University, scientists thanked me for helping them to understand new meaning within the scientific research presented through my performance. Their experience of live performance elicited a keen sense of empathy that drew them into deeper understanding of the scientific findings. This collaboration yielded a tri-fold, reciprocal impact for the artists, for the scientists, and for the public.

The cast in action © Daniel Kruganov

Our work helped to bridge the traditional gap between creative team and general audience member. It can be that when a member of the public enjoys a performance, they leave the venue with a good feeling and a nice memory as a souvenir. I believe that our art form has the power to do more — to make a greater impact and to be appreciated as an inherent and necessary aspect of our society and culture.

It is our civic responsibility to continue workshopping solutions toward global cooperation and cooperation with future generations. Dancing with the Future has encouraged me, on a micro scale, that this is a reasonable and plausible endeavor. With continued care, attention toward our common goals, compassion, listening, and risk-taking, we can understand one another through the process of creation regardless of what language we speak or where we were born. The next steps may be small, but nonetheless crucial. Next season, Boston Dance Theater will commission new works by three international choreographers with the stipulation that the pieces must speak to pressing global issues, and cross-disciplinary collaboration will be a cornerstone of that production.

Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that partnerships with super-cooperators such the teams at IIASA and Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics can bring meaningful potential to catalyze change in me as an individual and in Boston Dance Theater as an organization, while enabling us to reach our extended communities. I can’t wait for the next project!

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.

Climate risks, limits, and a need for transformational adaptation

By Reinhard Mechler, Deputy Program Director, IIASA Risk and Resilience Program

IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just approved its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15). It took long hours of discussions between the body of authors and representatives from about 130 IPCC member states gathered at the approval session in Korea, to get the highly anticipated report accepted. The report was requested by parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015, that urged parties to limit warming to “well below” 2°C and pursue efforts towards 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels. Countries that are severely vulnerable to climate change such as small-island states, expressed a particular need for the report. The drafted text of the summary for policymakers (SPM) remained largely intact throughout the approval session and the science was well respected by the parties (as has generally been the case for the IPCC). This bodes well for the IPCC’s process of reporting the most up to date information on climate science to national and international decision makers who closely review and comment on drafts of texts throughout the writing process.

The report, composed of five chapters and the SPM, discusses among other topics whether the Paris target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperature is still achievable; what the risks we face are at 1.5°C and 2°C of warming; what this will mean in terms of mitigation and adaptation; and what the synergies are between mitigation, adaptation and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Below my take on how the SR15 answers some of these questions:

A stark warning… and indeed half a degree does make a difference

The world is on its way to breaching 1.5°C by around the 2040s, which will lead to further warming if current greenhouse gas emissions trends prevail and current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are not upgraded. Warming can still be stabilized at 1.5°C, but it is an ambitious target that depends on halving emissions over the next 10 years and becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

The report shows that we are already seeing serious consequences of a 1°C warming in the form of significant increases in some weather-related extreme events (such as the frequency, intensity, and/or amount of heavy precipitation in several regions), exacerbated sea level rise, and other effects on important terrestrial and oceanic systems. In terms of future warming, the report shows that a half-degree change, which we have actually seen over the last 50 years, indeed makes a difference. Risks will be higher than today at 1.5°C and will further increase at 2°C (and beyond).

Adaptation and its limits: A need for transformation?

In light of the above, adaptation is essential and needs to be ramped up. However, for the first time, the IPCC presents evidence on hard and soft limits to adaptation, of which some would already be reached at 1.5°C. Statement B6 of the SPM reads: “Most adaptation needs will be lower for global warming of 1.5°C compared to 2°C (high confidence). There are a wide range of adaptation options that can reduce the risks of climate change (high confidence). There are limits to adaptation and adaptive capacity for some human and natural systems at global warming of 1.5°C, with associated losses (medium confidence).”

So, what should we do in terms of adaptation in light of pervasive risks becoming increasingly severe and ultimately breaching adaptation limits? Statement A3.3 of the SPM suggests that, “Future climate-related risks would be reduced by the upscaling and acceleration of far-reaching, multi-level, and cross sectoral climate mitigation and by both incremental and transformational adaptation (high confidence).”

Throughout the document, the SR15 discusses what is needed in terms of standard adaptation (incremental) and transformational adaptation. An example of incremental adaptation is to continue building sea walls to manage increasing flooding from sea level rise. Adapting community and regional planning so that people, key assets, and buildings are moved out of harm’s way on the other hand, would be rather transformational–and often have a holistic and systemic component. The report also shows that more effort will be needed to better understand what transformational risk management processes may entail concretely.

Transformation: What does it take? 

Transformational adaptation may not always be needed uniformly across the globe, but as the report shows, communities in regions vulnerable to sea-level rise risk, flooding, heat, and drought already clearly need significant support, and in a 1.5°C or 2°C world, much more would be needed. The report also shows that increasing investment in physical and social infrastructure is a key enabler of necessary transformations that enhance the resilience of communities and societies. Upgrading climate adaptation efforts will be fundamental to absorbing some climate change impacts and not critically affecting the achievement of the SDGs. What is more, the SR15 points out that the coordinated pursuit of climate resilience and development is the way forward to achieving the ambitious mitigation and adaptation targets set out, while seeking achievement of development goals such as those formulated in the 17 SGDSs.

Implications

Among others, three main implications for adaption (and climate risk) science, policy, and practice can be drawn:

  1. Climate-related risks are becoming pervasive and significant with climatic change: The Paris call for limiting warming to 1.5°C should be heeded and remain the target for ambitious climate mitigation policy in order to avoid some risks from becoming irreversible and hard adaptation limits manifesting themselves.
  2. Climate-related risks are becoming pervasive due to gaps in human, physical, financial, natural, and social capacity/capitals, and increased and targeted investments to strengthen these will be needed to push soft adaptation limits out.
  3. Systemic approaches are needed to tackle high-level risks and consider synergies between adaptation, mitigation, and the SDGs as standard adaptation and disaster risk reduction may not be enough. Transformational approaches requiring large-scale and systemic change are useful in this regard.

The open question…

The final, open question for all of us is of course whether the report can be more than another wake-up call and truly be a game-changer for limiting warming to 1.5°C while ramping up adaptation efforts. The science is there. Broad-based dissemination efforts with policymakers and advisors, experts, the private sector, and civil society are being rolled out. The political will to live up to the massive mitigation and adaptation challenges needs to follow now. Little time remains, and if we truly want to limit warming to 1.5°C and mitigate the associated risks, we need to take decisive and bold steps towards carbon-neutrality and climate-resilience now.

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.

Education in, through, and for sustainable development

By Stephanie Bengtsson, researcher in the IIASA World Population Program

In the months after finishing my doctorate, I would often find myself having some variation of the following conversation upon meeting someone new, particularly in a social context:

New person: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “Actually, I’ve just finished my doctorate.”
New person [impressed]: “Wow! In what field?”
Me: “Education.”
New person [after a long pause]: “Oh.”

The tone of that “oh” has stayed with me in the years since: “You can get a doctorate in education?”, that little word seemed to say, following up with: “What does that involve? Stacking ABC blocks and looking through picture books? It can’t possibly be as challenging as a doctorate in a real subject, like economics or neuroscience.”

Many of my education colleagues around the world have had similar experiences, especially those who, like me, work primarily in the field of development. At the same time, the global news media is rife with articles about ‘failing’ school systems, a dwindling ‘supply’ of qualified teachers, ‘underperforming’ teachers, low Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, and more, as the international community searches for quick-fix solutions with easily quantifiable measures of progress to address these problems, often outside the realm of education research. Generally, within the dominant development discourse, the aim of these solutions is clear: to increase attainment and improve student test scores, particularly in the so-called STEM subjects (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), in order to build human capital and subsequently grow and sustain the labor market and economy. In other words, improvements to education are typically justified only to the extent that they will increase education’s instrumental value (leading to improvements in other sectors), rather than its intrinsic value.

As such, those of us working in international educational development often find ourselves caught in a paradox, as our sector has been (and continues to be) simultaneously under-appreciated in terms of the contribution it can make to other aspects of development and wellbeing (and subsequently under-prioritized), and over-emphasized in its role as a tool of development when it does make it onto the agenda. We therefore frequently find ourselves having to first ‘make the business case’ for education by proving its instrumental value before beginning any research or development project, in a way that would be considered ludicrous in, for instance, the sectors of health and nutrition. Once we have successfully argued that case, the pressure is on to measure inputs and narrowly-defined short-term outcomes, leaving little time to examine complex educational processes and longer-term impacts of education.

In late September 2015, Heads of State and High Representatives from around the world committed to a new sustainable development agenda consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 accompanying targets. The framing document for the SDGs, UN Resolution 70/1, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, envisions an important role for education within this agenda, both as an end and a powerful means of development:

“All people, irrespective of sex, age, race, ethnicity, and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, especially those in vulnerable situations, should have access to life-long learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and to participate fully in society. We will strive to provide children and youth with a nurturing environment for the full realization of their rights and capabilities, helping our countries to reap the demographic dividend including through safe schools and cohesive communities and families.” (UN 2015, article 25)

For those of us working in international educational development, the SDGs thus represent a significant step forward from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as an opportunity to encourage the wider development community to engage with and invest in a shared vision for equitable, inclusive, quality lifelong learning opportunities.

In our new book, The Role of Education in Enabling the Sustainable Development Agenda, my colleagues and I conduct an extensive critical review of literature from a range of disciplines, attempting to find answers to these fundamental questions about the value of education and the dynamic nature of the relationship between education and development. We engage with the argument put forward in the capabilities approach to development that the capability to be educated is, in and of itself, an important freedom, and a fundamental aspect of human wellbeing. Given that processes of teaching and learning are a natural and defining characteristic of human society, we argue that education is most successful at contributing to sustainable development across all dimensions at once if, rather than being crafted as an instrument to achieve a specific and narrow development objective – no matter how worthy – education is improved on its own terms, and as an end in itself.

We also draw from recent work by the economist Kate Raworth, which attempts to connect the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, by combining social justice work with planetary boundaries research in order to define a space within which humanity can survive and thrive:

“Between a social foundation that protects against critical human deprivations, and an environmental ceiling that avoids critical natural thresholds, lies a safe and just space for humanity [. . .] where both human wellbeing and planetary wellbeing are assured, and their interdependence is respected.” (Raworth 2012, p. 7)

This book builds on work we carried out for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, and shares in UNESCO’s urgent sense of purpose to demonstrate not only “the potential for education to propel progress towards all global goals”, but also that “education needs a major transformation to fulfil that potential and meet the current challenges facing humanity and the planet” (UNESCO n.d., n.p.). At no point do we claim to be providing the definitive account of the role of education in the sustainable development agenda; rather, we hope that our book will inspire critical reflection, engagement, and, above all, learning, among a wide audience of scholars, students, policymakers, and practitioners alike.

References
Harber, C. (2014). Education and international development: Theory, practice and issues. Oxford: Symposium Books.
Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Paper. Oxford: Oxfam.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.
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