By Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Director of The World In 2050 and Emeritus Research Scholar at IIASA
IIASA Emeritus Scholar Nebojsa Nakicenovic explains how the societal disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic can offer an opportunity for a more sustainable and innovative future.
While the future of humanity has always been unpredictable, major challenges — like the current pandemic — have been an inevitable part of our shared history. What is different now, however, is that human beings have become the dominant force of planetary change. In other words, the Anthropocene has arrived, and with it an unprecedented opportunity to steer our collective future.
Science, technology, and innovation (STI) are the drivers of this change, and can also be the means of achieving a sustainable, equitable, and resilient future for both human civilization and the biosphere. These tools, however, need to be complemented with the necessary evolutions of our economies, public institutions, and behavioral norms. The rapid rise in inequality and resource consumption over the last few decades, for example, has led to increasing pressure on people and the planet in ways that are clearly unsustainable. It is within this context that the COVID-19 pandemic could become a disruptive event that triggers fundamental change toward a more desirable future for all.
Human history is rich with other instances of rapid social and environmental evolution, from the agricultural turn of the Neolithic Revolution some ten thousand years ago to the explosive changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. However, it was the ‘great acceleration’ of the last 50 years, characterized by exponential growth of consumption and rapid degradation of planetary support systems, that brought us to the geophysical limits of our home world for the first time. These rapid developments were neither smooth nor pervasive, and were interlaced with many crises, wars and pandemics, natural disasters, and numerous other disruptive events. Yet over the last 200 years we’ve seen a 7x increase in the global population, a 100x increase in economic output, and a 20x increase in carbon dioxide emissions.
Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash
In the aftermath of major crises that caused deep disruption, loss of life, and the destruction of capital and jobs, a ‘new normal’ eventually emerged — the major depressions of the 1870s and 1930s, as well as the oil crisis of the 1970s, are just three examples among many. Events like these arguably amplified the limits and disadvantages of the ‘old’ and paved the way for the ‘new’, with each crisis catalyzing innovation and the re-direction of human activities towards a fundamentally new direction. Today, we might say that each caused a tipping point that led to new development and behavioral pathways.
The COVID-19 pandemic, one of the greatest threats to human societies in recent memory, can be seen as a similarly catalytic event. While history does not repeat itself, there are many similarities in the response strategies to earlier pandemics such as the Black Plague of the middle ages and the Spanish Flu of the 1920s, including policies of ‘social distancing’ and isolation and barriers of entry to those from ‘outside’. Even the word quarantine (meaning ‘forty days’ in Venetian) was first coined during the plague epidemic of the 14th century.
Photo by Cheng Feng on Unsplash
Today’s crisis, as in the past, has revealed the worst parts of our nature, as with the callous exclusion of the needy, homeless, and migrants from the emerging responses, as well as the hoarding of perceived scarce goods by the well-off. At the same time, the pandemic has brought out some of the best human characteristics: self-sacrifice in helping others, renewed empathy and solidarity, and unprecedented global cooperation within science and between governments as we work to stem the worst of the pandemic.
Moreover, there is mounting evidence that the partial shut-down of the global economy has had demonstrably positive effects on the environment, such as reduced emission levels, lower pollution, and a resurgence in wildlife. While an economic depression is by no means a viable mitigation strategy for climate change and other pressing environmental issues, these data make clear that the right policies and priority investments in STI could have immediate and significant effects in our efforts to transition to a sustainable world.
Many scientists, policymakers, and other stakeholders are already working to leverage this current moment of opportunity into lasting change. The World in 2050, a global research agenda aiming to help reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, offers six transformations that outline essential STI, institutional, and behavioral synergies to achieve the new direction for human development while providing critical support for the most vulnerable among us. The Earth Commission, a group of leading scientists convened by Future Earth, is working to underpin the development of science-based targets for systems like land, water, and biodiversity in order to guide companies and cities towards sustainable pathways, as many thought leaders are beginning to reconsider the stability and efficiency of our current economic systems. Thomas Piketty, for example, has recently proposed that every person should receive $120,000 at age of 25 to enable innovative initiatives among those who lack the capital to do so. Bold efforts like these will become increasingly necessary as we work towards a new set of planetary operating parameters that will ensure an equitable and sustainable future for all.
Our response to COVID-19 could help redirect trillions of dollars towards this agenda. While current measures aim to preserve existing institutional and economic arrangements, we should press decision makers to actively channel these funds into the drivers of innovation to bring about the future we want to live in. This deep and ongoing crisis may destroy some of the ‘old’ characteristics of this moment in human history, and could bring about the transformations in sustainability that will enable us to build a better future for all life here on Earth. The risk is that exactly the opposite will happen — and that is a risk that humanity cannot afford to take.
How can we address the data gaps for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? What is the potential of citizen science to track progress on the SDGs as a new source of data? How can we harness citizen science data effectively for evidence-based policymaking and SDG achievement?
These were just some of the questions we had in mind when we started research into the contributions of citizen science to SDG monitoring at the Sustainable Solutions Development Network (SDSN) Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS). We were aware that citizen science has a role to play, but we didn’t know what the extent of that role would be. We wanted to show where exactly the real potential of citizen science lies in the global SDG indicator framework and also to understand what we can do to bring all the key players together to fully realize this potential.
Our most remarkable finding was that citizen science could contribute to the achievement of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by providing data for 33% of all SDG indicators. There are currently 247 SDG indicators that are defined in an evolving framework that includes 17 goals and 169 targets. This has huge potential.
We first investigated the metadata and work plans of all the SDG indicators and then searched for citizen science initiatives at global, national, and even local scales that could potentially contribute data to the monitoring of these indicators. This work was carried out with volunteer members of the SDGs and Citizen Science Community of Practice (SDGs CoP) that was launched a year and a half ago for the WeObserve project.
We also looked at the overlap between contributions from citizen science and earth observations in our study. Based on the mapping exercise GEO undertook of the 29 indicators identified, citizen science could support 24. This shows great potential for citizen science and earth observation approaches to complement each other. One example would be Picture Pile ̶ a flexible tool that ingests imagery from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or geotagged photos for rapid assessment and classification.
In Picture Pile, the volunteers are provided with a pair of images taken at different times and asked whether they see any tree loss (to identify deforestation), damaged buildings after a disaster (for post disaster damage assessment), marine plastics (to understand the extent of plastics problem), or to assess levels of poverty (to map poverty), among others. Picture Pile combines earth observation and citizen science approaches that could be used for monitoring some SDG indicators. To name but a few: 1.5.2 Direct economic loss attributed to disasters in relation to global gross domestic product (GDP); 11.1.1 Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements, or inadequate housing; 14.1.1b Floating plastic debris density; and 15.1.1 Forest area as a proportion of total land area. Exploring and realizing this potential of citizen science and earth observation is one of our priorities at the GEO Community Activity on Citizen Science (GEO-CITSCI).
Thanks to this study, we now know which initiatives could be leveraged to contribute to SDG monitoring, and we have the groundwork to show to project teams, National Statistical Offices, and custodian agencies to start discussions around how to realize it fully.
The SDG indicators where citizen science projects are “already contributing” (in green), “could contribute” (in yellow) or where there is “no alignment” (in grey). The overall citizen science contributions to each SDG are summarized as pie charts. Black borders around indicators show the overlap between citizen science and EO, as identified by GEO (2017).
The Picture Pile application (both online and for mobile devices) is designed to be a generic and flexible tool for ingesting imagery that can then be rapidly classified by volunteers. Picture Pile, IIASA.
Another important finding of our work was that the greatest potential for citizen science ̶ when existing and potential future contributions are combined ̶ could occur respectively in SDG 15 (Life on Land), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). This shows that citizen science has the greatest potential for input to the environmental SDG indicators.
In order to effectively monitor and ultimately achieve the SDGs, traditional ways of data collection such as censuses or household surveys will not be sufficient. Additionally, they will also be too expensive to cover the wide range of the SDGs with its 169 targets and 247 indicators on a regular basis. We urgently need to act on the results of this study, and to utilize the potential of new ways of data collection such as citizen science, if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030, but how? Where do we start?
We need to keep working on demonstrating the value of citizen science in the global data ecosystem through initiatives such as the WeObserve the SDGs CoP, building partnerships around citizen science data involving all the stakeholders, and encouraging investment to leverage the use of citizen science data for the SDGs. We should develop case studies and success stories about the use of citizen science by NSOs and design the citizen science initiatives with NSOs and other government agencies to ensure that their data quality requirements are met.
I believe it is important to mention that citizen science is not only a source of data that could fill gaps, but it is also a great way to mobilize action and get everyone on board to play their part in addressing the world’s greatest challenges by engaging the public in scientific research. Working together, we can harness the potential of citizen science to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
By Raquel Guimaraes, postdoc in the IIASA World Population Program, and Debbora Leip, an alumnus of the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program
IIASA researcher Raquel Guimaraes and former research assistant Debbora Leip encourage the support of the Cercedilla Manifesto, arguing that it is high time for the scientific community to take responsibility and set an example by making research meetings more sustainable.
The research community widely agrees that strong action is needed to counteract the climate crisis that is currently taking place. Nevertheless, scientists regularly meet at conferences that are often far from sustainable. Problems range from participants flying to attend events, to unnecessary gadgets and gifts handed out at the meetings, and unsustainable catering at conference dinners. In light of the current public debate on environmental and social sustainability, we call on scientists to take a leading role in changing their work practices towards more sustainable habits, starting with research meetings.
In April 2020, Alberto Sanz-Cobena and several colleagues published an article titled Research meetings must be more sustainable in Nature Foods. They presented the Cercedilla Manifesto with 12 sustainability decisions as guidelines for organizers and attendees of research meetings (see Figure 1). The starting point of the manifesto is to question whether a physical meeting is indeed necessary. If organizers decide that it is, there is still the question of whether each single attendee really needs to physically join the conference. Often, remote participation can be equally efficient if a technical solution is provided by the organizers. Furthermore, if a decision to conduct a physical meeting is taken, organizers have to consider what food will be served.
The authors state that excessive amounts of food and food waste are very common at meetings, which makes a change of mindset towards better food management very important, not only for climate change, but for many other environmental threats. In our opinion, this point has so far been neglected in public debate.
Given the urgency for climate change action and the need for individuals to play an active role – with research scientists taking the lead – we assert that it is urgent to start changing our habits and setting an example regarding environmental and social sustainability in research meetings. Indeed, many of us take it for granted that to meet and discuss our work, we must travel. Most attendees do not even question that unnecessary gadgets and gifts are distributed or that opulent dinners are provided.
We hope that the Cercedilla Manifesto will raise awareness about the fact that good scientific output often does not require a physical meeting by providing a conceptual framework for change in this regard. If we support the manifesto, we stand a chance to lower the barrier to dare deviating from currently applied practices. The 12-sustainability decisions were designed by specialists to serve as a reference for anybody who wishes to organize/attend a sustainable meeting.
In the current situation brought about by the global COVID-19 crisis, almost everybody has experienced that remote conferences are not only possible, but also efficient – sometimes even more so than a physical meeting would have been. First, it saves time in terms of travel. Second, it may be more inclusive by allowing people to attend, who would not have had the opportunity to join otherwise, be it for financial, family, or other reasons. In addition, remote meetings provide additional features, like a chat function that could add another discussion layer.
Of course, remote meetings also have their limitations: informal in-person meetings during coffee breaks, for example, can enhance networking and free discussions, and sometimes contribute significantly to a meeting’s outcome. Virtual meetings also face several other challenges, such as participation by attendees from different time zones, or poor internet connections. These issues could however easily be addressed by spreading the meeting over more days, in such a way that the need for attendance outside of acceptable time slots is minimized, and by investing saved traveling costs into better equipment.
Let us learn from this experience and not go ‘back to normal’ after the COVID-19 crisis. We should take this as an opportunity to speed up change and tackle the other global crisis of climate change!
Sanz-Cobena A, Alessandrini R, Bodirsky BL, Springmann M, Aguilera E, Amon B, Bartolini F, Geupel M, et al. (2020). Research meetings must be more sustainable. Nature Food1, 187–189. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-020-0065-2
As researchers, the majority of our work – even if it is applied research – requires deep insight and plenty of reading and writing, which sometimes takes years. When we initiate a new method development project, for example, we never know if it will eventually prove to be useful in real life, except on very rare occasions when we are willing to step out of our academic comfort zones and explore if we are able to address the challenges that decision makers are faced with right now.
I would like to encourage my colleagues and our network to try and answer the call when decision makers ask for our help. It however requires courage to produce fast results with no time for peer review, to explore the limits of our knowledge and capabilities of our tools, and to run the risk of failure.
I share two examples with you in this blog. The first one describes a situation that played out years ago, while the second one is happening today.
When the first signs of a potential refugee crisis became visible late in 2014, the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office contacted the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program (ASA) and asked whether we could produce an analysis for them. The ASA team had an idea to develop a new method for qualitative systems analysis based on an application of causal-loop-diagrams and we decided to test the approach with an expert team of 14 people from different Finnish ministries. I have to admit that the process was not exactly the best example of rigorous science, but it was able to produce results in only eight weeks.
“Experts that participated in the process from the government side accepted that the process was a pilot and exploratory in nature. In the end, the group was however able to develop a shared language for the different aspects of the refugee situation in Finland. The method produced comprised a shared understanding of the events and their interdependencies and we were able to assess the systemic impact of different policies, including unintended consequences. That was a lot in that situation,” said Sari Löytökorpi, Secretary General and Chief Specialist of the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office when reflecting on that experience recently.
The second case I want to describe here is the current coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 virus reached Finland at the end of January when a Chinese tourist was diagnosed. The first fatality in Finland was recorded on 20 March. This time, the challenge we are presented with is to look beyond the pandemic. The two research questions presented to us by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Economic Affairs are: ‘How can the resilience of the national economy be enhanced in this situation?’ and secondly ‘What will the world look like after the pandemic?’
Pekka Lindroos, Director of Foresight and Policy Planning in the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs is confident, “We know that the pandemic will have a huge impact on the economy. The global outcome of current national policy measures is a major unknown and traditional economic analysis is not able to cover the dynamics of the numerous dimensions of the rupture. That is why we are exploring a combination of novel qualitative analysis and foresight methods with researchers in the IIASA ASA Program.”
I have been working on the implementation of the systems perspective to the coronavirus situation with a few close colleagues around the world who are experts in resilience and risk. We were able to deliver the first report on Friday, 27 March. Among other things, it emphasized the role of social capital and society’s resilience. A more detailed report is currently in production.
A simple systems map (causal loop diagram) representing a preliminary understanding of the world after COVID-19 from a one country perspective.
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.
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 . 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.
Agriculture, forestry and other land use currently account for around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities . Land use changes are also a major driver behind the worldwide loss of biodiversity . 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 , applying the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) . 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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.
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.
 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]