By Michel Spiro, President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and President of the Steering Committee for the proclamation of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development in 2022 (IYBSSD 2022)
A consortium of international scientific unions and scientific organizations’ plans to declare 2022 the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development are underway. Michael Spiro makes the case for why the world needs this now more than at any time in the past.
For almost a year and a half now, the world has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But how much worse could the situation have been without the progress and results produced for decades, even centuries, by curiosity-driven scientific research?
We deplore the many deaths due to COVID-19, and the future is still very uncertain, especially with the detection of new variants, some of which are spreading more quickly. But how could we have known that the infection was caused by a virus, what this virus looks like and what its genetic sequence and variations are without basic research?
Viruses were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the work of Frederick Twort, Félix d’Hérelle, and many others. The first electron microscope was built in the 1930s by Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll; and DNA sequencing began in the mid-1970s, notably with research by the groups of Frederick Sanger and Walter Gilbert.
Such a list could of course go on and on, with basic research at the root of countless tests, treatments, vaccines, and epidemiological modeling exercises. We even owe high-speed, long-distance communications, which allow us to coordinate the fight against the pandemic and reduce interruptions in education, economic activities, and even the practice of science, to the discovery and study of electromagnetic waves and optic fibers during the 19th century, and the development of algorithms and computers codes during the 20th century. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder (so harsh and brutal that we would have preferred to have been spared) of how much we rely on the continuous development of basic sciences for a balanced, sustainable, and inclusive development of the planet.
On many other issues, basic sciences have an important contribution to make to progress towards a sustainable world for all, as outlined in Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. They provide the essential means to address major challenges such as universal access to food, energy, and sanitation. They enable us to understand the impacts of the nearly eight billion people currently living on the planet, on the climate, life on Earth, and on aquatic environments, and to act to limit and reduce these impacts.
Indeed, unlike our use of natural resources, the development of the basic sciences is sustainable par excellence. From generation to generation, it builds up a reservoir of knowledge that subsequent generations can use to apply to the problems they will face, which we may not even know about today.
The International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) will focus on these links between basic sciences and the Sustainable Development Goals. It is proposed to be organized in 2022 by a consortium of international scientific unions and scientific organizations* led by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IIUPAP) with the recommendation of a resolution voted by the UNESCO General Conference during its 40th session in 2019. Over 50 national and international science academies and learned societies and around 30 Nobel Prize laureates and Fields Medalists also support this initiative. The Dominican Republic has agreed to propose a resolution for the promulgation of the IYBSSD during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, beginning in September 2021.
We very much hope that scientists, and all people interested in basic science, will mobilize around the planet and take this opportunity to convince all stakeholders – the general public, teachers, company managers, and policymakers – that through a basic understanding of nature, inclusive (especially by empowering more women) and collaborative well-informed actions will be more effective for the global common interest. As IIASA is one of the consortium’s founding partners, we especially invite all IIASA scientists, alumni, and colleagues they are collaborating with to create or join national IYBSSD 2022 committees to organize events and activities during this international year.
More information, as well as communication material, can be found at www.iybssd2022.org. This will also be shared through social media accounts (look for @iybssd2022 on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram). You are also invited to subscribe to the Newsletter here.
* Consortium members
The International Union of Crystallography (IUCr); the International Mineralogical Association (IMA); the International Mathematical Union (IMU); the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS); the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG); the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC); the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST); the International Union of Materials Research Societies (IUMRS); the International Union for Vacuum Science, Technique, and Applications (IUVSTA); the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); the French Research Institute for Development (IRD); the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA); the European Physical Society (EPS); the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR); the Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee (NuPECC); the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP); the International Science Council (ISC); Rencontres du Vietnam; the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR); the Square Kilometre Array Organization (SKAO); and SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East).
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 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.”
By Xu Wang, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus and Assistant Professor at Beijing University of Technology and Pallav Purohit, researcher in the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.
Xu Wang and Pallav Purohit write about their recent study in which they found that accelerating the transition to climate-friendly and energy-efficient air conditioning in the Chinese residential building sector could expedite building a low-carbon society in China.
China saw the fastest growth worldwide in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000 and reaching nearly 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity consumption in 2017. This growth was largely driven by increasing income and growing demand for thermal comfort. As a result, space cooling accounted for more than 10% of total electricity growth in China since 2010 and around 16% of peak electricity load in 2017. That share can reach as much as 50% of peak electricity demand on extremely hot days, as seen in recent summers. Cooling-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity consumption consequently increased fivefold between 2000 and 2017, given the strong reliance on coal-fired power generation in China .
In our recent publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, we used a bottom-up modeling approach to predict the penetration rate of room air conditioners in the residential building sector of China at the provincial level, taking urban-rural heterogeneity into account. Our results reveal that increasing income, growing demand for thermal comfort, and warmer climatic conditions, could drive an increase in the stock of room air conditioners in China from 568 million units in 2015 to 997 million units in 2030, and 1.1 billion units in 2050. In urban China, room air conditioner ownership per 100 households is expected to increase from 114 units in 2015 to 219 units in 2030, and 225 units in 2050, with slow growth after 2040 due to the saturation of room air conditioners in the country’s urban households. Ownership of room air conditioners per 100 households in rural China could increase from 48 units in 2015 to 147 units in 2030 and 208 units in 2050 .
The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer will help protect the climate by phasing down high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are commonly used as refrigerants in cooling technologies . Promoting energy efficiency of cooling technologies together with HFC phase-down under the amendment can significantly increase those climate co-benefits. It is in this context that we assessed the co-benefits associated with enhanced energy efficiency improvement of room air conditioners (e.g., using efficient compressors, heat exchangers, valves, etc.) and the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants in air conditioning systems. The annual electricity saving from switching to more efficient room air conditioners using low-GWP refrigerants is estimated at almost 1000 TWh in 2050 when taking account of the full technical energy efficiency potential. This is equivalent to approximately 4% of the expected total energy consumption in the Chinese building sector in 2050, or the avoidance of 284 new coal-fired power plants of 500 MW each.
Our results indicate that the cumulative greenhouse gas mitigation associated with both the electricity savings and the substitution of high-GWP refrigerants makes up 2.6% of total business-as-usual CO2 equivalent emissions in China over the period 2020 to 2050. Therefore, the transition towards the uptake of low-GWP refrigerants is as vital as the energy efficiency improvement of new room air conditioners, which can help and accelerate the ultimate objective of building a low-carbon society in China. The findings further show that reduced electricity consumption could mean lower air pollution emissions in the power sector, estimated at about 8.8% for sulfur dioxide (SO2), 9.4% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 9% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 2050 compared with a pre-Kigali baseline.
China can deliver significant energy savings and associated reductions in greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions in the building sector by developing and implementing a comprehensive national policy framework, including legislation and regulation, information programs, and incentives for industry. Energy efficiency and refrigerant standards for room air conditioning systems should be an integral part of such a framework. Training and awareness raising can also ensure proper installation, operation, and maintenance of air conditioning equipment and systems, and mandatory good practice with leakage control of the refrigerant during the use and end-of-life recovery. Improved data collection, research, and cooperation with manufacturers can equally help to identify emerging trends, technology needs, and energy efficiency opportunities that enable sustainable cooling.
 IEA (2019). The Future of Cooling in China: Delivering on Action Plans for Sustainable Air Conditioning, International Energy agency (IEA), Paris.
 Wang X, Purohit P, Höglund Isaksson L, Zhang S, Fang H (2020). Co-benefits of energy-efficient air conditioners in the residential building sector of China, Environmental Science & Technology, 54 (20): 13217–13227 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16823]
 Purohit P, Höglund-Isaksson L, Dulac J, Shah N, Wei M, Rafaj P, Schöpp W (2020). Electricity savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions from global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 20 (19): 11305-11327 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16768]
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 (IIASA).
By Rachel Potter, Communications Officer in the IIASA Communications and External Relations Department.
Several members of the IIASA Strategic Taskforce share their views on the bold new IIASA strategic agenda, how it came to be, and what it promises for the future.
What will the world look like in 2030 and beyond? We are living in extraordinary times and our rapidly transforming planet faces multiple global sustainability challenges, threats, and opportunities. How will research institutes like IIASA continue to make meaningful contributions to address these complex issues?
This is precisely what IIASA has been exploring over the past 18 months while formulating its strategic direction for the next 10 years. Through institute-wide consultations, a strategic taskforce was entrusted with coordinating the process that led to “Reducing footprints, enhancing resilience” – the institute’s ambitious new strategy for 2021-2030 that positions IIASA as the primary destination for integrated systems solutions and policy insights.
A bottom-up inclusive approach
The strategy consultation process was very different to those previously undertaken at IIASA. Acting Transitions to New Technologies Program Director and Energy Program researcher, Shonali Pachauri describes the rationale behind the process:
“While in the past strategic planning had largely been driven by the directorate and program directors, this time, mid-career scientists were to drive the process forward. It was not meant to be one researcher from each program on the taskforce, but it ended up being something like that, so we had a broad representation of disciplines from across the institute. The taskforce was responsible for developing the scientific content of the plan and we did this in an inclusive manner with input from staff through workshops, an online platform, and both informal and formal meetings.”
Reflecting our changing world
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015, are clearly reflected in the new strategy. Linda See, a researcher in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program, explains:
“We have always worked on sustainable development and transformations but this is now more of a focus compared to the previous strategy. The emphasis is on using our expertise as systems scientists to explore the interrelationships between different SDGs and how there can be synergies and trade-offs in different scenarios to achieve them.”
“Another key shift is that the new strategic plan takes a human-centered approach, placing more emphasis on how people are a core component of pathways towards sustainability and resilient societies,” adds World Population Program Deputy Program Director, Raya Muttarak.
Fellow taskforce member and Acting Water Program Director, Yoshihide Wada, agrees:
“This focus on social science, governance, and human behavior came out of our consultations with staff. IIASA researchers really want to go in this direction. People increasingly understand that with the climate and environmental goals in particular, it can’t only be technology and bioeconomy, it has to be about lifestyles as well, which means we need to strengthen our ability to analyze behavior and identify which levers to pull to encourage lifestyle changes.”
“There is also a stronger focus on biodiversity. The importance of this was borne out of the current COVID-19 crisis. Looking at the origin of the virus and how the pandemic has been aided by the loss of biodiversity – it’s evident that this is crucial,” adds Manager of Library and Knowledge Resources, Michaela Rossini.
Building on strong foundations for continued innovation
Taskforce members agree that the new strategy consolidates the unique strengths of IIASA while providing the space and flexibility for innovation.
“IIASA is unique not only because of our excellence in the fields of energy, environment, climate change, and ecosystems services but also because we have strong, empirically-based analyses and studies from social sciences, which can quantify and forecast relevant demographic, social, and economic dimensions in systems analysis,” says Muttarak.
“I think the new strategy pushes the interdisciplinarity at IIASA even further. The new program structure is very integrated. This is vital to facing today’s sustainability challenges. There are big aspirations in the strategy and it’s our responsibility to translate this into practice. As scientists, we have to be open to change and include elements that we may never have thought of. It makes things very interesting. It makes innovation happen,” Wada adds.
Pachauri explains that IIASA was created as a science-to-policy interface in 1972 and its purpose has always been to bridge divides: both between disciplines and across transnational boundaries. The new strategy really builds on this history. While the institute innovates a lot in terms of models and methods, this always happens through an applied lens of doing something that will ultimately feed into policy.
One of the institute’s key strengths is its relationships with its National Member Organizations and strong global network. These relationships are what make it possible to tackle the real-world problems society faces today. The flexibility to work across networks, countries, and different levels of government is strongly emphasized in the strategy.
A bit like family
According to Muttarak, the process of drawing up the new IIASA strategy has been a great opportunity to work with people from different programs and units. Not only has this allowed everyone involved to get to know their colleagues better, but it has also enhanced team members’ understanding of systems analysis and the importance of IIASA.
“It was challenging and rewarding, a bit like family!” comments Pachauri. “There was a lovely dynamism in the team and although we had a Chair, everyone had a chance to lead at various times in the process.”
“As the only non-scientist I found working on the taskforce invaluable – understanding more about IIASA research and getting to know scientists from across the institute has really enhanced my awareness of what they do and what their needs are going forward,” Rossini concludes.
The full IIASA Strategic Taskforce is comprised of: Luis Gomez Echeverri, Matthias Jonas, Mauricio A. Lopes, Junko Mochizuki, Raya Muttarak, Shonali Pachauri, Michaela Rossini, Linda See, Thomas Schinko, Yoshihide Wada, and Fabian Wagner.
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 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.