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Coordinating global scientific responses to societal and environmental challenges

A new 10-year international collaborative project, the Earth System Sustainability Initiative, will provide global coordination for science to respond to the most compelling challenges facing our societies in this era of global environmental change.

The initiative will deliver solution-oriented research on global environmental change for sustainability and provide support for actions towards sustainability through an integrated approach based on the active involvement of a broad range of stakeholders.

Prof. Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre, and co-Chair of the team that is overseeing design and early implementation of the initiative, described the sense of urgency behind the initiative:

“The current pace and magnitude of human-induced global change is unprecedented, and is manifest in increasingly dangerous threats to societies and well-being. Climate change and biodiversity loss are only two examples of processes occurring at unsustainable rates.

“Effective responses to all these threats to world development require a new way of doing research.”

Prof. Diana Liverman, the other team co-Chair and co-Director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, explained the initiative’s fundamental importance:

“The research strategy of this initiative will link global environmental change and fundamental human development questions. Global environmental change is substantively affecting everybody’s life, our ability to access food, water, energy, our vulnerability to hazardous events, and ultimately our ability to eradicate poverty.

“Only by actively engaging natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, can we provide a full understanding of global change, of its impacts on people, and of people’s responses to it.”

Collaboration for sustainable development

Initiated by the International Council for Science (ICSU), collaboration with other international organizations with similar processes and mandates has strengthened the basis of the initiative, which has been established in collaboration with the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the Belmont Forum of funding agencies, and United Nations programmes UNEP, UNU and UNESCO. Its establishment was approved in September at the ICSU General Assembly in Rome and will be launched next June, at the United Nations Rio+20 conference, when policy- and decision-makers from across the world will gather to explore new pathways to sustainable development.

Prof. Yuan T Lee, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and incoming ICSU President, stressed the value of collaboration:

“For the first time on a global scale we can talk about effectively co-designed research on global environmental change, with researchers, donors and users working hand-in-hand to define goals and priorities upfront. This new broad partnership will ensure a step-change in international research coordination. ICSU and its Members, representing the global scientific community, are fully committed and ready to promote this new effort that will further strengthen international science for the benefit of society.”

Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: The Grand Challenges

This interdisciplinary initiative arises from the ICSU-led Earth System Visioning process, a three-year consultation with researchers and research users that concluded last February. The consultation identified a set of five overarching Grand Challenges on Earth system research for global sustainability:

  • Challenge 1: Forecasting
    Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.
  • Challenge 2: Observing
    Develop, enhance and integrate the observation systems needed to manage global and regional environmental change.
  • Challenge 3: Confining
    Determine how to anticipate, recognize, avoid and manage disruptive global environmental change.
  • Challenge 4: Responding
    Determine what institutional, economic and behavioural changes can enable effective steps toward global sustainability.
  • Challenge 5: Innovating
    Encourage innovation (coupled with sound mechanisms for evaluation) in developing technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability.

Further reading

  • Earth System Sustainability Initiative: full details of the initiative with downloadable documents including The Grand Challenges and a conceptual note on the goal and criteria for the initiative.

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