The art of bringing science to sustainable development

The international scientific community is looking to further engage in sustainable development priorities.

This piece originally appeared at Ensia.

Scientists can be very good at creating new knowledge in a specific topic area, then dropping it with a thud into policy-makers’ laps, trusting they will figure out how to use it to solve problems.

Not so fast, says Pavel Kabat, director general of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a 43-year-old international organization that brings researchers together across 23 nations to guide public policy.

Kabat argues that science needs to stay as a partner at the policy-making table, crossing disciplines and sectors and synthesizing knowledge to create efficient, sustainable solutions.

Recently Ensia asked Kabat about “The World in 2050,” a new project aimed at developing integrated, science-based approaches to achieving the just-minted Sustainable Development Goals. The initiative is a collaboration among IIASA, the Stockholm Resilience Center, the Earth Institute, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, with an initial project group of 30 institutions including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund.

Mary Hoff: What is special about the way IIASA addresses global grand challenges?

Pavel Kabat: Systems thinking — meaning you look into a problem and try to understand the feedbacks, not only across the different scientific disciplines and economic sectors, but also in a global and regional and local context. Then, look into co-benefits and possible synergies, but also conflicts.

For example, in 2012 we launched the Global Energy Assessment around the questions: Can we have full energy access by 2030 or 2050 for 2 billion people? At the same time, can we double the rate of renewables in the energy mix across the world, and in particular regions and countries? And can we double the efficiency of energy systems?

These are good questions from the energy point of view, but we said, let’s include the 2 degrees C climate target along with standards for air pollution and health. The study became the first to show that when you work toward these four together — energy, climate, air quality and health — you can save about 40 percent of the costs, or roughly $80 billion annually.

Hoff: How will the World in 2050 project benefit the Sustainable Development Goals?

Kabat: The 17 goals the U.N. Assembly adopted are all sectoral — there is a goal for energy, a goal for water — so people will start to compete for investment. Putting together integrated cross-sectoral implementation is one of the most important paradigms behind the World in 2050 project. The whole idea is to prevent the global system from misinvesting again.

Let me give you an example. When we put up the energy outlook two years ago, it was based on assumptions that the oil price would remain above $80 per barrel. What happened two years later? We went down to $40. You can imagine what happened to the investment packages.

Science could have [helped], but science was forced to leave the stage much too early. What we’re proposing here is a long-lasting partnership, where we’ll be able to not only provide the framing of long-term scenarios but also be able to recalculate when environmental or financial or other conditions change. It’s partnership thinking, where science is not prescripting but partnering to help the implementation process.

The SDGs offer an opportunity to make a major fundamental global transition to sustainability. Science for the first time ever is offering a sustained partnership for many years to come. And that partnership is grounded in a realization that goals in isolation cannot lead to successful implementation. We need an integrated, knowledge-based transition.

Hoff: What is the biggest obstacle the World in 2050 project faces, and how do you plan to overcome it?

Kabat: The absolutely biggest obstacle is the terribly siloed system we are part of — not as much anymore in science, but at the level of the global governance and institution structures.

To really break through that — to convince, for example, the environmental ministry of Country 1 to talk to the minister of water in the same country to produce an investment portfolio for goals 7 (Energy) and 6 (Water) together — that’s a major thing. If we don’t have that transformational change in the institutional and financial governance in this important process of implementing the development goals, we will terribly misinvest and mistarget.

Let’s discover the co-benefits. Let’s show the numbers. We’re sometimes running around like headless chickens, well meaning but yet forgetting that when you put in a half-a-billion [dollar] water project in a sub-Saharan African country, you’re missing out badly because you are not checking at the same time for possible synergies and competition with the water needs of other sectors. This is not a way to do big transitions.

Hoff: As a scientist, what made you want to work at the interface of science and policy?

Kabat: It’s partly a kind of frustration. We see there is much more known than the policy-making process is willing and able to absorb and/or use. We believe we’ve got to make major steps towards a global transition on the climate before it is too late. But we also genuinely believe that we can turn upside down and change the fundamental paradigm.

Namely, that sustainable and environmental issues — such as climate change or transitions to a decarbonized world — actually present huge opportunities, as opposed to threats, to economic development. We believe that transitions can actually be economically and socially beneficial, and this needs to be better communicated to the policy-makers.

Hoff: What gives you hope?

Kabat: I was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly and the adoption of the SDGs, and we were part of everything. There were 100 heads of state; I attended a meeting with more than 40 mayors of global leading cities and many other political side events.

Then I went to this concert in Central Park with 80,000 people from across the world. Ninety percent of them were of the young generation. The way they responded, the energy that was hanging around there, that gave me the most hope of the whole New York happening, much more than sitting in the assembly with heads of state and shaking hands with them.

It’s not heads of state, I’m sorry to say; it’s not the U.N. system as such anymore. The next generation, this is my hope.