Transformative Pathways to a Sustainable Future

Maria Fornella-Oehninger, SI UN Representative in New York, blogs about the International Science Council’s High-level Political Forum Side Event, ‘Designing and implementing integrated, context-sensitive and attainable pathways toward achieving transformation’.

“Six scientists shared their analysis of how to create pathways to transform economies and societies to achieve sustainability in the context of Covid-19. Two presentations stood out for their concise and practical conceptual analyses of how to achieve change in a balanced, holistic way, for the well-being of all. Melissa Leach from Sussex University warned that environmental, economic, and epidemiological disruptions and shocks are the “new normal” of our era. They create havoc and opportunities; they expose immense vulnerabilities and gaps in our societies but at the same time they give us the chance to build back better. Professor Leach summarised positive change in the three Ds of transformative paths:

Direction of change toward equitable sustainability: this implies a balance; it means avoiding diversions that are unsustainable (for example, focusing only on growth to the detriment of equality or environmental degradation).

Distribution of change toward socioeconomic, regional, gender equality and justice.

Diversity in adapting change to socio-cultural, political, and economic context, one size does not fit all.

By its very nature, this proposed direction of change toward equitable and sustainable transformation can only take place in democratic contexts, at the prompt of civil society. We as civil society can set the aims and direction of change, explore questions, challenges (incumbent interests and controls) and alternative paths to achieve those goals. Professor Leach reminded us that transformations are always political, but that power is not set in stone, it is dynamic, it is in cities, in states, in communities and neighborhoods, in networks of similarly minded people. The enabling power of civil society should never be discounted.

As part of the same panel, an important system analysis was introduced by Professor Katherine Richardson, University of Copenhagen, through a visual transformative framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the Agenda 2030 constitutes a framework of interconnected, cross-cutting policy objectives that can only be addressed as a whole, some SDGs deal with improving human lives, others with environmental protection, and still others with the rules and institutions we have created to do both. Global common resources possess what we humans need to survive (energy, food, construction materials). As we seek to improve human well-being (zero hunger, housing, water, sanitation), we take away what we need from the global common resources and we put waste into it that transforms climate and destroys biodiversity.

Through governance we organise human activity: we establish norms of human behavior, and we extract resources and produce goods and services to remediate those needs. The levers to achieve human development in a sustainable way (that is, without jeopardising the ability of future generations to maintain themselves) must relieve the tension between human needs and the exploitation of Earth resources. Technology goes a long way in helping us to this, but it is not sufficient, especially if it is not equally shared. Through changes in our own behavior, our norms, and institutions, we must balance our needs and well-being, at the same time taking into consideration the preservation of natural resources, technology-sharing, and cost-effectiveness across all sectors.

Directing transformations to the desired goals requires deliberate action. Several studies have found that most countries are not on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030 and that several trends are moving in the wrong direction. The COVID-19 pandemic can either derail efforts toward the Sustainable Development Goals, or, if purposefully managed, can open space to accelerate the processes, for example, by making current positive changes in the health care system permanent and by eliminating the digital divide that is deepening inequities.

These presentations gave me an opportunity to ponder how to do exactly that, how to build back better and stronger, to achieve transformation in a balanced, holistic, and sustainable way that will help us reduce inequalities and mitigate the effects of future shocks.”

Click HERE to watch the International Science Council’s full HLPF parallel event.




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