20 September 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Academies, young scientists call for action on sustainability

The world’s 105 science academies last week called on world leaders to take decisive action on global challenges of population and consumption. And the Global Young Academy said that Earth’s problem was not science. “It is leadership”.

In a statement issued through the InterAcademies Gateway, the global academies network, scientists from across the world said on Monday that over the past two decades they had called on governments and international bodies to take “decisive action” on population, consumption and sustainable development.

“While progress has been made in some areas, the challenge of finding a path to global sustainability has not been met and the consequences of failure are now clearer and increasingly pressing.”

The IAP had reexamined these issues ahead of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the statement said, “and again calls for urgent and coordinated international action to address these profound challenges to humanity”.

The science academies agreed that population growth and unsustainable consumption posed two of the world’s greatest challenges.

“The global population is currently around seven billion and most projections suggest that it will probably lie between eight and 11 billion by 2050. Most of this population increase will occur in low-income countries.

“Global consumption levels are at an all-time high, largely because of the high per capita consumption of developed countries. At the same time, 1.3 billion people remain in absolute poverty, unable to meet even their basic needs,” the scientists said.

Population and patterns of consumption should be of major concern to policy-makers for several reasons, the statement continues.

  • They determine the rates at which natural resources are exploited and the ability of the earth to sustainably provide the food, water, energy and other resources. Current consumption patterns, especially in high-income countries, are eroding natural capital at rates that are severely damaging the interests of future generations.
  • Population is an important component of a complex nexus of processes that determine economic and social development. Rapid growth can be an obstacle to improving living standards in poor countries, eliminating poverty and reducing gender inequality. If the right conditions are in place measures that reduce fertility rates while respecting human rights can stimulate and facilitate development and increase stability and security.
  • Changes in population age structure may occur as a result of declining birth and death rates and can have important social, economic and potentially environmental ramifications. Ageing of populations in many countries is occurring at historically unprecedented rates, while in some low-income countries proportion of children and young people are very high.
  • Population growth can contribute to movements of. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities with significant challenges for urban planning and logistics. While urbanisation and migration may present opportunities, if unexpected and unplanned they can be disruptive and have serious environmental impacts.

“The combination of unsustainable consumption patterns, especially in high-income countries, and of the number of people on the planet, directly affects the capacity of the earth to support its natural biodiversity,” said the statement.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Global Young Academy – founded in 2010 as the global voice of young scientists – published a statement calling on scientists to “do more to promote progress towards global sustainability”.

Academy co-chair Rees Kassen said: “The problem is not science, it is leadership.”

The academy said young scientists felt a “special urgency on sustainability”, since many of them came of age between the first Earth Summit in 1992 and last week’s conference.

The ‘Sandton Declaration’ made it clear, the academy said, that scientists can be their own worst enemy. Reward structures in science often discourage or even punish public engagement and outreach.

The declaration called on the scientific community to revise its reward structures to value knowledge mobilisation by scientists themselves, and on scientists to “play a more active role in promoting the use of scientific evidence in decision-making and encouraging inquiry-based science education in schools and universities”.

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