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Science, Politics and the Post-Rio+20 Agenda

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This post was co-authored with Dr Adrian Ely

The really knotty politics about the role of science in securing a sustainable future of our planet will begin as soon as the Rio+20 Earth Summit ends.

Rio has focussed minds on the urgent need to devise a post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework. With progress on the MDGs floundering, we are set to see a shift towards sustainable development goals (SDGs). These "should be action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and development priorities and respecting national policies and priorities," according to the current draft of the Rio outcome document.

Fine sentiments: but these proposals for a post-2015 agenda raise important and difficult questions about the roles of science and politics in seeking sustainability and making it stick the world over.

A new post-MDGs framework should, many argue, be guided by emerging earth system science that points to a 'safe operating space for humanity', within which our global patterns of development should be steered.

Science, technology and innovation can help avert catastrophic developmental and environmental damage. But only if we move beyond outdated notions of whose innovation counts, to empower the vital contributions of poorer people's own creativity in building green and fair economies and contributing to resilient socio-techno-ecological system.

Combining evidence on 'planetary boundaries' with the urgent and varying needs of localities and communities around the world requires serious political debate and negotiation.

There is still little clarity on what the post-MDG agenda should involve, who should set future goals, and how they can be realised in practice. The co-chairs of the committee appointed by Ban Ki Moon to oversee the post-MDG process, David Cameron and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, should realise that this is where the really knotty politics begin.

Ambitious goals may again be set at Rio, for instance on energy, water, food security and oceans, but, especially in low-income and BRICS countries, anxiety is already emerging about how to share the burdens of meeting such goals. As in recent climate negotiations, the perception that old, industrialised north is putting the brakes on others' development while avoiding costly changes to their own lifestyles and economies will be a central discussion.

"The Future We Want" may be described in the outcome document from Rio but as a global community, "we" must to be aware of the deep implications for global justice of defining a collective future, and continue to strive for an inclusive process that recognises what many of us not just want - but need.

Even more challenging is the question of who is responsible for delivering on SDGs at national and local levels, and the roles that institutions and diverse forms of innovation must play. Here, there are multiple, disputed versions of "sustainable development" that imply different winners and losers.

When it comes to providing modern energy services, for instance, does sustainable development mean centralised grid infrastructure powered by large scale low carbon generation? Or does it also mean experimenting with off-grid solar home systems and other micro-generation technologies?

When combating hunger in various rural settings across the world, does sustainable development mean improving food security through boosting agricultural productivity, using modern plant breeding and genetic engineering to roll out technical solutions at scale? Or does it mean tackling diverse local food insecurities shaped by ecological, market, social and institutional contexts, through farmer-participatory approaches?

In reality, these choices are not so clear-cut, and so SDGs must leave room for multiple, diverse approaches. Not all of these can be pursued in equal measure, because there are inevitably trade-offs and competition between different alternatives.

A new paper, Transforming Innovation for Sustainability, by the STEPS Centre, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Tellus Institute, argues that any process towards implementing SDGs must be guided by specific consideration of the directions of change, the diversity of possible approaches and their appropriateness to different contexts, and their distributional effects - who will gain or lose. Implementation must focus on linking global goals with local needs, and linking top-down policies with bottom-up grassroots initiatives.

Scientific evidence and technical considerations can play a vital role in informing how our patterns of development need to change at a global level, but resolving the trade-offs between different approaches to implementing these changes is necessarily a game of politics, to be played out through the interactions of ministers and local government, corporations and businesses but also - importantly - citizens and users, NGOs and people's movements. Inclusive, democratic politics that respect the principles of direction, diversity and distribution will be critical if SDGs are genuinely to build towards sustainable, fair futures.