Today, we know more and more about how the severe development challenges facing the world are interconnected. With the rate of climate change accelerating and the global population likely to reach 11 billion by 2100, development challenges seem poised to increase in scale and magnitude.
For instance, insurers are already struggling to cover the $150bn rise in costs from more frequent extreme weather events, and the Ebola crisis has demonstrated that disease risks are exacerbated in a growing and increasingly urban population. Equally, we know that securing food, water, energy and human health must be looked at part of the same challenge.
These globally connected problems of the 21st century will require an equally connected, equally rapid and equally sizeable response. This response must draw on the best available scientific knowledge, but must also involve all major stakeholders in global development, including public and philanthropic funders, policy makers, businesses and NGOs.
A new report by the global research platform Future Earth aims to focus scientific research to the emerging needs of society and use this knowledge to direct the actions of those responsible to deploy them. The result of contributions from a wide range of disciplines and 74 countries, the report identifies the most urgent challenges for science to inform development, and then digs deeper into each of these challenges to create a research agenda,clustered into three main themes for action:
1. Understanding our dynamic planet
The report calls for a collaborative and well-communicated effort from researchers to better identify and understand the way that the planet is changing. Determining humankind's influence on the Earth's life-support systems and examining how these changes are likely to feed back onto people, natural resources and the environment will require researchers from across the disciplines to work together.
We are living in the epoch of the Anthropocene - where humans are profoundly changing many of the Earth's natural processes and systems, through natural resource exploitation, changing patterns of land use and trade, and new technology and infrastructure. Nonetheless, we do not always know how, when and to what extent these changes will affect natural systems and where 'tipping points' that set off rapid and unpredictable change may occur.
On one hand, tipping points may result in significant large-scale disruptions leading to unprecedented humanitarian challenges. On the other, it may be possible to identify positive tipping points leading to the broad adoption of potential solutions to sustainability challenges.
The Global Carbon Project reported earlier this year that carbon emissions are not only increasing, but increasing at an quickening rate. If we carry on emitting carbon at current rates, we will have burnt all the likely carbon available to stay within 2˚C warming - the point at which dangerous changes would occur - by the end of this century. It is essential that researchers continue to assess the physical, ecological and social mechanisms that underpin environmental changes going on in regions and across the world.
2. Ensuring global development is sustainable and equitable
Human well-being is closely linked to the quality of the environment in which people live. Research must search for ways of meeting the growing global population's demand for food, water, space, energy and other basic needs without degrading resources and life-support systems. There is more work to be done to identify the 'bright spots' of sustainable and equitable development and to establish whether these bright spots can serve as examples for other areas or could be scaled up. A Future Earth Fast Track Initiative called 'Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene', is seeking and developing a suite of positive visions of futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just and sustainable.
3. Facilitating future transformations toward sustainability
Implementing knowledge on our dynamic planet and on global development to create a sustainable future will require large shifts in political, economic and cultural values, changes in institutional structures and individual behaviours, large-scale systems changes and technological innovations. The Earth System Governance Project explores political solutions and novel governance systems to cope with current transitions in the natural systems of the Planet. It is currently looking at how governments will need to alter their policies in order to make progress on a set of new Sustainable Development Goals now being negotiated at the United Nations and due to be launched next September.
Creating a sustainable future will require new partnerships between science and society. Scientists need to work more closely with global policy makers, businesses and citizens on practical steps to sustainability. This requires a new attitude from scientists and also new commitments from funders. Research needs to be made 'fit-for-purpose', responding to needs emerging in a changing world.