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How science can serve sustainable development

Mohamed T. El-Ashry

Chief executive officer and chairman of the Global Environment Facility

'Local scientists must be able to provide their policymakers with the advice they need to formulate strategic directions and to press for their adoption; otherwise there can be little progress toward sustainability'

Booking our passage to a more sustainable global future in the next millennium is less a matter of cost than of conscience, of commitment, and of cooperation by all passengers. Humanity, greater in number and more economically active with each passing day, is increasingly playing havoc with earth's natural systems. Our actions are giving rise to a multitude of critical threats: the degradation of soils, water, and the marine resources essential to food production; health-endangering air and water pollution; global climate change that is likely to disrupt weather patterns and raise sea levels everywhere; the loss of habitats, species, and genetic resources which is damaging both ecosystems and the services they provide; and the depletion of the ozone layer.

Scientists warned about many of these problems long before the general public became aware of them. The first article on the possibility of a human-induced greenhouse effect, by a Swedish researcher, is over a hundred years old. By pushing at the frontiers of science, we have been able to reach a common understanding of the fundamental threats to earth's ecological balance. Over the same period, we have also reached a consensus on many of the necessary solutions. The current challenge is to move from the global blueprint to the local reality, translating scientific and technological understanding into concrete, economically feasible, and politically achievable actions that benefit people in all nations.

The scientific complexity of underlying problems and of potential solutions requires close links at all levels between the institutions set up to administer global environmental conventions and the scientific community. Unfortunately, disparities between countries of the North and South in the generation of scientific information and its use make it difficult for the South to participate fully in either international negotiations or actions to protect the global environment. At the country level, there is often a lack of trust and excessive suspicion about what lies behind the environmental agenda being pushed by the North.

Whether developing countries will, in the long run, become deeply engaged with issues such as global climate change depends on a clear understanding of the risks of 'business as usual' to both their own citizens and future generations. Current scientific knowledge and global modeling exercises have yet to pinpoint the regional impacts, let alone national impacts, of most global environmental issues. Yet these problems cannot be resolved without local capacity to analyze and define specific impacts on individual nations. Local scientists must be able to provide their policymakers with the advice they need to formulate strategic directions and to press for their adoption; otherwise there can be little progress toward sustainability.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has contributed in various ways to improving capacity in developing countries in sciences related to the global environment. For example, GEF has facilitated the participation of scientists from such countries in the activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and is enabling more than 120 nations to draft strategies and action plans for further work on biological diversity and climate change under the conventions. Thanks to GEF's Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel, its roster of experts in developing countries, and a new outreach effort targeting networks of scientists at local, regional, and international levels, we are now mobilizing the best efforts of science professionals in the conceptualization and implementation of GEF policies and its $2 billion portfolio of projects as never before. However, much more remains to be done.

The World Conference on Science in Budapest this June and July offers an important opportunity for scientists and policymakers to help chart a practical course for sustainability in the next century and beyond. Experience has taught us that progress will be greatest when participants build on past consensus to reach a new commitment to strengthen capacity and operationalize solutions. If, starting today, we all work to accelerate this process, the world will be even closer to that goal as we enter the new millennium.

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